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Cognitive Anthropology - The Life and Thoughts of Zach

Jan. 25th, 2004

09:27 pm - Cognitive Anthropology

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Reposted from a comment I posted.

Warning: Bullshit alert. I've had one class in Cognitive Anthropology and a lot of classes in Cognitive Science. I don't have a degree in either (but I do have bachelors degrees in related fields). This is what I think it's all about. But I'm no expert. IANACA.

Cognitive Anthropology is the application of cognitive science methods to the study of group cognition as mediated by culture. Cognitive Science is the interdisciplinary combination of linguistics, philosophy, psychology, computer science, education, and neuroscience to discover and describe what happens inside a thinking person's brain. Cognitive Anthropology looks not at how a single brain in a vacuum solves a problem, but how a group of brains that can communicate and make tools solve problems. What information in encoded into tools beforehand? What information is shared in real time while the group works on a problem? What hierarchies does a culture create to facilitate group problem solving? How do experts receive their specialized knowledge? What abstractions do cultures use to simplify group problem solving? What similarities are there between the kinds of abstractions a culture uses for one problem and another problem and how are those patterns in abstraction related to other cultural themes. How does culture affect the process of creating solutions to new problems?

Cognitive Science tends to be very structuralist (a feature inherited from Linguistics), describing things in terms of systems, schemas, paradigms, features, inheritance, and composition, always abstracting small patterns to see if they also describe large patterns (kind of like polymorphism in computer science). Cognitive Anthropology adopts this structuralism in it's approach to describing culture (though plenty of other non-cognitive anthropologists are structuralist in their methodology as well).

I have a bachelor's degree in Linguistics and another one in Computer Science so my undergrad course work focused heavily on cognitive science. I took one Cognitive Anthropology course during my last year of school and it bowled me over. It covered much of the ground that I felt was really missing in traditional single-mind-focused cognitive science. If I ever go back to grad school I want to study more Anthropology with a cognitive emphasis.

One of the research ideas I've had in the back of my head for a while has been the idea of doing a Cog.Anth. study of how musical groups communicate in different styles of music. In a jazz band, a rock band, a punk band, a blues band, a symphony orchestra, a chamber group, an experimental improvisation group, etc...what is the hierarchy of members and sounds, how does information flow among the members, what musical cues are there and who gives them, what physical cues are there and who gives them, who is listening to who, who is watching who, how much structure does the composed music itself provide and how much is improvised live, at the composition phase how much structure is provided by the form of the music, how do the design of the instruments constrain the structures of the music and performance? How do musicians use the structures they've learned within their performance realm to model their larger non-musical social sphere.

Two great books to read are: Culture in Mind by Brad Shore and Cognition in the Wild by Edwin Hutchins. These books are both pretty accessible to anyone willing to think hard about stuff (they aren't specialized and jargony) and they are insanely interesting.

Comments:

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From:aethyric
Date:January 26th, 2004 04:34 am (UTC)
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you know, i just dropped out of college so i could relax a little...
and here people are throwing good books at me.
cognition in the wild sounds... well... insanely interesting.

mainly these: "I show here how the environments of human thinking are not 'natural' environments. They are artificial through and through. Humans create their cognitive powers by creating the environments in which they exercise those powers." (ch 3) and "The analysis presented here examines a particular incident in which the microstructure of the development of the navigation practice can be seen clearly. It is an attempt to show the details of the kinds of processes that must be the engines of cultural change." (ch 8)

damnit. *check bank account* *check brain*
well, okay then.
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From:culfinglin
Date:January 26th, 2004 05:17 pm (UTC)
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a bachelor's in linguistics? holy fucking shit. my one linguistics class inspired me to switch my emphasis, so i could not have to take it. i was done when i heard 'theta roles'. :P i think the class would have been fun, but it was entirely the wrong time to take it (i was already on an overload schedule of 24 units [the cap was 18] and working 40 hours a week between two jobs).
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From:zarfmouse
Date:January 26th, 2004 05:42 pm (UTC)
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Haha. I took my first linguistics class because it filled a gen ed requirement. I took my second one because it filled a different gen ed requirement. I took my third one because it filled YET ANOTHER gen ed requirement. And then I was hooked. It was exactly fit to my style of thinking about the world and my interests in brains (but lack of interest in psych).

I'd actually never heard of Theta roles or theta role theory in all the linguistics (just googled it) that I took though we did touch on "agent/patient" distinctions and other such semantic concepts that theta role theory seems to encompass.

The thing about linguistics is that every school teaches a VERY different subset of the field. There's so many theories that you're most likely to learn the theories that the local profs are working on. So it could well be that I got the fun subset and you got the boring one. :)
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From:aethyric
Date:January 26th, 2004 05:29 pm (UTC)
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addendum thought: have you ever read mary doria russel's The Sparrow, zach? it's scifi, but it's good sociology/anthropology scifi (just the way i like it). "first contact" kind of stuff. absolutely engaging. just curious.
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From:aethyric
Date:January 26th, 2004 05:30 pm (UTC)
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oops. gotta stop being so scatterbrained about html tags. sorry.
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From:zarfmouse
Date:January 26th, 2004 05:36 pm (UTC)
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No I haven't. I'll definitely check it out.
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From:zarfmouse
Date:January 26th, 2004 06:05 pm (UTC)
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Have you read Always Coming Home. It's LeGuin's "Anthropology of the Future". The book is a collection of snippets: poetry, short stories, plays, ethnographic notes about customs and rituals and dances and the language and social organization. The snippets are all woven together by a 4 part narrative. The book describes a culture in a post-apocalyptic California future where society has restructured into a fairly utopian tribal style. But as with all her utopias, the structure is at it's breaking point as an agressive oppressive expansionist (essentially fascist) tribe from the north threatens to take over everything.

