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I.6.(i) Cognitive theories (Tyler, Conklin)

It is new techno craft ethnography, rooted in cultural relativism with Idealist approach

  1. Study of human culture and human thoughts
  2. Culture is not a material phenomena but cognitive organization
  3. It originated in reaction to materialism
  4. It is concerned with a observer model and  reality

The field can be divided into three phases:

  1.  an early formative period in the 1950s called ethnoscience;
  2.  the middle period during the 1960s and 1970s, commonly identified with the study of folk models; and
  3. the most recent period beginning in the 1980s with the growth of schema theory and the development of consensus theory.


  1. Rousseau postulated that humans were essentially good, but ruined by civilization and society, and he urged a return to a “natural state.”
  2. Hobbes maintained that humans are by nature a brutish and selfish lot; society and government are necessary to control and curb our basic nature.
  3. Locke, on the other hand, rejected the Cartesian idea of innate ideas and presumed that humans are at birth “blank slates,” neither good nor bad, with the experience of their culture shaping the type of person they would become .
  4. Perhaps the most long-lasting contribution of Enlightenment philosophers to the development of cognitive anthropology was Locke’s advocacy of empiricism:
  5. Auguste Comte developed a philosophy that became known as positivism. Comte proposed that earlier modes of thought were imperfectly speculative, and that knowledge should be gained by empirical observation. He reasoned that intellectual complexity evolved in much the same way as society and biological beings .
  6. The earliest practitioners of anthropology were also interested in the relationship between the human mind and society.
  7. 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 .
  8. 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. Bastian concluded that all humans must have the same basic psychic or mental processes, and that this unity produced similar responses to similar stimuli.
  9. Boas, 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. 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 .
  10. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, was an important precursor to the field. They formulated the view that the structures of language and culture create classificatory categories that shape meaning and world views.
  11. Medical anthropology has also proved to be a fertile ground for the development of cognitive methods and practical understandings of the impact of cultural models of disease and well-being.

Cognitive anthropology- Basic Premises

  1. addresses the ways in which people conceive of and think about events and objects in the world.
  2. provides a link between human thought processes and the physical and ideational aspects of culture
  3. culture is composed of logical rules that are based on ideas that can be accessed in the mind
  4. every culture embodies its own unique organizational system for understanding things
  5. is closely aligned with psychology, because both explore the nature of cognitive processes (D’Andrade 1995:1).
  6. It has also adopted theoretical elements and methodological techniques from structuralism and linguistics.
  7. 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.
  8. Contemporary cognitive anthropology attempts to access the organizing principles that underlie and motivate human behavior.
  9. Although the scope of cognitive anthropology is expansive its methodology continues to depend strongly on a long-standing tradition of ethnographic fieldwork and structured interviews.
  10. They maintain that culture is composed of logical rules that are based on ideas that can be accessed in the mind.
  11. Cognitive anthropology emphasizes the rules of behavior, not behavior itself.
  12. It is not concerned with describing events in order to explain or discover processes of change.
  13. Furthermore, this approach declares that every culture embodies its own unique organizational system for understanding things, events, and behavior.
  14. Cognitive anthropology addresses the ways in which people conceive of and think about events and objects in the world.
  15. It provides a link between human thought processes and the physical and ideational aspects of culture (D’Andrade )
  16. This subfield of anthropology is rooted in Boasian cultural relativism, influenced by anthropological linguistics, and closely aligned with psychological investigations of cognitive processes.The new field was initially referred to variously  as Ethnosemantics, Ethnoscience, Ethnolinguistics, and New Ethnography.
  17. 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.
  18. Linguistic analyses continued to provide methods for understanding and accessing the cognitive categories of indigenous people.

Points of Reaction

In many ways, cognitive anthropology was a reaction against the traditional methods of ethnography practiced prior to the late 1950s, much of it the result of the influence of fieldwork pioneers and master teachers, Malinowski and Boas.

The problem of validity was first tackled through the use of linguistics. The discovery of the phoneme, the smallest unit of a meaningful sound, gave anthropologists the opportunity to understand and record cultures in the native language. This was thought to be a way of getting around the analyst’s imposition of his own cultural bias on a society. This led to an approach known as Ethnoscience. Goodenough laid out the basic premises for the “new ethnography,” as ethnoscience was sometimes known. He states that “culture is a conceptual mode underlying human behavior ”

The principal research goal identified by cognitive anthropologists was to determine the content and organization of culture as knowledge. This was demonstrated by Anthony Wallace’s notion of the mazeway, “a mental image of the society and its culture” (D’Andrade 1995:17).

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.  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 .

By the early 1980s, schema theory had become the primary means of understanding the psychological aspect of culture. Schemas are entirely abstract entities and unconsciously enacted by individuals.Schemata, in conjunction with connectionist networks, provided even more abstract psychological theory about the nature of mental representations. Schema theory created a new class of mental entities. Cognitive anthropology trends now appear to be leaning towards the study of how cultural schemas are related to action. This brings up issues of emotion, motivation, and how individuals internalize culture during socialization. And finally, cognitive structure is being related to the physical structure of artifacts and the behavioral structure of groups.

