Cognition and Cultural Kinds (Continued)21 min read

Culture and Cognition: Rethinking the Terms of the Debate

As noted in the previous post, very few sociologists today doubt that insights from cognitive science are relevant for the study of cultural phenomena. In that respect, DiMaggio’s (1997) call to consider the implications of cognition for cultural analysis has not gone unheeded. Today, questions center on the particular ways cognitive processes may be relevant for cultural explanation and in what (empirical, explanatory, substantive) contexts they are more or less relevant. Some have even begun to speak of a “cognitive” (or “neuro-cognitive”) wing of cultural sociology as being in (productive) tension with other (presumably non-cognitive) ways (e.g., “system”) ways of thinking about culture (Norton, 2019).

At the same time, a now well-established line of work in cognitive science emphasizing the embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended nature of cognition is making analysts rethink traditional conceptions of the cognitive, beyond “brain bound” or “skull bound” conceptions of cognition as internal computation over symbolic representations. The “four E” (embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended) paradigm in cognitive science views cognition as an environmentally situated and world-involving affair, in which internal neural processes and representations are seen as just one of many players involved in the constitution and realization of cognitive activity, on a par with, and complemented by, external bodily pragmatics, material artifacts, environmental structures, technologies, and the concerted action of other agents (Clark, 2008; Clark & Chalmers, 1998; Rowlands, 2009; Wheeler, 2015). For these reasons, as concluded in the last post, it is a good time to revisit the terms of the relationship between the “cognitive” and the “cultural.”

The cultural sociologist Matt Norton (2020), in a recently published paper, has made an insightful attempt to tackle this issue. A critical insight of Norton’s is that, ultimately, how we settle the question of what the exact link between culture and cognition is (or should be), depends not only on what we think “culture” is (as has traditionally been supposed), but, even more importantly, on what we believe cognition is. As such, recent upheavals in cognitive science attempting to redraw the boundaries of the cognitive (by, e.g., incorporating bodies, artifacts, and the situated activity of others in an extended mind framework) has implications for how the terms of engagement between the cognitive and the cultural in sociology and the cognitive social sciences more generally are understood in theory and prosecuted in practice.

Smallism: Blowing the Cognitive Down to Size

One (traditional) approach, and one that was still endorsed by DiMaggio (1997), is simply to follow conventional disciplinary boundaries: Psychologists (or increasingly today cognitive neuroscientists) study the cognitive, and sociologists investigate the socio-cultural. The borrowing and trafficking of concepts and methods happen across disciplinary lines, respecting the corresponding “levels of analysis” that have been traditionally associated with each discipline (e.g., individuals for psychologists and supra-individual analytic levels for cultural sociology). Cultural theorists in sociology can thus help themselves to the panoply of processes and neuro-cognitive mechanisms investigated by the cognitive sciences, but only insofar as these are ensconced at the lowest level of analysis usually considered, such as people and their intra-cranial cogitations.

As Norton notes, this “traditional” arrangement also comes with an equally “traditional” conception of what cognition is; internal computation over mental representations in the standard information-processing picture (or neural computation over brain-bound neural representations in the more recent neuroscientific picture). For Norton, one way to read the emergence of the latest version of cognitive sociology is as the elaboration and incorporation of a variety of individual (or even infra-individual, subpersonal (Lizardo et al., 2019)) mechanisms underlying higher-level cultural processes. There is, however, one big problem with the traditional (brain or individual-bound) version of the cognitive (presumably uncritically adopted in the new cognitive cultural sociology), and the associated explanatory division of labor that it implies: It is “notably narrow,” because “the individual brain and its functionality (or dysfunctionality) dominates the slate of mechanisms that cognitive cultural sociology has proposed for understanding the culture and cognition intersection…”

Norton is correct in noting that there is a conceptual link between “narrow” (e.g., internal, brain-bound) understandings of cognition and the traditional debate in the social sciences as to whether “higher level” explanations must “bottom-out” at the level of individuals and their interactions. Norton (2020: 46ff) even uses the language of “micro-foundations” taken from the debate over methodological individualism in the social sciences to refer to these underlying cognitive processes.

