“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?


  • comment-avatar
    Olivier Morin 18 November 2008 (13:24)

    Well, there are many things in what you say that ring a bell – the difficulty we have in defining ourselves, and how it may prevent us from getting access to audiences, or jobs… But I’m not so sure about your reflections on branding. ”Cognition and Culture” is not that bad – after all, ”culture and personality” did not fare so badly (as a label).

    I think there is such a thing as giving way too much attention to branding and marketing concerns. ”Memetics”, ”Experimental Philosophy”, ”Mirror Neurons” are all wonderful marketing achievements (catchy names and complete environments with books, T shirts, blogs, associations, etc.), but I’m not sure the scientific content behind the labels is as coherent and imaginative as the marketing itself. In the worst cases – ”memetics” – the magic of marketing gives the illusion that a complete science is born, while a vague program with no real scientific perspective is all there is.

    As for ”Evolutionary Psychology” – well, it certainly established itself as a well-identified field. But at what price? They antagonized many intelligent people who also worked on evolution and cognition, and had to focus their field more and more on very narrow questions, such as mating or cooperation.

    I’m all for shamelessly marketing our research, and make it accessible to the many, including the Sarah Palins of this world – that is one thing this blog is supposed to do. But let’s not forget that efficient marketing comes at a scientific cost.

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    Nicola Knight 18 November 2008 (14:26)

    I think that culture and personality is a perfect example of a branding failure. It had a period (a few decades) of widespread popularity, but with the death of the founding figures it soon deflated — how often do you meet a practitioner of culture and personality nowadays? I can’t see that happening with EP. Evolutionary psychologists would no doubt say that it is because their discipline is superior in terms of its epistemological bases and evidential, but there’s a chance that the factors I mentioned above will play a role in its permanence. The need to keep a healthy balance is certainly a major concern, Olivier — few would disagree. But visibility is highly positively correlated with funding availability; and, as a field that emphasizes interdisciplinarity and — let’s be honest — is often critical of mainstream anthropological and psychological approaches, we would do well to keep this in mind.

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    Nicolas Baumard 18 November 2008 (17:20)

    I fully agree with Nicola that we have a branding problem, and I agree with him that it is not a trivial issue. When applying for grants or jobs, it is always a problem not to be able to define oneself.

    Personally, I’ve always had a problem with the label ”cognition and culture”. It seems to me not precise enough, or even fuzzy. Do molecular biologists defines themselves as practitioners of the ”molecules and life” field? Or neuroeconomists as practitioners of the ”neurons and economics” field? No, they have chosen a precise label that fits with a precise agenda (explaining life partly with help of chemistry, explaining behaviour partly with the help of neurosciences).

    We should convey the same precision. I would rather like to say that I work in cognitive anthropology than in the ”cognition and culture” field. It’s a clearer term and it fits very well: isn’t our goal to use cognition to help explaining cultural phenomenon?

    One could wonder that such a definition is all about ”epidemiology” and forgets the descriptive part (like using psychological methods to describe some particular cultural representations). I don’t think so. In order to explain culture with the help of psychology, we need to have clear psychological descriptions of people’s thoughts and thus we need to use the tools developed in psychology. Molecular biology is about molecular methods as well as biological theories.

    I guess the main reason why the term cognitive anthropology is less used than it should be is because we prefer not to frighten people in human sciences, and particularly in anthropology. The strategy is not new . ”Larvatus prodeo” said Descartes (’Like an actor wearing a mask, I come forward, masked, on the stage of the world.’).

    But was Descartes right? I don’t think so. With this strategy, it seems to me that we won’t attract those who are frightened by every ”naturalist” thing: they will unmask us quite easily (and indeed Descartes was unmasked). In the other hand, we will loose the ones who, at first, are well disposed to the field. They will be afraid by the fuzziness of the field or they won’t perceive the scientific agenda behind the label . One cannot have both the benefit of vagueness and precision. And I think that the benefits of the second are far bigger than the benefits of the first!

