Practice Theory versus Problem-Solving

In 2009, Neil Gross argued that the critique of action as a calculation of means to ends, which had been ongoing for at least the prior thirty years, had been successful. Not only that, the insistence that “action-theoretical assumptions necessarily factor into every account of social order and change and should therefore be fully specified” had also been successful. Both efforts made the question “how to conceptualize action in terms of social practices?” now the main question that confronts theorists. Gross (2009) proposed his own answer to this question: we can conceptualize action in terms of social practices by understanding social practice in terms of problem-solving.

Gross’ answer has in many ways been wildly influential, and for good reason. In a not insignificant respect it has successfully settled the debate over the main question and how to conceptualize action as social practice. The empirical application of practice theory in sociology increasingly revolves around a productive focus on problem-solving. But is problem-solving the best way to fully specify the “action-theoretical assumptions [that] necessarily factor into every account of social order and change”?

I will argue maybe not and critique this position in the effort to widen the horizon of relevant practice theories in the field. In a second post, I will make this argument on cognitive grounds through engagement with “predictive processing.” In this post, I will articulate the potential problems with problem-solving primarily through a dialogue between practice theorists and art history. Let’s first start with what problem-solving means as way of conceptualizing action as social practice.

Like all practice theories, problem-solving attempts to bridge the gap between observers and actors without introducing the same attributions that plague a means-ends frame. Bridging that gap is something that all practice theories claim to do. While the reasons for doing this are well-known in Giddens or Bourdieu for instance, consider the art historian Michael Baxandall’s argument for the virtues of a practice theory:

We describe the effect of the picture on us by telling of inferences we have made about the action or process that might have led the picture to being as it is …Awareness that the picture’s having an effect on us is the product of human action … when we attempt a historical explanation of a picture [we] try to develop this kind of thought (1985: 6)

Baxandall (who will play a significant role in the argument that follows) argues here that understanding something (a painting, a text, a state … anything in principle) as the mode of action that creates or generates it is the best understanding that we can obtain. A practical understanding is therefore different from and surpasses an interpretive understanding or a realist understanding of the same things. A similar argument, for instance, is proposed by Bourdieu (echoing Piaget) and his focus (1996) on “generative understanding.”

If we were to summarize (roughly) the four main characteristics of the problem-solving frame, they could include the following:

(1) End/means are endogenous to situations nor external to them (Whitford 2002)

(2) Proximate goals shape final goals; ends, ambitions, interests (etc) reflect the tools at hand rather than vice versa

(3) Action involves the recombination, transposition and modification of schemas, habits, tools, conventions, cultural objects (etc) to solve problems and allow for the continuation of action

(4) Problematic situations are a point of public access to a logic of practice that can be shared by observers and actors alike (Swidler 2005)

An example of this mode of argument is Richard Biernacki’s (1995) magisterial The Fabrication of Labor in which he uses a historical comparison of wages based on “piece-rates” versus “the daily expenditure of time” as contrasting solutions to the problem capitalist labor remuneration in Britain and Germany respectively between 1640 and 1914. Both of these formulas comprised “signifying practices incorporated into the concrete practices of work” (Biernacki 1995: 353). As Biernacki argues, attention to practice cannot be neglected, for such solutions were not engineered by capitalism itself.

The brute conditions of praxis in capitalist society, such as the need to compete in a market, did not provide the principles for organizing practices in forms that were stable and reproducible, for by themselves they did not supply a meaningful design for conduct. Rather, practices were given consistent shape by the particular specifications of labor as a commodity that depended, to be sure, upon the general conditions of praxis for their materials, but granted them social consequences according to an intelligible logic of their own (1995: 202)

The brute conditions of capitalist production created a problem situation that involved the commodity status of labor and its economic valuation. Piece-rates (or wages paid per unit of production) and time-wages (or wages paid according to time at work) both provide for the “meaningful design for conduct” that solve this problem. Biernacki reveals the extent of these meaningful designs, and how they correspond to this key problem, as “anchors for culture” in both contexts: “through their experience of the symbolic instrumentalities of production … workers acquired their understanding of labor as a commodity” (1995: 383). From lived experience at the “point of production”—given meaningful form by piece-rates and time-rates as the practices of waged labor—“categories of the discourse of complaint,” investment strategies, even architectural designs were all derived. Practices therefore anchor a capitalist system by solving its key problem: how to apply a commodified valuation to human labor.

