ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Cognitive anthropology of science

Contact Convenor: Christophe Heintz

Institut Jean Nicod (CNRS/EHESS)
1, bis rue Lowendal
75 007 Paris.

Tel: (33) 6 14 82 32 02

Panel abstract

Although both cognitive and cultural studies of science are quickly developing, little is being done in the field of cognitive anthropology of science. Yet, Atran's Cognitive Foundations of Natural History successfully demonstrates the richness and prospects of this field.

Cognitive anthropology of science can benefit from several paradigms, traditions and research methods. First, cognitive anthropologists can show how cognitive constraints have contributed, together with historical and cultural factors, to the contents of a given science. Second, sciences are cultural objects of particular relevance for the cross-cultural study of notions such as truth or causality, and cognitive operations such as reasoning or categorising. Third, sciences can be analysed as specific cultural model (D'Andrade) that frame individuals' cognition. Scientists at work, and, more controversially, people in their everyday activities, appeal to specific ways of thinking informed by the 'culture of science'.

Core issues in these three research directions have to do with the relationships between folk and scientific knowledge and practices. Do cognitive dispositions constrain science in the same way as they constrain folk knowledge? Can the development of science be seen as a cultural process of emancipation from cognitive constraints? Can cognitive anthropology of science provide new insights in evolutionary theories of science?

Are there domain specific abilities at the base of scientific disciplines? If yes, how then can we account for holistic/isotropic phenomena?

Does science manage cognitive resources such as memory in the same way as other cultural institutions such as religion?

Papers exploring these directions and others dealing with the theoretical and methodological framework of the cognitive anthropology of science would be welcome, as well as case studies.

Identifying the science in ethno-science, or `What the indigenous knowledge debate tells us about how scientists define their project'

R.F.Ellen, University of Kent at Canterbury

This paper begins by examining the response of the organised scientific community to the claims of the indigenous knowledge lobby, and with some observations on the dichotomy between science and traditional technical knowledge. It re-iterates the view that the potency of the distinction arises from a fusion of the general human cognitive impulse to simplify the processes by which we understand the world, reinforced by the socially-driven need of science to maintain an effective boundary around the practices which scientists engage in. The paper go on to argue that the existence of these two epistemological meta-categories obscures the presence of different ways of securing predictive knowledge of the material world, each of which is characterised by a distinctive configuration of cognitive and technical features, and which in several ways cut across the usual dualism between science and traditional knowledge. The argument is illustrated using examples from the history of biology and the ethnography of traditional knowledge of biological phenomena. It engages critically with insights drawn from modularisation theory, cognitive science, expert systems applications, cognitive anthropology and ethnobiology.

Inquiry versus fact-replication models in science classrooms: dimensions of selfhood, personal agency, and science acculturation as revealed in children’s discourse when they learn science

Bonnie L. Prince & Conrad W. Snyder, The University of Montana, USA

This study contrasts two philosophies of science pedagogy. In conventional fact-replication, children acquire information confirmed by the expert science establishment, a hierarchy of knowledge already explored and tested, with “truths” not open to challenge. Facts are assimilated through recapitulation of idealized processes, repetition of previous experiments, and rote memorization.

In inquiry (“constructivist”) learning, children pose questions, devise theories, collect data, test results, and build conclusions, using hands-on and collaborative learning. While guided by teachers, children respond to their own curiosity, invent analogies, metaphors, humor, and histrionics, and creatively construct knowledge.

These pedagogies also affect children’s self-conceptions. In fact-replication, learners aspire to become perfect repositories of previous knowledge, reproducing sanctioned understandings—faithful duplicators, not inventors. In inquiry, learners draw eclectically from many sources, emulate the scientific method, and become authoritative agents of scientific discovery.

We document children’s linguistic and kinesthetic discourse in Native American classrooms in Montana and non-native schools in Ohio, where teachers have completed NASA’s online courses through Universities of Montana and Wright State. Presented are videos of children engaged in science tasks, teachers’ online dialogue, and interviews. We explore pedagogical differences in acculturation into the domain of investigative science, examining children’s roles, identity, and empowerment to participate in the science culture.

The cognitive foundations of participant observation

Christophe Heintz, Institut Jean Nicod, Paris & Monica Heintz, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle

The general aim of the paper is to show the relevance of some results of cognitive psychology on the study of the anthropologists’ scientific practices. More specifically, we investigate which cognitive abilities allow the practice of participant observation and how these abilities constrain anthropological knowledge.

Participant observation – the anthropological method of investigation- essentially involves the anthropologist’s ability to make sense of people. Attributing beliefs, feelings, and inference to other people is a day to day cognitive practice  for the anthropologist. Yet, as post-modern skeptics argued, such practices are infected with subjectivity and cultural relativism, which cast with doubt the epistemological foundations of anthropology. On the other hand, the cognitive abilities that allow to make sense of people are successfully used in everyday life by lay people living in society. When dealing with the simplest social interactions, we constantly reason on other’s thoughts, motives and feelings.

The cognitive ability of making sense of other people have been studied by cognitive psychology under the name of folk psychology and social cognition. From a naturalistic point of view, we analyse how the anthropologist uses his cognitive abilities in participant observation, and the practices through which he attains, or claims to attain, scientific objectivity, distinguishing his findings from folk theorizing.