Cognitive Aspects of Intergenerational Change: Mental Models, Cultural Change, and Environmental Behavior among the Lacandon Maya of Southern Mexico

By Ross, Norbert | Human Organization, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Cognitive Aspects of Intergenerational Change: Mental Models, Cultural Change, and Environmental Behavior among the Lacandon Maya of Southern Mexico


Ross, Norbert, Human Organization


The life of the Lacandon Maya of Mensabak (Chiapas, Mexico) has undergone tremendous changes in the last 30 years. These changes are manifested in a generational split in social relations, household location, and economic behavior. The changes affecting social life as well as decision-making processes are paralleled by changes in environmental cognition among the adult members of the community. Older individuals reveal a systematic awareness of the ecological complexity involving animals and plants of the rainforest. The data suggest that the emerging patterns of change are not due to different stages of development-- from novice to expert-nor do they seem to be reversible. Rather, they indicate an intricate system that closely links culture, cognition, and behavior.

Key words: culture, cognition, intergenerational change, agricultural decision making, Maya, Mexico

In a very general sense, one of the central goals of anthropology has been to understand how groups of individuals perceive and construct their social and natural environment and how they interact with it. Within the realm of ethnoecology much work has been done to explore how different cultures perceive the order of plants and animals (i.e., living kinds, including humans) surrounding them (see Berlin et al. 1973, 1974; Berlin, Breedlov, and Raven 1992; Atran 1998). Most of these studies report a wide universal agreement in how people order living kinds with respect to a general "multipurpose taxonomy" (Berlin 1992; Atran 1998; L6pez et al. 1997).

While these findings might seem surprising at a time when terms like "indigenous knowledge" are in vogue, they seem to depend at least in part on the perspective taken. For example, comparing Michigan students and lowland Itzaj Maya, Lopez et al. (1997) show both cross-cultural similarities in the respective folk taxonomies and clear differences in how members of each group reasoned about the species themselves. These differences, as well as related findings (see Medin et al. 1997; Medin et al. n.d.1), urge us to go beyond simple models of semantic domains to explore the content of the knowledge, both across and within cultures (see also Hunn 1985). Cross-cultural studies are very instructive for our theories, but they often fail to address issues such as crosscultural variations in expertise and ignore the conditions causing the differences under exploration (Medin et al. n.d.2). Interviewing different kinds of tree experts in the Chicago area, Medin et al. (1997) found clear differences in reasoning patterns and taxonomical sortings according to kinds of expertise and individual goals. These intracultural differences open new insights into basic processes of knowledge formation and transmission in changing contexts, such as globalization.

Unfortunately, these topics receive little attention in ethnoecology, and in environmental anthropology in general they are treated superficially. This is even more surprising given the attention local resource management has received in the last decades. While indigenous knowledge systems receive increasing attention (see Zent 2001), they are almost never explored as complex systems of knowledge. Instead, they are treated as static cultural resources and referred to as a natural resource (Warren 1991).

If we ignore the processes leading to the formation, deformation, and changes within these knowledge systems, we may not understand their very nature and fail to see possible sources of conflict or even mismanagement. For example, Atran et al. (1999) showed that the Itzaj Maya of lowland Guatemala manage their commons sustainably despite the obvious lack of rules and communal institutions (see Ostrom 1990, 1992). It appears that the cultural models individuals hold about species interaction influence their agricultural decisions. The Itzaj Maya perception of ecological centrality predicts, for example, which trees are protected and thus found most frequently in individual land plots. …

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