Capturing Imagination: A Cognitive Approach to Cultural Complexity

By Severi, Carlo | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Capturing Imagination: A Cognitive Approach to Cultural Complexity


Severi, Carlo, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


From a logical point of view, a theory can be either powerful (accounting for a limited number of features valid for a great number of cases) or expressive (accounting for a great number of features belonging to a limited number of cases). In other words, theories can be extensionally or intensionally orientated. Any case-centred inquiry (for instance, a clinical study) is in some measure intensional, while any comparative or statistical analysis tends to be extensional. With few exceptions, attempts to produce generalizing theories of human cognition have thus far been carried out primarily in extensional terms. Researchers have been looking for ever more ethnographic cases which may confirm the assumptions of the theory, and make it more powerful. It is generally admitted, in this perspective, that, in order to use an ethnographic case in this framework, a reduction of the ethnographic complexity is necessary.

The objection of many anthropologists to this approach is that complexity is precisely what characterizes ethnography. Those holding this view regard any attempt to reduce this complexity as something that must fundamentally alter the object of the analysis, creating such a reductionist outcome as to rule out the possibility of either confirmation or negation of the point at issue. In this article, I wish to show that a different cognitive perspective, developed in intensional terms, can enrich our ways of dealing with ethnographic complexity and help us to rethink a number of traditional anthropological concepts. In order to do so, I will discuss the example of a messianistic religious movement that came into being among the Western Apache of San Carlos and White Mountain Reservations around the year 1916.

Before I move on to the analysis of this case, let me state briefly the general hypotheses I have been developing in my recent work (Boyer & Severi 1997-9; Severi 2002) on the role of memory and pragmatics in cultural transmission.

On salience, counterintuitivity and tradition

Dan Sperber and Pascal Boyer have assumed that the success of an idea or a representation in a culture is essentially a consequence of its counterintuitivity (Boyer 1994; Sperber 1985; 1996). In their view, counterintuitivity--which Boyer has defined as the transgression of a number of ontological features rooted in human cognition--is what gives a representation its psychological salience. More precisely, Boyer has argued that the cognitive optimum resulting from a certain combination of counterintuitive and intuitive assumptions generates a specific kind of cultural salience. This type of salience, in turn, is supposed to account for the persistency in time and/or for the rapid propagation in a community of a given representation. There is no doubt that this new approach has given a strong impulse to research in this field, and it has also generated a new understanding of the relationship between cognition and culture. From the logical point of view, however, this approach is a paradigmatic case of a powerful theory that significantly lacks logical expressiveness. In many situations, to achieve a successful representation one needs more than simple salience (even when it appears, as Boyer has remarked, against a background of intuitive representations).

Actually, counterintuitive mental representations can be very fragile. Since the time of Freud (1991 [1899]), it has been widely recognized that the experience of dreaming is full of counterintuitive representations that do not last. While individual dreams can constitute the psychological basis of culturally successful narratives (see, for instance, Fausto 2002 or Stephen 1982), dreams are usually rapidly forgotten. Their content is consequently very difficult to propagate in a community. Conversely, culturally successful notions can be fully intuitive, in both religious and non-religious contexts. In fact, such notions can be neither intuitive nor counterintuitive, but simply meaningless. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Capturing Imagination: A Cognitive Approach to Cultural Complexity
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.