Copyright 1997 Stephen P. Borgatti, All Rights Reserved Geneva97 Home Page

Introduction to Cultural Domains


There are several ways to define a cultural domain (Lounsbury, 1964; Spradley 1979; Weller & Romney, 1988). A good starting point is: a set of items that are all of the same type. For example, "animals" is a domain. The members of the domain of animals are all the animals people are aware of, such as dogs, cats, horses, lions, tigers, etc. Implicit in the notion, however, is also the idea that membership in the domain is not solely determined by the individual respondent, but that it exists "out there" either in the language, in the culture or in reality. Hence, the set of colors that a given respondent likes to wear is not what we mean by a cultural domain.

One rule of thumb for distinguishing cultural domains from other lists is that cultural domains are about perceptions rather than preferences. Hence, "my favorite foods" is not a cultural domain, but "things that are edible" is. However, a better rule of thumb is that cultural domains are about things which in principle have a right answer which is universally true. Consider, for example, the cultural domain of animals. If asked whether a tiger is an animal, for example, the respondent feels that she is discussing a fact about the world, not about herself. In contrast, the truth about whether ice cream belongs in the category of her favorite foods is local: it is not necessarily true for others. Hence, cultural domains are in principle shared.

This does not mean that in order to be a cultural domain, everyone in a culture must agree that each item is really in the domain. How shared it is an empirical question. Conversely, agreement about a set of items does not imply it is a cultural domain. If we ask informants in our own culture about their 10 favorite foods and every one of them gives the same list, it is still not a cultural domain because asking for personal choices is not the kind of thing which in principle could be a cultural domain.

Another aspect of cultural domains is that the items are linked by semantic relations. In other words, the domain has internal structure. For example, for any pair of items in a domain, we can ask respondents how similar they are, or whether they are more similar than another pair, and this would not be an unanswerable question. Similarity is a binary relation. The elements of a cultural domain also have attributes, such as size, color, and goodness. These can be seen as relations (e.g., is bigger than, is the same color as, is better than), but unlike similarity these relations can be reduced to a single property of each item. In contrast, similarity is indivisible: it is not a property of the item but of the pair of items.

There is an expectation that an attribute that makes sense for some items in a cultural domain will make sense for all items. In other words, if "sweetness" is a sensible attribute of fruit, then it is meaningful to ask ‘how sweet is ____?’ of all fruit in the domain. If the attribute cannot be applied to all items, this is sometimes because not all the items are at the same level of contrast, which in turn means that there exist subdomains. For example, if the domain of "animals" contains the items "squirrel", "ant", and "mammal", it will not make sense to informants to be asked whether squirrels are faster than mammals. The real test for items of different level of contrast, however, is to look at the "is a kind of" relation. If any item in a domain is a kind of any other item in the domain (e.g., squirrel is a kind of mammal) then you know that the latter item is actually a gloss for a subdomain.

Even if all the items are the same level of contrast, however, the inability to apply an attribute to all items still suggests that the domain has a hierarchical taxonomic structure and that the attribute belonged to items in one particular class. For example, the attribute "color of antlers" can be applied to some animals, but not to others. This means that the domain of animals contains at least two types — animals with antlers and animals without — and within the set of those with antlers, we can ask what color the antlers are.

The techniques in this chapter are used to (a) elicit the items in a cultural domain, (b) elicit the attributes and relations that structure the domain, and (c) measure the position of the items in the domain structure.


Last revised: 12 July, 1997

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