I'm hoping to encourage more questions about cultural world building, but cultural world building suffers greatly from being too broad, primarily opinion-based, and too story-based.

One recent question, eventually worded to be (IMO) an appropriate cultural world building question, began as a question about religion too easily (and legitimately) answered, "because your god says so." Ultimately, the OP really was looking for help with rules and systems, not character actions, circumstances, or plot. It's the avoidance of this kind of problem I'm seeking to adddress.

If "physical world building" objectively asks about the systems and rules governing planets, ecologies, and technology. Cultural world building would objectively ask about the systems and rules governing people (sapient communities, societies, and civilizations) including their politics, economics, philosophy, and social morés.

Unfortunately, while questions asking about the orbital mechanics of planets are fairly straightforward, questions about the psychological dynamics of people frequently aren't. Most physical world building can depend on mathematics or a reflection of the hard sciences to support answers. But this seems not to be true for cultural world building, which seems to depend on the musings of philosophers and observations of poets (so to speak).

Question: What advice can we give to users new and old to help them develop good cultural world building questions?

  • Guidelines should support the structure and methodologies of Stack Exchange.

  • Guidelines should either support what's already in the Help Center or should give enough information such that Moderators can consider whether or not improvements to the Help Center are warranted.


  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Interesting question...I will have to ponder on this. At first glance it may not work. Any philosopher you use to make a point, I have a philosopher offering a counter-point...then again... Hard scientists contradict each other all the time.... $\endgroup$
    – James
    May 28 '19 at 13:57
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ We appear to have a community who consider the social sciences to be opinion based, I've never worked out a solution $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    May 28 '19 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Separatrix, I'm hoping this post is the beginning of a solution. The worst-case questions are often of the form, "X happens, how does the government react?" Developing the rules of a society are in many ways more difficult than those of anything that can be touched (planets, technology). One way to look at this post is, "what are the rules of a culture/society/religion/civilization that are acceptable to ask about here?" Goals and intent, exclusions and admissions, codifying the process is part of how worldbuilding works. Yes? $\endgroup$ May 28 '19 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps by inverting the "X happens, how does the government react?" format, we can arrive at some answerable questions... "What historical X events could justify the government reacting like ....?" The answers could then reference real world historical events and sociological studies to provide fact-based precedence. $\endgroup$ May 29 '19 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ @HenryTaylor that's a specific possible solution. Can you generalize it and post it as an answer? A good general guideline would be applicable to all cultural world building. $\endgroup$ May 29 '19 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ @James I like the cultural questions too (and do tend to slide to the social sciences on occasion in my work/research) and find the basic problem with them is that most do not specify the research or evidence that an answer should include. When reviewing a qualitative paper one uses many of the guidelines shared by all papers but adds grounding of examples, author's ownership of perspective, provided credibility checks, and how it accomplished general research objectives. I'd make a full answer but I get stuck on guidelines being focused on more general tasks/issues which is counter SE model $\endgroup$
    – LinkBerest
    May 31 '19 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ I think part of it is that some people will close things they don't personally think are answerable; effectively "if i can't answer this nobody can", when they clearly just aren't familiar with the subject. I asked a question on the History SE about why Romanian Communism became more cultish while Russian became less, and it was closed because it was 'primarily opinion based'... which is absurd, because clearly someone who is familiar with the history can explain what motivated the difference. Spoiler alert: Romanian Communism is a bit of a niche subject. $\endgroup$ Jun 14 '19 at 13:43
  • $\begingroup$ And so when you combine that tendency with the fact that the 'soft' sciences are actually really hard to do properly... of course a lot of things will be closed because they're simply too difficult for enough people to bother trying to figure out how to answer them - this doesn't mean they are opinion based! $\endgroup$ Jun 14 '19 at 13:45
  • $\begingroup$ After all, it took longer for scientists to justify altruism in evolutionary theory than it did for scientists to put people on the moon. Behavioural stuff is hard! $\endgroup$ Jun 14 '19 at 13:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @inappropriateCode you are not wrong, and we've discussed the fact that people VTC because they don't know the answer before here on Meta. But, regrettably, it's also not helpful. You can tell people all you want that they shouldn't close just because they don't know the answer, and they'll look at you funny because they believe that their perspective is valid. Thus, the reason for this post - it's an effort to establish guidelines that help us help others to not vote in such capricious and unpredictable ways. $\endgroup$ Jun 14 '19 at 17:15
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH By that logic, such people can't be convinced of any good practice because 'they believe that their perspective is valid'? At least, it should be part of the framework, like be nice. Which is pretty vague, but the intent is understandable regardless of specific interpretations. I'm not saying that's the end of it, just that it is surely at least a small part which needs mentioned in anything official. $\endgroup$ Jun 14 '19 at 21:12

