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Situated at the intersection of cultural anthropology and cognitive science, the main concern of cognitive anthropology is to explain the mental representations and processes that make up cultural content. To this end, cognitive anthropologists combine approaches and methods from cognitive science with traditional ethnography and with techniques specifically developed for this very purpose. In this research paper, we first present a brief history of cognitive anthropology and of its core concepts and main methods. This is then rounded off with a perspective on the contributions that cognitive anthropology has to offer to cognitive science, including, among others, a concern not only with knowledge, but also with knowing, insights into the relation of language and thought, and a corrective for the (often untested) assumption of universality in cognitive processes.
- From Ethnoscience to the Cognitive Sciences
- Three Premises
- Premise 1: Culture is Common (Shared) Knowledge
- Premise 2: Knowledge Systems Provide a Cultural Grammar
- Premise 3: Language is the Best Means of Access to Mental Phenomena
- Revised Premises
- Revised Premise 1: Turning Toward the Individual
- Revised Premise 2: Turning Toward Operationalization Instead of Categorization
- Revised Premise 3: Turning away from Language as the Only Instrument to Code Knowledge
- Three Premises
- The Representation of Knowledge
- Script, Schema, and Cultural Model
- Mental Images
- Trajectories for Future Research
- Knowledge and Knowing
- Language and Cognition
- Universal or Cultural Variable?
One of the central objects of research in cultural anthropology is culture, in at least two respects: as cultural phenomena in a material sense, and as the cultural content based on mental representations. Although most cultural phenomena are public and thus accessible to ethnographic documentation, this is not true for cultural content that, instead, is largely situated inside people’s heads. Explaining these mental representations and processes is the main concern of cognitive anthropology, and it is also where cultural anthropology intersects with other cognitive sciences. Together with cognitive psychology, philosophy, cognitive neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and linguistics, cognitive anthropology aims at understanding how people perceive, learn, process, store, and use knowledge of the world or, more generally, how the information received through the senses is interacting with thought processes (Gardner, 1985; Sternberg, 1999; Boden, 2006). In this alliance, however, anthropology has become a rather shadowy partner, which is unfortunate given that some of the theories emerging in cognitive science are also central to the concerns of anthropology.
The prevailing approach in the cognitive sciences is to analyze the human experience of the world and human thinking as information processing, including perception, motivation, emotion, problem solving, and memory. The objective is to make transparent, among other things, the mental faculties that enable all humans to internalize the social and cultural characteristics of the society into which they are born. And this interest overlaps substantially with central topics of anthropological research:
…anthropologists’ concerns place them right in the middle of the cognitive sciences, whether they like it or not, since it is cognitive scientists who have something to say about learning, memory and retrieval (Bloch, 1991, p. 184).
Cognitive anthropology seeks to contribute to these issues by combining cognitive science with traditional ethnography (Keesing, 1987; Tyler, 1969; Wassmann, 1994; Wassmann et al., 2011; Wassmann, n.d.; Bender and Beller, 2013). This bridge building is particularly valuable, given that the definitions of cognition (and many related concepts) used by mainstream anthropologists are often too sociological to be compatible with the approaches used by cognitive scientists.
Lave (1988), for instance, sees cognition as originating in social practices of individuals, and Geertz (1973, p. 45) proposes that “thought is, in a great part anyway, a public activity.” It can therefore not be surprising that anthropologists’ theories of thinking, meaning, memory, and retrieval do not converge with those of cognitive scientists. The limitations of the purely cultural focus was realized, for instance, by (psychologist) Rogoff and (anthropologist) Lave (1984), who advocated a shift away from Durkheim’s cultural representation collective toward a more central role for the individual. However, they also pointed out that relying on single individuals in special social roles (e.g., village principals) as ‘omniscient informants’ is not sufficient, but needs to be complemented by including individuals in nonexposed roles, the so-called plain folks. Even in common worlds, single lives differ (Keck, 1998). In fact, the tremendous variability of individual biographies renders the idea of one homogenous culture (at any scale, applied to an individual or the society) nonsensical.