The philosopher R. A. Wilson (2004) refers to this overarching (and seldom questioned) metaphysical tendency across the social, cognitive, psychological, and neurosciences as “smallism,” or (explanatory) “discrimination in favor of the small, and so against the not-so-small. Small things and their properties are seen to be ontologically prior to the larger things that they constitute, and this metaphysics drives both explanatory ideal and methodological perspective” (italics added). The smallist explanatory ideal is “to discover the basic causal powers of particular small things, and the methodological perspective is that of some form of reductionism” (Wilson, 2004, p. 22).

Norton’s (2020) critique of the contemporary “cultural cognitive sociology” is best understood in this light. For Norton (2019), cognitive smallism accounts for what the deep divide between a “cognitive” conception of culture (e.g., culture as the distribution of cultural cognitive kinds such as beliefs located in people) and “system” conceptions emphasizing the properties of systematicity and sharedness among public performances, representations, and symbols found in the world. Coupled with (implicit or explicit) smallism, however, Norton sees the danger of not considering these two versions of culture as having equal explanatory weight. Instead, the cultural cognitive, presumably individual or brain bound cognitive processes are seen as smaller, and thus micro-foundational, forming the metaphysical “rock bottom” from which higher-level cultural properties derive.

For Norton, and despite their protestations to the contrary, the new cultural cognitive sociologists are thus guilty of this tendency, precisely because they retain a “smallist” (biased) conception of cognition in which the cognitive is smaller (even in some v, such as “infra-individualism” smaller than even the individual!) and therefore, by metaphysical implication, more fundamental and foundational. In contrast “cultural” things, being “not so small” are seen as merely supervening on, and thus its properties and causal powers constrained by, the more basic (because small) cognitive mechanisms and processes imported from psychology and the cognitive neurosciences:

[I]n the hunt for theoretical integration it is helpful to relax the idea—rarely expressed in cultural sociological research but easy to slip into due to the mystery, smallness, and contemporary cultural appeal of cognitive neuroscience derived explanatory mechanisms—that the brain is the ultimate microfoundational unit for cultural analysis; it is likewise helpful to relax the related ideas that…cognition is what culture ultimately is, that the skull is a reasonable limit on the bounds of cognitive inquiry, and that the brain is the exclusive, or even a necessarily privileged, site of cognition (Norton 2020: 47).

When cultural theorists fall prey to cognitive smallism, they can’t resist the temptation to think of the more external, extended, public, and intersubjective aspects of culture as epiphenomenal, because “less small” and thus undergirded by the more foundational (because small) cognitive kinds. This would be a raw deal for the “cultural” side of the equation in the exchange because it would get eaten up (from the bottom) by the cognitive. This is explanatory dangerous in that it has

…the potential to transform the pre-existing divide in cultural sociological theory between individual and intersubjective understandings of culture into a vertical arrangement with the individual-level factors forming the more scientifically real, deeper layer of microfoundational mechanisms and intersubjective, public manifestations transformed into culture’s amalgamated macro froth, a residual thrown up by an underlying neuro-cognitive reality (2020: 49).

The main implication being, that “widening” our understanding of cognition (Clark, 2008; Wilson, 2004) should have profound implications for how the cognitive links to or overlaps with the cultural.

Extension and Distribution: Cutting the Cognitive Up to Size

Norton thus recommends that one way to cut cognition down to size is, ironically, by “supersizing” it (Clark, 2008), and thus ensuring a more even and less biased (toward small things) exchange across the boundaries of the cultural and the cognitive. That is by considering heterodox (but increasingly less so) emerging approaches that see cognitive processes as partially realized and constituted by bodily processes and artifactually scaffolded activities taking place in the world (Clark, 2008; Menary, 2010; Rowlands, 2010), or even more strongly, following the work of anthropologist Edwin Hutchins (1995), as being distributed across heterogeneous networks of people, artifacts, settings, and activities, we can see that cognition may be as “wide” and as external and the cultural processes traditionally studied in the socio-cultural sciences (Wilson, 2004). Making cognition “big” (in relation to cultural processes) changes the term of the exchange and reconfigures the usual boundaries, because now the cognitive, and even the notion of what a “cognitive system” is, can be as wide and as “big” as culture and thus there is no longer a predetermined answer to the question as to which counts as more fundamental.

