Evolving humanity, emerging worlds
Manchester, UK; 5th-10th August 2013
Fieldwork in mind and mind in fieldwork: fostering an ethnography-oriented cognitive anthropology
Location Alan Turing Building G205
Date and Start Time 07 Aug, 2013 at 14:30
The value of cognitive science for ethnography is not obvious to many anthropologists, nor is the value of ethnography to many cognitive scientists. The panel will discuss how participant observation-based ethnography can benefit from cognitive science and how cognitive science can benefit from it.
This panel addresses the question of the integration between anthropology and cognitive science, by looking in particular at how best to integrate cognitive-psychological investigations with participant observation-based ethnography and vice-versa. Since the interest that anthropologists take in cognitive science is often sparked by puzzling questions they encounter during their fieldwork, and since the interest that cognitive scientists take in anthropology often comes from their reading of ethnographies, we suggest that there should be a place for a cognitive anthropology which is grounded in ethnographic practice and which, while engaging with the universalistic claims of cognitive science about the human mind, remains oriented to the goal of describing and understanding the lives of particular people in particular places. The aim of this panel is to resist cognitive anthropology's tendency to move further and further away from participant observation fieldwork and ethnography. We seek papers that can demonstrate that a strong engagement with cognitive science can enrich ethnographic research and/or that the practice and the findings of ethnography can enrich cognitive science.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.
Cognitive ethnography and the naturalization of culture
By embracing a Cognitive Ethnography of Cultural Transmission (CECT) we aim to reconceptualize the relationship between cognition and culture in ontogenetic terms to account for the situated and embodied dimensions of cognition as well as the way cognitive skills spread and emerge locally.
In this paper, we would like to introduce a specific way of reconciling cognitive and ethnographic approaches of culture by embracing a cognitive ethnography of cultural learning (CECL). CECL is an alternative framework for a naturalistic approach to cultural learning from an ethnographer's point of view. From cognitive anthropology it holds to the aim of elucidating how our cognitive architecture constrains cultural transmission; from cognitive ethnography it promotes a situated approach to cognition, notably relying on the so-called embodied cognition. By adding the topic of cultural transmission to cognitive ethnography, our aim is to support a theoretical and methodological framework focused on learning processes, able to take into account the material, cognitive, emotional and perceptual contexts of action and communication in a temporal framework at the level of activity and individual learning. By putting emphasis on ethnography, we address primarily the constraint of local activity and its specific temporality, focusing on how cognitive skills spread and emerge locally.
Basically, the question we want to address is the one of the « power of culture » (Candau & Halloy, n.d.), i.e. how deep and to what extent cultural practices and environments may act upon evolved mechanisms of thinking, feeling and perceiving. The project of CECL addresses thus one of the current disciplinary divides between cognitivist and culturalist approaches to cultural transmission and seeks to engage in cross-cultural ethnographic research drawing on the recent upsurge in cognitive studies of cultural transmission.
The cultural constitution of causal cognition - exploring the integration of field-based methods in studying cognition
In exploring cultural variability in causal cognition, the research group “Cultural Constitution of Causal Cognition” presents conceptual and methodological aspects to empirically explore the topic. In doing so, the talk will elaborate the gains of ethnography for the wider cognitive sciences.
The topics of interest in the sub-disciplines of cognitive sciences differ fundamentally. While cognitive psychology has been addressing causal cognition in various ways, anthropology often conveys causal cognition more implicitly, while addressing other topics at hand.
In integrating conceptual and methodological differences in the comparative study of causal cognition the ZiF-Research Group "Cultural Constitution of Causal Cognition" addresses a central question in the field of cognitive anthropology. With differing aims and standards of empirical work, how can advantages of ethnography and particularly participant observation be communicated and also made accessible to non-anthropological counterparts?
Ethnographic fieldwork is centered on the appreciation and exploration of a chosen topic - causal cognition - and the wider context it is found in. This approach presupposes openness towards new and unexpected connections that can in totality not be anticipated in lab-based theorising before "the empirical phase" of data collection.
One critical juncture here may be the communication between ethnographer/investigator and informants/participants. It involves the negotiation of shared understandings of meanings between the ethnographer and the informants. Similar negotiations take place in a psychology lab, between the experimenter and the participant. While the ethnographer may be keen on making these negotiations part of (causal) cognition's analysis, the cognitive-science experimenter is often more reserved about explicating her impressions due to differing standards in the scientific communities. It is this process of interpretation that becomes central to a shared communication, both in fieldwork and to fully comprehend (cognitive) processes in a lab situation.
Metacognition, epistemic norms and the ethnography of highland Madagascar
The aim of this paper is to reflect on our anthropological contribution, based on fieldwork in Madagascar, to current debates concerning metacognition and epistemic norms in cognitive science as well as on our cognitive-scientific rethinking of several 'classic' issues in the ethnography of Madagascar.