Of course, the plain-folk individual in isolation, stripped of any cultural ties, is a limited model system too. And yet, it is this view that has been – and to some extent still is – characteristic of most cognitive science research. Apart from some socio-psychological strands, as in cross-cultural psychology (Berry et al., 2002; Mishra and Dasen, 2007), experimental work is often carried out on individuals in isolation and in highly nonnatural (but carefully controlled) environments. But this is only one of several characteristics that anthropologists consider critical. Another point for critique regards the computational model of the mind that has led scholars to neglect the interaction of content and process and the relevance of the social and material context of cognitive activities (Bender and Beller, 2011b, p. 1). Meanwhile, scholars have come to understand that cognition cannot be fully understood or explained without reference to a specific body (embodiment) and to a specific cultural environment (situatedness).
One of the implications of the computational model was the assumption that cognitive processes are universal – an assumption compatible with the conception of ‘psychic unity of humankind’ proposed by anthropological founding fathers such as Franz Boas. Along the same lines, Cole and Scribner tried to identify basic capacities that seemed to be invariant across different cultural context. Although we may indeed assume that most cognitive and affective competencies do exist in all humans, the way in which they manifest as performance and emerge as ‘cognitive styles’ (Dasen and Mishra, 2010) depends on the cultural and ecological environment. This implies that the cognitive processes themselves may be subject to cultural influences (Atran and Medin, 2008; Bender and Beller, 2011b).
As a consequence, precise knowledge of and about such general cognitive competencies and processes is indispensable for any scientific field concerned with human biology and psychology or human nature and culture. It could also provide guidelines for finding the right balance between an individual and a cultural perspective on cognition and culture which, in turn, would be of the utmost relevance for both the field-working anthropologist and the brain-scanning neurobiologist. In order to understand better what cognitive anthropology has to offer in this debate, however, we first present a brief history of the discipline and an overview of some of its core concepts and methods.
From Ethnoscience to the Cognitive Sciences
The year of the ‘cognitive revolution’ to which, apart from cultural anthropology, various human sciences contributed, is considered to be 1956 (Gardner, 1985). In that year, a conference concerning information theory took place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Newell and Simon delivered a paper on computer programs. Miller presented his famous treatise, ‘The Magical Number Seven,’ and the 28-year-old Chomsky read excerpts from his thesis, ‘Three Models of Language.’ In the same year, Bruner’s book A Study of Thinking came out, and two anthropologists, Goodenough and Lounsbury, published the first programmatical articles on what then came to be known as cognitive anthropology: ‘Componential Analysis and the Study of Meaning’ and ‘A Semantic Analysis of the Pawnee Kinship Usage.’
With cognitive anthropology – or, more precisely, with the ethnoscientific phase of cognitive anthropology – a new field of research came to the fore. Its goal was to describe other cultures in their own conceptualization, that is, in emic terms, or ‘from inside.’ Because various cultures categorize the world differently and appear to apply different types of logic in dealing with it, these differences need to be recorded and analyzed to explore the differing cognitive worlds. The underlying question was an old one, posed by another founding father of anthropology, Malinowski: What does ‘order out of chaos’ look like? More precisely, scholars were interested in how (other) cultures label the things in their environments and how those labels are related to each other. The underlying assumption was that, with the help of cultural phenomena, the mental representations that make up the cultural content could also be understood.
Three premises formed the background of this ambitious program (see Dougherty, 1985):
Premise 1: Culture is Common (Shared) Knowledge
The first and most influential definition of culture as knowledge – and thus as, in principle, a mental phenomenon – was given by Goodenough:
A society’s culture consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members, and to do so in any role that they accept for any one of themselves.. It is the forms of things that people have in mind, their models for perceiving, relating, and otherwise interpreting them.. Culture does not exist of things, people, behaviour, or emotions, but in the forms or organizations of the things in the minds of people (1957, pp. 167–168).
