Enculturation and the Degenerative Principle


The model of enculturation I propose operates with a claim that individuals are intrinsically idiosyncratic. Support for individual idiosyncrasy begins at the level of neurons and goes on to encompass inter-individual phenomena. I draw on cognitive and social theory to support my position. In particular I consider the work of neurologist Gerald Edelman (2004) and his “theory of neuronal group selection” (TNGS) and Sahlins (2000) and his theory of culture. The model of culture presented here is designed to account for the phenomenon of individual idiosyncrasy. For this reason, culture is necessarily presented as a process -- and I am calling the process “enculturation.” The cognitive phenomena that allow language and signs to be shared between people are, within each individual, constantly changing via idiosyncratic neuronal firing patterns and via the incorporation of new experience and altered memory. The concept of memory is discussed in relation the model of enculturation. The durkheimian position, that social scientists should focus on collective representations and avoid making social claims based on the operation of individual minds (Durkheim, 1915:15-16; 1952:213) is given consideration. Cognitive research is introduced to suggest links between experience and memory (such as Edelman’s concept of the “remembered present”) and to establish the function of “the degenerative principle”. The work of Libet (2004) is utilized to suggest that conscious awarenesses are preceded by unconscious processes (i.e., processes outside reflective consciousness), and as such we are forced to conclude that unconscious processes initiate our conscious experiences. This raises questions of agency and free will. It is suggested that the process of cognitive association leads to novelty as a result of the instability of recurrent memory and the intrinsic idiosyncrasy of neurons. Enculturation then, can be seen as the activity of association as augmented by intrinsically idiosyncratic phenomena. Parallels are drawn between Bakhtin’s dialogic principle and the enculturation model. The concluding section suggests avenues for the future.

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