Biernacki (2005) would further this kind of argument in a later discussion of Baxandall’s analysis of Piero della Francesca’s painting of the The Baptism of Christ. Baxandall, as an art historian, is famously known for not resorting to “meanings” in his non-interpretive approach to painting. In this case, Baxandall writes, “I do not … address the Baptism of Christ as a ‘text,’ either with one meaning or many. The enterprise is to address it as an object of historical explanation and this involves the identification of a selection of its causes” (1985: 31). For Biernacki, Baxandall’s approach proves highly generative. The latter’s analysis of The Baptism of Christ demonstrates “action as a problem-solving contrivance” instead of as a relation of means to ends. As Biernacki writes, “we discover agency in individuals’ creative construal of puzzles and in their unforeseen transposition and modification of schemas.”

In particular, Biernacki zeros in on the mathematical “schema” commensurazione found in Baxandall’s recounting of Francesca’s painting. To solve the problem of proportionality in the painting (Figure 1), Francesca deploys commensurazione “to cope with [the] problem of crowding on his painting surface … what matters is how Piero resorted to it as a tool for the difficult job of fitting so many figures without congestion onto an exaggeratedly vertical plane’ (Biernacki 2005). Or, this is what Biernacki reads from Baxandall’s account. All of this is in support of action as social practice qua problem-solving.

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Figure 1: Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ, c-1448-1450 

In many ways Biernacki is ahead of his time in making these arguments. This concern with problem-solving has subsequently come to define the empirical application of practice theory in American sociology. Analytic attention is given to “problem-situations” and the mechanisms of “problem-solving.” Relevant variation involves habits or conventions and actors that “[mobilize] a more or less habitual responses” to solve emergent problems (Gross 2009). More broadly, “Cultural objects … are experienced as resonant because they solve problems better than the cognitive schema afforded by objects or habituated alternatives” (McDonnell, Bail and Tavory 2017). Innovation too is a matter a problem-solving. It occurs when “habitual responses to a given situation fail to yield adequate results.” This failure produces a problem situation. Once the problem situation has “emerged … novel ways of responding to it must be discovered through creative understanding, projection and experimentation” (Jansen 2017).

In all of these cases, action is conceived as practice, and practice is conceived as problem-solving. Given the prevailing wisdom, it is difficult to question a problem-solving frame if we seek to apply practice theory. But there has been a prior critique of problem-solving logic that I seek to build on in sketching my own critique. This critique also comes from Baxandall (1985). He proposes that we take pause when making practice into a variation on problem-solving because this could run afoul of one of the main tenets of any practice theory: that it follow the actors themselves and not substitute them for observers.

For Baxandall (1985), there is a difference between what a problem means for an actor and what it means for an observer. As he puts it, “The actor thinks of ‘problem’ when he is addressing a difficult task and consciously he knows he must work out a way to do it. The observer thinks of ‘problem’ when he is watching someone’s purposeful behavior and wishes to understand: ‘problem-solving’ is a construction he puts on other people’s purposeful activity” (69).

For Baxandall, this makes problem-solving, as an analytic frame, misleadingly attractive. Karl Popper (1978), for instance, uses problem-solving to understand “third world” or objective knowledge, the type that can be reconstructed regardless of who does the observing. The problem-solving frame is enticing for the analytic capacity it seems to promise for making innovation or resonance meaningful and pragmatic, in addition to knowledge. Innovation does not mean purposefully making a new idea ex nihilo. Resonance does not mean purposefully generating an appeal for something or a connection to it. In all cases, practice is the site of both the actor’s experience and the analyst’s observation. But it can only be this with a bridging concept like problem-solving. However, and again to quote Baxandall, to make problem-solving our analytic frame for understanding these phenomenon still “puts a formal pattern on the object of [our] interest” (70).