Premise 2: Knowledge Systems Provide a Cultural Grammar
On the basis of the statements made by their informants, anthropologists inductively discover this abstract and shared knowledge as a systematic mental representation. In principle, this could be done with only one informant, just as learning a foreign language requires only one native speaker as one’s teacher. The knowledge system of a culture is understood to be a conceptual model that embraces the organizational principles of the culture and the behavior of its members. In this sense, the model is a ‘cultural grammar.’
Premise 3: Language is the Best Means of Access to Mental Phenomena
With the ‘reduction of chaos,’ certain phenomena and characteristics are selected from the environment as being significant are named and given a classificatory meaning. The main (but not the only) proof of a category’s existence is its label, and this label conversely provides access to the category.
The equation of culture and knowledge initially proved to be very fruitful, and in the 1960s, ethnoscience experienced rapid success. Innumerable studies were published about terminologically densely structured individual fields, such as kinship, colors, ethnozoology, ethnobotany, or illness (for an overview, see D’Andrade, 1995). One succumbed, as it were, to the great theoretical temptation to reduce complex and ostensibly heterogeneous domains to a few rules (inclusion, exclusion, and intersection) and to present them as elegant models (taxonomies or paradigms; see below) that were looked upon as mental representations of individuals.
At the beginning of the 1970s, however, only a few studies of this descent were still published, and in 1972, Keesing felt justified to start a paper with the sentence: “Whatever happened to ethnoscience?” (1972, p. 299). Ironically, when, at the end of the 1950s, ethnoscience had taken over the phonological model from structural linguistics to become the focus in the 1960s, this same model had already given way in linguistics itself to Chomsky’s new generative linguistics.
As a consequence, anthropology had to open up and turn toward modern trends in neighboring disciplines. Computer science exerted a particularly strong influence. When the first computer programs started to ‘play’ chess, cognitive anthropologists adopted an information-processing approach and attempted to transfer the concept of programs to describe and explain the way in which culture is both structured and structuring human thinking and behavior. The underlying assumption was that cognitive processes could be modeled in the same way, regardless of whether they take place in humans, animals, or machines. In other words, the software was assumed to be the same everywhere, irrespective of the hardware in which it was processed.
In light of this theoretical and conceptual reorientation, the three premises of ethnoscience had to be reconsidered and extended: While the basic question remained the same, namely, how knowledge is structured (to create ‘order out of chaos’), the novel twist to it was where knowledge is sought and how it is represented.
Revised Premise 1: Turning Toward the Individual
With the insight that individual cognitive processes or representations cannot be directly inferred from cultural phenomena came a shift in focus away from the collective knowledge system as a whole (to be recorded as the ideal type) toward the scattered, variable knowledge acquired, memorized, and applied by individuals in their everyday lives.
Revised Premise 2: Turning Toward Operationalization Instead of Categorization
As soon as knowledge is no longer conceived of as an isolated, static system (that is, as ‘grammar’) but as revealing itself (verbally or nonverbally) in everyday use by individuals, many categories and semantic fields were regarded as fuzzy sets that lacked precise or fixed boundaries. These categories can be organized by best exemplars, or prototypes, or they can be organized according to what a person typically does in daily life: ‘taskonomy,’ instead of ‘taxonomy.’ Taskonomies refer to everyday cognition that a housewife needs when shopping, a milkman when distributing dairy products to his customers according to a certain pattern, a Yakan in the Philippines when entering a house correctly, and it is this everyday cognition that anthropologists then became interested in.
