Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Kurt Lewin and the Eyes of the Beholder Part 2 - The Mode

About a month ago I posted a discussion topic on the NAPA (National Association for the Practice of Anthropology) forum on LinkedIn in which I asked,"If you are using simple descriptive statistics, which is your favorite?" The question formed the basis for the later post here in the Superorganic " Kurt Lewin and the Eyes of the Beholder"

I received comments from Vicki Ina F. Gloer which lead me to think about the issue further in light of my reflections on Lewin's field theory. Vicki remarked:

 I was reminded of Whorf's 1941 publication of "The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language" (written in 1939) in which he detailed observations he made while working in fire insurance of people's perceptions of risk versus actual risk - explaining (of course!) how the words we use to think about risk tend to determine our perception of risk. Insurance underwriters use both simple and complex statistical formulations to assign relative weights and dollar amounts to risk.

right on target. 
We are so accustomed to the use of the mean or average as the statistic used to compare things that we forget or ignore the other two measures of central tendency -- the median (the mid-point) and the mode (the most numerous) -- for measuring or describing a population. But as anthropologists we should know better. This is what Vicki was saying when she remembered the Whorf hypothesis. As observers, we may want to use the mean as the statistic to compare distribution within a population and/or a change in that population over time. But as participants, the mean is a useless statistic if we want to understand the sub-cultures and their impact on the status/role structure of an institution or society. 
Culture is defined by the process of storing and passing on experience, knowledge and beliefs from generation to generation. It is this generational linkage that distinguishes culture from a fad or fashion. To understand a culture or sub-culture statistically, we must look a population and identify these generational linkages -- that is the modes within the population.
When we discuss CULTURE we tend to think of it a singular phenomena, and on an Etic level I would agree. But in the real world in which we all live, "culture", is an Emic reality. Our "culture" is our universe composed of words and actions which have specific meanings and purpose and which we learn from our elders and our own experience and which we will pass on to the next generation.

Whorf and his teacher Sapir, pointed out that language is relative just as culture is relative. This, of course, was in response to the unilinear idea of linguistic evolution. Thus each language creates a conceptual universe for the speakers of that language. Where a specific language is the modal preferred means of communication, of a population or segment of a population it defines the or a cultural universe for the population. For example, the use of Latin in the Catholic Church at one time for example -- was the modal language of the priesthood and shaped the Roman Catholic church and its cultural version of Christianity despite the fact that the average member of the faith did not speak nor read Latin.

One of the theoretical threads of Culture and Personality, probably best expressed by Ruth Benedict, was the idea of a culture being defined in terms of a Modal Personality. Benedict and Mead expanded this concept during WWII and after with the development of the National Character approach.

The mode, that most forgotten and ignored statistic, is the important statistic for the anthropologist because it defines the cultural universe of a population of actors..

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