Cognitive Anthropology

Cognitive anthropology is a unified subfield of cultural anthropology whose principal aim is to understand and describe how people in societies conceive and experience their world (Casson 1994).

The definition of culture that guides research in cognitive anthropology holds that culture is an idealized cognitive system -- a system of knowledge, beliefs, and values -- that exists in the minds of members of society. Culture is the mental equipment that society members use in orienting, transacting, discussing, defining, categorizing, and interpreting actual social behavior in their society.

Among the many research topics in cognitive anthropology, three are central: cultural models, cultural universals, and CULTURAL CONSENSUS. The first of these will be the focus here.

Cultural models, often termed schemata, are abstractions that represent conceptual knowledge. They are cognitive structures in memory that represent stereotypical concepts. Schemata structure our knowledge of objects and situations, events and actions, and sequences of events and actions. General aspects of concepts are represented at higher levels in schematic structures, and variables associated with specific elements are represented at lower levels.

Items in the LEXICON -- words -- and grammatical categories and rules are associated in memory with cultural models. Linguistic forms and cognitive schemata "activate" each other: linguistic forms bring schemata to mind, and schemata are expressed in linguistic forms. Virtually all research strategies exploit this relationship between LANGUAGE AND THOUGHT in studying conceptual knowledge and cognitive systems.

The cognitive model underlying commercial events in our culture, a much discussed schema (e.g., Casson 1994), can serve as an example. The [Commercial Event] schema has the variables [buyer], [seller], [money], [goods], and [exchange] (brackets here distinguish conceptual units from words). In this way, [buyer] is a person who possesses [money], the medium of exchange, and [seller] is a person who possesses [goods], the merchandise for sale; [exchange] is an interaction in which [buyer] gives [money] and gets [goods], while [seller] gives [goods] and gets [money]. An event is understood as a commercial transaction when persons, objects, and events in the environment are associated with appropriate schema variables.

A number of words -- buy, sell, pay, cost, worth, value, spend, and charge -- activate the [Commercial Event] schema. Each of these words selects particular aspects of the schema for highlighting or foregrounding, while leaving others in the background unexpressed. Buy focuses on the exchange from the buyer's perspective, and sell from the seller's perspective. Cost focuses on the money part of the money-goods relationship, and value and worth focus on the goods part of the relationship. Pay and spend focus on the buyer and the money part of the money-goods  relationship, and charge focuses on the seller and the goods part of the money-goods relationship (Fillmore 1977).

Classification systems are complex cultural models structured by hierarchical embedding. Entities -- objects, acts, and events -- that are in fact different are grouped together in conceptual categories and regarded as equivalent. Semantic relationships among the categories define cognitive systems. Taxonomic hierarchies, or taxonomies, are classifications structured on the basis of the inclusion, or "kind of," relationship. Some categories included in the tree category, for example, are oak, pine, elm, spruce, poplar, walnut, and fir. Oak in turn includes white oak, post oak, pin oak, and many other kinds of oak.

Nontaxonomic classifications of various types are also hierarchically structured. Partonomic classifications are organized in terms of part-whole relationships. The family category, for example, has among its members (or parts) mother, son, and sister. Functional classifications are constructed on the basis of the instrumental, or "used for", relationship -- a vehicle is any object that can be used for transportation, for example, car, bus, moped, or unicycle (Wierzbicka 1985).

Event scenarios are complex cultural models structured by horizontal linkages. Scenes in event schemata are linked in ordered sequences by way of causal relationships. The Yakan, a Philippine agricultural society living on Basilan Island in houses elevated on piles, have an event schemata specifying "how to enter a Yakan house." Social encounters are defined by the degree to which outsiders are able to negotiate penetration into households. An outsider progresses from "in the vicinity" of the house to "at" the house, from "below" the house to "on" the porch, from "outside" on the porch to "inside" the main room, and from the "foot zone" at the entrance door to the "head zone" opposite the door, which is the most private setting in the house (Frake 1975: 26-33).

Metaphorical cultural models are structured by conceptual metaphors. Abstract concepts that are not clearly delineated in experience, such as time, love, and ideas, are metaphorically structured, understood, and discussed in terms of other concepts that are more concrete in experience, such as money, travel, and foods (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). The metaphorical concept "embarrassment is exposure" is an example. The embarrassment schema is structured in terms of the exposure schema. The systematicity of the metaphor is reflected in everyday speech formulas, which are sources of insight into and evidence for the nature of the metaphor. Fixed-form expressions for "embarrassment is exposure" are evident in these sentences: "You really exposed yourself," "He felt the weight of everyone's eyes," "I felt naked," "I was caught with my pants down," and "I wanted to crawl under a rock" (Holland and Kipnis 1994: 320-322).

