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Lecture 11. Cognitive anthropology


· To distinguish the main backgrounds of cognitive anthropology development

· To define the object of cognitive anthropology

· To study the concept of anthropocentrism


"Cognitive anthropology investigates cultural knowledge, knowledge which is embedded in words, stories, and in artifacts, and which is learned from and shared with other humans" (D'Andrade 1995:xiv). "The field of cognitive anthropology is distinguished not so much by its focus on cognitive phenomena as by its methodology and approach" (Colby 1996:209). Cognitive anthropology generally focuses on the intellectual and rational aspects of culture, particularly through studies of language use. The centrality of language to cognitive anthropology is related to the origins of the sub-field. Cognitive anthropology is distinguished most by its methodology, which originated in attempts to fit formal linguistic methods into linguistic and social anthropology. This methodology also assumes that semantic categories marked by linguistic forms are related to meaningful cultural categories. Cognitive anthropology's methods for revealing meaningful cultural categories in language have also been expanded to more general ethnographic methods (e.g. Duane and Metzger (1963)), and some recent work has focused on emotions and culture. Cognitive anthropology has ties to linguistic and psychological anthropology, linguistics, cognitive linguistics, psycholinguistics, cognitive psychology, and other cognitive sciences.

Cognitive anthropology is a recent sub-field, but interests in mind, culture, and society are well-established across the social sciences. Interests in the relationship between mind and experience can be traced to thinkers at least as far back as Kant and Locke. Sperber claims that the premises of both anthropology and psychology are aligned with Locke's empiricism and against Kant's rationalism. That is, both anthropology and psychology believe that mental capacities are indefinitely malleable and receptive, and that the content and structure of knowledge is created by experience and the environment. Kantian rationalism, however, holds that human cognitive capacities already have categories and principles that structure human knowledge and limit variability.

Boasian anthropology also incorporated interests in ideational, mental, and cognitive concerns, and promoted the study of ideas, beliefs, values, and cosmologies. Anthropologists involved in Culture & Personality studies including Benedict, Mead, and Linton can be claimed as ancestors of cognitive anthropology, along with earlier linguistic anthropologists like Kroeber, Whorf, and Sapir. The Prague School of linguistics and particularly the work of Saussure, Jakobson, Trubetzkoy, and later Chomsky and Bloomfield all exerted direct influence on the earliest cognitive anthropologists.

Cognitive anthropology became a recognizable field of study within anthropology in the mid-1950's with the "ethnoscience" studies at Yale. At this time, anthropologists were generally concerned about the scientific validity of ethnography. Ethnographic studies were often equated with laboratory experiments of the natural sciences and other social sciences, and thus crucial to anthropology's claims to scientific authority. But, as the Redfield-Lewis controversy of the early 1950's illustrated, different anthropologists studying the same people could gather very different data, unlike the situation in a true "laboratory." Oscar Lewis' fieldwork was conducted twenty years after Redfield's, and though some of the differences in their findings could be attributed to culture change, the degree of difference caused the anthropological community to generally question the accuracy and reliability of ethnographic research methods.

Early practitioners of cognitive anthropology attempted to increase the validity of ethnography by using "interview techniques and analytical processes to bring out native categories of thought instead of imposing the analyst's own cultural system on the data". These techniques were largely inspired by linguistic phonemic analysis, and the first key papers of ethnoscience/cognitive anthropology were componential analyses of kin-term domains. In their 1956 articles published in Language, Ward Goodenough and Floyd Lounsbury each attempted to break the semantic structures of a language into basic units of meaning ("sememes") to parallel formal linguistic analyses based on the smallest meaningful units of sound ("phonemes"). Both were trying to understand what combination of qualities held by individuals defined each kin-term in a language, thus connecting social organization with semantics. The goal was to find criteria for "cousin-ness", for example, that would be analogous to the acoustic criteria that distinguishes the English words "sick" from "thick".

In his article, Lounsbury (1956) distinguishes three ways of studying language: syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics. Syntactics, the study of linguistic forms without regard to their meaning or the social functions of speech and language, was already being studied by linguists. Semantics (meanings) and pragmatics (social functions) of language, were only haphazardly studied. Linguistic anthropology should study semantics, Lounsbury argued, but anthropology in general should strive to move from a careful study of semantics into a broader understanding of pragmatics. But careful semantic studies should form the base of every pragmatic study. Goodenough, however, insists that "there is clearly no simple relationship between linguistic forms and other forms of behavior" (1956: 216). Analyses of status obligations, rights, privileges, powers, and the "role of linguistic utterances in social interaction as gestures" (1956: 216), although important to study, were not amenable to Goodenough' s (or Lounsbury's) seminal analysis.

