Culture, Cognition and “Socialization”16 min read

Culture and cognition studies in sociology are mainly concerned with the construction,  transmission, and transformation of shared stocks of knowledge. This was clear in the classical theoretical foundations of contemporary work in the sociology of culture laid out in Parsons’s middle period functionalism (Parsons 1951) and in Berger and Luckmann’s decisive reworking of the Parsonian scheme from a phenomenological perspective (Berger and Luckmann 1966). In both traditions, the process of the transmission of knowledge and, with it, the creation and recreation of both conventional and novel forms of meaning was thought of as of the utmost importance. This was usually referred to, in its intergenerational aspect, as “socialization” (of newcomers into the established culture).

Despite its acknowledged importance, contemporary culture and cognition scholars in sociology have seldom laid out explicitly what are the consequences of taking cognition seriously for understanding socialization processes. The result is that sociologists live in a conceptual halfway house, with some misleading remnants of the functionalist and phenomenological traditions on socialization still forming part of the core conception of this process. This is coupled to the fact that, save for some signal exceptions (Corsaro and Rizzo 1988; Pugh 2009), sociologists seldom study children and primary socialization processes directly and thus lack a consistent body of empirical work to move theorizing forward. This is in contrast to the growing body of “apprenticeship ethnography” work that does deal with the issue of “secondary” socialization of adults (usually the ethnographer themselves) into new settings (e.g. Wacquant, Mears, Desmond, Winchester, etc.).

Outside of sociology, there is work, done under the broad umbrella of “psychological” or “cognitive” anthropology, that has dealt with the relevance of cognition to primary socialization processes in a more or less direct way. This work, despite its limitations, can serve as a good exemplar for sociologists as to the analytic benefits of this approach to the socialization process. Here I would like to focus on the exemplary work of anthropologist Christina Toren (2005) who provides one useful example of how a cognitive approach to the study of culture and socialization can be deployed in a profitable way. In particular, Toren’s work challenges the hegemonic account of socialization that pervades sociological thinking on the culture and cognition link while providing valuable starting insights to build on.

Toren notes that traditional anthropological and sociological theories of socialization presume that “with respect to cognition, to their grasp of particular concepts, children simply become—with perhaps some minor variations—what their elders already are” (1993, 461). Toren castigates this account for being “a-historical.” She points to studies of language acquisition that call into question the assumption that socialization consists in the transmission of ready-made models of adult culture to children. These studies show that children not just acquire the linguistic categories of the parental generation ready-made, but rather, engage in their own creative reconstruction of these categories (for recent work on this score see Tomasello 2005). In Toren’s view, “human cognition is a historical process because it constitutes—and in constituting inevitably transforms—the ideas and practices of which it appears to be the product” (1993: 461-462).

For Toren, to move beyond the restrictive account of socialization as the reproduction of the adult world, it is important to incorporate the inherently embodied essence of mind into our theorizing. This requires the recognition of the fact that, empirically, socio-mental and cultural phenomena are not exhausted by explicitly articulated knowledge processes and contents (see e.g. Bloch 1991). These language-mediated processes—which makes up the bulk of empirical material in contemporary sociology of culture—are just “the tip of the iceberg as against those unconscious processes we constitute as knowledge in the body—e.g. particular ways of moving” (1999: 102).

Toren point of departure is the proposition emphasized in Bourdieu’s (1990) work, that “we literally embody our history that is the history of our relations with all those others whom we have encountered in our lives” (1999: 2). She notes an implicit model of the nature of mind and cognition is essentially inescapable and such a model informs the underlying theory of cultural acquisition and a theory of cultural transmission used by the analyst.

Traditional accounts of socialization inherited from the Parsonian and the phenomenological traditions, in excluding the body as a locus of signification, reinstate the mind/body dualism squarely in the center of the theoretical toolkit of sociologists. In this respect, it is not surprising that a formalization of the Schutzian and Parsonian accounts of the functioning of culture and institutions can be done by drawing on the tools of cognitivist, disembodied artificial intelligence, such as the “production-system” formalism (Fararo and Skvoretz 1984). In this respect, there is an indelible link between disembodied approaches to cognition, mind, and cultural transmission and the metaphor of mind as “computer.”