To argue this point Baxandall uses the example of Pablo Picasso painting the Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and the art collector Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s near contemporary account of Picasso’s painting of it, as told in Kahnweiler’s work Der Weg zum Kubismus (1920[1915]). Baxandall accounts for Kahnweiler’s personal relation to Picasso as one of Picasso’s first art collectors and his close friend. Kahnweiler attempts to understand Picasso’s painting as a finished product, but also as something he is observing when he visits Picasso’s studio, or sits for him as Picasso paints the Kahnweiler portrait as one of the first, and most recognizable, attempts at Cubism. Kahnweiler is uniquely close to Picasso’s skill, and Baxandall observes how Kahnweiler applies a problem-solving frame to make sense of what he observes. Picasso, of course, can’t explain his own skill, though the way he refers to it demonstrates how the problem-solving frame is still a “formal pattern” even though it does not look like it.

An attention to ‘problems’ in the observer, then, is really a habit of analysis in terms of ends and means … Picasso went on as he did and ‘found’ conclusions, or pictures; Kahnweiler sought to understand his behavior by forming implicit ‘problems’ (70).

The point is to stress a subtle difference between Picasso painting (a practice) and Kahnweiler using problem-solving to explain Picasso painting. But here we find an important parallel between Francesca painting the Baptism and the influence of commensurazione and Picasso painting Les Demoiselles and the influence of non-Euclidean geometry. Picasso’s sketch books at the time of his painting Les Demoiselles show sketches of the highly faceted geometrical figures found in Esprit Jouffret’s Traité élémentaire de géométrie à quatre dimensions (1903). This book was an attempt to popularize fourth-dimensional geometry in the tradition of Poincare, and it had been lent to Picasso by the mathematician Maurice Princet, i.e. “the mathematician of cubism” (Miller 2001).

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Figure 2: Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, c. 1907 and an illustration from Jouffret, Traité élémentaire de géométrie à quatre dimensions (1903)

A similar question then applies this situation as with Francesca, commensurazione and his painting of the Baptism: did Picasso use these geometrical facets to solve a problem that allowed him to paint Les Demoiselles? Kahnweiler, for one, would seem to think so based on his (public) observation of Picasso painting and his rudimentary application of the problem-solving frame. But here is Baxandall’s important and contrasting point:

For Picasso the Brief [sic] and the grand problems might largely be embodied in his likes and dislikes about pictures, particularly his own: he need not formulate them out as problems. His active relation to each of his pictures was indeed always in the present moment, and at the level of process and on emerging derivative problems on which he spent his time. As he says, it would feel like finding rather than seeking (70)

Thus, we can categorize what Picasso was doing when he painted Les Demoiselles as problem-solving. Baxandall’s point, however, is that although “problem-solving” makes good analytic sense, it is falsely indicative of what is actually practical in this instance, or in any instance.

In just a few words: Problem-solving implies a phenomenal experience characterized by “seeking.” For Picasso his experience was more like “finding,” as Picasso himself confesses. If true, then Kahnweiler, or any observer who categorizes action as problem-solving, leaves a lot on the table, at least as far as comprehending action as social practice goes. In just a phrase: how can one find a solution to a problem that one was not looking for?

Indeed (and pace Biernacki) Baxandall does not actually associate commensurazione with a solution to a problem in his analysis of Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ. He refers to commensurazione, rather, as a generalized “mathematics-based alertness in the total arrangement of a picture, in which what we call proportion and perspective are keenly felt as interdependent and interlocking” (Baxandall 1985: 113). In a remarkable sense, the argument here is similar to the one that Bourdieu ([1967] 2005) finds in the art historian Erwin Panofsky and Panofsky’s account of the connection between scholastic philosophy and Gothic architecture, which proved seminal to Bourdieu’s development of habitus. In the same manner, it might seem like scholastic principles were used by Gothic architects to solve problems in the design of buildings like Notre-Dame de Paris. For Bourdieu ([1967] 2005), this instead suggests a “habit-forming force” shared by both scholastic philosophers and Gothic architects alike that gave them a common modus operandi that they applied philosophically and architecturally, respectively.