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    Denis Regnier 18 November 2008 (21:38)

    I tend to agree on the branding issue raised by Nicola (Knight) and the relative importance of this problem, particularly for funding. Among all the potential alternatives, it is true that cognitive anthropology is a good candidate, for the reasons explained by Nicolas (Baumard). The problem is that the trademark is already registered: in anthropology, it is a rather well-known subfield which has its own history since the sixties and its practitioners, essentially (but not only) in U.S. departments of cultural anthropology. Obviously there is a lot in common, even continuities, between these anthropologists and those would prefer to consider themselves as working in the ’culture and cognition’ field, not least the strive for methods allowing cross-cultural comparisons and the like. The main difference that I see however is that these cognitive anthropologists are essentially ethnographers. In other words, their job implies long-term, ’participant observation’ fieldwork. Their use of psychological methods and their interest in cognition is essentially driven by their ethnographical agenda, whereas in the culture and cognition stream the reverse is most often the case. This matters a lot, since it is quite different from what I understand Nicolas (Baumard) has in mind when he says that he works in cognitive anthropology. So what? Well, let me propose something here.

    Had I the power of renaming things, I would call what cognitive anthropologists do when they are in the field ’cognitive ethnography’ and keep ’cognitive anthropology’ for a broader and interdisciplinary approach to human mind and culture, ie the very field now called ’culture and cognition’. But unfortunately:(1) ’cognitive ethnography’, for better or worse, already exists as a brand; (2) I do not have, alas, the power of renaming things. I nevertheless hold that we should not shy away from reclaiming a brand for our field if we think that it describes more clearly what we do. Again, I do think that cognitive anthropology is a good candidate (and, incidently, that the name ’cognitive ethnography’ deserves a better fate). The fact that these names are already in use means only that we should reclaim them and convince everyone that it will better so. Not an easy task, I admit, but maybe it is worth trying if it is really the case that many people feel very uncomfortable with the hybrid name of ’culture and cognition’.

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    Dan Sperber 27 November 2008 (10:13)

    Not that this will help with the branding problem of young scholars on the job market, but what we do has a simple and old name: anthropology. The name has been taken over by a sub-group of practitioners, namely, ethnographers – who, by the way, may rightly feel that, on the whole, they have produced the best anthropology so far -, and moreover most of them are hostile to the more ambitious, more interdisciplinary anthropology we try to do, hostile, that is, to – quoting Lévi-Strauss – ”anthropology conceived in a broader way” (Structural Anthropology, p.80) (in the French version, Lévi-Strauss adds: ”a science that is at the same time very old and vey new”) a naturalistic discipline that, he thought, would one day reveal how the human mind works.

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    guest guest 28 November 2008 (03:01)

    It seems to me, simply an interested observer, that the problem isn’t so much ’branding’ as it is a more basic issue of scientific literacy: the McCains and Palins of the US don’t understand scientific processes and procedures–seeing the world through a theological lens isn’t the best way to understand either. Bridging the gap between science and the lay culture would do more to help everyone working in the fields than just a concern with what it’s called; it is a matter of a basic refusal of validity for scientific study that emerges through these talks about what can be travestied as ”frivolous,” but which is simply normal procedure.

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    Ophelia Deroy 28 November 2008 (09:17)

    An article you may be interested in, about the scientific cartography of anthropology, just published in the Times Higher Education Supplement – a ”great divide” is reported here to exist between ”social anthropologists” and ”evolutionary (biological) anthropologists” (labelled as factions) : http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=404341&c=1 I don’t know enough about the life in anthropology departments to know whether this is accurate – but it seems reassuringly close from philosophy departments !

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    Nicola Knight 28 November 2008 (10:34)

    Many thanks to all the contributors for their comments. I think Denis is sadly right to note our unfortunate inability to rename things (how unfair!). This makes it unlikely that we maybe able to reclaim the field of ’cognitive anthropology,’ as Nicolas auspicates. On the other hand, it is possible that as momentum gathers and the older generation of cognitive anthropologists retires a vacuum may be created, for us to fill. This is perhaps a good enough reason to stick with the ’cognitive anthropologist’ label. Such a strategy would certainly have greater chances of success than that of reclaiming the broad label of ’anthropology’ for ourselves (not that Dan was suggesting that it would even be possible!).

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    Denis Regnier 29 November 2008 (20:28)

    I agree with Nicola’s last paragraph. The problem is that people will always ask you what scientist you are – psychologist, anthropologist,, economist or what? In the current state of affairs, ’Cognitive anthropologist’ may not yet be the best way to introduce oneself, because it can be a bit confusing (for the reasons I have explained – see also Dan’s post on Lévi-Strauss) but i n my view it is certainly better than replying, say, ’I am a cognition and culture scientist’ or something like that. It will do the job at minima in saying that you you are working on a science of man with an emphasis on cognition, but in relation to social and cultural factors (the latter aspect is usually what is evoked by the word ’anthropology’).