Measuring Variability in a Cultural Setting and Cultural Consensus Theory

Variability in cultural knowledge about illness within an identified setting was first systematically addressed by Fabrega in the Mayan community of Zinacantan, Mexico (Fabrega, 1970; Fabrega & Silver, chapter 7, 1973). A form of term-frame interview was used where a set of 18 illness terms were paired with 24 possible bodily disturbances (symptoms). Two groups—one composed of 30 practicing h'iloletik (shamans) and the other 30 laymen—were compared. A chi-square analysis found no significant differences between the groups (see Garro, 1986, p. 352).

As noted above, Weller (1983, 1984a) relied upon the extent of intracultural variability as a way for assessing what is culturally shared. Along with Boster's (1980) finding that consensus indicates shared knowledge, Weller's work exploring the implications of intraindi-vidual and interindividual agreement for identifying individuals with cultural expertise foreshadows the formal development of cultural consensus theory (Weller, 1984b). Cultural consensus (Romney, Weller, & Batchelder, 1986) refers to both a theory and a mathematical model for "estimating how much of a given domain of culture each individual informant 'knows' (called cultural competence in the theory) as well as estimating the 'correct' cultural response to each question that can be asked about the particular domain of culture under consideration" (Romney, 1994, pp. 268-269). Prompted by the "need to find more objective ways to investigate culture" (Romney et al., 1986, p. 314) and given the existence of intracultural variability, cultural consensus theory "helps describe and measure the extent to which cultural beliefs are shared . . . If the beliefs represented by the data are not shared, the analysis will show this" (Romney, 1999, p. S103). A reanalysis of the contagion and hot-cold rankings from the urban Guatemalan women (Weller, 1984a) was presented in the article introducing the cultural consensus model (Romney et al., 1986, pp. 327-329) and reinforced the earlier findings— cultural consensus characterized the contagion rankings but not the hot-cold rankings—leading the authors to conclude that "informants do not share a coherent set of cultural beliefs concerning what diseases require hot or cold medicines" (Romney et al., 1986, p. 328).

Another study exploring variation in cultural knowledge about illness and its treatment compared curers and non-curers (all women) in Pichataro using responses from a term-frame interview (Garro, 1986). The Quadratic Assignment Program (Hubert & Schultz, 1976) was used to test three alternative hypotheses of interinformant agreement. Although not originally analyzed using the cultural consensus approach, a reanalysis illustrated both sharing and variability within cultural consensus theory (Garro, 2000a, pp. 281-283). The cultural consensus findings were consistent with a high level of sharing in cultural knowledge across both the curers and non-curers. Yet, there was variability in the extent to which individuals could be said to represent this shared knowledge. A specific prediction was that curers, by virtue of their greater experience in dealing with illness and differential opportunities to learn about it, would better represent shared cultural knowledge as evidenced by higher overall levels of agreement (consensus) within this group. This hypothesis was supported but it was also discovered that there was a confounding with age such that older individuals, irrespective of curer status (and curers tended to be older), also agreed more among each other. Like curers, older individuals were socially positioned to have learned more, and hence share more knowledge about illness. Both of these findings were consistent with cultural consensus theory's conceptualization of variation across informants as indicating measurable differences in the amount of knowledge about a cultural domain, with some knowing more than others.

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