The Distribution of Culture
Despite the fact that sharing within status categories is a great deal less than uniform, group life is best understood as being based on a distribution of the total corpus of the group's shared understandings rather than uniformly shared among them. This distribution includes some understandings that are shared by all group members, others that are shared by many group members, and a substantial number that are shared among a relative few.
The predictability that is essential to social life (see chap. 1) requires that social relationships be based on a certain minimum sharing among participants of understandings concerning behavior in those relationships. This being so, whatever else is characteristic of the distribution of culture among different categories of actors, it always includes some sharing among the people involved of understandings concerning what is acceptable in the interactions involving them. This sharing may be mainly produced situationally by double contingency, which may sometimes be effective because of the exchange of tokens that are not also guides. Alternatively, it may proceed mainly on the basis of understandings commonly acquired through earlier socialization. Whatever its sources, it is essential to social life that there be some kind of sharing to serve as the basis for mutual predictability.
The understandings basic to many relationships, especially if they are multiplex, are rarely situational inventions. More often, they are relatively uniform for occupants of the same statuses through some combination of common socialization and the use of cultural models of the sort examined in the last chapter. To the extent that there is some uniformity, judges who sometimes have the same status as those occupied by the ones they judge will make their judgments on the basis of understandings similar to those guiding the participants. This is what would be expected given a uniform sharing of culture.
But there is no necessity that all others will make their judgments on the basis of the understandings that guide the participants; the relationships could operate quite effectively even if nonparticipants have different understandings about some or, even, all its aspects. In fact, such differences do exist among the Swahili (and, surely, elsewhere), so that some who evaluate relationships, and behavior in general, use different standards from those others do. These differences are a fundamental part of the "distribution of culture."
The basic element in cultural distribution is "status." As noted previously, the term refers to a mental category of individuals grouped together on the basis of understandings that identify what are taken to be significant characteristics that distinguish the category members from nonmembers. Associated with these understandings are additional understandings about what can be expected of category members and others concerned with what sorts of settings and circumstances membership in the status should and will take precedence over other category memberships.