Cognitive Anthropology

By Bobbie Simova, Tara Robertson and Duke Beasley

Basic Premises

Cognitive anthropology addresses the ways in which people conceive of and think about events and objects in the world. It provides a link between human thought processes and the physical and ideational aspects of culture (D’Andrade 1995: 1). This subfield of anthropology is rooted in Boasian cultural relativism, influenced by anthropological linguistics, and closely aligned with psychological investigations of cognitive processes. It arose as a separate area of study in the 1950s, as ethnographers sought to discover “the native’s point of view,” adopting an emic approach to anthropology (Erickson and Murphy 2003: 115). The new field was initially referred to variously  as Ethnosemantics, Ethnoscience, Ethnolinguistics, and New Ethnography.

In the first decades of practice, cognitive anthropologists focused on folk taxonomies, including concepts of color, plants, and diseases. During the 1960s and 1970s a theoretical adjustment and methodological shift occurred within cognitive anthropology. Linguistic analyses continued to provide methods for understanding and accessing the cognitive categories of indigenous people. However, the focus was no longer restricted to items and relationships within indigenous categories but stressed analyzing categories in terms of mental processes. Scholars of this generation assumed that there were mental processes based on the structure of the mind and, hence, common to all humans. This approach extended its scope to study not only components of abstract systems of thought but also to examine how mental processes relate to symbols and ideas (McGee & Warms 1996).

The methodology, theoretical underpinnings, and subjects of cognitive anthropology have been diverse. The field can be divided into three phases: (1) an early formative period in the 1950s called ethnoscience; (2) the middle period during the 1960s and 1970s, commonly identified with the study of folk models; and (3) the most recent period beginning in the 1980s with the growth of schema theory and the development of consensus theory. Cognitive anthropology is closely aligned with psychology, because both explore the nature of cognitive processes (D’Andrade 1995:1). It has also adopted theoretical elements and methodological techniques from structuralism and linguistics. Cognitive anthropology is a broad field of inquiry; for example, studies have examined how people arrange colors and plants into categories as well how people conceptualize disease in terms of symptoms, cause, and appropriate treatment. Cognitive anthropology not only focuses on discovering how different peoples organize culture but also how they utilize culture. Contemporary cognitive anthropology attempts to access the organizing principles that underlie and motivate human behavior. Although the scope of cognitive anthropology is expansive its methodology continues to depend strongly on a long-standing tradition of ethnographic fieldwork and structured interviews.

Cognitive anthropologists regard anthropology as a formal science. They maintain that culture is composed of logical rules that are based on ideas that can be accessed in the mind. Cognitive anthropology emphasizes the rules of behavior, not behavior itself. It does not claim that it can predict human behavior but delineates what is socially and culturally expected or appropriate in given situations, circumstances, and contexts. It is not concerned with describing events in order to explain or discover processes of change. Furthermore, this approach declares that every culture embodies its own unique organizational system for understanding things, events, and behavior. Some scholars contend that it is necessary to develop several theories of cultures before striving toward the creation of a grand theory of Culture (Applebaum, 1987:409). In other words, researchers insist that studies should be aimed at understanding particular cultures in forming theoretical explanations. Once this has been achieved, then valid and reliable cross-cultural comparisons become possible, enabling a general theory of all Culture. 

It was not until the 1950s that cognitive anthropology came to be regarded as a distinct theoretical and methodological approach within anthropology. However, its intellectual roots can be traced back much further. Tarnas (1991:333) notes that the Enlightenment produced at least one distinct avenue for explaining the natural world and humans’ place within it: the foundation of human knowledge, including encounters with the material world, was located in the mind. Thus philosophy turned its attention to the analysis of the human mind and cognitive processes.

The interaction of society and the mind has long been an area of intellectual interest. The Enlightenment thinkers Rousseau, Hobbes, and Locke all contended that this intersection was of utmost importance for understanding society. Rousseau postulated that humans were essentially good, but ruined by civilization and society, and he urged a return to a “natural state.” Hobbes maintained that humans are by nature a brutish and selfish lot; society and government are necessary to control and curb our basic nature. Locke, on the other hand, rejected the Cartesian idea of innate ideas and presumed that humans are at birth “blank slates,” neither good nor bad, with the experience of their culture shaping the type of person they would become (Garbarino 1983:12-13).

Perhaps the most long-lasting contribution of Enlightenment philosophers to the development of cognitive anthropology was Locke’s advocacy of empiricism: He conceived of knowledge of the world as having roots in sensory experience. Locke argued that “combining and compounding of simple sensory impressions or ‘ideas’ (defined as mental contents) into more complex concepts, through reflection after sensation, the mind can arrive at sound conclusions” (Tarnas, 1991:333). Cognition was conceived as beginning with sensation and resting on experience. In competition with the empiricist tradition was the rationalist orientation, which contended that the mind alone could achieve knowledge. The Enlightenment, nevertheless, combated this claim, maintaining that reason depended on sensory experience to know anything about the world excluding the mind’s own concoctions (Tarnas, 1991:334). Rationalist claims of knowledge were increasingly illegitimated. The mind void of sensory experience could only speculate. These premises translated into different scientific approaches. Science was regarded as a mechanism for discovering the probable truths of human existence not as a device for attaining absolute knowledge of general, universal truths. These epistemological concepts still resonate today in contemporary cognitive anthropology, as well as among other approaches, and in the school’s theoretical and methodological basis.