For Toren, the disembodied socialization account relies on an untenable “copy” theory of knowledge acquisition, providing no plausible mechanisms as to how the complex set of categories comprising adult knowledge is acquired by the child undergoing the socialization process. This theory is suspiciously silent on (distributed) differences in the cultural understanding of agents at different (developmental) trajectories in the socialization process (i.e. children and adults or adolescents and children). Socialization theory presumes a passive agent which records this external culture.

These suppositions are dubious in the light of contemporary accounts of knowledge acquisition by infants. Toren argues that given these developments, “the process of physical development, the meaning—or knowledge-making process should be understood as giving rise to psychological structures that are at once dynamic and stable over time” (1999: 9). To refer to these psychological structures she—like Bourdieu (1990)—uses the Piagetian term of “scheme.” As Toren notes the notion of scheme is a “brilliant and essentially simple idea” (1999: 9). Schemes are self-equilibrating wholes simultaneously capable of being structured and of structuring reality by the dual processes of accommodation and assimilation (see e.g. Lizardo 2004)

Embodied and embedded socialization

Toren shows the payoff of this embodied and embedded approach to culture and cognition in her analysis of the acquisition of cultural categories regarding status and gender among Fijian children (Toren 1999: 50-55). According to Toren, designations of power and status rather than being available as discursive linguistic representations, are encoded in the physical arrangement of artifacts and persons in the interior of Fijian domestic and ceremonial dwellings. This is in line with Bourdieu’s (1971) analysis of the physical embeddedness of cosmological principles in the material structure and spatial arrangement of the Berber house, Schwartz’s classic work on vertical classification (Schwartz 1981), and with recent experimental work on the role of embodied perceptual symbols in the perception, understanding, and external signification of power (Schubert 2005).

In Fiji,

all horizontal spaces inside buildings and certain contexts out of doors can be mapped onto a spatial axis whose poles are given by the terms ‘above’ (i cake) and ‘below’ (i ra). Inside a building, people of high social status ‘sit above’ and those of lower social status ‘below’. However, this distinction refers to a single plane and so non-one is seated literally above anyone else…hierarchy in day-to-day village life finds its clearest physical manifestation in people’s relation to one another on this spatial axis and is most evident in the context of meals, kava drinking and worship (2005: 51).

Toren notes that “meals in the Fijian household are always ritualized” which makes the domestic group the primary face-to-face environment in which hierarchical distinctions are enacted and constructed. During meals, the cloth in which persons sit “is laid to conform with the above/below axis of the house space.” Household members proceed to take their place at the table “according to their status: the senior man sits at the pole ‘above’ others are ‘below’ him males in general being above females.” In this manner “the seating arrangements and the conduct of the meal are a concrete realization of hierarchical relations within the domestic group” (2005: 51, italics added). Through the habitual enactment of positioning of male and female bodies across the spatial axis, hierarchy is both practically enacted and transmitted, without the need to engage in “explicit teachings” transmitted through language. This involves the dynamic construction of an analogical mapping linking spatial locations, rank, and (gendered) bodies, which then becomes culturally conventional.

The same system is used to materialize and communicate hierarchical relationships based on village rank among men during the Kava drinking ritual. The drinking of Kava, which is associated “with ancestral mana and the power of God…is always hedged about by ceremony” (2005: 55). Thus, Toren points out that “however informal the occasion, the highest status persons present must sit ‘above’ the central serving bowl.”

Because hierarchy is structured and encoded in material space, it seldom fails to signify: “on the axis of social space, one is always ‘above’ or ‘below’ others, according to one’s position relative to the top, central position.” The explicit axis of hierarchy changes according to the occasion and the composition of the group of assembled persons (i.e. age, gender, rank, etc.). Accordingly, “the image of an ordered and stratified society exemplified in people’s positions relative to one another around the kava bowl is one encountered virtually everyday in the village o Sawaieke.” In addition, the schemes that are used to materially produce hierarchy are not only productive of action, but they also bias perception. This is shown by the fact, that as Toren notes, the arrangement of sitting positions in The Last Supper (ubiquitous in most Fijian household because of missionary activity and conversions to Christianity) is interpreted according to the same above/below axis.

