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« Is the culturally polarizing effect of science literacy on climate change risk perceptions related to the "white male effect"? Does the answer tell us anything about the "asymmetry thesis"?! | Main | Who *are* these guys? Cultural cognition profiling, part 1 »

Who *are* these guys? Cultural cognition profiling, part 2

This is my answer to Jen Briselli, who asked me to supply sketches of a typical "hierarchical individualist," a typical "hierarchical communitarian," a typical "egalitarian individualist" and a typical "egalitarian communitarian." I started with a big long proviso about how ordinary people with these identities are, and how diverse, too, even in relation to others who share their outlooks.  But I agreed with her on the value--and in some sense the indispensably--of heuristic representations of them. Still, one more essential proviso is necessary.  These people are make believe.  Moreover, the sketches are the product of introspection. My impressions are not wholly uniformed, of course; I think I know "who these guys are," in part from reading richer histories and ethnographies that seem pertinent, in part from trying to find such people and listening to them (e.g., as they interact with each other in focus groups conducted by Don Braman), in part from collecting evidence about how people who I think are like this think, and in part from simply observing and reflecting on everyday life. But I am not an ethnographer, or a journalist; these are not real individuals or even composites of identifiable people. They are not themselves evidence of anything. Rather they are models, of a sort that I might summon to mind to stimulate and structure my own conjectures about why things are as they are and what sorts of evidence I might look for that would help to figure out if I'm right. Now I am turning them into a device: something I am showing you to help you form a more vivid picture of what I see; to enable you, as a result, to form more confident judgments about whether the evidence that my collaborators and I collect do really furnish reason to believe that cultural cognition explains certain puzzling things; and finally to entice or provoke you into looking for even more evidence that would give us either more reason or less to believe the same, and thus help us both to get closer to the truth.


Steve, 62 years old, lives in Marietta, Ga. Trained in engineering at Georgia Tech, he founded and now operates a successful laboratory supply business, whose customers include local pharmaceutical and biotech companies, as well as hospitals and universities.   He has been married for thirty-eight years to Donna, a fulltime homemaker, and has two grown children, Gary and Tammy.  He is a Presbyterian, but unlike Donna he attends church only irregularly. He characterizes himself as “Independent who leans Republican,” and a “moderate” who, if pushed, is “slightly conservative"; nevertheless, except for a brief time when he thought Newt Gingrich might win the Republican nomination, the 2012 election filled him with a mix of frustration and resignation.  He hunts, and owns a handgun. He served as a scout leader when Gary was growing up. Now he sits on the board of directors for the Georgia State Museum of Science and Industry, to which he has made large donations in the past (Steve proposed and helped design an exhibit on “nanotechnology,” which proved extremely popular).  He owns a prized collection of memorabilia relating to the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” Thomas Edison.

Sharon44, lives in Stillwater Oklahoma.  She is married to Stephen, a Baptist minister, and has three children. She is pro-life and believes God created the earth 6000 years ago. She once served as the foreperson on a jury that acquitted an Oklahoma State athlete in a controversial “date rape” case.  She teaches 5th grade at a public elementary school, a job that she feels very passionate about. Her year-long “science unit” in 2011-12 revolved (as it were) around the transit of Venus, and culminated in the viewing of the event. The experience thrilled (nearly) all the students, but profoundly moved one in particular, the ten-year old daughter of a close friend and member of Sharon’s church congregation; two decades from now this girl will be a leading astrophysicist on the faculty of the University of Chicago.

Lisa, 36 years old, lives in New York City. She’s a lawyer, who was just promoted to partner at her firm (she anticipated this would make her more excited than it did).  She has been married for nine years to Nathan, an investment banker. The couple has a five-year old son, who has been cared for since infancy by an au pair, and for whom they secured a highly coveted spot in the kindergarten class of an exclusive private school.  Lisa happens to be Jewish; she doesn’t attend synagogue but she does celebrate Jewish holidays with family and close friends.  She is pro-choice, and as a law student spent most of her final year working on a clinic lawsuit to enjoin Operation Rescue from “blockading” abortion clinics.  An issue that has agitated her recently is the pressure that is directed at women to breastfeed their children; when the New York city health department instituted restrictions on access to formula in hospital maternity wards, she composed an angry letter to the editor of the New York Times, denouncing  “counterfeit feminists, who are all for free choice until a woman makes one they don’t like.... Having a baby doesn't make a woman an infant!” She and Nathan do not have very much leisure time. But they do take delight in watching the television show MythBusters, each episode of which they record on their DVR for shared future consumption.

