Can Culture Really Be Studied Scientifically?

It is worth pausing to reflect on the fact that cultural studies have historically been separated from science.  Yes, it makes sense to apply the tools of science to the movement of planets, properties of metals, and other physical things.  But isn’t culture different?  Isn’t it made of something other than physical stuff?  This is a question that philosophers have grappled with since before the foundations of modern science were set in stone.  And it has still not been fully resolved in the minds of quite a few contemporary thinkers.

As a quirk of the world we live in today, it just happens to be the case that the resolution to this age old debate is unfolding around us right now.  You may be surprised to learn that the philosophical divide between science and culture is breaking down because so many of us are buying smart phones and surfing the net.  Wondering what I’m talking about?  Jump to the next section.

Big Data’s Got a Trojan Horse

The world is awash in data.  Billions of people routinely surf the web and click on links.  They connect with their friends, like or block content to suit their preferences, and share information widely on social media sites.  This happens every single day.  Even more people get into cars, take buses and trains, board airplanes, or move around by human power.  They do this on their commutes to work, during their exercise routines, while taking care of daily errands, and so they can socialize with their family and friends.  This also happens every single day. What most of us are just beginning to realize is that all of these activities (and many more) now produce massive streams of data.  Data that gets aggregated.  Data that is analyzed for patterns of meaning to be used by governments, research institutions, and commercial enterprises.  Data that makes visible the awe-inspiring dynamics of our human world.

The sheer volume of data is mind boggling.  Numbers just can’t do it justice.  Even the software engineers themselves can’t wrap their heads around a petabyte—the amount of information nuggets equaling the number 1 followed by 15 zeros.  And yet we routinely produce thousands of petabytes of data that make culture visible in our world.  We may hear about things like “smart cities” that can monitor data in real time to achieve greater efficiencies.  This is because we now track the electricity used in all our buildings, the number of people driving on the freeway at any time, and all manner of other activities.  Armed with the information this data offers to us, we can treat cities like living organisms and overlay information on our physical infrastructure to improve urban life.  One example being the use of variable speed limits on the freeway to avoid congestion when real-time traffic flows grow too large.

We also see analytics on the “social web” that track emotions through the use of language in our tweets, status updates, blog posts, and discussion threads.  This is data about our inner selves.  It is like watching tiny bread crumbs dropped by our ephemeral thoughts, evidence for what we were thinking and feeling throughout the day.  Our behaviors leave these data traces and help reveal hidden patterns about our interactions in the world.  The richness of our opinions, attitudes, and beliefs are on full display for anyone with access to the data.  And these traces of data culminate in an undeniable and profound truth:

Culture is physical.

What do I mean by this?  First of all, let’s define culture.  Culture can be understood simply as the collection of stories, beliefs and practices for a particular social context.  Just think about your grandmother’s house.  When you were small, perhaps you went over to visit her and noted that things were done differently around her place than what you did at home.  She kept things tidier (or messier) than your family does.  There was no swearing in her presence and everyone said please and thank you (maybe your mother wasn’t so successful at instilling these acts of formal etiquette).  She kept heirlooms from the old days, many of which were unfamiliar to you (like that old phonograph in the living room or the rotary phone in the kitchen).  All of these things are cultural differences between your house and your grandmother’s house.

The same distinctions may ring true in your adult world.  You behave differently at the office than you do at home.  Your style of conversation changes when you go to the grocery store, when you dine out at your favorite restaurant, and when you get cocktails with your old college buddies.  This is because the social environment changes in each situation.  There are particular norms and expected behaviors, types of furniture, shared history, and more that get activated in one context but not the other.  In this way, each of us can be multifaceted and even internally contradicting.  You might avoid swearing at home in front of the kids but let it all out when you’re at the bar with friends.  Or maybe you focus on material desires in your career, yet care most about family and community when you go to church.

So when I say that culture is physical, what I mean is that the massive amounts of data about our daily lives makes it clear that our habitual thoughts, most cherished ideals, and deeply held beliefs are things that can be tracked and analyzed as part of the natural world.

This is why I feel comfortable answering the question above in the affirmative.  Yes, culture can be studied scientifically.  It is a complex system with all the features of emergence, interactivity, physical constraint, and so on that are the hallmark objects of scientific scrutiny.  My research collaborators around the world make use of this basic fact every time we deconstruct a pattern of thought, apply psychological insight into language use, discover a tipping point where a new idea has risen to dominance in a conversation, or reveal a new practice that is shaping the evolution of some key institution.

And if culture can be studied scientifically, it can be monitored and analyzed with the full rigors of qualitative and quantitative methods.  Throughout the last ten years, I have brought together many techniques developed by other researchers in neuroscience, anthropology, psychology, computer science, molecular biology, and more — all with the goal of birthing a new integrated science of social change.

Now there are many of us out in the world guiding the research efforts for governments, nonprofits, and business interests.  Our agendas are diverse at the level of social values (Some are in it to make money. Others like myself are in it to tackle social problems.) And yet we are all participating in the creation of new fields of science that improve our ability to comprehend politics, economics, social behavior, and more.  Increasingly we can also start to design protocols and frameworks for evolving social practices toward a configuration of human thriving and planetary sustainability.

It is with this prospect of a better world that I leave you tantalized now.  Share your thoughts in the comment thread!

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.