Estimating Ambiguity in Cultural Meaning

Substantial research details individuals’ estimates of affective cultural meanings and how they vary along demographic and socioeconomic lines. However, much less is known about individuals’ levels of uncertainty about these meanings—what I refer to as ambiguity—or how ambiguity is patterned among respondents or concepts, though it is likely ambiguity has consequences for interaction and cultural change. In this work, I adapt methods designed to elicit respondents’ beliefs about probability distributions to collect data on the range of affective meaning that respondents consider probable for a variety of identities and behaviors. I find that meaning ambiguity on the individual level is patterned differently than disagreement about meanings between people on the population. In addition, I find that ambiguity is patterned by type of term, dimension of meaning, and extremity of population mean rating, and is broadly consensual between individuals. These results establish individual-level ambiguity and population-level disagreement as distinct concepts and lay the groundwork for better understanding the effects of meaning ambiguity for social processes.