Conference Report: Meaning-Making through the Lens of Cultural Cognition

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 3.

Meaning-Making through the Lens of Cultural Cognition


Erica Zurawski,
UC, Santa Cruz

In a paper session organized by Daniel A. Winchester (Purdue) and presided by Dustin S. Stoltz (Univ. of Notre Dame), panelists presented their work around the topic of “Meaning-Making through the Lens of Cultural Cognition.”  This panel represented a wide array of thematic and methodological work in the realm of cultural cognition.

Marshall Allen Taylor (Univ. of Notre Dame) presented his collaborative work with Dustin S. Stoltz (Univ. Notre Dame), and Terence Emmet McDonnell (Univ. of Notre Dame).  Taylor demonstrated how his work extends existing literature which understands a cultural object as the “binding” of significance to a material form.  This intervention seeks to engage more deeply with the perennial question of meaning-making versus meaning-maintenance. Taylor argued that meaning-making and meaning-maintenance function via distinct cognitive processes.  To give deeper appreciation of this point, he clarified the difference and relationship between two types of cultural objects, a material “token” on one hand and a cognitive “type” on the other. As he explained, “tokens” are either assimilated to or expand existing “types” or resist this assimilation and thereby create a new “type.”  Taylor identified these distinct binding processes as one of “indexicalizing” or “innovating.” He argued, however, that the brain prefers indexicalizing over innovating new cognitive types and in this preference for stability is the thrust of his point: “that meaning-making is deeply embedded in moments of meaning-maintenance.”

Caitlin Daniel (Univ. of California-Berkeley) presented on her research surrounding evaluations of the cost of food and how cognitive heuristics might influence these evaluations.  Her intervention here is especially poignant given that behavioral economists have only studied cognitive heuristics through lab experiments which, as Daniel points out, does not account for how everyday settings and culture influence actual experiences of decision-making.  Through shopping observations and interviews with parents across the socio-economic spectrum, Daniel found that in routine food purchasing, food prices are evaluated in relational terms and that these relational evaluations have cultural origins. She introduced the concept of cultural anchoring to describe how the reference points that “anchor” people’s evaluations can vary across groups that have different beliefs and practices.  Through her research and introduction of cultural anchoring, Daniel demonstrated the relevance of cultural sociology in accounting for every-day influences in decision science and economics, showing how these two seemingly competing fields are instead complementary.  

Ethan W. Johnson (Univ. of Minnesota) presented his work on how rapport develops in interactional settings with Penny Edgell (Univ. of Minnesota) and Kathleen E. Hull (Univ. of Minnesota).  Johnson presented empirical data from their research focus groups to contend that rapport is not accidental or automatic but rather, is coordinated and emerges from cultural frames and resources.  In a synthesis of the cultural resources approach, group-centric approach, and socioemotional approach, Johnson proposed that “cultural resources cannot only make sense of the social world but can also serve as an entrée into existing or emergent routine of shared affect.”  By examining construction of rapport through various focus groups’ discussion on an ethical dilemma, he demonstrated the significance of centering rapport. Johnson concluded on this point, indicating the generative openings that exist in studying processes of rapport both in powerful institutions and in studying the effects of gender, race, and class embodied in cultural resources in rapport.
Jiayi Janet Xu (Princeton) presented her work on understandings of racial diversity and individual interpretation of racial statistics.  Xu highlighted the lack of intersubjective agreement on the meaning of “diversity” yet the persistent dominance of “diversity” as a framework for talking about racial representation and race.  Showcasing a survey experiment evaluating diversity perception on racial composition of neighborhoods, Xu showed that while there is no agreed upon quantification of or guideline for “diversity,” this does not mean that people do not see diversity as commensurable.  Through this experiment, Xu articulated different qualitative interpretations of diversity between political party affiliation, but paradoxically, evaluations of diversity do not differ significantly by racial identity. She centered the importance of her findings through their contribution to understanding how people interpret and evaluate racial diversity.


Justin Van Ness (Univ. of Notre Dame) concluded the panel by arguing for the intersection of microsociology and cultural cognition.  He introduced a heuristic to analyze interactions from his ethnographic research of protest situations, specifically around the problematized meaning-making of the swastika.  Focusing on failed interactions, Van Ness sought to push these instances further to understand exactly when they break down. He introduced what he calls “conflicting cognitive pressures” as differing from cognitive dissonance in order to understand specific instances of dual-cognitions and when the same signal can cause competing cognitions and how people reckon with those competitions.  Through his research, Van Ness articulated the fertility of the intersection of microsociology and cultural cognition.


This paper session offered a diverse array of topics within cultural cognition broadly.  These timely contributions undoubtedly generated thought-provoking discussion on their own, but as one audience member pointed out, together they also represent the ability of cultural cognition as a field to expand and be relevant across multiple methodologies and topics.