Linda, 42, is a social worker in Philadelphia; Bernie, 58, is a professor of political science at the University of Vermont. Linda raised her now 20-year-old daughter (a junior at Temple) as a single parent. She is active in her church (the historic African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas). Bernie has never been married, has no children, and is an atheist. Both describe themselves as “Independents” who “lean Democrat” and as “slightly liberal,” and while they see eye-to-eye on many matters  (such as the low level of danger posed by the fleeing driver in the police-chase video featured in Scott v. Harris), they sharply disagree about certain issues (including legalization of marijuana, which Linda adamantly opposes and Bernie strongly supports).  They both watch Nova, and make annual contributions to their local PBS affiliates.  

Do you have intuitions about these people's beliefs on climate change? The risks and benefits of the HPV vaccine? Whether permitting ordinary citizens to carry concealed handguns in public increases crime—or instead deters it? Is any of them worried about the health effects of consuming GM foods?

None of them knows what synthetic biology is.  Is it possible to predict how they might feel about it once they learn something about it?  Might they all turn out to agree someday that it is very useful (possibly even fascinating!) and count it as one of the things that makes them answer “a lot” (as they all will) when asked, “How much do scientists contribute to the well-being of society?”

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Reader Comments (6)

Interesting, Dan. The photos, of course, go with the descriptions, but I thought it would have been interesting to have shifted them around in order to reduce mere stereotyping -- there really are reps of each of the visual types in each of the four quadrants.

But it's the use of two representatives in the lower right quadrant (prevalent, as you've said, within academia generally) that I found especially interesting. Presumably, you did this because you can see that there are disputes internal to that quadrant that may in turn lead to differing positions on issues of risk. I think that's an accurate intuition if so, and one that could and should be extended to the other quadrants as well. That implies that there's an important dimension missing from the existing planar grid that would make clear where these differing intra-quadrant views are coming from -- that dimension I would suggest is the control vs. laissez-faire axis, orthogonal to the other two. What motivates and sustains this axis is the sense that whatever values are involved in the other dimensions -- hierarchy, individualism, community, equality -- they are either seen to be "natural" in some sense, meaning that they would be taken to prevail normally in the absence of control by those in power, or not, meaning that they need to be actively supported by those in power. I know that this complicates an already complicated cultural landscape, but in my view it would be an important step in moving the model in use here closer to the actual world. In this sense, each of the quadrants should have a couple of representatives.

March 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

@Larry: That sounds like a promising plot for episode 3.

March 27, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


This is wonderful. It's exactly the sort of thing I was hoping you'd (eventually give in and) do, and I think it's very instructive. I'm sure I'll have more to say as I work through the details.

@Larry & @Dan, the comment about an orthogonal axis is very interesting because I've actually been wondering the same thing myself... in conversations with different people, it has come up a few times, and we've (not too seriously but nonetheless passionately) debated what could be mapped onto the z axis to add layers of understanding. The control vs laissez-faire measure seems intuitive. The other day I also had a conversation that centered around whether 'fatalism' could come back into the mix via that z-axis... in explaining the evolution of this model from the classic Mary Douglas framework that included fatalism to this cultural cognition model, people tend to want to ask that question that you posed yourself, "where did the fatalists go?" Maybe that ends up being a quality that is mapped onto the z-axis... from fatalism at one toward a lassez-faire attitude near the middle to a control approach at the other. Either way, it's something I'd love to hear more about from you, Dan, based on your understanding- why is it (seemingly) easier to (right now) differentiate between the Lindas and Bernies, than it is to differentiate between others within each quadrant?

Thanks for engaging with my request to this degree. It's what I was hoping for- and in many ways what you've produced here only confirms my own understandings and the work I've done so far to the same end. So least we're pointed in the same direction!

March 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJen

I've me Linda (she lives in my neighborhood here in Philly) and while I've never discussed the issue with her, it seems implausible to me that she is adamantly opposed to marijuana legalization.

March 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan -

Just an FYI:

April 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

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