should sociologists search for a universal culture?
Salon isn’t my “go to” source for recent linguistics research,* but an article on two recent developments in the field was highly provocative. The basic gist is this:
- The space of all possible languages is actually quite large.
- All known naturally occurring languages seem to occur in a narrow range.
- There’s been some progress in explaining why natural languages sit in that narrow range.
Might the same be true for culture? If we understand culture as something analogous to language, then culture is an organized system for generating symbols, assigning meaning to these symbols, and generating stories or narratives. But that doesn’t mean that culture comes in all shapes in sizes. Rather, like language, culture is probably constrained. Sociologists already have a good grip on what the basic syntax and lexicon of culture might be – in-group/out-group distinctions, hierarchies, assessments of value and worth, collective memory tokens, etc. The empirical question, then, is how one should discover the rules for creating complex stories out of these building blocks.
Anthropology has a long history of this type of research. There are a lot of arguments about how people generate myths. Sociologists could do the same. We could look for “universal rules” about, say, how social merit is assigned, or how people create ranks. This already exists in sub-specialties. What we need is someone to pull it together and repackage it for the wider sociological public.
* It’s actually my go to source for anxiety inducing articles about sex, relationships, death, parenting, and Rand Paul.