Avoiding Closure
A guide to writing soft-science questions which survive

  1. Seek Causes, Not Effects - soft-science questions which ask "what would happen if..." lead to speculative answers which celebrate creativity and humor over logical progression and causality. These are the kind of answers which most quickly get labelled as "opinion-based", which is a leading cause of question closure. Asking "how did a particular effect come into being?" invites answers which explain rather than speculate. These kinds of answers, although secretly just as opinion-based as the earlier ones, are much more welcome in these forums.
  2. Ask Generic Questions Which Can Be Answered Specifically - another common cause of question closure falls under the label of "story-based". Such questions are so tightly bound to their questioner's current project, that any answers they acquire may only have value for that specific questioner and even then, only on that specific project. SE forums are not just about generous answerers gifting supplicant questioners with needed wisdom. They are about questioners and answerers working together to create a resource which will benefit future visitors facing similar challenges. Soft-science questions are particularly prone to becoming story-bound. Consider the needs of future forum visitors as you craft your questions and answers.
  3. Ask for substantiation from either the real world or mainstream fiction - good SE answers host links to supporting and supplemental resources. These embedded hyperlinks are amazingly effective at warding off accusations of an answer being opinion-based. It doesn't even matter if the linked-to-resource is itself opinion-based; external links ooze authority and respectability. In writing your questions, encourage answers to include them. Asking for examples from either real world history or mainstream fiction will almost always yield links.
  4. When all else fails,... try, try again! - soft science questions do not yet have a great track record on World-Building. They suffer from a very high initial closure rate and far too many of them stay closed because their authors don't edit them to invalidate the reasons for which they were originally closed. Closure isn't a condemnation. It is an invitation to improve your question to better meet the forum's standards. Don't leave a first draft question closed. Be respectful, but find a way to word it such that it gets reopened and answered. This is the only way that soft science questions will get better coverage on our forum. It is worth the additional effort, to make such questions welcome among all the astrological engineering and rocket science questions. For the sake of your questions, the forum and current and future members, Don't give up after a single attempt!

My penny-hapenny:

From the querent's perspective: Any cultural worlbuilding query ought to follow the WB.SE rules as closely as possible. It ought to be well thought out and it ought to focus on a single issue or problem. Good tagging practices help. The query should contain sufficient background for respondents to answer but without falling into the Wall-o-Text trap, as too much background only muddies an already sticky wicket. I think it goes without saying that keeping the query focused will cast away the Broad Demons and, well, nòt writing a story based question will keep it on topic for WB.SE!

From the respondent's perspective: Any answer ought to address the specific issue and taking cues from the querent's mode. That is, if the query is asked from an "in-world" point of view, answer it in that way. Respondents should seek to maintain an air of objectivity. Using primary world examples helps with this, if they're applicable.

In reality: Querents are, by definition asking for opinions and respondents will, by nature, be offering "opinions". This is a given. This is the nature of our art / hobby. It is not simply a matter of plugging values into a formula to arrive at an answer. I think we need, and most especially with this kind of query, to strike a balance. Perhaps not even-steven, but even in favour of the opinion based answers, simply because this is what we'll be dealing with.

Advice to Young and Old Alike:

  • First, keep calm and keep your finger off the Autoclose Trigger! (Especially you Diamond Folk!) Remember: this is worldbuilding, not math or chemistry or history. We deal with things magickal and persons ephemeral and places chimerical and all things opinionical. There are two ways of approaching worldbuilding: one is the way of the Realist School (those questions are pretty easy, as they pretty much follow the structure of the primary world); the other is the Unrealist or Phantasist School (these questions will almost always be highly opinion based).
  • Second, put on your creative thinking caps and calibrate your imagineering slide rules to the unreal and fantastic. This kind of question will not be asking for physics and orbital mechanics in the usual sense, such as one might find in a college text. This kind of question will be asking for you to riff and jive, to perform a little jass worldbuilding.

A wise philosopher once sang, and I think it's appropos of what the OP of such cultural worldbuilding queries will be looking for:

I don't want French fried potatoes,

Red ripe tomatoes,

I'm never satisfied.

I want the frim fram sauce with the ausen fay

With chafafa on the side.

It isn't the Stack Exchange way, but is largely what worldbuilding is all about. With this kind of question, we just need to buck up and give em the frim fram sauce with extra ausen fay.


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