This paper is based on fieldwork conducted among the Zafimaniry (MB) and the southern Betsileo (DR) of highland Madagascar, as part of the ongoing, ERC-funded 'dividnorm' project. In our respective fieldsites we have tried to blend participant observation methodology with experimental studies in order to explore a variety of issues focusing on metacognition and epistemic norms. The aim of this research however was not only to contribute to debates in cognitive science, since we considered it equally important that investigating metacognition and epistemic norms in Madagascar should also bring light on ethnographic issues. For example, the ethnographic literature seems to suggest that the Malagasy value consensus more than other epistemic norms (e.g., truth, coherence, etc.) in the collective decision-making process, in particular at village councils. Is this really the case? And is this 'consensus principle' valid in a wide range of more ordinary situations or is it only limited to specific contexts where a collective decision has to be made? It has also been suggested that in the Malagasy highlands free descendants 'essentialize' slave descendants. But is this strong psychological essentialism about social kinds a matter of 'fluency' or a matter of consensus? Is the associated avoidance of marriage with slave descendants a question of epistemic rationality or a question of strategic rationality? By addressing these questions and a few others, we hope to show how ethnography and cognitive science can cross-fertilize and benefit from each other.
The treatment of singularity among Tuvans
Among Tuvans (Southern Siberia) ritual treatment of atypical animals, trees and humans involve a particular understanding of the connection between individuality and species norm. Cognitive researches on folkbiology bring light on the foundations of these mental schemes.
In Tuva (Southern Siberia), atypical individuals among vegetal and animal species are submitted to specific ritual treatment and are the object of rich expectations. Domestic reindeer with an uncommon coat are consecrated and expected to protect the herd and the herders family. Albinos squirrel are not killed by hunters. Abnormal trees are called "shaman-tree" and are worshipped. In these treatments, what kind of connection is established between species morphological norm, atypical visible features, individuality and hidden special powers? To resolve this problem the evidences of cognitive science about the understanding of biological species, norms and collective and individual "essences" is enlightening. In these different cases of the treatment of singularity among Tuvans, a stable inferential schema can be identified. A counterintuitive connection between individuality and species seems to be established. This mode of reasoning appears to be applied not only to animals but also to humans in the understanding of the process of how atypical individuals become shamans.
Cognitive science helps to identify common mental procedures in domains usually considered as separate (shamanism, reindeer herding, hunting…) and brings light on mental procedures that would otherwise seem puzzling and contradictory. On the other hand, this ethnography brings new evidence on the complexity of counterintuitive uses of basic notions of folkbiology.
A folk theory of race- putting ethnography to the test
Can a local folk theory of race, which convincingly posits a non-essentialist view of race, predict results in an experimental task which asks ordinary people to decide whether race or other social categories are inferentially richer? This paper demonstrates how tools derived from cognitive psychology enrich the interpretation of ethnographic data.
In Yapatera, Peru, a village descended from African slaves and indigenous labourers, I document a local folk theory of race, procreation and kinship which posits that personhood is physiologically and socially 'mixed'. The logical outcome is that no individual can be grouped unambiguously into any discrete racial category, thereby undermining the very existence of such racial groups and downplaying the importance of race as a meaningful social marker to favour class, locality and religion. Will the folk theory withstand experimental tasks where participants are forced to choose whether race or other social categories are inferentially richer? I introduce two tasks conducted at the end of 16 months of fieldwork, derived from cognitive psychology, but re-designed to answer questions which emerge from the local ethnographic context.
Evidence from evolutionary and cognitive psychology suggests that human adults and children think 'essentialistically' about race posing a challenge to a theory my informants hold on to dearly. My task results confirm how people respond to ideologies of mixing in their reasoning about race but also illuminate how they have at their disposal two alternate models of race through which to think. Holding on to one theory requires a concerted effort. This leads me to pay greater attention to inconsistencies of the local folk theory, to explore reactions to the task, and to reinterpret the way in which the category of 'race' matters. The combination of methods here can help explain how this specific group has adapted to their particular historical position.
Asymmetrical essentialism. Using ethnography and experimental tasks to disentangle nature and culture in Roma folk theory of ethnicity
This paper discusses Roma folk theories of ethnic identity by fusing ethnographic knowledge with the results of experimental work. Employing an original task design attuned to local cultural relevance, our findings raise important questions for the study of cultural and psychological essentialism.
Catalina Tesar's ethnography among Romanian Roma (Cortorari) revealed a folk theory of personhood centered around biological descent, with "blood" invoked as a trope both for transmission of physical and personality traits and for circulation of ceremonial wealth: chalices. This mode of reasoning of the strictly endogamous Cortorari seems to confirm theories of psychological essentialism with regards to ethnicity. However, achieving full Cortorari personhood is also associated with culturally-specific beliefs and practices which clearly set apart Roma and non-Roma (Gadje). Our collaborative experimental research used a Roma versus Gadjo "switched-at-birth story" to pry apart the role of nature and nurture in essentialist reasoning on ethnicity. Our study addressed directly our informants' cultural interests: aside questions regarding bodily traits, group-neutral and group-specific beliefs, we included an original task on taxtaj inheritance since completion of Cortorari social personhood is intimately related to the social transmission of heirlooms. Although we found a strong bias towards biological essentialism for trait inheritance and classificatory ethnicity, results on cultural inclinations and taxtaj rights suggest a more nuanced interpretation. A strong association between age and essentialist reasoning for men (but not women) may be explained by trajectories of kinship roles in personal life. Direction of adoption appeared as highly significant, suggesting an ethnocentric asymmetry between the salience of "nature" and "culture" in judging Roma and non-Roma "essences". We end with a discussion on the implication of fusing ethnography and experimental research in the study of ethnic essentialism, comparing our results with similar studies and possible developmental scenarios.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.