What is that “habit-forming force”? Bourdieu calls it ambiguously the scholastic “school of thought,” but he adds more insight by drawing attention to the “copyist’s daily activity … defined by the interiorization of the principles of clarification and reconciliation of contraries” which characterized the routine activity of scholastic education and “is concretely actualized in the specific logic of [this] particular practice” (215).

Following Panofsky, he finds the “copyist’s daily activity” mirrored in both the diagonal rib (“ribbed vault”) structure characteristic of Gothic architecture and the highly deliberate movement from proposition to proposition, “keeping the progression of reasoning always present in mind,” evident in texts like St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (1485) as the most exemplary demonstration of Scholasticism. Rather than problem-solving, this particular practice “guides and directs, unbeknownst to [them], their apparently most unique creative acts” (Bourdieu [1967] 2005: 226).

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Figure 3: Index to St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae and a diagonal ribbed structure

Whether we agree with these accounts or not (see Gross 2009: 367-68) should not negate the fact that action here is conceptualized as social practice, but not in a way that is accessible to problem-solving. I argue that this alternative presents the problem-solving frame with a number of questions, which can be fairly summarized as follows:

(1) Ends/means endogenous to situations (e.g. “ends-in-view”)

Does something lead agents into situations by, for instance, making them care?

(2) Proximate goals shape final goals

But do proximate goals need to be oriented toward a predicted future?

(3) Action involves recombination, transposition, and modification

But how do we know when it “works”?

(4) Problematic situations can be objectively described

Do problems appear to those for whom they can be problems? What decides that?

As this blog endeavors to argue: it is impossible to conclude whether these are genuine problems with problem-solving absent some connection with a cognitive mechanism that is analogous to theorists’ efforts to conceptualize action as social practice. In the next post, I’ll draw that connection by linking “predictive processing” with practice theory.



Baxandall, Michael. 1985. Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures. UC Press.

Biernacki, Richard. 1995. The Fabrication of Labor: Germany and Britain, 1640-1914. Berkeley: UC Press

_____. 2005. “Beyond the Classical Model of Conduct.” in Remaking Modernity. UChicago Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1996. The Rules of Art. Stanford UP.

_____. 1967[2005]. “Postface to Erwin Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism”   in The Premodern Condition by Bruce Holsinger. UChicago Press.

Gross, Neil. 2009. “A Pragmatist Theory of Social Mechanisms.” American Sociological Review 74: 358-379.

Jansen, Robert. 2017. Revolutionizing Repertoires: The Rise of Populist Mobilization in Peru. UChicago Press.

McDonnell, Terence, Christopher Bail and Iddo Tavory. 2017. “A Theory of Resonance.” Sociological Theory 35: 1-14.

Miller, Arthur. 2002. Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty that Causes Havoc. Basic Books.

Popper, Karl. 1978. Three Worlds. The Tanner Lectures in Human Values.

Swidler, Ann. 2005. “What Anchors Cultural Practices.” in The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. Routledge.

Whitford, Josh. 2002. “Pragmatism and the untenable dualism of means
and ends: Why rational choice theory does not deserve paradigmatic privilege.” Theory and Society 31: 325-363.

Categories, Part I: The Fall of the Classical Theory

In a “monster of the week” episode of the The X-Files, Mulder and Scully encounter a genie, Jenn. She tells Mulder — who has three wishes — “Everyone I come in contact with asks for the wrong things…” Thinking the trick is to ask for something altruistic, Mulder wishes for “peace on earth.” Jenn grants his wish by vanishing all humans except Mulder. Distraught, Mulder uses his second wish to undo his first wish. He then decides the problem is that the wish was not specific enough, and we see him writing a lengthy “contract” in a word processor. In the end he wishes Jenn to be free, but if he were able to ask for this really specific contractual wish, things probably still wouldn’t have went as he intended. This is because there will probably always be “wiggle room” when Jenn begins to interpret the wish —  she could find a loophole. As we know from Durkheim, “the contract is not sufficient by itself…”

If we think of a contract as a set of explicit rules allowing some things and baring others, then a perfect contract is what we would call a classical category. For example, the category “world peace” describes certain states of affairs, which includes some things (like people are to be calm) and excludes others (like people are not to be fighting). This used to be the dominant way philosophers, psychologists, and most other disciplines were thinking about categories, and it continues to pop up as a kind of “Good Old-Fashioned Category Theory” — or, we might say, GOLFCAT — even in sociology.

