FAQs on Environmental Health: Do Ethnic Minorities Share the Same Cultural Models?

Recently, in response to a presentation of the first stage of our descriptive research on Environmental Health, three questions were sent from experts in the field to our research associates, Nat Kendall-Taylor and Eric Lindland. All three are critically important questions that we have encountered in other areas of research, and our responses pertain both specifically to our work on Environmental Health and to our research more broadly. Over the next two weeks, we are posting our answers to these three important questions.

This week our second featured question is in regards to ethnic minority perspectives:

Do minority populations share the cultural models described in FrameWorks’ research on environmental health?

Nat and Eric respond:

“Answering this question is neither simple nor straightforward!  The short answer to the question is ‘yes,’ based on the level at which we do our analysis, but it is a ‘yes’ that requires elaboration.

In our descriptive research, FrameWorks’ anthropologists work to identify and characterize the shared and often implicit understandings that members of a cultural population bring to bear in thinking about a given research issue like environmental health. In analyzing our interview data across our informant sample, we look for the deep assumptions that inform how our informants talk about the issue and identify the patterns evidenced across the sample.

Doing this requires sorting through a vast amount of variation across responses — variations by individual but also by gender, age, ethnicity, education level, geographic location, and political self-identification. What we consistently find is that amidst this variation, clear patterns of commonality at an underlying assumptive level can be identified in the interview data. It is these shared patterns of thinking that we hold up as the dominant cultural models that communication must account for.

In many respects, FrameWorks attempts to provide a view of a generalized “American culture” as if it were being viewed from an aircraft flying at 30,000 feet, rather than from the window of a ground level room. At 30,000 feet, the details and complexities of individual action and understanding are not visible, and so some representation of that complexity is lost. But what is gained is a perspective on the broadest and most general patterns that characterize the landscape — the flow of a river, the outlines of a city, and topography of a mountain chain.

What is gained by this view is an appreciation for the broad sweep of patterns and constructs that characterizes the landscape.  In our work, we sort through the complexities and variations of behavior that can be seen from ground level, but then take our analysis to 30,000 feet in order to represent the broadest patterns that we can identify as operative across our sample of research informants.

It’s important to note that saying that Americans, in general, share certain cultural models does not, however, mean that they all Americans think the same things in the same ways. No anthropologist would be caught dead saying this! It only means that alongside those differences, there are shared ways in which implicit assumptions and understandings are brought to bear in thinking and talking about our social worlds. Whereas much public relations work focuses on these differences, FrameWorks focuses on the similarities across groups that share membership, exposure, and participation at some more general level of culture, in order to avoid slipping down the rabbit hole of audience segmentation.

The literature on which we rely (cultural models theory) explains that there are deep levels of assumptions and understandings that members of a cultural group typically come to share. At the same time, as domain targets become more specific and focused, differences in understanding certainly emerge based on different sets experiences, expertise, or knowledge that exist in more general groups.

In short, there are sub-cultural groupings and understandings that exist within larger shared cultures. There is a pattern of differentiation that continues as one’s analytic lens gets more and more focused, all the way to a fine-grained analysis of individual variation. For our purposes, we look to widen the lens of our analysis to account for the broadest patterns of “cultural consensus,” based on the idea that members of a common society share many of the same basic implicit cultural models of thinking about social issues.

So, do minority populations share the cultural models described in FrameWorks’ research on environmental health?

In as much as our sample includes members of such groups, yes. When a sample includes individuals from minority groups and the analysis looks across these and other demographic variations at what is shared by a group, the models we discern are by definition common to all those represented in the sample. Again, this is not to say that if we were looking across a sample of white Republicans from Georgia and Middle-of-road African American’s from Cleveland we wouldn’t surely find differences, only that these groups, because of their membership in and common experiences as part of a common culture do share some foundational ways of thinking about and understanding issues.”

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