Cultural Kinds and the Supersized Cognitive

There are various ways in which the approach recommended by Norton is consistent with our recent discussions on the nature and variety of cultural kinds. First, an ontic conception of culture as exclusively composed of “underlying” cultural cognitive kinds is too restrictive. Instead, cultural kinds should be seen as “motley” and promiscuous concerning location, and physical structure, along with other clusters of properties they may possess. Approaches to culture that see them as exclusively composed of cultural cognitive sub-kinds are as tendentious and counterproductive as Geertzian takes defining culture purely in terms of overt performances and activities. As we saw before, heterogeneity in location emerges from the fact that some cultural kinds can be internalized by people, but some are not. As such, pluralism regarding physical compositon and structure, as well locational agnosticism is the most coherent approach to theorizing cultural kinds.

In this respect, debates as to whether public culture must necessarily be seen as having “systemic” properties or as occupying an “intersubjective” (shared) space, or even if sub-kind pluralism necessarily entails a confrontation between “culture concepts,” such as the “system” versus “cognitive” conceptions (Norton, 2019), emerge as a less pressing issue. The reason is that, as we have seen, “culture concepts” are actually best thought of as bundles of ontic claims about cultural kinds (including locational, compositional, etiological, etc.), defining possible taxonomies of such kinds. As such, it is unlikely that there are, in fact, “two” (or three or four) versions of what culture is (e.g., “system” versus “cognitive”). Instead, there will be as many culture concepts as coherent (or may not so coherent but at least defensible) combinations of ontic claims we make about culture. This, I think, is even more reason to move away from (always contested) culture concepts, and focus the analysis on cultural kinds, in all their motleyness, varieties, and interconnections.

It is here that Norton’s (2020) consideration of the role that “extended” and “distributed” approaches to cognition may have some radical implications for the we way we usually draw (or presumably deconstructing) the boundaries between culture and cognition and consider the interrelation between the two domains. By cutting cognition “up to size,” Norton seeks to even the playing field between the two domains to avoid smallism and the bias toward thinking that the cognitive “underlies” and contains the basic properties driving an epiphenomenal “cultural froth” located at higher levels. But both the extended and distributed cognition perspectives may have an even more surprising implication: A reversal of our usual conceptualization of the relative scaling relations holding between the cultural and the cognitive.

Flipping the Script

In the traditional “narrow” version that Norton persuasively argues against, the cognitive is small because individual and brain-bound, in relation to (traditional conceptions of) culture as located in a “higher” (shared, intersubjective, public) level. In Norton’s (2020) approach, the cognitive is “cut up to size” so that it meets the cultural in equal terms (so that no one is smaller than the other). We can find cognition, in the world, and even (in the distributed case) between individuals, or in larger socio-ecological settings where human activity takes place; the cognitive is not an infrastructure underlying the cultural, but can be found empirically in heterogenous assemblages of actors, their interactions, relationships, and artifacts, and ecological settings.

However, if we follow the logic of the extended and distributed conceptions all the way through, especially the idea of redefining the concept of a cognitive system as including more than a brain (or even an embodied brain) but also every worldly or environmental process contribution to the cognitive task (which in Hutchin’s approach include other people and their activities), then it is easy to see than in the modal case, the cognitive is usually bigger than the cultural. That is, most examples of cognition (taking, for the sake of argument, the ideas of extended and distributed cognition as non-controversial) the cognitive system represents the whole and cultural kinds (whether artifactual or cultural cognitive) the parts.