What are “Classical” Categories?

John Taylor, in Linguistic Categorization (Chapter 2) and George Lakoff in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (Chapter 1), provide great overviews of this theory of categories. In short, this theory is based on a metaphor (Lakoff [1987] 2008:6):

They were assumed to be abstract containers, with things either inside or outside the category. Things were assumed to be in the same category if and only if they had certain properties in common. And the properties they had in common were taken as defining the category.

To put this more formally, Taylor (2003:21) offers the following four conditions:

  • Categories are defined in terms of a conjunction of necessary and sufficient features.
  • Features are binary.
  • Categories have clear boundaries.
  • All members of a category have equal status.

One can easily see this view of categories as built into the early 20th century approach to phonology — which often conforms well to the folk theory of phonology today. Basically, speaking is a linear sequence of discrete sounds. A single language has a finite set of discrete sounds. More formally, these sounds are defined by distinguishing features that correspond to how they are produced in the mouth and throat — e.g., /m/ as in “mom” is found in almost every language, and is a “voiced bilabial nasal” because it is produced with both lips (pressed together) and by blocking the airflow and redirecting it through the nasal cavity, and it is voiced because the vocal cords vibrate. Furthermore these features are said to be “binary” in that they can either be present or absent (either the vocal cords vibrate or they do not: think of /th/ in thee compared to thy). This was the theory championed by the incomparable Roman Jakobson. Take this example (published in the same year Jakobson arrived at Harvard):

Our basic assumption is that every language operates with a strictly limited number of underlying ultimate distinctions which form a set of binary oppositions (Jakobson and Lotz 1949:151)

This theory was more fully elaborated in the book Preliminaries to Speech Analysis: The Distinctive Features and Their Correlates. Later, two MIT linguistic professors, Noam Chomsky (who, while a doctoral student at Penn supervised by Zellig Harris, conducted research at Harvard as a member of the Society of Fellows) and Morris Halle  (a doctoral student of Jakobson’s at Harvard) would write in The Sound Pattern of English (1968:297):

In the view of the fact that phonological features are classificatory devices, they are binary… for the natural way of indicating whether or not an item belongs to a particular category is by means of binary features.

Chomsky, of course, did not stop with phonology but continued down this path intending to discover the simple categories of syntax, which could explain all the regularity and variance in human languages. Surveying these developments in linguistics, Taylor offers three common additional conditions:

  • Features are primitive (i.e. irreducible to any other features)
  • Features are universal (i.e. there is an all-encompassing feature inventory)
  • Feature are abstract (features do not directly correspond to any particular case)

Finally, and both famously and controversially, this classical category theory as applied to language is extended by Chomsky et al. much further, forming the basis of the “nativist-generative-transformational” theory (Taylor 2003:26):

  • Features are innate

The Beginning of the Fall (in Linguistics)

Screenshot from 2019-04-17 15-38-26

Chomsky published Aspects of the Theory of Syntax in 1965, and it quickly became a kind of sacred text for the nascent MIT linguistics department. In it, he lays out the basic task of the “Standard Theory,” as discovering “generative grammar” which “must be a system of rules that can iterate to generate an indefinitely large number of structures” (Chomsky 2014 [1965]: 15-16).

One strong assumption built into his program is that there are “grammatically” correct sentences, and that lexical units could be adequately arranged in either-or categories (e.g., noun, verb etc…). A second assumption built into is that the highly variant “surface structure” of given utterances can be reduced into constituent categories or a “deep structure,” and a set of rules of composition and transformation. Finally, Chomsky felt there was clear and necessary boundaries between phonology, semantics, and syntax — and syntax was the real goal of linguistics (see Chapter 2 in Syntactic Structures in particular).

For all these reasons, he was skeptical that descriptive and statistical studies could reveal the underlying structure and offered a now infamous example:

  1. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
  2. *Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.

