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Cognitive Anthropology

By: Jennifer Cash     Posted May 1998

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What is Cognitive Anthropology?
The Cognitive Sciences 
General Subject Matter 
Cognitive Anthropology and the Rest of Anthropology 
Other Key Works 

What is Cognitive Anthropology?

“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 (1985:2) 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” (Colby 1996: 211). 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” (Goodenough 1956:195).

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.

The Cognitive Sciences

Cognitive anthropology’s beginnings in the 1950’s developed out of linguistic anthropology’s ongoing dialogue with formal linguistics and anthropology, but its emergence paralleled a general interest in cognitive phenomena across the social and biological sciences. In behavioral psychology, interest in cognition increased in conjunction with the development and use of computers (D’Andrade 1995:10). Cognitive anthropology has increasingly used computer modeling, and Colby (1996: 214-215) recommends that aspiring cognitive anthropologists learn a variety of skills transferable across the cognitive sciences: knowledge systems, text comprehension systems, and parallel distribution processes from computer sciences; text analysis and narrative structure from cognitive psychology; symbolic logic from philosophy; and multi-dimensional scaling and clustering techniques from statistics.

In order to pinpoint some of the qualities that distinguish cognitive anthropology from other cognitive social sciences, the following chart may be helpful. This summarizes some of the distinctions between cognitive linguistics, anthropology, and psychology that emerged in a 1963 SSRC sponsored Conference on Transcultural Studies in Cognition (D’Andrade and Romney 1964:1-4).

Figure 1: Distinctions between cognitive linguistics, anthropology, and psychology, as of 1964

Cognitive Linguistics
Cognitive Anthropology (“Ethnoscience”)
Cognitive Psychology
Language is the entry point for studying cognition. Linguistic processes are sometimes equated with cognitive processes.
Semantic features are usually equated with semantic features.
Does not necessarily begin study with language.

Interest in how native speakers of any language generate infinite novel utterances.


Stresses principles and discovery procedures for investigating culturally specific semantic systems and native categories.


Interest in how categories are learned.

Research Setting
Labs, or other structured, “unnatural” settings. Natural settings; the researcher observes normal speech events and general context. Labs, using tests and very quantitative analyses.
Mostly descriptive, but some predictive. Descriptive, not predictive. Predictive, not descriptive.

Categorization of Conference Participants

Dell Hymes, Sydney Lamb, Brent Berlin, A. Kimball Romney William Sturtevant, Charles Frake, Roy D’Andrade, A. Kimball Romney Charles Osgood, Shirley Hill, Fred Strodtbeck

General Subject Matter:

There are four basic categories of work done in cognitive anthropology – semantics, knowledge structures, models and systems, and discourse analysis. Semantic studies of terminology systems formed the base of the earliest cognitive anthropology, and the analytical and ethnographic methods developed in these studies formed the base of ethnoscience (also called the “new ethnography”). Cognitive anthropologists still study the semantic categories revealed in close, linguistically based, studies of terminology systems. Other work has focused on studying how discrete categories of cultural knowledge are connected. Also, since cognitive anthropology assumes that culture is located in individuals’ minds, it has had to study how individual categories are related to shared cultural categories. Cognitive anthropology has produced both descriptive accounts of cultural categories and generative models (again, there is a parallel between descriptive and generative linguistics). The following chart indicates areas in which some of the most influential work has been done.

Figure 2: Chart of Cognitive Anthropology and Anthropologists, after Colby (1996:210)

Knowledge Structures
Models and Systems
Discourse Analysis
Ethnographic Semantics: Ethnoscience: Folk Models: Narrative Grammars:
Atran, Berlin, Kay Conklin, Frake, Metzger, Williams, Werner, Schoepfle Roberts, Holy, Stuchlik Propp (Folklorist)
Semantic Theory: Consensus Analysis Decision Models Discourse Semantics
Kronenfeld Weller, Romney, Sperber Goal Structures and Motivational Systems: Content Analysis:
Scripts and Schemata: Werner, Schoepfle
Colby and Colby, Agar

According to Colby (1996:209), the core of ethnographic semantics and ethnoscience practiced in the 1950’s and 1960’s was embellished in later decades. In the 1970s decision models and narrative grammars were added to the agenda of cognitive anthropology; the 1980s saw the addition of discourse semantics, consensus mapping, and applications of artificial intelligence; and the 1990’s brought cognitive theories of emotions, interests in health and well being, religious symbolism, and computer-aided discourse analysis.

