Cognitive Theory

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Cognitive Anthropology
Tara Robertson and Duke Beasley
(Note: authorship is arranged stratigraphically with the most recent author listed first) Basic Premises:
Cognitive anthropology is an idealist approach to studying the human condition. The field of cognitive anthropology focuses on the study of the relation between human culture and human thought. In contrast with some earlier anthropological approaches to culture, cultures are not regarded as material phenomena, but rather cognitive organizations of material phenomena (Tyler 1969:3). Cognitive anthropologists study how people understand and organize the material objects, events, and experiences that make up their world as the people they study perceive it. It is an approach that stresses how people make sense of reality according to their own indigenous cognitive categories, not those of the anthropologist. Cognitive anthropology posits that each culture orders events, material life and ideas, to its own criteria. The fundamental aim of cognitive anthropology is to reliably represent the logical systems of thought of other people according to criteria, which can be discovered and replicated through analysis. The methodology, theoretical underpinnings, and subjects of cognitive anthropology have been diverse. The field can be divided into three phases: (1) an early formative period in the 1950’s called ethnoscience; (2) the middle period during the 1960’s and 1970’s, commonly identified with the study of folk models; and (3) the most recent period beginning in the 1980’s with the growth of schema theory and the development of consensus theory. Cognitive anthropology is closely aligned with psychology, because both explore the nature of cognitive processes (D'Andrade 1995:1). It has also adopted theoretical elements and methodological techniques from structuralism and linguistics. Cognitive anthropology is a broad field of inquiry; for example, studies have examined how people arrange colors and plants into categories as well how people conceptualize disease in terms of symptoms, cause, and appropriate treatment. Cognitive anthropology not only focuses on discovering how different peoples organize culture but also how they utilize culture. Contemporary cognitive anthropology attempts to access the organizing principles that underlie and motivate human behavior. Though the scope of cognitive anthropology is expansive its methodology continues to depend strongly on a long-standing tradition of fieldwork and structured interviews. Cognitive anthropologists regard anthropology as a formal science. They maintain that culture is composed of logical rules that are based on ideas that can be accessed in the mind. Cognitive anthropology emphasizes the rules of behavior, not behavior itself. It does not claim that it can predict human behavior but delineates what is socially and culturally expected or appropriate in given situations, circumstances, and contexts. It is not concerned with describing events in order to explain or discover processes of change. Furthermore, this approach declares that every culture embodies its own unique organizational system for understanding things, events, and behavior. Some scholars contend that it is necessary to develop several theories of cultures before striving for could eventually lead to a grand theory of Culture (Applebaum, 1987:409). In other words, researchers contend that studies should be aimed at understanding particular cultures in forming theoretical explanations. Once this has been achieved then valid and reliable cross-cultural comparisons become possible enabling a general theory of all Culture. It was not until the 1950s that cognitive anthropology came to be regarded as a distinct theoretical and methodological approach within anthropology. However, its intellectual roots can be traced back much further. Tarnas (1991:333) notes that the Enlightenment produced at least one distinct avenue for explaining the natural world and...
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