It's a fantastic book but very strange to read. You really can read it in any order (except the 4 part narrative should be read in order but the in between parts you can skip around and read out of order). I've read it several times and I don't think I've ever read it straight through. Very innovatively non-linear for a book written in the early 80s.

It's companion essay is "A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be" which was LeGuin's meditation on the "problem of utopia" (and an excellent survey of pre-1980s western utopian literature) in which she suggests a distinction between "hot" progress oriented utopias and "cold" sustainability oriented utopias. In a lot of ways this book was the first of the "new" kind of feminist-ecological utopias.
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From:aethyric
Date:January 26th, 2004 08:09 pm (UTC)
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not yet. got hung up on other stuff after TLHoD and the dispossessed for awhile. i keep getting smacked upside the head finding her books in random strange places (the poetry section, the kids' section). you got me wanting to read changing planes after the other day's post, too. i'll have to look into these, since i'm all enamoured with the things i've read so far.
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From:sarpo
Date:January 27th, 2004 06:15 pm (UTC)
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Great book. Did you take 'Utopia' with me at IMSA? I can't remember.

I flipped through your copy of Culture in Mind when I visited. The notes in the margins completely looked like my friend (who's a cognitive science student with degrees in linguistics and symbolic systems)'s handwriting - and I thought it would have been crazy whacked if that had been her book previously. But, she doesn't remember reading it, so probably not.

It's too bad she didn't come down with me - you guys would have loved discussing this kind of stuff.
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From:zarfmouse
Date:January 27th, 2004 06:22 pm (UTC)
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Yes! Utopia totally hooked me on LeGuin. That conversation we had about "A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be" crystalized a huge number of understandings in my head.

Since then I've managed to read every single novel that LeGuin has written. There's just a few short stories and childrens books that I haven't tracked down yet. I'm really as obsessed with her as I am with Linguistics.

I'm glad my bathroom gave you SOME goodness.

You'll have to introduce me to your friends when I come visit some day. Or bring them when you come paint my house.
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From:boannan
Date:January 26th, 2004 05:37 pm (UTC)
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are the colors some secret code?
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From:zarfmouse
Date:January 26th, 2004 05:49 pm (UTC)
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It's just my little meta-joke. I noticed as I was using a Cognitive Science style of description to describe the relationship of Cognitive Science to Linguistics. Each matching color is a correspondence between an implication I made about the relationship and a kind of relationship that Cognitive Science focuses on.

So when I said "tends to be" I was "abstracing small patterns" (Linguistics is the small pattern and Cognitive Science is the larger pattern and structuralism is the overall template pattern they have in common). When I said it was "structuralist" I was implying an obsession with "systems". When I talked about inherriting features "from" linguistics that was "composition" (Cognitive Science is composed of Linguistics and several other fields).

I didn't realize how ironic it was that I was SO enmeshed in this mindset until after I wrote the two sentences. So then, being obsessed with analyzing and schematizing I had to add the colors.

Clearly, I wasn't as funny as I thought. :)
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From:hfx_ben
Date:January 27th, 2004 02:37 am (UTC)
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1) Did you happen to peek Hutchin's bio? "My current research for NASA Ames Research Center concerns the cognitive consequences of automation in aviation. This includes work on autoflight mode management in high technology cockpits (the Boeing 747-400 and Airbus A320, for example) and in Air Traffic Control." ... oh. I usta drive taxi. ;-)
Does anyone use the phrase "cognitive ergonomics" anymore? It was big in the 80s ... dealing with human / machine interfaces, and so came to play in software ... a bit ... very slightly. *sigh*
2) I'm sooooooooo happy with the cognitive turn things have taken; my first grab at university was in the 70s and *Gack Ptui* bevahourism was still dominant ... friggin' reductionism trash ... ratropomorphic view ... gick.
3) Have you done psycho-linguistics? Kewl shiet.
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From:hfx_ben
Date:January 27th, 2004 02:37 am (UTC)
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1) Did you happen to peek the bio on Hutchin's homepage? "My current research for NASA Ames Research Center concerns the cognitive consequences of automation in aviation. This includes work on autoflight mode management in high technology cockpits (the Boeing 747-400 and Airbus A320, for example) and in Air Traffic Control." ... oh. I usta drive taxi. ;-)
Does anyone use the phrase "cognitive ergonomics" anymore? It was big in the 80s ... dealing with human / machine interfaces, and so came to play in software ... a bit ... very slightly. *sigh*
2) I'm sooooooooo happy with the cognitive turn things have taken; my first grab at university was in the 70s and *Gack Ptui* bevahourism was still dominant ... friggin' reductionism trash ... ratropomorphic view ... gick.
3) Have you done psycho-linguistics? Kewl shiet.
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From:zarfmouse
Date:January 27th, 2004 05:07 pm (UTC)
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I've taken a class in psycholinguistics and we touched on it a bit more in a few other classes.

I think the term for cognitive ergonomics now is "human user interface design" or "human computer interface design" depending on who you talk to.

From what I understand there's still a lot of Skinner-style behaviorism in the world of Psych, just not so much in Ling. I certainly never ran into it but I never took any pure psych courses.
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From:hfx_ben
Date:January 27th, 2004 05:16 pm (UTC)
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I did almost 3 years of "pure" psych at Dalhousie and encounted almost zero behaviourism; one prof (who works on language acquisition in large birds) is a holdout.
Maybe that's why people come to Dal from all over the world?
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