Although operating from various theoretical assumptions, early intellectuals concentrated on the relationship between the mind and society, but emphasized the impact of society on the human mind. This intellectual trend continued through the eighteenth century and was evident in the titles of prominent books of this era. In The Historical Progress of the Human Mind (1750), Turgot suggested that humanity passed through three stages of increasing complexity: hunting, pastoralism, and farming. Condorcet’s intellectual history of mankind, The Outline of Progress of the Human Mind (1795), concentrated on European thought, dividing history into ten stages, culminating with the French Revolution (Garbarino 1983:15). In the early nineteenth century, Auguste Comte developed a philosophy that became known as positivism. Comte proposed that earlier modes of thought were imperfectly speculative, and that knowledge should be gained by empirical observation. He reasoned that intellectual complexity evolved in much the same way as society and biological beings (Garbarino 1983:20).

The earliest practitioners of anthropology were also interested in the relationship between the human mind and society. By viewing his data through the prism of evolution, Morgan continued the Enlightenment tradition of explaining the phenomenon he observed as a result of increasing rationality (Garbarino 1983:28-29). E.B. Tylor, who shared many of the views of Morgan, was also interested in aspects of the mind in less developed societies. His definition of culture as the, “complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society,” reflects this interest (Garbarino 1983:31).

One concept that is central to cultural anthropology, and particularly to cognitive anthropology, is the psychic unity of mankind. This concept was developed by the German Adolf Bastian in the closing years of the nineteenth century. After observing similarities in customs throughout the world, Bastian concluded that all humans must have the same basic psychic or mental processes, and that this unity produced similar responses to similar stimuli (Garbarino 1983:32). While most anthropologists tend to take this concept as a given, some contemporary cognitive anthropologists question this assumption (Shore 1996:15-41).

Cognitive studies in modern anthropology can be traced back to Franz Boas (Colby 1996:210). Boas, who first turned to anthropology during his research on the Eskimo and their perception of the color of ice and water, realized that different peoples had different conceptions of the world around them. He was so affected that he began to focus his life’s work on understanding the relation between the human mind and the environment (Shore 1996:19). This work, which was fueled by his revolt against the racist thinking of the day, would direct Boas towards trying to understand the psychology of tribal peoples. This aspect of his work is best expressed in his essay “Psychological Problems in Anthropology” (1910), and culminates in his volume The Mind of Primitive Man(1911). Boas encouraged investigations of tribal categories of sense and perception, such as color, topics that would be critical in the later development of cognitive anthropology (Shore 1996:20-21).

Some of the methodological rigor and theoretical grounding of cognitive anthropology grew out of linguistic anthropology. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in particular, was an important precursor to the field. In the 1930s, linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf formulated the view that the structures of language and culture create classificatory categories that shape meaning and world views (Erickson and Murphy 2003: 115-116). Parallel developments in psychology in the 1950s also owe much to linguistics. Psychologists, dissatisfied with the behaviorist explanations of B.F. Skinner, looked to the linguistic insights of Noam Chomsky to legitimate the reality of mental events (Miller 2003: 142). Early cognitive anthropological approaches to culture exhibit the influence of linguistics both in theory and in methods.

In recent years, the methodologies of cognitive anthropology have been subsumed in wider anthropological research, with few departments offering cognitive anthropology as a distinct field of study. Anthropologists interested in cognition can look to the interdisciplinary field of cognitive science, which increasingly centers on advancements in neuroscience, cognitive linguistics, and computer sciences, especially in relation to the development of artificial intelligence. Medical anthropology has also proved to be a fertile ground for the development of cognitive methods and practical understandings of the impact of cultural models of disease and well-being.

Points of Reaction

In many ways, cognitive anthropology was a reaction against the traditional methods of ethnography practiced prior to the late 1950s, much of it the result of the influence of fieldwork pioneers and master teachers, Malinowski and Boas. Traditional ethnography stressed the technology and techniques for providing material needs, village or local group composition, family and extended group composition and the roles of the members, political organization, and the nature of magic, religion, witchcraft, and other forms of native beliefs (D’Andrade 1995:5). As more and more scholars entered the field, it was found that the ethnographies of places revisited did not always match the ethnographies of a previous generation. The best known examples of this were the divergent accounts of the Robert Redfield and Oscar Lewis of the Mexican village of Tepoztlan published in 1930 and 1951 respectively. Ethnographic validity became a central issue in cultural anthropology (Colby 1996:210).

The problem of validity was first tackled through the use of linguistics. The discovery of the phoneme, the smallest unit of a meaningful sound, gave anthropologists the opportunity to understand and record cultures in the native language. This was thought to be a way of getting around the analyst’s imposition of his own cultural bias on a society (Colby 1996:211). This led to an approach known as Ethnoscience. The seminal papers of this genre, to which much of the development of cognitive anthropology can be credited, are traceable to Floyd Lounsbury and Ward Goodenough, particularly Goodenough’s “Componential Analysis” of 1956 (Applebaum, 1987). Goodenough laid out the basic premises for the “new ethnography,” as ethnoscience was sometimes known. He states that “culture is a conceptual mode underlying human behavior ” (1957, quoted in Keesing 1972:300), in that, it refers to the “standards for deciding what is . . . for deciding how one feels about it, and . . . for deciding how to go about doing it,” (Goodenough 1961:522, quoted in Keesing 1972:300). No longer was a simple description of what was observed by the ethnographer sufficient; the new aim was to find the underlying structure behind a peoples’ conception of the world around them. See Conklin’s study of color categories in the “Leading Figures” section for an exemplary of ethnoscientific study.

This early period of cognitive anthropology basically pursued an adequate ethnographic methodology. Scholars found previous ethnographic accounts to be problematic and biased and endeavored to study culture from the viewpoint of indigenous people rather than from the ethnographer’s construction of a culture. The primary theoretical underpinning of the ethnoscientific approach is that culture exists only in people’s minds (Applebaum, 1987:409). For example, Goodenough proposed that to successfully navigate their social world individuals must control a certain level of knowledge, that he calls a “mental template.” The methodology of ethnoscience attempted to remove the ethnographer’s categories from the research process. This position lead to the development of new information eliciting techniques that tried to avoid the imposition of the ethnographer’s own preconceived cultural assumptions and ideas. Methods were developed that relied on linguistic techniques based in the indigenous language and if employed successfully could produce taxonomies or models free of the ethnographer’s bias.

