Hey Baby, What’s Your Schemata?

A guy walks up to a girl in a bar and says: “Hey baby, what’s your schemata?”

I’m not a psychologist and I don’t play one on the internets, but I do find myself desperate for an empirical model to study the interaction between people and culture. Enter psychology. Psychologists have long used the theory of schema to understand the byzantine mental structures used by our brains to process information. And increasingly, social scientists are using schemata in their investigations of culture.

Yet settling on what we all mean by culture (which varies by discipline, by university, and by individual) can be tricky. In my own quest to operationalize a definition for the unwieldy concept of culture, I came upon Culture and Cognition, an essay written by Princeton sociology professor Paul DiMaggio.

DiMaggio proposes using psychological schemata to investigate how it is that people “use” culture. This refreshing approach accounts for the complexity in culture; culture is not some unitary thing produced and consumed by individuals. Rather, culture is a complicated web of meanings involving institutions, organizations, media messages, and people, all negotiating the boundaries of culture in a motley of contexts. The threads that constitute these webs of meaning are what psychologists mean by “schemata.”

We can think of our own identity like a mosaic of schematas, woven together into a kind of unique abstraction that makes us, us.

While individuals might share similar designs in their mosaic, no two mosaics are the same. Each element of the design can be considered part of our schematic toolkit, serving as a sort of cognitive shortcut that helps us to identify socially desirable or undesirable objects, experiences, or people. DiMaggio writes:

Individuals experience culture as disparate bites of information and as schematic structures that organize that information. Culture carried by institutions, networks, and social movements diffuses, activates, and selects among available schemata.

The internet offers ubiquitous opportunities for this kind of schematic triggering. Social network sites such as Facebook provide users with organized interfaces to display personal information in a way that trigger other user’s schematas. Websites and blogs, generated around issues, topic-areas or themes, serve as additional sites for triggering cultural schematas or developing cultural schematas anew. Browsing The New York Times homepage, for example, my brain might be triggered by a set of keywords tied to my identity as a foodie, a feminist, an academic, a San Franciscan, or a runner.

We must be careful, of course, not to develop unitary definitions of schematic triggers in an attempt to avoid a singular definition of culture. So what would an experimental design look like for identifying and testing schematas? More on that to come now that my academic schemata has been triggered.

Lauren Alfrey

Lauren worked as the Managing Editor of gnovis in 2009 and graduated with an MA in Communication, Culture and Technology from Georgetown University in 2010. Lauren is currently a doctoral student in the Sociology Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Lauren joined gnovis and CCT after working for three years as an online fundraising and advocacy consultant for progressive nonprofits in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to her professional work, Lauren graduated with honors from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where she majored in Communication and minored in Art History with a focus on women's representation in print advertising and high art.