How We Think They Think: Anthropological Approaches to Cognition, Memory, and Literacy

How We Think They Think: Anthropological Approaches to Cognition, Memory, and Literacy

How We Think They Think: Anthropological Approaches to Cognition, Memory, and Literacy

How We Think They Think: Anthropological Approaches to Cognition, Memory, and Literacy

Synopsis

In this text, one of anthropology's most original theorists considers fundamental questions such as: Is cognition language-based? and How reliable a guide to memory are people's narratives about themselves?

Excerpt

As the title of this book suggests, the essays gathered here concern issues of cognition, memory, and literacy as they relate to anthropology. However, because similar general theoretical questions are addressed throughout, the division under three headings hides a more fundamental unity. Every chapter deals in different ways with what is a central concern: the relation between what is, on the one hand, explicit and conscious -- that is to say, the type of informants' knowledge that anthropologists can hope to access easily-and, on the other hand, what is inexplicit or unconscious, but perhaps more fundamental.

The chapters grouped in the "Cognition" section continue an argument that was begun in two earlier articles (Bloch 1977, 1986). These articles were concerned with the elaboration of a criticism of the proposition that culture and cognition could be equated -- something that I argued was implicitly claimed in much anthropology. Rather, I maintained that what anthropologists were talking about when they claimed to represent a particular culture was usually based only on what was explicit, either because this was stated by informants or because it could be deduced from what was acted out in ritual. Such material was insufficient to tell us about the understanding of the world of the people concerned. Not to differentiate culture and cognition was misleading, since it presented what were a particular type of representations as though they were the collective representations about which Durkheim had been talking -- that is the very foundation of all knowledge, the categories of understanding that had for centuries been the concern of philosophers.

This error was harmful in another way also, because the image of culture so produced grossly exaggerated the impression of cultural variability, not to say relativism, that existed in different human populations. This false image was consequent on the fact that the building materials used to create constructions that were claimed to be "culture" were (1) only those statements by informants that seemed odd and therefore interesting to anthropologists and their readers, while, at the same time, other, more familiar images were ignored as unworthy of interest; and (2) representations drawn from ritual contexts that are, as is argued in Chapter 4, by their nature counterintuitive negations of understandings of what the world is believed to be normally like (Boyer 1994). Such selectivity of raw material for creat-

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