The principal research goal identified by cognitive anthropologists was to determine the content and organization of culture as knowledge. This was demonstrated by Anthony Wallace’s notion of the mazeway, “a mental image of the society and its culture” (D’Andrade 1995:17). He applied this concept to explain the Iroquois revitalization movement brought about by the Seneca prophet, Handsome Lake. While the mazeway concept was useful for reformulating traditional terms such as religion and magic, the concept lacked specificity in addressing how to determine the organization of these elements. From the late 1950s to the 1970s, research was strongly oriented towards method, formalization, and quantification. The attraction for many was that the field was using methods developed in the study of semantics, and served as an access to the mind (D’Andrade 1995:246). Much of this early work centered on taxonomies and domains such as kinship, plants, animals, and colors.

While the methodology was productive in reducing the anthropologist’s bias, ethnoscience was subject to several criticisms, most focused on the limited nature and number of domains. The significance that color, kin terms, and plant classifications had for understanding the human condition was questioned. Some critics charged that it appeared that some cognitive anthropologists valued the eliciting technique more than the actual data produced from the procedures. Moreover, the data often did not lead to explanations of the respondents’ worldview (Applebaum, 1987:407). Other critics noted that the ethnoscientific approach to culture implied extreme cultural relativism. Since ethnoscience stressed the individuality of each culture it made cross-cultural comparisons very difficult. Others noted deficiencies in addressing intracultural variation. Practitioners claimed they were trying to capture the indigenous, not the anthropologist’s, view of culture; however, these native views of culture depended on who the anthropologist chose to interview (for example, whether male or female, young or old, high status or low). The question then became whose view was the anthropologist capturing and how representative was it?

During the 1960s and 1970s a theoretical adjustment and methodological shift occurred within cognitive anthropology. Linguistic analyses continued to provide methods for understanding and accessing the cognitive categories of indigenous people. However, the focus was no longer restricted to items and relationships within indigenous categories but stressed analyzing categories in terms of mental processes. Scholars of this generation assumed that there were mental processes based on the structure of the mind and, hence, common to all humans. This approach extended its scope to study not only components of abstract systems of thought but also to examine how mental processes relate to symbols and ideas (McGee & Warms, 1996).

By the early 1980s, schema theory had become the primary means of understanding the psychological aspect of culture. Schemas are entirely abstract entities and unconsciously enacted by individuals. They are models of the world that organize experience and the understandings shared by members of a group or society. Schemata, in conjunction with connectionist networks, provided even more abstract psychological theory about the nature of mental representations. Schema theory created a new class of mental entities. Prior to schema theory, the major pieces of culture were thought be either material or symbolic in nature. Culture, as conceptualized by anthropologists, started to become thought of in terms of parts instead of wholes. The concept of parts, however, was not used in the traditional functionalist sense of static entities constituting an integrated whole, but was used in the sense that the nature of the parts changed. Through the use of schemata, culture could be placed in the mind, and the parts became cognitively formed units: features, prototypes, schemas, propositions, and cognitive categories. Culture could be explained by analyzing these units, or pieces of culture. Contemporary questions include (1) if cultural pieces are in fact shared; (2) if they are shared, to what extent; (3) how are these units distributed across persons; and (5) which distribution of units are internalized. These issues have in fact taken cognitive studies away from the mainstream of anthropology and moved it closer to psychology (D’Andrade 1995:246-247).

Cognitive anthropology trends now appear to be leaning towards the study of how cultural schemas are related to action. This brings up issues of emotion, motivation, and how individuals internalize culture during socialization. And finally, cognitive structure is being related to the physical structure of artifacts and the behavioral structure of groups (D’Andrade 1995:248).

Leading Figures

Ward Goodenough (1919-2013) is one of cognitive anthropology’s early leading scholars, inaugurating the subdiscipline in 1956 with the publication of “Componential Analysis and the Study of Meaning” in a volume of Language. He helped to establish a methodology for studying cultural systems. His fundamental contribution was in the framing of componential analysis, now more commonly referred to as feature analysis. Basically, componential analysis, borrowing its methods from linguistic anthropology, involved the construction of a matrix that contrasted the binary attributes of a domain in terms of pluses (presence) and minuses (absence). The co-occurrence of traits could then be analyzed as well as attribute distribution. For specifics refer to “Property, Kin, and Community on Truk” (1951), “Componential Analysis and the Study of Meaning” (1956) and “Componential Analysis of Konkama Lapp Kinship Terminologies” (1964). Several years later he analyzed the terminology of Yankee kinship to critique an apparent flaw with the method: the possibility of constructing many valid models using the same data. Essentially, he challenged the reliability of the results produced stating that the finding had “profound implications for cultural theory, calling into question the anthropological premise that a society’s culture is ‘shared’ by its members,” (1969: 256). He concluded that the relationship of componential analysis and cognition must remain inconclusive until further debate has been settled. Indeed, componential analysis presently serves as only an element of an analytic methodology instead of its primary method.

Floyd Lounsbury (1914-1998) was another influential figure in the rise of the subdiscipline. His analysis of Pawnee kinship terms, “A Semantic Analysis of the Pawnee Kinship Usage” was published in 1956.   

