Why Participatory Models Need to Include Cultural Models

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Mar 04, 2016
Michael Paolisso

Article published in Integration and Implementation Insights.


Participatory modeling has at its heart the goal of engaging and involving community stakeholders. It aims to connect academic environments and the communities we want to understand and/or help. Participatory modelling approaches include: use facilitators, provide hands-on experiences, allow open conversation, open up the modeling “black box,” look for areas of consensus, and “engage stakeholders” for their input.

One approach that has not been used to help translate and disseminate participatory models to non-modelers and non-scientists is something psychologists and anthropologists call “cultural models.” Cultural models are presupposed, taken-for-granted understandings of the world that are shared by a group of people.

Cognitive anthropologists, including those who focus on human and environment interactions, developed the theory and method of cultural modeling in order to understand the cultural knowledge and values that individuals use to “make sense,” understand, and evaluate the world around them. This cultural knowledge also influences behavior, toward one another and toward the environment.

Importantly, cultural models are a product of a particular view of culture. Rather than seeing culture as the sum of all shared knowledge, practices, social relationships, institutions, and material products, a cultural model approach builds off an understanding of culture as “whatever it is one has to know or believe to operate in a manner acceptable to its members.” This focus on the system of knowledge and values that a group shares releases any study of culture from a more placed-based study of particular cultural groups, such as traditional anthropological studies of tribes and local communities, to a focus on the shared culture that is present when a group meets regardless of the original locations and enculturation of those present.

Culture: whatever it is one has to know or believe to operate in a manner acceptable to its members.

Thus, if you have a room full of participatory researchers and modelers, the knowledge that they share in order to behave in a way appropriate to the group is the cultural knowledge and values that a cognitive approach would seek to understand. That is not to say there is no variation in knowledge and values, expressed behaviorally or not. In fact, a cultural model approach also helps identify key areas where cultural differences are present.

Interestingly and additionally, a cultural model approach emphasizes trying to identify underlying cognitive schemas or themes present in a social (or professional) grouping of individuals that are implicitly and tacitly understood but often not verbally articulated, though they are present and do shape discussion and behaviors. This is cognitive or thematic knowledge that the individuals present have learned from past experiences and education and that they bring into the discussion and group participation.

It is helpful to conceptualize this knowledge as the “lens” that individuals have that allows them to understand and process information generated in the group, and most importantly to evaluate it and make decisions about validity, utility and actions. Cognitive anthropologists like to say that cultural models are not what you see, but what you see with.

Cultural models are not what you see, but what you see with.

Introducing a cultural model perspective into the scholarship and practice emerging around participatory modeling raises a number of questions worth considering:

  • How would we capture the existing cultural model knowledge present in our discussion and deployment of participatory modeling?
  • If all participants in the participatory modeling process already have existing cognitive models of participatory models and, most importantly, the process that resulted in focusing and using participatory models, should we not somehow integrate that information into one or more of the process, the products, and evaluation of the impacts on resulting decisions?
  • Might more integration of a cultural model approach help us focus on possible ethical or social justice issues that can arise in our participatory modeling, despite our best intentions?
  • These few questions and others are worth a discussion that in turn will strengthen our understanding and implementation of participatory modeling.


Paolisso, M., Weeks, P. and Packard, J. (2013). A Cultural Model of Farmer Land Conservation. Human Organization, 74, 1: 12-2.

Paolisso, M. (2007). Cultural Models and Cultural Consensus of Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab and Oyster Fisheries. NAPA (National Association of Practicing Anthropologists) Bulletin, 28: 123-133.

Biography: Michael Paolisso is Professor and Associate Chair in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park. For the past 15 years he has focused his research on the human dimensions of a range of environmental issues confronting the Chesapeake Bay, including management of natural resources, particularly fisheries and agricultural lands, water pollution, restoration, social justice, socio-ecological resilience and climate change. His Chesapeake research seeks to demonstrate how cultural models of the environment have a direct bearing on the use and management of natural resources, and how cultural models can be used to improve intra- and inter-stakeholder understanding, dialogue and collaboration in addressing environmental issues. He is a co-Principal Investigator of the Participatory Modeling Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

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