Cognition (Anthropology)

The word cognition comes from the Latin verb meaning ‘to know’ and it denotes the knowledge we are able to draw upon to make sense of our environment. Cognition is usually contrasted with perception, which is the way we receive information from the outside world. However, many recent theories in both psychology and anthropology have stressed that there cannot be a hard and fast distinction between the two processes.

The study of cognition is the study of how human knowledge is learnt, stored and retrieved. Clearly what people know includes what they have learnt from others and what they will pass on to the next generation. This is what anthropologists usually call ‘culture’ and which they consider the subject matter of cultural anthropology. That part of anthropology which is concerned with culture is therefore concerned with some aspects of cognition but not all. First of all, there is much human knowledge which is not learnt, or not entirely learnt, from others. For example most psychologists would now agree that although people learn specific languages, the ability to learn language is inherited as part of the general human genetic inheritance and is not learnt from other individuals. Second, although anthropological studies of culture have been concerned with what people know, on the whole, anthropologists have been less concerned with the processes of the acquisition of knowledge and the way knowledge is organized; this has been left to psychologists.

Psychology and anthropology

Clearly the study of those aspects of cognition of interest to psychologists and those aspects of interest to anthropologists cannot be separated. The history of the two disciplines bears witness to this fact.

Much of the recent history of psychology seemed little concerned with such anthropological issues as how knowledge is passed on among human beings in such natural contexts of learning as family life, play, cooperative work, etc. This was because the discipline was obsessed by the need for careful experimental control which meant that psychologists studied cognition inside the laboratory only. However, even when this point of view was at its height, there were psychologists who were concerned with integrating anthropology and psychology although few talked of the matter in these terms. Thus a Russian psychologist of the first part of the twentieth century, Vygotsky, stressed that we must understand how the child’s individual cognitive growth meshes with the knowledge which is created and transmitted from generation to generation within a social group. This he called the ‘zone of proximal development’ (Cole and Scribner 1974). In much the same period the Cambridge psychologist Bartlett attempted to deal with the same questions and actively cooperated with anthropologists such as W.H.R. Rivers and fG. Bateson. As a part of this work he developed the idea of f’schema’. These are simple models of culturally specific knowledge which inform perception and knowledge. The schema theory thus attempts to explain the way culture affects the psychological (Bartlett 1932).

From the anthropological side, concern with cognition was particularly marked at the turn of the century when anthropologists were arguing among themselves about how far all human beings thought in the same way. The two sides of the argument can be represented by the British anthropologist fE.B. Tylor and the French philosopher fL. Levy-Bruhl. Tylor was very interested in the evolution of culture and human intellectual progress. For him, however, differences between peoples such as the Aboriginal Australians and nineteenth-century Britons could be explained by the historical evolution of their culture; they were not due to any fundamental differences in the way they thought. According to him mankind demonstrated a f’psychic unity’. Levy-Bruhl, on the other hand, argued that primitive peoples (especially South American Indians) had, unlike modern Europeans, a pre-logical form of thought in which basic contradictions would not appear as such. In other words, for Levy-Bruhl, the principles of rationality were not the same for all humans.

By and large most modern anthropologists would now be on the side of Tylor in this controversy, and even Levy-Bruhl himself seems to have changed his mind towards the end of his life (Hollis and Lukes 1982).

During most of this century discussions about whether all human beings thought in the same way took on another form. This was due to the influence which Boas was to have on American anthropology. Boas’s theory of cognition, and that of most of his disciples, was that our culture, i.e. the system of knowledge inherited from other members of our society, determined the way we understood the world; our cognition in other words. This view is perhaps clearest in the work of Ruth Benedict, who argued that anthropology needed psychology, while psychology was merely the study of anthropology at the individual level (Benedict 1935). Such an approach, occurring at the very time when cognitive psychologists were retreating into their laboratories, led to a lack of contact between the two disciplines, at least in the USA.

One aspect of the Boasian cognitive theory did, however, attract the interest of psychologists, first, because it was so provocative and, second, because it appeared less vague than general anthropological pronouncements about culture. This was the theory which merged culture and cognition with language and which went under the name of its two proponents: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. "Sapir and "Whorf could be understood to say that the grammar and the lexicon of any particular language determined the cognition of its speakers. This proposal was difficult to test but it is clear that the strong claims of the hypothesis are not borne out, and this is most probably true of the Boasian hypothesis in general (Glucksberg 1988).

Other writers in the middle of the twentieth century tried to bridge the gap between cognitive psychology and anthropology. Foremost among these was Levi-Strauss, who adopted the psychological theories implicit in the work of structural linguists. Others attempted to marry the semantic analysis technique called compo-nential analysis with psychological findings (Wallace 1965).

Recently there has been a renewal of interest in anthropology in the importance of what psychologists have to say about cognition. This interest has focused on a number of topics, some of the more important of which are listed below.