Charles Frake (b. 1930) wrote an interesting article in the late sixties in which he commented extensively on the nature of current ethnographic data collection beyond kinship studies. Instead of collecting data by attaining “words for things” in which the ethnographer records discrete linguistic terms of the other’s language as they occur by matching the terms against his own lexicon, he proposed that an ethnographer should get “things for words” (1969:28). He also emphasized that the ethnographer “should strive to define objects according to the conceptual system of the people he is studying” (1969:28), or in other words elicit a domain. He argued that studies of how people think have historically sought evidence of “primitive thinking” instead of actually investigating the processes of cognition. He contends that future studies should match the methodological rigor of kinship and should aim for developing a native understanding of the world. He promotes a “bottom up” approach where the ethnographer first attains the domain items (on the segregates) of different categories (or contrast sets). The goal, according to Frake, is to create a taxonomy so differences between contrasting sets are demonstrated in addition to how the attributes of contrasting sets relate to each other.

Harold Conklin (1926-2016) conducted extensive research in Southeast Asia, producing one of the largest ethnographic collections for the Philippines. His interest in linguistics and ecology and commitment to ethnoscience led to pioneering investigations of indigenous systems of tropical forest agriculture. He also made important contributions to the study of kinship terminology including “Lexicographical Treatment of Folk Taxonomies” (1969) and “Ethnogenealogical Method” (1969). Conklin’s investigation of color perception in “Hanunóo Color Categories” (1955) is characteristic of the sort of study produced by the early ethnoscientific approach. In this article, Conklin demonstrates that Hanunóo color terms do not segment the color spectrum in the same manner as western color terms, and in fact incorporate additional sensory information, such as wetness and dryness. A key observation of the study was that the type of eliciting material used made a difference in the consistency of the responses. In 1969, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay presented a study of color categories in which they trace universal tendencies and historical and cultural development, arguing against the cultural relativism implied in Conklin’s publication.

Roy D’Andrade (1931-2016)  made important contributions to methodology and theory in cognitive anthropology. One of his earlier studies is particularly noteworthy for its methodology. In 1974 D’Andrade published an article criticizing the reliability and validity of a widely practiced method of social sciences. Researchers conducted studies of how people judge other’s behavior. Judgments of informants, he argued, were influenced not only by what they witnessed, but also by the cultural models they entertained about the domain in question. He noted that their judgment was related to the limitations of human memory.

Aside from his methodological contributions, D’Andrade (1995) has synthesized the field of cognitive anthropology in one of the first books discussing the approach as a whole. The Development of Cognitive Anthropology (1995) has provided scholars and students with an excellent account of the development of cognitive anthropology from early experiments with the classic feature model to the elaboration of consensus theory in the late 20th century.

A. Kimball Romney’s (b. 1925) many contributions to cognitive anthropology include the development of consensus theory. Unlike most methods that are concerned with the reliability of data, the consensus method statistically measures the reliability of individual informants in relation to each other and in reference to the group as a whole. It demonstrates how accurately a particular person’s knowledge of a domain corresponds with the domain knowledge established by several individuals. In other words, the competency of individuals as informants is measured. For specifics about how cultural consensus works, see the “Methodology” section of this web page. In a recent article in Current Anthropology, “Cultural Consensus as a Statistical Model” (1999), there is an intriguing exchange between Aunger who opposes consensus theory and Romney who rebuts Aunger’s criticisms. Romney maintains that cultural consensus is a statistical model that does not pre-suppose an ideological alignment, as Aunger asserts, but rather it demonstrates any existing relationships between variables.

Furthermore, Romney asserts that all shared knowledge is not cultural, but cultural knowledge has the elements of being shared among relevant participants and is socially learned (1999: S104). Romney proceeds to outline three central assumptions of consensus theory: (1) there is a single, shared conglomerate of answers that constitute a coherent domain; (2) each respondent’s answers are given independently and only afterwards is the correlation between respondents known; and (3) items are relatively homogeneously known by all respondents. Cultural consensus, as other statistical methods, helps to eliminate bias in analyzing data. It can also reveal patterns, like the degree of intracultural variation, which may go unnoticed by research using other techniques. The validity of the model has been tested for a variety of domains and has so far proved to be reliable.

Susan Weller is a medical anthropologist and co-developer of the Cultural Consensus Model, along with Romney and Batchelder. Her current research interests include medical topics such as diabetes, AIDS, and asthma, as well as social topics such as stress and folk illnesses (see web site section  for a link to her profile).   

Stephen Levinson is currently one of the directors of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. His interest in linguistic diversity and cognition has made him a leading figure in the revival of linguistic relativity in the early 1990s. His own research has challenged ideas on the universality of linguistic and cognitive spatial categories (Levinson 2003). The Max Planck Institute also has a division devoted to comparative studies on cognition, conducting innovative, large scale studies on the topic.