Revised Premise 3: Turning away from Language as the Only Instrument to Code Knowledge
Knowledge is expressed not only through language but also by means of actions and emotions. Habitual actions, in particular, can be very eloquent in revealing tacit knowledge. To describe stereotyped sequences of actions in certain situations, the computer scientist Schank and the social psychologist Abelson, in 1977, introduced the notion of scripts. Language remained of interest but was treated differently, no longer as a lexicon (or grammar) but as discourse from which inferences had to be drawn about the intended message. No longer was it assumed by default that the structure of knowledge (as represented in the mind) has to be language-like:
Knowledge organized for efficiency in day-to-day practice is not only non-linguistic, but also not language-like in that it does not take a sentential logical form (Bloch, 1991, p. 189–190).
Some pushed this critique even further by calling for ignoring language more frequently because certain kinds of knowledge cannot be expressed linguistically, or only with great difficulty.
The fact that individuals and how they act in their daily lives are now in the focus of interest is a consequence of a paradigmatic shift. Cognition is no longer regarded as an expression of culture as a whole, abstracted from linguistic material, but as the mental activity of individuals who make flexible use of their knowledge in different contexts, in that they think, generalize, draw inferences, perceive, recognize, and categorize; analyze, combine, assess possibilities, solve problems, and make decisions; classify, differentiate, and choose; remember and master new situations. Although these activities are performed individually, or between individuals (Hutchins, 1995), they always and everywhere take place within culture.
The Representation of Knowledge
The most important models of representing knowledge in cognitive anthropology are briefly described below.
The inner order of a semantic field (such as furniture or colors) depends on a small number of ordering principles that structure the lexical components (lexemes) of the field (e.g., ‘table,’ ‘red’). The ordering principles are inclusion, exclusion (contrast), and intersection.
A taxonomy provides a description of such a semantic field; it lists the categories (lexemes) and shows how they are connected with each other: that is, according to the principles of exclusion and inclusion in hierarchic order. Categories at the same level exclude each other, whereas categories at the lower level are included in the categories at the higher level.
The grouping shows that dining tables are different from smokers’ tables but that both are kinds of tables. Chairs, on the other hand, are distinguished from tables. The grouping does not say which are the distinguishing characteristics.
If a semantic field is structured according to the principle of intersection, we have a paradigm. Hierarchy, inclusion, and exclusion are missing; instead, the distinctive features (or criterial attributes) distinguish the categories. Paradigms are constructed by a componential analysis. A complete lexicon of a semantic field (e.g., blood relationship) is established and then those characteristics (components) are looked for, according to which the lexemes differ, for example, male and female in the dimension sex, or the distance from Ego in the dimension generation. Every single lexeme is now defined by a bundle of components. In a graphic representation, these components intersect at the defined lexeme.
Taxonomy and paradigm were consistently emic and were the classic models of ethnoscience. They were strongly idealized and understood as appropriate tools to characterize a culture. As we know today, however, they are only to a small degree cognitive and not really instruments of thinking.
A prototype is the object within a category that is thought to be its best example. In the category furniture, for instance, chair is a better example than, say, radio. Of course we could define furniture as a category of objects having certain semantic characteristics or attributes in common (and whatever does not have these characteristics does not belong). However, this checklist definition does not allow any grading, such as a chair being a better example, more of a prototype of furniture, than radio (although both belong to the category of furniture). It may happen that there are no criterial attributes common to all parts (i.e., no semantic field, no class, according to ethnoscience) but only a large number of characteristics that may match some but by no means all category members. As a consequence, they only have a ‘family resemblance’ structure – a term Rosch and Mervis adopted from Wittgenstein. Following Lévi-Strauss, prototypes are particularly ‘good to think.’
Script, Schema, and Cultural Model
The information theory approach forces the anthropologist to be explicit about what normally remains implicit, and some of this is captured by scripts. Scripts are used to represent and/or describe procedural knowledge, including the structure of the activities or events they represent. Scripts describe the tacit knowledge that enables us also to understand incomplete descriptions and suggestions; we automatically add what is missing by an inference process. Every situation requires specific knowledge and, accordingly, there are scripts for eating in a restaurant, playing football, and attending a birthday party. But not only our actions are based on scripts, our language is as well – a story told with all the details would be tedious.