D’Andrade (1995:245-248) suggests that the linguistic preoccupations in cognitive anthropology have gradually given away to more psychological approaches. This shift began in the late 1970’s, and became more pronounced in 1980’s interests in connectionist networks which “put together schematic cluster of features into complex objects without any necessary linguistic base” (246-247).

Despite D’Andrade’s claims that cognitive anthropology in the 1980’s broke free of the reliance on language to understand culture as cognition, the most recent work on cognition in anthropology reported by Ochs and Capps (1996), Levinson (1996), and Lucy (1997) in the Annual Review in Anthropology is still very much language based. Another frequently cited example of recent cognitive anthropology, David Kronenfeld’s Plastic Glasses and Church Fathers (1996), also illustrates the continued importance of language in cognitive anthropology’s understanding of, and approach to, studying culture.

Cognitive Anthropology and the Rest of Anthropology
Cognitive anthropology is not a large sub-field. D’Andrade suggests “most of the work has been carried out by a shifting core which has never been larger than about thirty persons” (xiv). Colby describes the size of the field in noting that only two departments provide adequate graduate level training in cognitive anthropology (214). There are actually at least fifteen colleges and universities with cognitive anthropologists on their faculty: University of California at Berkeley, San Diego, Riverside, and Irvine; University of Georgia, Yale, SUNY, University of Delaware, Lehigh University, McGill University, Northwestern, University of Southern Florida, Oberlin College, Macalester College, and Occidental College, but this is still clearly a small sub-field. Cognitive anthropology also does not have its own sub-section in the American Anthropological Association, but cognitive anthropologists frequently belong to either or both the linguistic and psychological anthropology sub-sections.

Because of the rigorous methods that cognitive anthropologists advocate, they are critical of symbolic or interpretive approaches which rely on the anthropologist’s intuitive abilities and cannot be verified. The methods advocated by Victor Turner, David Schneider, Clifford Geertz, and Levi-Strauss are consequently suspect. Opinions on Levi-Strauss’ work vary among cognitive anthropologists, perhaps because he was also heavily influenced by the Prague school and structural linguistic analysis (for example, compare Sperber’s (1985:70, 92-93) assessment of Levi-Strauss’ work as pre-theory to D’Andrade’s more thorough dismissal of his “imaginative” analyses (1995:19, 248-249)).

Despite the skepticism of many cognitive anthropologists towards its intuitive approaches, symbolic anthropology has sometimes been conducted using cognitive approaches. Also, cognitive interests in metaphor joined those of the poetic or symbolic side of anthropology in the mid 1980’s, producing some discipline-wide dialogue on metaphor and metaphor theory (Fernandez 1991). In general, however, cognitive anthropology has followed a narrow agenda, with many interactions and opportunities located outside of the field of anthropology. Much cross-cultural work on cognition is in fact being done in psycholinguistics, with the Max Planck Institute in the Netherlands provides graduate training and research opportunities in this area.


Colby, Benjamin (1996). Cognitive Anthropology. In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, vol 1, 209-214. David Levinson and Melvin Ember, eds. New York: Henry Holt & Company.

D’Andrade, Roy (1995). The Development of Cognitive Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

D’Andrade, Roy and A. Kimball Romney, eds. (1964). Transcultural Studies in Cognition. American Anthropologist 18, special publication.

Fernandez, James (1991) ed, Beyond Metaphor: The Theory of Tropes in Anthropology. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Goodenough, Ward (1956). Componential Analysis and the Study of Meaning.Language 32:195-216.

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

Levinson, Stephen (1996). Language and Space. Annual Review of Anthropology. William Durham, ed. Palo Alto: Annual Reviews, Inc.

Lounsbury, Floyd (1956). A Semantic Analysis of Pawnee Kinship Usage. Language32:158-194.

Lucy, John (1997). Linguistic Relativity. Annual Review of Anthropology. William Durham, ed. Palo Alto: Annual Reviews, Inc.

Metzger, Duane and Gerald Williams (1963). A Formal Ethnographic Analysis of Tenejapa Ladino Weddings. American Anthropologist 65:1076-1101.

Ochs, Elinor and Lisa Capps (1996). Narrating the Self. Annual Review of Anthropology. William Durham, ed. Palo Alto: Annual Reviews, Inc.

Sperber, Dan (1985). On Anthropological Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Other Key Works:

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

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

Spradley, James (1972). ed, Culture and Cognition: Rules, Maps, and Plans. San Francisco: Freeman.

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

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