Cultural consensus analysis

Russ Bernard, University of Florida.

Some cultural knowledge, like the names of the months, is widely shared but much of it is distributed unevenly.

We hear, for example, that women in Western societies tend to know more about fashion than men do and that men tend to know more about cars than women do. We hear that young people in rural areas of the world aren’t learning the names and uses of medicinal plants as much as their elders did.

A lot of research, shows that people who know lot about—are highly competent in—a cultural domain tend to agree with each other about the content of the domain and people who know little tend to disagree.

If we can assess how much people agree on a domain of knowledge, we ought to be able to find cultural experts. In 1986, Romney, Weller and Batchelder formalized this logic by showing exactly how, and under what conditions, agreement among a set of people equals knowledge. This means that, under specific conditions, we can lose the answer key to a test and retrieve that key from the answers given by high-knowledge people who are identified by consensus analysis.

This is precisely what field researchers who are investigating a cultural domain (like medicinal uses of plants or names for ethnic groups or good things to do on a weekend) need to do.


  • Romney, A. K., S. C. Weller, and W. H. Batchelder. 1986. Culture as consensus: A theory of culture and informant accuracy. American Anthropologist 88:313–38.

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