How cultural analysis helps you understand people better

February 16, 2021 · 2 min read · By ASU CareerCatalyst

Sociocultural and urban anthropologist Rosalyn Negrón shares her expertise on cultural domain analysis to provide insight into the shared understandings within a group. This type of cultural analysis focuses on how people in a group think about and understand things in the social and natural world, which has wide application in anthropology, marketing, public health, education and other fields.

What is cultural domain analysis?

Cultural domain analysis is a set of methods for collecting and analyzing data about how people in cultural groups think about things and concepts that are related to one another. Cultural anthropology researchers glean insights from these data to gain a better understanding of different cultural worldviews.

“Cultural domain analysis provides insight into the shared cultural knowledge that underlies people's choices, behavior and beliefs,” said Rosalyn Negrón, an instructor of a cultural domain analysis course in ASU Continuing and Professional Education. “It’s often difficult for people to articulate the cultural knowledge that influences their routine actions and many are not explicitly aware of the particular perspectives on the world they may share with other members of their cultural groups.”

When researchers conduct a cultural domain analysis, they can discover “the hidden obvious” that is so important for anthropological research and is applicable across a range of fields. Further, a cultural domain analysis can reveal nuances in how people perceive different concepts or whether they share the same concepts in the same ways.

Cultural domain analysis has been around for at least six decades. This type of cultural analysis was developed within anthropology, integrating theory and methods from cognitive psychology. Advances in computing from later decades made cultural domain analysis more widely accessible and applicable.

How do you define a cultural domain for analysis?

Researchers typically start with lists to define a cultural domain. A key way to elicit items for a domain is through free listing. Free listing is an easy, yet powerful way to discover the concepts most salient in people’s mind about a given topic.

“In cultural domain analysis, lists can be of physical, observable things like plants, colors, animals and symptoms of illness or conceptual things like occupations, roles and emotions,” said Negrón, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “You can get lists in many different ways, such as through interviews or by gathering curated lists that people create online, such as on sites like Pinterest.”

In her course, Negrón walks learners through what to do with those lists to map out shared knowledge within a group. This includes pile sorting, multidimensional scaling, cluster analysis and cultural consensus analysis. These assist in understanding what items people associate with each other, exploring the structure of collective cognitive and semantic associations and determining if and how members of a cultural group share knowledge about a cultural domain.

Why is understanding cultural domains useful in various fields?

Cultural domain analysis reveals a deeper understanding of people in different cultural groups and how they view the world. While anthropology students would benefit from adding these methods to their research toolkit, the insights from these methods have become increasingly important in environmental science, marketing public health, web design, user experience and other fields.

“In these fields, ethnographically grounded insights about people's perspectives can make all the difference in whether a product or service can actually meet people's needs,” said Negrón. “For example, understanding cultural knowledge differences can help improve and target behavior change programs, such as in public health.”

Environmental science

Cultural domain analysis can illuminate how concepts about nature and the environment vary across cultures. These insights prove to be useful for environmental conservation and natural resource management.

“Understanding, for example, the cognitive salience of certain plants or other natural resources within indigenous or traditional knowledge systems may help shape strategies for managing those resources,” said Negrón. “Such insights can also help to bridge gaps in consensus between relevant stakeholders about the nature of environmental issues.”

Marketing research

In the field of marketing, rather than the term “cultural domain analysis,” researchers use terms like “concept mapping” and “brand mapping” to describe similar methods that collect and analyze data about people’s perspectives.

“These methods are excellent for gathering the knowledge and perspectives that people have about products, brands and what sorts of associations people have about them,” said Negrón. “Through cultural consensus analysis, you can get a sense of the extent to which there is a shared understanding about a particular product or marketing campaign.”

Public health

Cultural domain analysis has been used extensively in public health. Cultural awareness can help researchers understand people’s knowledge about health and well-being to create more effective health policies.

“Public health researchers have used these methods to better understand how to develop cross-culturally relevant communication materials and health interventions that respond to local understandings about health and illness concepts,” said Negrón. “Further, these methods help researchers understand the divide that might exist between expert knowledge and non-expert knowledge about health, its causes and its consequences.”

Web design

In web design, cultural domain analysis can determine what groupings of content make sense to users. These insights can inform the layout of website navigation, the structure of information and the hierarchy of content on a website or webpage.

“If, for example, you’re developing a website for a bookseller, you might do ‘free lists’ to discover the different genres or subgenres that users know of and present content that is consistent with the shared understanding of possible genres out there,” said Negrón. “Some of these might not square with the developer's understanding of what people are doing, using or reading.”

Is cultural domain analysis only important to researchers?

The topics and skills covered in Negrón’s cultural domain analysis course are primarily for research settings, such as in the aforementioned fields. However, the methods used in cultural domain analysis are transferable to other roles, such as teachers and managers.

“Teachers may find free listing is an easy and fun way to teach to their students how to develop cultural awareness,” said Negrón. “Managers can use pile sorting exercises as an icebreaker and team-building activity or use multidimensional scaling mapping to do deep dives about their team's collective mental concepts about a given domain, such as a company mission.”

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