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.
I want to thank her for pointing out the connection. I find her comment so 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.