Cognitive anthropology addresses the ways in which people conceive of and think about events and objects in the world. It provides a link between human thought processes and the physical and ideational aspects of culture (D’Andrade 1995: 1). This subfield of anthropology is rooted in Boasian cultural relativism, influenced by anthropological linguistics, and closely aligned with psychological investigations of cognitive processes. It arose as a separate area of study in the 1950s, as ethnographers sought to discover “the native’s point of view,” adopting an emic approach to anthropology (Erickson and Murphy 2003: 115). The new field was alternatively referred to as Ethnosemantics, Ethnoscience, Ethnolinguistics, and New Ethnography.

In the first decades of practice, cognitive anthropologists focused on folk taxonomies, including concepts of color, plants, and diseases. During the 1960s and 1970s a theoretical adjustment and methodological shift occurred within cognitive anthropology. Linguistic analyses continued to provide methods for understanding and accessing the cognitive categories of indigenous people. However, the focus was no longer restricted to items and relationships within indigenous categories but stressed analyzing categories in terms of mental processes. Scholars of this generation assumed that there were mental processes based on the structure of the mind and, hence, common to all humans. This approach extended its scope to study not only components of abstract systems of thought but also to examine how mental processes relate to symbols and ideas (McGee & Warms 1996).

The earliest practitioners of anthropology were also interested in the relationship between the human mind and society. By viewing his data through the prism of evolution, Morgan continued the Enlightenment tradition of explaining the phenomenon he observed as a result of increasing rationality (Garbarino 1983:28-29). E.B. Tylor, who shared many of the views of Morgan, was also interested in aspects of the mind in less developed societies. His definition of culture as the, "complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society," reflects this interest (Garbarino 1983:31).

One concept that is central to cultural anthropology, and particularly to cognitive anthropology, is the psychic unity of mankind. This concept was developed by the German Adolf Bastian in the closing years of the nineteenth century. After observing similarities in customs throughout the world, Bastian concluded that all humans must have the same basic psychic or mental processes, and that this unity produced similar responses to similar stimuli (Garbarino 1983:32). While most anthropologists tend to take this concept as a given, some contemporary cognitive anthropologists question this assumption (Shore 1996:15-41).

Cognitive studies in modern anthropology can be traced back to Franz Boas (Colby 1996:210). Boas, who first turned to anthropology during his research on the Eskimo and their perception of the color of ice and water, realized that different peoples had different conceptions of the world around them. He was so affected that he began to focus his life’s work on understanding the relation between the human mind and the environment (Shore 1996:19). This work, which was fueled by his revolt against the racist thinking of the day, would direct Boas towards trying to understand the psychology of tribal peoples. This aspect of his work is best expressed in his essay "Psychological Problems in Anthropology" (1910), and culminates in his volume The Mind of Primitive Man (1911). Boas encouraged investigations of tribal categories of sense and perception, such as color, topics that would be critical in the later development of cognitive anthropology (Shore 1996:20-21).

Anthropocentrism is the position that human beings are the central or most significant animal species, or the assessment of reality through an exclusively human perspective. The term can be used interchangeably with humanocentrism, while the first concept can also be referred to as human supremacy. Anthropocentrism is a major concept in the field of environmental ethics and environmental philosophy, where it is often considered to be the root cause of problems created by human interaction with the environment, however; it is profoundly embedded in our culture and conscious acts.

Anthropocentrism is the grounding for some naturalistic concepts of human rights. Defenders of anthropocentrism argue that it is the necessary fundamental premise to defend universal human rights, since what matters morally is simply being human. For example, noted philosopher Mortimer J. Adler wrote, "Those who oppose injurious discrimination on the moral ground that all human beings, being equal in their humanity, should be treated equally in all those respects that concern their common humanity, would have no solid basis in fact to support their normative principle." Adler is stating here, that denying what is now called human exceptionalism could lead to tyranny, writing that if we ever came to believe that humans do not possess a unique moral status, the intellectual foundation of our liberties collapses: "Why, then, should not groups of superior men be able to justify their enslavement, exploitation, or even genocide of inferior human groups on factual and moral grounds akin to those we now rely on to justify our treatment of the animals we harness as beasts of burden, that we butcher for food and clothing, or that we destroy as disease-bearing pests or as dangerous predators?"

Author and anthropocentrism defender Wesley J. Smith from the Discovery Institute has written that human exceptionalism is what gives rise to human duties to each other, the natural world, and to treat animals humanely. Writing in A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy, a critique of animal rights ideology, "Because we are unquestionably a unique species--the only species capable of even contemplating ethical issues and assuming responsibilities--we uniquely are capable of apprehending the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, proper and improper conduct toward animals. Or to put it more succinctly if being human isn't what requires us to treat animals humanely, what in the world does?"

Critics counter that anthropocentrism has contributed to speciesism and bioconservatism at the expense of the natural environment, animal rights, and individual rights.


Problem questions: What are the main backgrounds of cognitive anthropology development? What ideas are more important in D’Andrad’s approach to the theory of schemata? What is the gist of anthropocentrism?



Date: 2014-12-22; view: 3006

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