Major work-

  • Conklin, Harold – Hanunóo Color Categories, Lexicographic Treatment of Folk Taxonomies
  • D’Andrade, Roy- The Development of Cognitive Anthropology, The Colors of Emotion, Categories of Disease in American-English and Mexican-Spanish.
  • Goodenough, Ward – Componential Analysis and the Study of Meaning.
  • Tyler, Stephen A- Cognitive Anthropology

Principal Concepts

Cultural Consensus Theory: Developed by A. Kimball Romney, William Batchelder, and Susan Weller in the 1980s as a way to approach cultural knowledge. CCT assumes that cultural knowledge is shared, but too large to be held by a single individual, and thus unevenly distributed. It has become a major component of social, cultural, and medical anthropology and is used in other cognitive sciences and cross-culturally based research.

Cultural Consonance Theory: This theory was developed by Alabama’s own William Dressler and colleagues. Cultural consonance refers to the degree to which people’s activities match with their beliefs about how they should be. They have found that people with high cultural consonance have lower stress and fewer blood pressure problems.

Cultural Model: Also known as folk models, cultural models generally refer to the unconscious set of assumptions and understandings members of a society or group share. They greatly affect people’s understanding of the world and of human behavior. Cultural models are not fixed entities but are malleable structures by nature. Most often cultural models are connected to the emotional responses of particular experiences so that people regard their assumptions about the world and the things in it as “natural.” If an emotion evokes a response of disgust or frustration, for example, a person can deliberately take action to change the model.

Domain: Weller and Romney define domain as “an organized set of words, concepts, or sentences, all on the same level of contrast that jointly refer to a single conceptual sphere,” (1988: 9).The respondents should define domain items in their own language. The purpose of having respondents define the domain is to avoid the imposition of the anthropologist’s own categories onto the culture or language being studied.

Ethnographic semanticsethnoscience, the new ethnography: This approach regards culture as knowledge (D’Andrade 1995:244), as opposed to the materialist notions that had dominated the field.

Folk Models: These include games, music, and god sets, used to instruct individuals to negotiate potentially stressful situations (Colby 1996: 212). Some folk and decision models, such as god sets with well-recited attributes, form larger cognitive systems, such as divinatory readings.

Folk Taxonomies: Much of the early work in ethnoscience concentrated on folk taxonomies, or the way in which people organize certain classes of objects or notions.

Knowledge structures: It try to elucidate the knowledge and beliefs associated with the various taxonomies and terminology systems. This includes the study of consensus among individuals in a group, and an analysis of how their knowledge is organized and used as mental scripts and schemata.

Mazeway: A.F.C. Wallace defines mazeway as “the mental image of society and culture,” (D’Andrade, 1995:17). The maze is comprised of perceptions of material objects and how people can manipulate the maze to reduce stress.

Mental Scripts: Scripts can be thought of as a set of certain actions one performs in a given situation.

Prototypes: Prototype theory is a theory of categorization.

Schemata:  Bartlett first developed the notion of a schema in the 1930s. He proposed that remembering is guided by a mental structure, a schema, “an active organization of past reactions, or of past experiences, which must always be supposed to be operational in any well-adapted organic response (Schacter 1989:692).  A schema is an “organizing experience,” implying activation of the whole. An example is the English term writing.

Semantic studies: Concerned primarily with terminology classifications, especially kinship classification (e.g. Lounsbury 1956), and plant taxonomies.

Semantic theory: A recent development, semantic theory is built upon an extensionistic approach that was first developed with kin terminologies and then extended to other domains (Colby 1996: 211). There are core meanings and extensional meanings, the core meanings varying less among informants than the extensional meanings. For example, the term cups can have a core meaning, or referent, that most Americans would agree to, such as a “semi-cylindrical container, made of porcelain, having a handle, and being approximately 4 to 5 inches tall.” However, some would disagree about whether a large plastic container with no handle whose purpose is to hold beverages is a cup, or a glass, or neither (Kronenfeld 1996:6-7).


Hallmarks of cognitive anthropology are the rigorous elicitation procedures and controlled questioning of native speakers, which produced greater precision, and the careful analysis of the distinctive mental features of human cognition and social activity  cognitive anthropologists used the theory of the feature model. Feature models refer to a broad analytic concept that developed in the 1950s and 1960s primarily within kinship studies.

Folk taxonomies are aimed at understanding how people cognitively organize information. Folk taxonomies are classes of phenomena arranged by inclusion criteria that show the relationship between kinds of things.

Feature models are not only concerned with how people organize information, but also what the organization means in terms of mental information processing. Bruner, Goodnow, and Austin maintain that there are two primary mechanisms for reducing the strain on short-term memory: attribute reduction and configurational recoding. Attribute reduction describes the tendency to contract the number of criterial features of an object down to a very small number, five or six, and ignore other attributes. Configurational recoding is based on the chunking together of several features to form a single characteristic. Chunking is a mental process where the short-term memory segments information by grouping items together.