Example: I am in New York and somebody asks me the way to Coney Island; I tell him to take the N-train to the terminus. This instruction makes sense only “if this improperly specified algorithm can be filled out with a great deal of knowledge about how to walk, pay for the subway, get in the train and so on” (Schank and Abelson, 1977, p. 20).
If the typical characteristics of a situation are grasped – hence the stereotypical, the standard-like is stressed, but raised to a higher level of abstraction – we can talk about schemata and cultural models (which partially replace the older term, folk models). All the knowledge we acquire, remember, and communicate about this world is not a simple reflection of this world, nor does it consist of a series of categories (as ethnoscience assumed), but it is organized into different situation-relevant, prototypical, simplified sequences of events (Quinn and Holland, 1987, p. 32). What is more, these models are probabilistic and partial; they are actual frames we can also use to react to new situations. They are world-proposing “yet cannot be directly observed since they are not presented, but merely represented by the behavior of the people. They are models of the mind and in the mind” (D’Andrade, 1989, p. 824). The organizing principle behind these models is metonymy: a conspicuous part represents the whole (cf frame theory by Minsky, story grammar by Rumelhart).
Knowledge may also be represented by inner images. The image schema consists of schematized, simplified images. These images make comprehensible and literally imaginable physical objects or logical relationships that are otherwise difficult to conceptualize. The organizing principle behind them is the metaphor: through analogy, information from the physical world is introduced into the non-physical world.
Examples: Rage can be imagined as a hot liquid in a container, evaporation as rising molecules springing out of the water like popcorn, and electricity as a crowd of people (in front of the gate of a stadium at a sports event) or as a flood forcing itself through some obstacle.
Trajectories for Future Research
A broad overview of current topics and trends in the field is given in Companion to Cognitive Anthropology (Kronenfeld et al., 2011). Some of these trajectories, however, deserve explicit mentioning because they are closely related to the theoretical notions discussed in this research paper.
The theoretical developments of the structure of knowledge representations, as summarized in sections Prototype; Script, Schema, and Cultural Model; and Mental Images, allow us to understand better the great deal of order that appears to exist in the natural world we experience – much of which is there only because we put it there. They allow us to conceptualize cultural content as a number of general-purpose models, which are instantiated in line with the special purposes in daily life. They explain how the enormous amount of knowledge can be mastered, namely by storing only its prototypical parts, which are then actualized on demand and enriched with details. And they allow us to consider how people interpret new experiences because these models not only represent knowledge but also afford inferences to new situations.
Besides these achievements, three fields of research remain productive for theorizing in anthropology and for exchange across disciplinary boundaries.
Knowledge and Knowing
Most of what people know is not directly accessible because it is rather practical in character, incorporated in encounters, and encoded in the routines of social life (Giddens, 1984). When asked to describe how to ride a bicycle, one realizes that the traditional conception of knowledge – that which is known, as an abstract pool of information, declarative and verbalized – needs to be modified. Knowing how to do something in practice – being implicit and hidden, accessed primarily though performance – is at least as interesting for anthropological inquiry. For this reason, Borofsky (1994) suggested that we reorient our analysis and reverse the process, starting with knowing and then exploring how knowledge is constituted from it.
These insights have led to new trends, in both anthropology and the cognitive sciences more broadly. One has given rise to the parallel distributed processing models, also called connectionistic models or neuronal networks, developed by Rumelhart and McClelland (1986) and adopted for anthropological theorizing by Strauss and Quinn (1997). What intrigues anthropologists about this approach is that it allows modeling the functioning of patterns not “as loading in a set of instructions, but as gradually building up associative links among repeated or salient aspects of experience” (Strauss and Quinn, 1997, p. 50) or, in other words, as being dependent on our everyday lives, including the cultural phenomena.