Concepts are small units of cognition through which we make sense of our environment. Thus, we can assume that most humans have a concept ‘bird’. Consequently, because we possess the concept, when we see a particular flying animal we know it is a bird and instantly and automatically we make a number of assumptions about it: for example, that it lays eggs. The concept of a bird is therefore part of our cognition and if it has been inculcated into us by others who similarly learnt it, in other words it has been created by the history of our people, then it is also part of our culture. However, such a discussion leaves unexamined the question of the relation between the word ‘bird’ and the concept.

Anthropologists have often thought of less straightforward notions in much the same way. Thus Evans-Pritchard in his book Nuer Religion (1956) discusses the Nuer word thek, which partly approximates to the English word ‘respect’, and assumes that studying how the word is used can lead him straight to Nuer ‘concepts’.

Recently, however, cognitive psychology has made clear a number of problems with this common approach. The first is that the assumption that the words used by a person can be a straightforward guide to their concepts is misleading. This is so for a number of reasons (Bloch 1991). Second, the very notion that concepts are phenomena rather like dictionary entries, defined by a checklist of characteristics (a theory which implicitly underlies such writings as those of Evans-Pritchard and most classical anthropologists) is probably very misleading. This has been challenged since it was discovered that many concepts are not organized in terms of abstract characteristics but around prototypical concrete examples with any phenomena being judged as more or less corresponding to the prototypes and not either in or out of the category. This means that concepts are very different to the way anthropologists thought they were, and this must lead to considerable rethinking about the nature of culture (Lakoff 1987).

Universals and innate knowledge

As noted above, the Boasian tradition in cultural anthropology stressed how culture directed cognition. One common example was colour terms. The Boasians argued that all humans could see the same spectrum of colour, but since this was a continuum, the way the spectrum was broken up varied from culture to culture. This belief was shown to be quite false in a famous topic by Berlin and Kay (1969), and in subsequent studies which showed that there was nothing arbitrary about how the spectrum was divided and that variation between cultures was strictly limited. This study was the first of many which revealed that in many key areas which cultural anthropologists had assumed were variable, all human cultures used the same cognitive principles. These findings were linked by certain anthropologists with advances in linguistics which suggested that the ability to learn human-type languages was the result of genetic programming common to all humans. Some anthropologists suggested that this was true for many areas of culture such as plant and animal classification, concepts of the person and of social relationships and face recognition; and even that certain types of narratives were easily learnt because they corresponded to genetic predispositions to remember them while others which did not mesh with the cognitive dispositions would soon be forgotten (Sperber 1985). If proved right, clearly these theories would inevitably lead to fundamental revisions in anthropological notions of culture and society.


Schemas or scripts, two terms used in cognitive psychology to mean very similar things, are really one big concept. An example often given of a schema in an industrialized society is ‘going to a restaurant’; or rather, what one can normally expect to happen if one goes to a restaurant. Such a stereotypical sequence is, of course, never exactly what happens in any particular instance, but the knowledge of such a schema enables one to cope efficiently with the various events which occur in any particular instance or to understand stories of what happened when particular people went to a restaurant on a particular occasion. Schemas represent the knowledge which is taken for granted in order that one can pay attention to the less predictable aspects of life. As a number of anthropologists have noted, schemas therefore represent the fundamentals of culture, and some writers have attempted to integrate the insights concerning schemas which come from psychology with more traditional anthropological concerns (Holland and Quinn 1987). Some writers (e.g. Strauss and Quinn 1994) have linked schema theory with the theory called connectionism, which argues that habitual knowledge is stored and retrieved in ways which make it different in kind from the folk understanding of what knowledge is. As a result, these writers have argued that anthropologists have represented cultural knowledge in a way that is fundamentally misleading.

Analogy and thought

The most influential modern anthropologist to have stressed the importance of analogy for culture and thought in general is Levi-Strauss. In his book The Savage Mind (1966 [1963]), he argues that much innovative human thought involves analogy between systems of classification from one domain to another. This insight has received much support from a number of psychological studies which have shown the importance of analogical thinking by means of experiments. The study of analogy, which includes the study of metaphors, is therefore an obvious area for cooperation between the two disciplines. Also very influential in both anthropology and psychology has been the joint work of a philosopher and a linguist: Lakoff and Johnson (1980; Lakoff 1987). They have argued that nearly all our language, and indeed our culture, is formulated from a very simple basis of bodily states which are used as root metaphors to express almost an infinity of more complex ideas by means of metaphors. This theory has many implications for our understanding of culture and its development, and has had much recent influence in anthropology.

Contemporary cognitive anthropologists are exploring how everyday patterns of thought structure broader interpretive frameworks, particularly religion. Pascal Boyer (2001) critiques the academic category of ‘religious experience’ as he explores the patterning of religious concepts and beliefs. Such work integrates academic tendencies as diverse as evolutionary psychology and literary theory. For example, Brian Malley (2004) has used detailed ethnographic evidence to consider the Biblical interpretive tradition of Christian evangelicals, again emphasizing the everyday dimensions of thought and action. The European Commission funded a large project to explore the cognitive foundations of religion cross-culturally and historically, Explaining Religion, coordinated by Professor Harvey White-house of Oxford University (2004).

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