According to Chomsky, “It is fair to assume that neither sentence…ever occurred in an English discourse… Hence, in any statistical model for grammaticalness, these sentences will be ruled out on identical grounds as equally ‘remote’ from English.” Even though, according to Chomsky, a reasonable person could tell that sentence (1) is syntactically correct, while (2) is not. (Although, one paper (Pereira 2000:1245) does test this assertion and finds that sentence (1) is about 200,000 times more probable than sentence (2), and thus Chomsky’s assertion is either naive or in bad faith.)

Harsh Words for the Master

George Lakoff was an undergrad at MIT, majoring in mathematics and poetry when Noam Chomsky founded the Department of Linguistics in 1961. As part of the founding, Chomsky invited Jakobson from Harvard to teach a class. As Lakoff describes it:

So my advisor in the English Department said: “Roman Jakobson is coming to teach poetics, you’re interested in poetry, you should take this course, but if you’re going to do it, you should know all your linguistics, so also take Morris Halle’s Introduction to Linguistics”

In the 1960s, Chomskyan generative linguistics had become hegemonic, superseding the Bloomfieldian paradigm, and after his first years studying English at Indiana University, Lakoff intended to contribute to this new project. He returned to Cambridge in the summer of  1963 to marry Robin (Tolmach) Lakoff — a linguistics PhD student at Harvard at the time who, among other things, would go on to found the study of gender and language with Language and Woman’s Place.

While there, Lakoff found a job on an early machine translation project at MIT, where he met several others who would oppose Chomsky in the “linguistics wars.” When he returned to Indiana, he decided to turn to linguistics, and studied under Fred Householder, who famously published an early critique of Chomsky and Halle’s theory of phonology in 1965. In his final year, Lakoff returned to Cambridge, where Paul Postal directed his dissertation, and he also worked closely with Haj Ross and James McCawley.

Together, Lakoff, Ross, McCawley and Postal each explored cases that didn’t seem to fit Chomsky’s Standard Theory, and attempted to offer “patches” that would adequately account for these anomalies. In fact, Lakoff’s dissertation was “On the nature of syntactic irregularity.” This resulted in Extended Standard Theory.

In there exploration of exceptions, however, they soon landed on the kernel of an idea that would force a break with the Standard Theory entirely and form the basis of what they called generative semantics: “syntax should not be determining semantics, semantics should be determining syntax” (Harris 1995:104). In other words, “the deeper syntax got the closer it came to meaning” (Harris 1995:128). The result was something of a tempestuous counter-revolution, as Lakoff put it in a New York Times article, “Former Chomsky Disciples Hurl Harsh Words at the Master”:

Since Chomsky’s syntax does not and cannot admit context, he can’t even account, for the word ‘please’…Nor can he handle hesitations like ‘oh’ and ‘eh,’ But it’s virtually impossible to talk to Chomsky about these things. He’s a genius, and he fights dirty when he argues.

As John Searle observed, “…the author of the revolution now occupied a minority position in the movement he created. Most of the active people in generative grammar regard Chomsky’s position as having been rendered obsolete” (Searle 1972:20). (Interestingly, it appears that the groundswell of interest in the alternative approach at MIT coincided with Chomsky leaving on sabbatical to Berkeley.)

In the end, as the boundary between semantics and syntax began to blur, these counter-revolutionaries would soon need to grapple with theories of meaning found outside of linguistics. This would ultimately, but not immediately, lead them to engage with non-classical theories of categorization. In my next post, I will discuss the logical weaknesses of the classical theory and the alternative approach.


Chomsky, Noam. 2014. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam and Morris Halle. 1968. The Sound Pattern of English. Harper & Row.

Harris, Randy Allen. 1995. The Linguistics Wars. Oxford University Press.

Jakobson, R. and J. Lotz. 1949. “Notes on the French Phonemic Pattern.” Word & World 5(2):151–58.

Lakoff, George. [1987] 2008. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. University of Chicago Press.

Pereira, F. 2000. “Formal Grammar and Information Theory: Together Again?” Transactions of the Royal Society of London ….

Searle, John R. 1972. “A Special Supplement: Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics.” The New York Review of Books. Retrieved April 16, 2019 (

Taylor, John R. 2003. Linguistic Categorization. OUP Oxford.

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Limits of innateness: Are we born to see faces?

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