Key Works

  • Berlin, Brent O., and Paul D. Kay. 1969. Basic Color Terms. Berkley, CA; University of California Press.
  • Chomsky, Noam. 1972. Language and Mind, enlarged edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
  • Conklin, Harold C. 1955. Hanunóo Color Categories. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 11:339-344.
  • Conklin, Harold C. 1962. Lexicographic Treatment of Folk Taxonomies. International Journal of American Linguistics 28(2): 119-41.
  • D’Andrade, Roy. 1995. The Development of Cognitive Anthropology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • D’Andrade, R. and M. Egan. 1974. The Colors of Emotion. American Ethnologist 1:49-63.
  • D’Andrade, Roy, Naomi R. Quinn, Sara Beth Nerlove, and A. Kimball Romney. 1972. Categories of Disease in American-English and Mexican-Spanish. In Multidimensional Scaling, volume II. A. Kimball Romney, Roger N. Shepard and Sara Beth Nerlove, eds. Pp. 11-54. New York: Seminar Press.
  • Dressler, William W. 2012. Cultural consonance: Linking culture, the individual, and health. Preventive Medicine 54: in press.
  • Dressler, William W., Mauro C. Balieiro, Rosane P. Ribeiro and Jose Ernesto dos Santos. 2007. A prospective study of cultural consonance and depressive symptoms in urban Brazil. Social Science and Medicine 65: 2058-2069.
  • Ember, Carol R. 1977. Cross-Cultural Cognitive Studies. Annual Review of Anthropology 6: 33-56.
  • Frake, Charles O. 1962. The Ethnographic Study of Cognitive Systems. Anthropology and Human Behavior. Washington, DC: Society of Washington.
  • Garro, Linda. 1988. Explaining High Blood Pressure: Variation in Knowledge About Illness. American Ethnologist 15:1: 98-119.
  • Goodenough, Ward. 1956. Componential Analysis and the Study of Meaning. Language 32(1):195-216.
  • Holland, Dorothy and Naomi Quinn. 1987. Cultural Models in Language & Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Human Mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Levinson, Stephen C. 2003. Space in Language and Cognition: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lounsbury, Floyd G. 1956. A Semantic Analysis of Pawnee Kinship Usage. Language 32(1): 158-194.
  • Miller, George. 1956. The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information. Psychological Review 63:3.
  • Nerlove, Sarah and A.K. Romney. 1967. Sibling Terminology and Cross-Sex Behavior. American Anthropologist 74:1249-1253.
  • Romney, A. Kimball. 1989. Quantitative Models, Science and Cumulative Knowledge. Journal of Quantitative Research 1:153-223.
  • Romney, A. Kimball and Roy D’Andrade, editors. 1964. Cognitive Aspects of English Kin Terms. In Transcultural Studies in Cognition. American Anthropologist Special Publication 66:3:2:146-170.
  • Romney, A. Kimball and Carmella C. Moore. 1998. Toward a Theory of Culture as Shared Cognitive Structures. Ethos 36(3):314-337.
  • Romney, A. Kimball, Susan Weller, and William H. Batchelder. 1987. Culture as Consensus: A Theory of Culture and Informant Accuracy. American Anthropologist 88(2): 313-338.
  • Rosch, Eleanor H. 1975. Cognitive Representations of Semantic Categories. Journal of Experimental Psychology 104:192-233.
  • Shore, Bradd. 1996. Culture in Mind: Cognition, Culture and the Problem of Meaning. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Tyler, Stephen A., editor. 1969. Cognitive Anthropology. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
  • Wallace, Anthony F. C. 1956. Revitialization Movements. American Anthropologist 58:264-281.
  • Wallace, Anthony F. C. 1964. On Being Complicated Enough. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 17:458-461.
  • Weller, Susan C. 2007. Cultural Consensus Theory: Applications and Frequently Asked Questions. Field Methods 19: 339-68.
  • Weller, Susan, and Roberta Baer. 2001. Intra- and Inter-cultural Variation in the Definition of Five Illnesses: AIDS, Diabetes, and Common Cold, Empacho, and Mal de Ojo. Journal of Cross Cultural Research, 35(2): 201-226.
  • Weller, Susan and A. Kimball Romney. 1988. Structured Interviewing. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Principal Concepts

Cultural Consensus Theory: Developed by A. Kimball Romney, William Batchelder, and Susan Weller in the 1980s as a way to approach cultural knowledge. CCT assumes that cultural knowledge is shared, but too large to be held by a single individual, and thus unevenly distributed. Using a collection of analytical techniques, CCT estimates culturally correct answers to a series of questions while also estimating each participant’s degree of knowledge or sharing of answers (Weller 2007). It has become a major component of social, cultural, and medical anthropology and is used in other cognitive sciences and cross-culturally based research.(For more information see Methods section of webpage)

Cultural Consonance Theory: This theory was developed by Alabama’s own William Dressler and colleagues (Dressler, Baliero et al. 2007). Cultural consonance refers to the degree to which people’s activities match with their beliefs about how they should be. The more their lives match their ideas of success, the better their wellbeing. Dressler and other researchers have found that people with high cultural consonance have lower stress and fewer blood pressure problems (Bernard 2011: 51). Interestingly, traits of “successful lives” are shared to a surprising  extent cross-culturally.

Cultural Model: “Cultural model” is not a precisely articulated concept but rather it “serves as a catchall phrase for many different kinds of cultural knowledge” (Shore 1996:45). Also known as folk models, cultural models generally refer to the unconscious set of assumptions and understandings members of a society or group share. They greatly affect people’s understanding of the world and of human behavior. Cultural models can be thought of as loose, interpretative frameworks. They are both overtly and unconsciously taught and are rooted in knowledge learned from others as well as from accumulated personal experience. Cultural models are not fixed entities but are malleable structures by nature. As experience is ascribed meaning, it can reinforce models; however, specific experiences can also challenge and change models if experiences are considered distinct. Models, nevertheless, can be consciously altered. Most often cultural models are connected to the emotional responses of particular experiences so that people regard their assumptions about the world and the things in it as “natural.” If an emotion evokes a response of disgust or frustration, for example, a person can deliberately take action to change the model.

Strauss and Quinn (1994) give an example of a fictional female who has learned the schema for “mother” in conjunction with the schema of a “kitchen.” The actor also recognizes the emotional responses of her mother, who feels “stuck” in the kitchen, which incidentally goes unnoticed by the actor’s brother. In turn, the actor responds emotionally and acts purposely so she does not end up in a similar situation within her own marriage. It is interesting that Strauss and Quinn note that when the actor and the actor’s husband are not acting consciously, they unconsciously reproduce the same pattern as the actor’s parents.

