By Despina Williams Parker
Cultural Models: Genesis, Methods, and Experiences, a book by Anthropology Professor Victor de Munck and Giovanni Bennardo (Northern Illinois University), has just been published by Oxford University Press.
Professor de Munck and Bennardo are cognitive anthropologists engaged in developing the concept of cultural models, which they view as the basic units of culture. In their book, the authors propose a new cognitive theory of culture that shows how culture can be located, or embodied, in the individual and yet be a collective phenomenon.
The book defines cultural models as “mental representations” that function “both to make sense of and interpret sensory input and also to produce and shape purposive and communicative behaviors. Cultural models are used to read signaled intentions, attitudes, emotions, and social context, including the social status of those one is encountering.”
According to de Munck, cultural models help us conduct day-to-day tasks, such as smiling and shaking hands with new acquaintances, while on “automatic pilot,” thus expending very little cognitive energy.
The book outlines several cultural models, including the courtship model of marriage, which includes cultural models of love, trust, passion and intimacy. Because models vary among cultures, the book takes an in-depth look at cultural models from North America, Europe, Asia, the Pacific and Africa and also explores cultural models among Native-Americans and Latino-Americans.
Noting that he and his co-author are ambitious scholars, de Munck said both saw the book as a “potential gatekeeper” text to the rapidly increasing field of cultural models research. “The book allowed us to solidify and develop our own understandings of what cultural models are and how to conduct research about cultural models,” said de Munck. “After working on this book, I feel (as does Giovanni) that we have some mastery over the cultural models literature.”
The authors devised guidelines to conducting good cultural models research, which they hope will gain influence in areas of research that extend beyond their field of anthropology.
The writing of Cultural Models: Genesis, Methods, and Experiences has already facilitated a National Science Foundation research grant on “Cultural Models of Climate Change.” The grant funds research in 16 different cultural areas of the world. “It was the highest ranked grant submitted in 2013 and we have assurance that after this year it will be funded for another two or possibly three years,” noted de Munck.
In writing the book, de Munck and Bennardo had a spirited exchange of ideas. “Giovanni and I are friends, and while the experience of working together did lead to some arguments, we ended up feeling like brothers to each other,” said deMunck. “It was a very wonderful and enriching experience for both of us.”
At New Paltz, de Munck teaches Research Methods for Anthropology students, Cultural Anthropology, Social Organization and three favorite courses: Love, Sex and Marriage; Culture, Self and Meaning, and Psychedelic Anthropology.
He has authored, edited, or co-authored/edited 12 books and special editions of journals, and authored or co-authored over 60 articles or book chapters. Recent works on cultural models include the papers, “Culture and Cognition on Cultural Models of Romantic Love” and “Theory of Self, Identity and Cultural Models.”