Phase one of my research involves discovering ‘the illusion of the normal.’ Analyzing the cultural norms and expectations placed on people in Polish society. To put it in cognitive anthropological terms, “measuring a cultural model of what it means to be a good, well-respected member of Polish society.” Cultural Models, in the field of cognitive anthropology, reflect the shared, implicit knowledge that one must know in order to function adequately in society and be perceived by others as a legitimate member of the group (Goodenough 1996). Cultural models provide a directive force, in that they help us to know and understand how to behave and what is expected of us in a particular situation. They also provide an interpretive force, in that they shape our feelings and judgements when confronted with a situation that doesn’t seem quite right (for example, if you were to see someone trying to climb back up an escalator that is moving down, while “everyone knows” that there are two escalators and you’re “supposed” to get on the right one). Cultural models are not simply an aggregate of individually held opinions and believes, but reflect an understanding of what the majority of people believe the majority of people want or expect of them in their society. These models, or understandings, are culturally constructed and individuals are not simply empty receptacle, but also active shapers, of their culture. The presence and strength, or degree of sharing, of the cultural model, or collective agreement, can be investigated through a cultural consensus analysis (Romney et. al. 1986) in which respondents are asked a series of questions regarding their knowledge of a cultural domain (e.g. life-goals and expectations in Polish society), and the correlation, or degree of consensus, among individual respondents’ answers is measured. The questions on the consensus analysis should be based on extensive prior ethnographic research, in order to get a sense of what is important to these people in this domain. This process is known as ‘populating the domain’ in cognitive anthropology. So how do we ‘populate the domain’ of life goals and expectations that Polish people think they should (try to) achieve? Before discussing one of the most common methods in cognitive anthropology, which involves free-listing interviews, I will introduce some new, creative-methodologies (which probably aren’t all that new. I suspect this is what many people do during or before the often times vaguely defined ‘participant-observation’)
An analysis of heroes (from folk tales and well-known books or literature by Polish authors, Polish movies and TV shows, and current events and news stories). Who is the hero? what is the ‘hero’ like? what does or did he/she do, what do people like about or value in him/her, what are they known or remembered for? What are we supposed to learn from them?
An analysis of child-rearing practices (talking to parents and analyzing parenting magazines) – what kind of norms and values do parents and care-givers try to instill in their children? What kind of life do they want or expect for their child, and what kind of person (e.g. gentle, caring, bold, respectful, independent) do they want the child to grow-up to be?
An analysis of gossip (this one may be more questionable, in terms of ethics and reliability, but) – When a group of two or more people is talking about another person or persons, either negatively or positively. What kind of behavior is criticized or socially disproved? Or conversely, who is talked about positively? What kind of behavior receives praise?
(it could be related to individual preferences though – certain individuals have different expectations and boundaries regarding what kind of behavior they expect or accept from certain people (from their friends, a stranger on a bus, their boss, etc. Moreover, sometimes people say stuff or agree with things (when talking in a group), they don’t really mean, or they’re not stating a well thought out argument or strongly held personal conviction, but it’s more based on in-the-moment sentiments, so sometimes you gotta take it with a grain of salt. And in that sense, ‘gossip’ can’t really be taken as a reliable source of data (in any situation). But I guess maybe it can give you some ideas or directions that you could explore further?)
I think I tend to do this ‘analysis of gossip’ thing, on a subconscious level, all the time, especially when I’m new in a place – in order to understand the appropriate rules of conduct in a place or among a specific group of people, but I’ve never applied it as a research methodology. (and maybe I shouldn’t 😉 )
Come to think of it, I think all three of these particular methods (not just the rather questionable ‘analysis of gossip’ thing) reflect the ways in which we naturally become exposed to and learn the cultural models, the norms and expectations, in our societies. Through American literature and media, one becomes exposed to the tropes of ‘the American dream,’ ‘From rags to riches,’ the ‘unity in diversity’ ideal (far from reality); from the way your parents and care-givers raised you, you (hopefully) learn how to become a responsible adult in your society; and from the way you talk with your friends and what you hear people say about one another, you learn how to fit it. (you may become more aware of the process, and realize you’re becoming more ‘American,’ or more ‘Polish’ when you move to a new country. Whereas you ‘learn’ your first culture more subconsciously)
One could say it’s like the Rosetta stone method of cognitive domain analysis (get it? Rosetta stone claims to reproduce the way we naturally learned our first language. In the same way, these methodologies reflect the way we naturally learned our first ‘cultural model’ (or continuously learn and interact with the cultural codes of our own society).
Of course, instead of trying to understand the cultural model through all these indirect methodologies, one could just ask people “hey, what are the cultural expectations around here?” (Although you’ll get a lot of blank stares if you do that. Trust me). As mentioned, a ‘cultural model’ represents an implicit/subconscious, collective agreement. Most people don’t walk around consciously aware of exactly what their society expects of them (especially if you fit right in. securely embedded in your culture. When you see the stares, sense the social disproval, and hear the whispers about you – then you might know). Since the cultural model is implicit, it’s hard (to impossible) to use explicit methods (such as simply asking people about their cultural model) to try and understand it. Hence, these ‘creative’ methodologies are necessary.
A common method among cognitive anthropologists involves asking respondents about a particular domain (e.g. ‘healthy diet,’ ‘good family’ ) and asking them to list all the important characteristics or qualities they can come up with in that domain. This is called free-listing. But again, one needs to be creative about how to phrase the question. It’s unlikely that people will be able to come up with a long list (or even anything) in response to something like “list all the most common cultural norms and expectations placed on people in Polish society. Go.” I personally like the method of asking respondents to imagine a scenario, for example “Imagine the kind of person that is commonly considered to be a good, well-respected, member of Polish society (maybe visualize a real-life example, e.g. a character from a book, a historically figure, your neighbor), and list all the qualities and characteristic of this person. “
(answers I’ve heard so far: shows initiative, doesn’t wait around for other people to take care of them or for life to happen, responsibility, cares about something (not just themselves), helps others, shares resources, adaptable, resourceful, hard-working, hospitable, easy-going, themselves (doesn’t pretend to be something he/she is not), humble, has a house, at least two kids and a dog, job (that is useful to society, that makes enough money, stable job), talent/excels at something/ is one of the best in his or her field, modest, determined, resilient, socially connected (has close friends, good connection with parents and family, surrounded by people who are close to them, loving partner/good marriage/faithful husband or wife), religion/faith/is a believer or comes from a family of believers, active, goes on vacation twice a year to the mountains, etc.).
Once I’ve gathered enough free-list responses, the salience (or significance) of items on the free-lists can then be analyzed in terms of their frequency and positioning. An item that appears on many of the free-lists, and frequently near the top (i.e. one of the first things that comes to mind, for most people), can be assumed to reflect, what many people might consider, an important characteristic associated with ‘good members of Polish society.’
And once I think I have a good picture of the kind of people Polish people think they are expected to be (from the free lists, analysis of heroes in the media, child-rearing practices, gossip/talk, interviews etc), I can test the degree to which this ‘cultural model’ is shared (and thus exists, because a cultural model, by definition, has to be shared) using a cultural consensus analysis. More on that later.