Cognition and Cultural Kinds13 min read

What the proper relationship should be between “culture” and “cognition” has been a fundamental issue ever since the emergence of psychology as a hybrid science in the middle of the nineteenth century (Cole, 1996). This question became even more pressing with the consolidation of anthropology and sociology as standalone socio-cultural sciences in the late nineteenth century (Ignatow, 2012; Turner, 2007). Initially, the terms of the debate were set when Wundtian psychology, having lost its “cultural” wing, became established in the English speaking world (and the U.S. in particular) as a quasi-experimental science centered on individual mental processes, thus ceding the unruly realm of the cultural to whoever dared take it (something that a reluctant anthropology, with a big push from functionalist sociology, ultimately did, but not until the middle of the twentieth century, only to drop it again at the end of Millenium (Kuper, 2009) just as it was being picked up again by an enthusiastic sociology). The changing fates of distinct meta-methodological traditions in psychology through the twentieth century (e.g., introspectionist, to behaviorism, to information processing, to neural computation) has done little to alter this, despite sporadic calls to revitalize the ecological, cultural, or “socio-cultural” wing of psychology in the intervening years (Bruner, 1990; Cole, 1996; Neisser, 1967)

In anthropology and sociology, the early mid-twentieth century saw the development of a variety of approaches, from Sapir and Boas-inspired Psychological Anthropology to Parsons’s functionalist sociology, that attempted to integrate the psychological with the socio-cultural (usually under the auspices of a psychoanalytic conceptualization of the former domain). As noted previously, by the 1960s and 1970s, psychological integration movements had lost steam in both disciplines, with perspectives conceiving of culture in mainly anti-psychological (or non-psychological) terms taking center stage. Meanwhile, psychology continued its march toward the full naturalization of mental phenomena, first under the banner of the computer metaphor of first-generation cognitive science (and the associated conception of cognition as computation over symbolic mental representations), and today under the idea of full or partial integration with the sciences of the brain yielding the interfield of cognitive neuroscience (united by the hybrid ideas of cognition as neural computation over biologically realized representations in the brain (Churchland & Sejnowski, 1990)).

Cognition in Anthropology and Sociology

The Emergence of Cognitive Anthropology

But the domain of the psychological was never completely eradicated from the socio-cultural sciences. Instead, anthropology and sociology developed small islands dedicated to the link between psychology (now indexed by the idea of “cognition”) and culture. This happened first in anthropology via the development, by Ward Goodenough and a subsequent generation of students and collaborators (Goodenough, 2003), of a “cognitive anthropology,” that took language as the main model of what culture was (inspired by American structuralist linguistics), centered on the ethnosemantics of folk categories, and was aided by the method componential analysis (decomposition into semantic features differentiating terms from one another) of linguistic terms belonging to specific practical domains. This methodological approach was later followed by the “consensus analysis” of Romney Kimball and associates (D’Andrade, 1995).

Today, the primary representative of a cognitive approach in anthropology is the “cultural models” school developed in the work of Dorothy Holland, Naomi Quinn, Claudia Strauss, and Bradd Shore. This approach emerged during the 1980s and 1990s via the incorporation of a (rediscovered from Jean Piaget and Frederic Bartlett) notion of “schemata” in artificial intelligence and first-generation cognitive science (which developed the related notions of “script”), and the importation of the idea of “cognitive models” from the then emerging cognitive movement in linguistics (Holland, 1987), as represented primarily in the work of George Lakoff (1987). This conception of schemata and cultural models was later supplemented by the incorporation of new understandings of how agents come to internalize culture as a set of distributed, multimodal, sub-symbolic, context-sensitive, but always meaningful representations constitutive of personal culture (Strauss & Quinn, 1997), inspired by connectionist models of cognition developed by the cognitive scientist David Rumelhart and associates in the 1980s (McClelland et al., 1986).