Why Culture is not purely ‘symbolic’

The limitations of the usual “symbolic” approach to the study of culture and ritual is seen most clearly in Toren’s study of the lay categories with which children conceptualize gender and status hierarchy in Fiji. According to Toren, “we should give up the lingering notion that to understand ritual is to analyze its meaning [purely] as relation between metaphors.” Instead, Toren argues that the specifically “symbolic” aspect of culture and ritual is something that emerges from a “process of cognitive construction in persons over time.”

For young children, “ritual is not symbolic in the conventional anthropological sense” (2005: 87). Instead, “young children take ritualized behavior for granted as part of the day-to-day material reality of their existence” (italics added). Fijian children, rather than taking ritual practices as representational, take them rather literally: “the ritualized drinking of kava is, for children, merely what people do when drinking kava. The activity is of the same material and cognitive order as…house-building.” For Toren, even the claim that it is only for adults that ritual comes to have a “symbolic” aspect in the strict (i.e. ritual practices as “referring” to non-empirical meanings) is half true. Instead, “it is only when we understand the process through which ‘the symbolic’ is cognitively constructed” on top of an embodied basis, “that we can also understand the coercive power of ritual” (2005: 87).

Toren asked a sample of Fijian children ranging from five to eleven years old to examine a prepared drawing and provide the identity of unlabeled figures sitting around a table during the kava drinking ritual and during meals in the household, and to provide their own drawings identifying were different persons (mother, father, chief, etc.) would be seated in similar circumstances. Toren finds (2005: 88-90) that by the age of six, Fijian children can reproduce the structural correspondence between gender and rank hierarchy and the above/below spatial axis discussed above, although younger children produce less ranking gradations than do older children. Toren concludes from these data that “an understanding of above/below in terms of its polar extremes occurs just before school age” (2005: 94). For these children, the position of mother below “is the anchor for situations within the household…for prepared drawings of meals, all children chose the figure below to be mother…By contrast, the figure said to be above was either father, father’s elder brother, father’s father, mother’s brother or a ‘guest’.” Toren asks:

But how does this merging of status with spatial categories come about? Piaget has always emphasized that a child’s early cognitions are tied to concrete referents, a point also made by Bourdieu (1977). This is as much the case for my own data concerning a so-called ‘symbolic’ construct as it is for the so-called ‘logical’ constructs investigated by Piaget and his co-workers. What emerges most forcefully from the children’s data is the crucial importance of the spatial axis given by above/below as this is made manifest in concrete form in houses, churches, at meals and in kava-drinking (2005: 94).

The danger of taking an adult’s linguistic and conceptual elaborations (and justifications) for cultural practices, is exemplified in Toren’s account. When asked about the reason for the hierarchical seating arrangement of persons in the kava-drinking ceremonies, the adults’ discursive elaboration is in effect a reversal of that of children. While children provide explicitly tautological responses to the question of the ultimate reasons the Chief is the person who sits on top, adults provide elaborate descriptions regarding the superior mana of different persons, and in particular of the chief. Thus, “adults notion include [in addition to the notion of mana] ideas of…legitimacy, personal achievement, the significance of mythical relations of ancestors of clans…and so on” (95). This speaks to the fundamental difference in both format and phenomenology between culture as acquired in embedded and embodied forms and more explicit forms of articulation of embodied personal culture into explicit public cultural forms.


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Corsaro, William A., and Thomas A. Rizzo. 1988. “Discussione and Friendship: Socialization Processes in the Peer Culture of Italian Nursery School Children.” American Sociological Review 53 (6): 879–94.

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Toren, Christina. 1993. “Making History: The Significance of Childhood Cognition for a Comparative Anthropology of Mind.” Man, 461–78.

———. 2005. Mind, Materiality, and History: Explorations in Fijian Ethnography. Routledge.

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