Domain: A domain is comprised of a set of related ideas or items that form a larger category. Weller and Romney define domain as “an organized set of words, concepts, or sentences, all on the same level of contrast that jointly refer to a single conceptual sphere,” (1988: 9). The individual items within a domain partially achieve their meaning from their relationship to other items in a “mutually interdependent system reflecting the way in which a given language or culture classified the relevant conceptual sphere,” (1988:9). The respondents should define domain items in their own language. The purpose of having respondents define the domain is to avoid the imposition of the anthropologist’s own categories onto the culture or language being studied.

Ethnographic semanticsethnoscience, the new ethnography: All of these terms refer to the new directions that the practice of ethnographic collection and interpretation began to take in the 1950s. This approach regards culture as knowledge (D’Andrade 1995:244), as opposed to the materialist notions that had dominated the field. These new movements also produced rigorous formal approaches to informant interviewing, exemplified best in Werner and Schoepfle’s methodological compendium, Systematic Fieldwork (1987).

Folk Models: These include games, music, and god sets, used to instruct individuals to negotiate potentially stressful situations (Colby 1996: 212). Thus, a child may learn how to judge speed and distance from hide and seek, which can then be translated into crossing a busy street. John Roberts was the first to use folk models as a subject of study in cognitive anthropology. Some folk and decision models, such as god sets with well-recited attributes, form larger cognitive systems, such as divinatory readings. The diviner, by collecting several readings and training under another diviner learns to read people, and produce divinations that are socially acceptable (Colby 1996:212).

Folk Taxonomies: Much of the early work in ethnoscience concentrated on folk taxonomies, or the way in which people organize certain classes of objects or notions. There is an enormous amount of work in this area. For a sampling of what is out there, interested readers can refer to Harold Conklin’s (1972) Folk Classification: A Topically Arranged Bibliography of Contemporary and Background References Through 1971, Department of Anthropology, Yale University.

Knowledge structures: Knowledge structures go beyond the analysis of taxonomies to try to elucidate the knowledge and beliefs associated with the various taxonomies and terminology systems. This includes the study of consensus among individuals in a group, and an analysis of how their knowledge is organized and used as mental scripts and schemata (Colby 1996:210).

Mazeway: A.F.C. Wallace defines mazeway as “the mental image of society and culture,” (D’Andrade, 1995:17). The maze is comprised of perceptions of material objects and how people can manipulate the maze to reduce stress. Wallace proposed this concept as part of his study of revitalization movements. Wallace postulated that revitalization movements were sparked by a charismatic leader who embodied a special vision about how life ought to be. The realization of this vision required a change in the social mazeway.

Mental Scripts: Scripts can be thought of as a set of certain actions one performs in a given situation. Examples would include behavior in a doctor’s office, or in a restaurant. There are certain codified and predictable exchanges with minor individual variations (Shore 1996:43). Existing scripts do not determine the details of an interaction, but rather set schemes or recipes for action in a given social situation.

Prototypes: Prototype theory is a theory of categorization. The “best example” of a category is a prototype (Lakoff, 1987). Prototypes are used as a reference point in making judgments of the similarities and differences in other experiences and things in the world. Lakoff (1982:16), for example, states that in comparison to other types of birds the features of robins are judged to be more representative of the category “bird” just as desk chairs are considered more exemplary of the category chair than are rocking chairs or electric chairs. Membership largely hinges on a cluster of features a form embodies. Every member may not possess all of the attributes, but is nonetheless still regarded as a type. When a type is contrasted with the prototype certain clusters of features are typically more crucial for category measurement (Lakoff 1984:16). Furthermore, two members of a category can have no resemblance with each other, but share resemblance with the prototype and therefore be judged as members of the same category. However, the qualities of a prototype do not dictate category membership exclusively. The degree to which similarity is exhibited by an object or experience does not automatically project that object or experience into category membership. For example, pigs are not categorized as dogs just because they share some features with the prototype of dog (Lakoff 1982: 17).

Schemata: This has been one of the most important and powerful concepts for cognitive anthropology in the past twenty years. Bartlett first developed the notion of a schema in the 1930s. He proposed that remembering is guided by a mental structure, a schema, “an active organization of past reactions, or of past experiences, which must always be supposed to be operational in any well-adapted organic response (Schacter 1989:692). Cognitive anthropologists and scientists have modified this notion somewhat since then. A schema is an “organizing experience,” implying activation of the whole. An example is the English term writing. When one thinks of writing, several aspects come into play that can denote the action of guiding a trace leaving implement across a surface, such as writer, implement, surface, and so on. While an individual schemas may differ, cognitive anthropologists search for the common notions that can provide keys to the mental structures behind cultural notions. These notions are not necessarily culturally universal. In Japanese, the term kaku is usually translated into English as writing. However, whereas in English, nearly everyone would consider writing to imply that language is being traced onto a surface, the term kaku in Japanese can mean language, doodles, pictures, or anything else that is traced onto a surface. Therefore, schemas are culturally specific, and the need for an emic view is still a primary force in any ethnographic research (D’Andrade 1995:123).

Semantic studies: Concerned primarily with terminology classifications, especially kinship classification (e.g. Lounsbury 1956), and plant taxonomies. In recent years, a greater emphasis has been directed towards the development of semantic theory (Colby 1996:210).

Semantic theory: A recent development, semantic theory is built upon an extensionistic approach that was first developed with kin terminologies and then extended to other domains (Colby 1996: 211). There are core meanings and extensional meanings, the core meanings varying less among informants than the extensional meanings. For example, the term cups can have a core meaning, or referent, that most Americans would agree to, such as a “semi-cylindrical container, made of porcelain, having a handle, and being approximately 4 to 5 inches tall.” However, some would disagree about whether a large plastic container with no handle whose purpose is to hold beverages is a cup, or a glass, or neither (Kronenfeld 1996:6-7).


