“You work in WHAT field?”
I've been thinking for a while about the relevance of cognition and culture to the wider world. This problem is of course not restricted to our field , but we may have to overcome some special obstacles. During the US campaign, Palin and McCain raised (what they perceived to be) objections to the government spending money on, respectively, research in the genetics of fruit flies and education about the cosmos. If these are presented (and, one imagines, perceived by at least some) as clear cases of unreasonable or frivolous spending, how do we go about making cognition and culture — if not relevant — at least acceptable as a way of using funds in the public eye?
I feel part of the issue is that we have a branding problem…
The name 'cognition and culture' may make a lot of sense to us, and may be useful to place the field in relation (and opposition) to mainstream anthropology and the cognitive sciences, but it's hardly catchy. For a start, it is composed of two terms linked by the conjunction 'and' — which does not say much about the relationship between the terms. Indeed, the University of Michigan, a pioneer in the area, calls its programme 'Culture and Cognition;' it is only recently, with the establishment of a journal and of this institute, that the reversed order of the terms was introduced, as far as I can see in order to reflect the relative primacy of cognition in the structuring and constraining of the cultural world. It seems likely, however, that such subtleties will be lost on a large number of non-experts. Secondly, the term does not easily lend itself to the generation of a label for a practitioner. Thus we are in the peculiar position of having a number of institutes defined by theoretical and methodological concerns (rather than topics of interest), but no way of easily labelling those who participate in them, who instead default to their professional affiliations (e.g., anthropologist, psychologist, philosopher) in spite of the fact that their research would often raise eyebrows among those who also choose to call themselves that, or resurrect or appropriate defunct appellations (cognitive anthropologist springs to mind).
Evolutionary psychology, by contrast, is exemplary as a success story in establishing a field of study. EP has the great advantage of having a name that is both clear and descriptive (the study of the mind in evolutionary perspective) and that has resonance with broad contemporary concerns (on the one hand, evolutionary biology and its relation to religion, on the other a science concerned with understanding the mind, and ultimately the self). We cannot do much about the resonance of cognition and culture, although there is certainly room for improvement in that respect; but there is scope for bettering our branding.
While these may seem trivial concerns, I venture they are not. They have serious implications for the career paths of a number of us — the first generation of scholars trained in cognition and culture at the graduate level (as opposed to the founders of the field). Naming, however, is only a component (though not, in my opinion, an unimportant one) in the establishment of C&C as a recognized field of study.
I would like to see what others think about these matters. What other ways of establishing the field within and outside academia do you think we, as a group, should focus on? Is there an answer to the nominative question?