public, declarative, and nondeclarative: the new lizardian synthesis in cultural sociology

Omar Lizardo has a wonderful new theory piece forthcoming in ASR: Improving Cultural Analysis: Considering Personal Culture in its Declarative and Nondeclarative Modes. Drawing on a mix of cognitive science and cultural sociology, Lizardo offers a useful vocabulary for engaging in the titular task of improving cultural analysis. In particular, he distinguishes public culture from personal culture, and within personal culture, he distinguishes “declarative” and “nondeclarative” culture. This simple tripartite division, which mirrors and draws from many similar sorts of accounts such as work on tacit knowledge in STS, lets him clarify many of the existing debates in cultural sociology and its applications. I found this chart particularly useful:

Lizardo ASR 2016 Table 1.png

Lizardo shows how major approaches in cultural sociology can be usefully characterized as describing a linkage between two of these three varieties of culture, and by whether they characterize that link as a strong or loose coupling. So, Swidler’s toolkit theory posits a relatively loose coupling between declarative personal culture (roughly, the cultural scripts and bits that a person is aware of and can put into words) and public culture (symbols, narratives, all that jazz). In contrast, the Strong Program posits a strong coupling between the same two forms of culture. And so on. Lizardo then takes this vocabulary and shows how it can make sense of various paradoxes around racial inequality in education, such as the oft-discussed “achievement-aspiration paradox.” Lizardo offers one synthesis here, excerpted to give you a flavor of the argument:

Accordingly, the issue is not that disadvantaged youth possess adaptively rational but globally deviant forms of cultural knowledge as to what it takes to be successful, or that they do not share the same attainment goals and values as their more advantaged peers. Instead, the key issue has to do with the mode of encoding of the kind of cultural knowledge that is linked to outcomes. For advantaged youth, cultural knowledge required for school success is redundantly encoded in both declarative and (most crucially) nondeclarative formats. For disadvantaged youth, in contrast, the link between school completion and the attainment of future goals is mainly encoded in semantic memory as “know that” knowledge, easily acquired via a small number of exposures and just as easily elicited in the inter- view situation (see Carter 2005). Because acquisition of nondeclarative knowledge must go through the multiple exposure bottleneck, it is more demanding in terms of time and parental resources and thus more tightly linked to patterns of material advantage and disadvantage (Lareau 2011; Weininger, Lareau, and Conley 2015; Zhou and Lee 2014).

Put another way: disadvantaged kids know all the right scripts (on average), but just knowing the right scripts isn’t enough because of the loose coupling between declarative and nondeclarative cultural knowledge/skills, and the fact that it’s the nondeclarative skills that do more of the work in producing educational attainment. I don’t think this is huge news to the educational attainment literature, but Lizardo’s language offers a clean way of seeing how culture is working at different levels (public versus personal, declarative vs. nondeclarative within the personal) that may make it easier to synthesize across findings (as he does with the example).

Overall, I found the article to be very interesting, and very useful, especially for someone who sits a bit outside of cultural sociology. I look forward to the discussion the piece generates and I’d love to hear what you all think!

(And I admit, half of the reason I wanted to write this post was to use the word “Lizardian.”)

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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