Hallmarks of cognitive anthropology are the rigorous elicitation procedures and controlled questioning of native speakers, which produced greater precision, and the careful analysis of the distinctive mental features of human cognition and social activity (Atran in Boyer 1993: 48). Several early methodologies used by cognitive anthropologists were embedded in the theory of the feature model. Feature models refer to a broad analytic concept that developed in the 1950s and 1960s primarily within kinship studies. Its general methodological approach is that sets of terms can be contrasted to discover at the fundamental attributes of each set, its features. Feature analysis can be applied both to taxonomies and to paradigms. Taxonomies begin with a general concept, which is divided into more precise categories and terms, which are in turn segmented again. This process is repeated until no further subdivisions are possible. Complete paradigms, on the other hand, occur when general terms can be combined with other general terms within the paradigm so that all potential features transpire; however, most paradigms are incomplete. Paradigms can be thought of in terms of a matrix structure. So, for example, D’Andrade (1995) depicts an almost complete paradigmatic structure of English terms for humans. The possible combinations of types of humans consist of woman, man, girl, boy and baby. The features that are contrasted are age (adult, immature and newborn) and gender (female and male). The paradigm would be complete if there were particular terms to refer to female and male newborns rather than the generic term baby. The fundamental difference between a paradigm and taxonomy is the way distinctions are structured; the primary commonality is that terms within each are structured in relation to other terms to form patterns based on the discrimination of features.

Folk taxonomies as briefly alluded to above, are also aimed at understanding how people cognitively organize information. Folk taxonomies are classes of phenomena arranged by inclusion criteria that show the relationship between kinds of things. Simply put, is X a kind of Y. They are based on levels. The first level, called the unique beginner, is the all-inclusive general category. Succeeding distinctions are then made by the judgment of similarity and dissimilarity of items to form additional levels. With each separation the levels become more explicit and the differences between groups of items more miniscule. Take for example, as D’Andrade notes (1995:99), the category of creature in the English language. Creature, the unique beginner is rank zero, is subdivided into insect, fish, bird and animal forming rank one, or the life form level. Each class of items can be further subdivided into another level, termed the intermediate level. One of the “animal” divisions is cat. Items in the “cat” category can then be distributed into the following level, known as the generic level or rank two, to include cat, tiger, and lion. The cat occurring in rank two can be divided into the specific level, or rank three. Specific level terms include Persian cat, Siamese cat, ordinary cat, and Manx cat.

Feature models are not only concerned with how people organize information, but also what the organization means in terms of mental information processing. Bruner, Goodnow, and Austin (1956 described in D’Andrade 1995:93) maintain that there are two primary mechanisms for reducing the strain on short-term memory: attribute reduction and configurational recoding. Attribute reduction describes the tendency to contract the number of criterial features of an object down to a very small number, five or six, and ignore other attributes. Configurational recoding is based on the chunking together of several features to form a single characteristic. Chunking is a mental process where the short-term memory segments information by grouping items together. Local phone numbers, such as 378-9976, are chunked into two parts 378 and 9976. The second segment can again be chunked into 99 and 76.

The psychobiological constraints placed on the human mind’s capacity for organizing materials and phenomena are of central importance in cognitive anthropology. There are a myriad of things in the world that the mind comes into contact with in daily life. To be able to function, the mind manufactures discriminations of attributes so it can process information without responding to information as if it were new each time it occurs. Simultaneous discriminations are processed in the short-term memory. In a cross-cultural study of kinship terminologies Wallace (1964 in D’Andrade 1995) noted that despite the social and technological complexity of societies that the size of kinship terminologies generally remain constant. He found terminologies basically consisted of a maximum of six binary distinctions between classes producing a possibility of sixty-four combinations of terms. He concluded there must be a psychobiological foundation for this limitation or greater variety would be observed across societies. This finding became known as the 26 rule. Wallace was, nonetheless, not the first to propose this kind of finding. In 1956 Miller, in a now famous paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” (known as the 27 rule), reported that people could make seven concurrent distinctions in processing information in short-term memory before a notable drop-off transpired.

The implications these finding have for cognitive anthropology cannot be underestimated. Essentially, they help to create a cognitive model of the mind that combines both cultural and biological aspects of human life (D’Andrade, 1995). Cultural information and criteria for organizing information is culturally-based, but the principle of six or seven distinctions of information for short-term memory processing is biologically grounded.

In contemporary cognitive anthropology methods themselves no longer continue to be “the” overriding focus but instead are used to produce ethnographic data in aid of advancing theoretical knowledge of how the mind operates. The editors of a book devoted to cognitive methodology note that “this volume compels field researchers to take very seriously not only what they hear, but what they ask,” (Weller and Romney 1988:5). This transformation has substantially altered the variety of work produced by cognitive anthropologists. While modern methodologies have become more elaborate and sophisticated they remain anchored in the premises of the early feature model.

Moreover, methods also remain centered on the concept of domain, yet they go beyond simply eliciting lists of things belonging to a particular category. Current methodologies have attempted to overcome the earlier problem of pursuing allegedly “meaningless” subjects such as taxonomies of plants, although these subjects were critical in isolating cognitive mechanisms of information processing at the onset of this scientific project. Modern methodologies tackle more complex topics. For example, Garro (1988) examined the explanatory model of two domains, causes and symptoms, of high blood pressure among Ojibway Indians living in Manitoba, Canada to assess how they were related to each other.

Cognitive anthropologists stress systematic data collection and analysis in addressing issues of reliability and validity and, consequently, rely heavily on structured interviewing and statistical analyses. Their techniques can be divided into three groups that produce different sorts of data: similarity techniques, ordering techniques, and test performance techniques (Weller and Romney, 1988). Similarity methods call for respondents to judge the likeness of particular items. Ordered methods require the ranking of items along a conceptual scale. Test performance methods regard respondents as “correct” or “incorrect” depending on how they execute a specified task. Specific methods used by cognitive anthropologists include free listing, frame elicitation, triad tests, pile sorts, paired comparisons, rank order, true and false tests, and cultural consensus tasks.