This means that, in the widest sense, cognition is the process that the whole cognitive system performs, and cultural cognitive kinds are the vehicles via which it happens. This includes the “vanilla” cases of individualized cognitive extension (e.g., the transactive memory of Otto and his notebook (Clark & Chalmers, 1998), or the completion of a hard multiplication problem by partially offloading computation to pen and paper (Norton (2020: 52)). In these cases, cultural cognitive kinds internalized by people (procedures that allow for manipulation of numbers and arithmetic operations in the “head”) properly coupled to artifactual kinds located in the world (paper, pencil) and link to cultural cognitive kinds internalized as skills by people (reading, writing), help realize the cognitive system in question in what can be called extended cultural cognition.

Here cognition is the whole of what the cognitive system does, and cultural kinds (whether artifactual or cultural cognitive) are the (smaller) materials, vehicles, circuits, and mechanisms (whether in people or the world, or both) making successful cognition possible. Note that this argument for size reversal, if intuitive for the standard case of cognitive extension for a single individual offloading activity to artifacts and the environment, applies with a vengeance to Hutchins-style distributed cognitive systems.

In this last case, as Norton notes, a whole panoply of individuals and artifacts in an ecological setting is the entire cognitive system in question. It is clear that, in this case, cultural cognitive kinds and their various couplings and interactions are smaller than the “cognition” enacted by the system as a whole. Thus if in the “narrow” “neurocognitive” version of the culture cognition link the “micro-foundations” of culture are cognitive, it is easy to see that in most real-world ecological settings, as noted by distributed cognition theorists, the micro-foundations, if we still wanted to use this term in a non-smallist way, of cognition are cultural because realized via the causal coupling and interplay of underlying cultural kinds distributed across people, their activities, and the world.

Relative Size Agnoticism and the Cultural-Cognitive Boundary

There is, of course, no need to go all the way to unilateral advocacy of a complete reversal (smaller cultural kinds underlie bi cognitive processes) to appreciate the force of the argument. We considered together, the decomposion of the traditional “culture concepts” into motley cultural kinds endowed with distinct clusters of properties and the “supersizing” of the notion of cognition to include cases of cognitive extension and distribution, where the “size” of the relevant cognitive system is left to empirical specification (rather than being restricted to individuals by metaphysical fiat), jointly imply that the issue of “relative size” between the cultural and cognitive domains (which one is bigger and which one is smaller) should also not be prejudged.

Just like we should be agnostic with respect to location claims about cultural kinds, we should be agnostic with respect to both the absolute “size” of cognitive systems (an ontic claim with respect to the cognitive) and, by implication, the relative size of cognition with respect to the cultural. There are three ideal-typical possibilities in this respect:

  • In some cases, (a lot of them covered in DiMaggio’s (1997) original essay such as pluralistic ignorance or intergroup bias) the cognitive “underlies” the more macro-cultural process (see also Sperber, 2011 for other examples). These cases, although taken as paradigmatic in some brands of work in culture and cognition (as Norton persuasively argues), may actually more conceptually peripheral than previously presumed. This means that the traditional way of arranging the cognitive with respect to the cultural, where the cognitive is small and underlies the bigger cultural processes, as argued by Norton, is also less substantively relevant than previously thought.
  • Another arrangement, is one where the cultural and the cognitively (distributed) are blown up to (more or less) equal sizes, and thus partake cooperatively in orchestrating the structure, functioning, and organization of cultural cognitive systems. As Norton (2020:55) notes, “in distributed cognition systems, culture…play[s] a centrally infuential role in the cognitive process. Indeed, we can say that culture in distributed cognition is constitutive of the cognitive architecture of the system, central to cognition rather than layered on top of or subject to it.”
  • Finally, there is the size reversal option, in which cultural kinds underlie the functioning of cognitive systems broadly construed, so that cognition is the “bigger” process happening in the system, and cultural kinds are the underlying entities partially contributing to the realization of that process. This possibility, although rarely considered or taken seriously as a route to theory building (due mainly to tendentious definitions of culture), is one that may be more empirically pervasive and explanatory decisive in most real-world ecological settings, and thus deserving of further theoretical reflection and development.


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