A related trend in this vein is an increasing interest by anthropologists in how ways of knowing are embodied (Ingold, 2011), and this converges with the increasing interest by cognitive scientists in how cognitive concepts and processes may also be embodied (Barsalou, 2008). The underlying assumption is that information is memorized and represented in the same way in which it was originally encoded by the sensomotoric system, which provides a direct link to the environment (Gibbs, 2005). This assumption, backed up by neuroscientific findings, goes beyond previous ideas, in that cognition is no longer regarded as a collection of abstract representations stored solely in the brain, but as grounded in perception and behavior, and thus eventually embodied (De Vega et al., 2008; Fuchs, 2008; Klatzky et al., 2008).
Language and Cognition
The question of whether language shapes thought was dismissed in the wake of the cognitive revolution, but re-emerged some 20 years ago (Gumperz and Levinson, 1996) as one of the most promising fields for exchange between anthropology, linguistics, and other cognitive sciences. A prime example in this field is the research on spatial orientation and communication. While certainly belonging to the basic cognitive and linguistic equipment of all people around the world, systems of orientation differ across languages and cultures, and even apparently basic spatial categories such as ‘left’ and ‘right’ cannot be taken for granted (Levinson, 2003). Several languages that lack these terms use a geocentric system instead – based, for example, on the cardinal points – and not only in navigation, but also in everyday life (the glass is then not placed ‘to the left of’ the plate but, say, ‘to the east’). These linguistic and cultural differences influence the perception of spatial relationships as well as their storage in memory (Wassmann and Dasen, 1998; Majid et al., 2004). Here, cognitive anthropology contradicts a school of thought for which the worldwide diversity of languages is only a cultural phenomenon and hence one of surface, and this gives rise to an ongoing dispute (Li and Gleitman, 2002 vs Levinson et al., 2002; and see Haun et al., 2011; Li et al., 2011). A medium position in this dispute is that although language may be taken as an important part of cultural transmission, it does not determine cognition (in the sense of a strong linguistic relativism) but is only one aspect of the overall ecocultural framework (Dasen and Mishra, 2010, 2013).
Universal or Cultural Variable?
Cognitive processes, such as perception, categorization, and memorization, are the foundations of knowledge acquisition and of the structure of its content. In principle, they are thought to be universal, albeit applied to particular contexts in different ways. Segall et al. (1990, p. 184), for instance, report crosscultural differences in habitual strategies for classifying and problem solving, in cognitive styles, and in progression rates during development; but they consider them to be differences in performance rather than in competence.
Exploring under which circumstances and to what extent these differences occur remains one of the core tasks for the future (Henrich et al., 2010a,b) and one of those fields in cognitive science to which anthropology can – and should – contribute with its unique expertise (Bender and Beller, 2011b; Bender et al., 2012). Domains for which this is already under way include space and time (Bender et al., 2010; Haun et al., 2011; Núñez et al., 2012a); causality (Bender and Beller, 2011a); numerical cognition (Beller and Bender, 2008; Bender and Beller, 2012; Núñez et al., 2012b; Pica et al., 2004); biological and ecological reasoning (Atran and Medin, 2008; Bang et al., 2007; Medin and Atran, 1999; Medin et al., 2006); and religious concepts such as the notion of an afterlife (Astuti et al., 2004; Whitehouse and McCauley, 2005; Astuti and Harris, 2008). This also includes an upsurge of interest in more complex topics that had been excluded from the cognitive sciences in their early phase (Gardner, 1985), and some of these issues are brought to the fore by anthropologists: the relation between emotion and cognition (Röttger-Rössler, 2004); the development of moral reasoning or theory of mind in specific cultural settings (Wassmann et al., 2013); and the phylogenetic evolution and ontogenetic development of complex phenomena such as religion and social cooperation (Henrich et al., 2010a,b).
More and more cognitive scientists, meanwhile, acknowledge the need to scrutinize universality rather than simply to postulate it. To further sensitize cognitive scientists to this endeavor and to make progress in this direction is a task for which no discipline is better suited than anthropology.
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