Cognitive anthropologists stress systematic data collection and analysis in addressing issues of reliability and validity and, consequently, rely heavily on structured interviewing and statistical analyses. Their techniques can be divided into three groups that produce different sorts of data: similarity techniques, ordering techniques, and test performance techniques (Weller and Romney, 1988). Similarity methods call for respondents to judge the likeness of particular items. Ordered methods require the ranking of items along a conceptual scale. Test performance methods regard respondents as “correct” or “incorrect” depending on how they execute a specified task. Specific methods used by cognitive anthropologists include free listing, frame elicitation, triad tests, pile sorts, paired comparisons, rank order, true and false tests, and cultural consensus tasks.

Cognitive anthropologist use, free listing method,  group interviews, the pile sort methoditem-by-item matrix method, the triad method, Consensus theory method,  response data and true-false test etc.

Cognitive anthropology is driven by methodology. Emphasis is and always has been given to systematic data collection in an effort to attain reliable and valid results. The ultimate aim, however, is nothing less than discovering and representing mental processes.


  1. One of the main accomplishments of cognitive anthropology is that it provides detailed and reliable descriptions of cultural representations.
  2. Additionally, it has challenged ideas of monolithic culture and has helped to bridge culture and the functioning of the mind.
  3. Cognitive anthropology has helped reveal some of the inner workings of the human mind, and given us a greater understanding of how people order and perceive the world around them.
  4. Cognitive anthropology’s most notable achievement is its development of cultural methodologies that are valid and reliable representations of human thought.


  1. According to Keesing (1972:307) the so-called “new ethnography” was unable to move beyond the analysis of artificially simplified and often trivial semantic domains.
  2. Study of elements rather than relational systems failed to reveal a generative cultural grammar for any culture, and while generating elaborate taxonomies, failed to discover any internal cultural workings that could be compared internally or externally.
  3. One of the most glaring problems is that almost all investigators do the majority of their research in English.
  4. There are multiple factors in operation at any given moment that are difficult to account for using standard methods of cognitive anthropology.
  5. Cognitive anthropology deals with abstract theories regarding the nature of the mind.
  6. Another criticism is that universal agreement on how to find culture in the mind has yet to emerge.


  1. It has been criticised as an abstract theory
  2. There is Lack of consensus on how to study culture in mind

Leading Figures


  1. Culture is cognitive organisation of material phenomenon like events, behaviour and emotions
  2. Culture can be grasped only in non-empirical terms. Real culture exists in mind of culture bearers

Cognitive Anthropologists believe that the world itself is chaotic and humans understand it through classification. Each culture has its own system of classification

    1. For example, although the Americans distinguish between dew, fog, ice and snow, the Koyas of India do not. They call all these forms mancu and do not think the differences among them are significant.
    2. On the other hand, the Koyas distinguish seven different kinds of bamboo by giving them different names while the Americans call all of them simply bamboo.
    3. This shows that people in different cultures may perceive the same phenomenon differently because of their own cultural system

Cognitive Anthropology is an approach that stresses how people make sense of reality according to their own indigenous cognitive categories[Emic approach], not those of the anthropologist[Etic] Culture isn’t unitary phenomenon as they cant be described one set of organisational principles.. Each member has unique model of culture. He favoured ethnosemantic approach for studying people’s views on their culture

Harold Conklin (1926-2016) conducted extensive research in Southeast Asia, producing one of the largest ethnographic collections for the Philippines. His interest in linguistics and ecology and commitment to ethnoscience led to pioneering investigations of indigenous systems of tropical forest agriculture. He also made important contributions to the study of kinship terminology including “Lexicographical Treatment of Folk Taxonomies” (1969) and “Ethnogenealogical Method” (1969).

  1. Studied hanunoo community in phillipines
  2. Culture is a system of knowledge that shows how people organise their experience conceptually so that I can transmit person to person and generation to generation
  3. People in society contruct their world in terms of their culture. With help of culture people segregate what is significant  and insignificant, anticipate events, take a course of action
  4. Conklin demonstrates that Hanunóo color terms do not segment the color spectrum in the same manner as western color terms, and in fact incorporate additional sensory information, such as wetness and dryness.
  5. Each culture has an unique set of concepts , categories and rules. However there is also    underlying commonality
  6. Culture as a cognitive system can be understood by examining interrelationship between language and culture
    1. Just as language is conceptual code underlying speech, culture is conceptual code for social behaviour
    2. Linguistic variability is a guide to study cultural variability

Roy D’Andrade (1931-2016)  made important contributions to methodology and theory in cognitive anthropology. One of his earlier studies is particularly noteworthy for its methodology. In 1974 D’Andrade published an article criticizing the reliability and validity of a widely practiced method of social sciences. Researchers conducted studies of how people judge other’s behavior. Judgments of informants, he argued, were influenced not only by what they witnessed, but also by the cultural models they entertained about the domain in question. He noted that their judgment was related to the limitations of human memory.

Aside from his methodological contributions, D’Andrade (1995) has synthesized the field of cognitive anthropology in one of the first books discussing the approach as a whole. The Development of Cognitive Anthropology (1995) has provided scholars and students with an excellent account of the development of cognitive anthropology from early experiments with the classic feature model to the elaboration of consensus theory in the late 20th century.

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