Cultural universals are systems of conceptual knowledge that occur in all societies. In studying cognitive commonalities, anthropologists assume a "limited relativist," or universalist, position, adopting a relativist view in recognizing differences in cognitive and cultural systems and a universalist position in emphasizing fundamental concepts and uniformities in these systems (Lounsbury 1969: 10).

Comparative color category research, for instance, has shown that basic color categories are organized around best examples, and that these focal colors are the same across individuals and languages (Berlin and Kay 1969). It has also established that there are exactly eleven of these universal color categories -- [black], [white], [red], [green], [yellow], [blue], [brown], [purple], [orange], [pink] and [gray] -- that they are encoded in a strict evolutionary sequence, and that these universals are determined largely by neurophysiological processes in human color perception (Kay, Berlin, and Merrifield 1991; see COLOR CLASSIFICATION).

Cultural consensus is concerned with individual variability in cultural knowledge and how the diversity of individual conceptual systems are organized in cultural systems. Consensus theory examines the patterns of agreement among group members about particular domains of cultural knowledge in order to determine the organization of cognitive diversity. It establishes both a "correct" version of cultural knowledge and patterns of cognitive diversity (Romney, Weller, and Batchelder 1986: 316).

The Aguaruna Jivaro, a forest tribe in northern Peru, for example, derive the majority of their sustenance from manioc plants. A study of Aguaruna manioc gardens discovered that, although individual Aguaruna vary widely in their naming of manioc plants, they nonetheless maintain a consensus model of manioc classification. Patterns of agreement reveal that individuals learn a single set of manioc categories with varying degrees of success: some individuals have greater cultural competence in manioc identification than others (Boster 1985: 185).

See also

Additional links

-- Ronald W. Casson


Berlin, B., and P. Kay. (1969). Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Boster, J. S. (1985). "Requiem for the Omniscient Informant": There's life in the old girl yet. In J. W. D. Dougherty, Ed., Directions in Cognitive Anthropology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Casson, R. W. (1994). Cognitive anthropology. In P. K. Bock, Ed., Handbook of Psychological Anthropology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Fillmore, C. J. (1977). Topics in lexical semantics. In R. W. Cole, Ed., Current Issues in Linguistic Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Frake, C. O. (1975). How to enter a Yakan house. In M. Sanches and B. Blount, Eds., Sociocultural Dimensions of Language Use. New York: Academic Press.

Holland, D., and A. Kipnis. (1994). Metaphors for embarrassment and stories of exposure: the not-so-egocentric self in American culture. Ethos 22:316-342.

Kay, P., B. Berlin, and W. Merrifield. (1991). Biocultural implications of systems of color naming. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 1:12-25.

Lakoff, G., and M. Johnson. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lounsbury, F. G. (1969). Language and culture. In S. Hook, Ed., Language and Philosophy. New York: New York University Press.

Romney, A. K., S. C. Weller, and W. H. Batchelder. (1986). Culture as consensus: a theory of culture and informant accuracy. American Anthropologist 88:313-338.

Wierzbicka, A. (1985). Lexicography and Conceptual Analysis. Ann Arbor, MI: Karoma Publishers, Inc.

Further Readings

Alverson, H. (1994). Semantics and Experience: Universal Metaphors of Time in English, Mandarin, Hindi, and Sesotho. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Berlin, B. (1992). Ethnobiological Classification: Principles of Categorization of Plants and Animals in Traditional Societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Brown, C. H. (1984). Language and Living Things: Uniformities in Folk Classification and Naming. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Casson, R. W., Ed. (1981). Language, Culture, and Cognition: Anthropological Perspectives. New York: Macmillan.

D'Andrade, R. G. (1995). The Development of Cognitive Anthropology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Dougherty, J. W. D., Ed. (1985). Directions in Cognitive Anthropology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Frake, C. O. (1980). Language and Cultural Description. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Goodenough, W. H. (1981). Culture, Language, and Society. Second edition. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Commings.

Hardin, C. L., and L. Maffi, Eds. (1997). Color Categories in Thought and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holland, D., and N. Quinn, Eds. (1987). Cultural Models in Language and Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hunn, E. S. (1977). Tzeltal Folk Zoology: The Classification of Discontinuities in Nature. New York: Academic Press.

Kronenfeld, D. B. (1996). Plastic Glasses and Church Fathers: Semantic Extension from the Ethnoscience Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MacLaury, R. E. (1997). Color and Cognition in Mesoamerica: Constructing Categories as Vantages. Austin: University of Texas.

Scheffler, H. W., and F. G. Lounsbury. (1971). A Study in Structural Semantics: The Siriono Kinship System. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Spradley, J. P., Ed. (1972). Culture and Cognition: Rules, Maps, and Plans. San Francisco: Freeman.

Tyler, S. A., Ed. (1969). Cognitive Anthropology. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Wallace, A. F. C. (1970). Culture and Personality. Second edition. New York: Random House.