An introduction to Margaret Archer’s under-appreciated work on culture

The term ‘culture’ carries considerable intellectual baggage yet is rarely subject to extensive conceptual scrutiny. Our use of it is simultaneously everyday and abstract, concrete yet nebulous and, as a consequence, operationalizing it within the context of research necessitates a degree of specificity which it profoundly lacks when utilised within lay discourse. Therefore drawing on Archer (1996) I wish to distinguish two specific aspects of culture which play related though distinct roles in the formation of identity: the socio-cultural context and the cultural system. The former refers to the webs of relationships within which every individual is entwined within a range of geographical, familial and institutional contexts. These relationships are causal and pertain to interpersonal interaction. The latter relates to the ideas existent within society or, as Archer puts it, the “corpus of existing intelligiblia […] all things capable of being grasped, deciphered, understood or known by someone” (Archer 1996: 104). Intelligiblia of this sort is to be distinguished from expressive aspects of human cultural production i.e. it relates to those ideas susceptible to propositional understanding rather than, say, aesthetic expression. As Archer explains this point:

“Obviously we do not live by propositions alone (any more than we live logically); in addition, we generate myths, are moved by mysteries, become rich in symbolic and ruthless in manipulating hidden persuaders. But all of these elements are precisely the stuff of Socio-Cultural interaction. For they are all matters of interpersonal influence, whether we are talking at one extreme of hermeneutic understanding (including religious experience at the furthest extremity) or of the manipulative assault and battery of ideas used ideologically.” (Archer 1996: xviii-xix)

Ideas of this sort stand in logical relations to each other in virtue of their intelligibility and truth-functionality: in so far as they implicitly or explicitly make claims about what is or is not the case then these claims stand in relations of contradiction or agreement with each other. For example while the schools of thought they represent may enjoy little or no acquaintance, a work of postmodern philosophy and a physics text book might assert contrary propositions about the nature of the physical world and, through doing so, implicate themselves in a reciprocal logical relationship in virtue of what they argue is or is not the case.

Existence within the cultural system is not dependent upon human awareness, acknowledgement or understanding of an idea. In this claim Archer is developing Karl Popper’s account of ‘world 3’ as the domain in which the products of the human mind (such as scientific theories and scientific problems) take on an objective existence vis-à-vis their creators (Gorton 2006: 32-34). For instance the propositional content of this chapter continues to exist even if the chapter itself is neither read nor valued, as do the logical relations in which this content stands vis-à-vis that of other academic books and papers. However unnoticed they may contingently be at a particular point in time, the products of the human mind retain their capacity to be understood. One particularly striking instantiation of this capacity was the recovery of largely forgotten classical texts which are generally deemed to have been a crucial driver of the renaissance. Line spacing needs to be made consistent

It is self-evident that these two areas of cultural life “do not exist or operate independently of one another” but rather “overlap, intertwine and are mutually influential”. As such we can acknowledge that access to the cultural system is always socio-culturally mediated, through institutions such as libraries and publishing houses, while still retaining a distinction that is fundamentally analytical. Rather than implying some radical separation of the two domains (clearly they are distinguishable without being distinct) it asserts that distinguishing between them facilitates an explanation of cultural processes which would otherwise escape us. Through drawing this distinction between the socio-cultural context and the cultural system it is possible to isolate dynamics which pertain to each in turn, as well as second-order interactions between the two.

If you found this introduction interesting (taken from an unpublished paper by SI’s editor) you might want to read Archer’s work first-hand:


Categories: Higher Education

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