A critical insight in this regard developed, somewhat independently, by the anthropologists Maurice Bloch (1991) and Strauss and Quinn (1997), is that the core theoretical takeaway of Pierre Bourdieu’s reflections in Outline of a Theory of Practice is that the practice-based model of cultural internalization and deployment developed therein was mostly consistent with this emerging “connectionist” understanding of how cultural schemata where implemented in the brain as primarily non-linguistic, multimodal, distributed representations in a connectionist architecture, operating as tacit knowledge, and equally internalized via experienced-based, mostly implicit processes.

The Emergence of the “New” Cognitive Sociology

Renewed engagements with cognition in sociology, occurring later than in anthropology, have been the beneficiary of all of these interdisciplinary developments. After the ethnomethodological false start of the 1970s (Cicourel, 1974), cognitive sociology went into hibernation until it was jump-started in the 1990s by scholars such as, inter alia, Eviatar Zerubavel (1999), Karen Cerulo (1998), and Paul DiMaggio (1997).

DiMaggio’s highly cited review paper was particularly pivotal. In that paper, DiMaggio made three points that “stuck” and heralded the current era of “cultural cognitive sociology”:

  • The first one, now hardly disputed by anyone, is that sociologists interested in how culture works and how it affects action cannot afford to ignore cognition. The reason DiMaggio pointed to was logical: Claims about culture entail claims about cognition. As such, “[s]ociologists who write about the ways that culture enters into everyday life necessarily make assumptions about cognitive processes,” (italics mine) that therefore it is always better if they got more transparent and more explicit on what those cognitive presuppositions are (1997: 266ff).
  • The second point is that while these underlying cognitive presuppositions are seldom directly scrutinized by sociologists (they are “meta-theoretical” to sociologists’ higher level substantive concerns), they “are keenly empirical from the standpoint of cognitive psychology” (1997: 266). This means that rather than being seen as part of the (non-empirical) presuppositional background of cultural theory (Alexander, 1982), they are capable of adjudication and evaluation by setting them against what the best empirical research in cognitive psychology has to say. The underlying message is that we can compare a given pair of cultural theories and see which one seems to be more consistent with the evidence in cognitive science to decide which one to go with (as DiMaggio himself did in the paper for “latent variable” and toolkit theories of how culture works). Thus, cognitive psychology could play a regulatory and largely salutary work in cultural theorizing, helping to adjudicate otherwise impossible to settle debates (Vaisey, 2009, 2019; Vaisey & Frye, 2017).
  • Finally, DiMaggio argued that the cognitive theory developed by the school of cultural models in cognitive anthropology, and the centerpiece notion of “schema” was the best way for sociologists to think about how the culture people internalize is mentally organized (1997: 269ff). Additionally, DiMaggio noted, in line with the then consolidating “dual process” perspective in cognitive and social psychology (Smith & DeCoster, 2000), that internalized schemata can come to affect action in two ideal-typical ways, one automatic and efficient, and the other deliberate, explicit, and effortful. Thus, in one fell swoop, DiMaggio set the research agenda in the field for the next twenty years (and to this day). In particular, the isolation of schemas as a central concept linking the concerns of cognitive science and sociology, and of dual-process models of cultural use as being a skeleton key to a lot of the “culture in action” problems that had accreted in sociology throughout the post-Parsonian era, proved profoundly prescient leading to an efflorescence of empirical, measurement, and theoretical work on both schemas and dual-process cognition in cultural sociology(e.g., Boutyline & Soter, 2020; Cerulo, 2018; Frye, 2017; Goldberg, 2011; Hunzaker & Valentino, 2019; Leschziner, 2019; Leschziner & Green, 2013; Lizardo et al., 2016; Miles, 2015, 2018; Taylor et al., 2019; Vaisey, 2009; Wood et al., 2018).

In all, interest in the link between culture and cognition and the role and import of cognitive processes and mechanisms for core questions in sociology has only grown in the last two decades in sociology, with a critical mass of scholars now identifying themselves as doing active research on cognition and cognitive processes. As the cultural sociologist Matthew Norton (2020, p. 46) has recently noted, in sociology, “the encounter with cognitive science has ushered in something of a cognitive turn, or at least a robust cognitive option, for cultural sociological theory and analysis.” The resurgence of the cognitive in sociology means that the question of the relationship between culture and cognitive acquires renewed urgency.


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