A key feature of cognitive studies is that respondents are asked to define categories and terms in their own language. It is assumed that the anthropologist and the respondents do not have identical understandings of domains. Therefore, the elicitation of a specific domain is typically the first step in these studies. The boundaries of culturally relevant items within a domain can be determined through a variety of techniques. Domains can be delineated by the free listing method where respondents are asked to list all the kinds of X they know, or why they chose X over Y. Sometimes group interviews are used to define domains. Free lists can be analyzed in three ways: by the ordering of terms, by the frequency of terms, and by the use of modifiers. The saliency of mentioned items is determined either by the ordering of terms, where the most salient items occur at the top of the list, or by the frequency elicited. Weller and Romney (1988:11) note that most free lists produced by individuals are not complete but as the sample increases the list stabilizes. Items in a free list must be recorded verbatim to probe for the definition of the item cited. The decision about where the cut-off point should be located is subjective, but depends on the purpose of the study, the number of elicited terms, and the type of data collection employed (Weller and Romney, 1988).

Once a domain has been delimited a number of possibilities face the researcher. One option is the pile sort method, which can be either a single sort or a successive sort. In a single sort terms (or sometimes pictures or colors depending on the subject) from the free list are placed on individual index cards. They are shuffled at the beginning of each interview to ensure randomness. Respondents are asked to group the cards in terms of similarity so that most like terms are in the same pile and unlike terms are not. After the piles have been arranged the respondent is asked why terms were grouped as they were. An item-by-item matrix is then created. If terms were placed in the same pile they receive a code of one, if terms were not placed in the same pile they receive a code of zero. Matrices are tabulated for both individuals and the group. Conducting a successive pile sort is slightly different. Terms from the free list are sorted into piles, as in the single sort method, but respondents are restricted into separating the terms into two groups. Respondents are then asked to subdivide the initial piles. The continual process of subdividing a pile is repeated until it can no longer occur. This method enables the creation of a taxonomic tree for individuals, a group, or both. The structures produced by individuals can be compared.

Another method frequently used by cognitive anthropologists is the triad method. This method involves either similarity or ordered data. Items are arranged into sets of three. In the case of ordered data, respondents are asked to order each set from the “most” to “least” of a feature. Respondents are asked to choose the most different item with similarity data. Unlike a pile sort, the triad method is not dependent on the literacy of informants. Triad sorts have been used in studies of kinship terminologies, animal terms, occupations and disease terms (Weller and Romney, 1988). To conduct a triad test the number of triads must be calculated with a mathematical formula. All potential combinations of items are then compiled. If items in a domain are vast, a balanced incomplete block triad design can reduce the total number of triads (see Weller and Romney for details, 1988). Triad sets and the position of terms within each triad are then randomized. Interpretative data can be collected from the respondents after they have completed the triad task to find out the criteria for the choices they made. Tabulation varies depending on the kind of data used in the triad. If the data were rank ordered, the ranks are summed across items for each informant; however, if similarity data were used, responses are arranged in a similarity matrix (Weller and Romney, 1988:36). A similarity matrix can be created for each individual and for the group. Weller and Romney (1988) suggest hierarchical clustering or multidimensional scaling for descriptive analysis.

Consensus theory directly addresses issues of reliability in data collection not of the information collected, but rather of the people interviewed. It aids a researcher to, “describe and measure the extent to which cultural beliefs are shared . . . If the beliefs represented by the data are not shared, the analysis will show this,” (Romney, 1999). Data is determined to be correct or incorrect by the respondents; the researcher codes their answers. True-false, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, rank order, interval estimates and matching formats can all be used in consensus theory. For example, in true-false formats respondents are asked to determine whether a set of statements is correct, coded as one, or incorrect, coded as zero.

Consensus theory requires response data (either interval or dichotomous), rather than performance data in which respondents themselves are coded as being correct or incorrect. Consensus theory measures how much a respondent knows and seeks to aggregate the answers of several respondents to achieve a synthesized representation of their knowledge. The goal of consensus theory is to use the pattern of agreement among respondents to make inferences about their knowledge (Weller and Romney, 1988:74). Furthermore, a consensus model assumes that the relationship between respondents is a function of the level of their competency with respect to some domain of knowledge; it allows a researcher to gauge how much a particular respondent knows in relation to other respondents. Respondents can then be weighted in terms of their competency relative to each other.

Using a true-false format, Garro (1988) employed consensus theory in a study of high blood pressure among Ojibway Indians. Garro combined the complementary methods explanatory models (EMs) in addition to true-false tests. Different EMs were elicited. EMs collect data about the descriptions of, the meaning of, the experience and the consequences of illness. True-false questions were aimed at uncovering the reasoning behind the answers of the EMs. In describing consensus theory she states, “the purpose of this analysis is to determine the level of sharing and the degree to which individual informants approach the shared knowledge,” (1988:100). After conducting the EM interviews she took several items (causes and symptoms) and constructed a similarity matrix. Factor analysis was then performed to determine the degree to which the domain was shared among respondents. Also using factor analysis to achieve competency values, respondents were then rated in terms of their degree of knowledge of the domain. Respondents’ competency values were weighted with more weight given to more knowledgeable respondents. A true-false test was given to all respondents. Individual answers were determined to be correct or incorrect from the pattern of correspondence as compared with the previously weight values of respondents who exhibited a high agreement with the group.

Although this review has not exhausted all of the various methods contemporary cognitive anthropologist use, it does portray them in general. Cognitive anthropology is driven by methodology. Emphasis is and always has been given to systematic data collection in an effort to attain reliable and valid results. The ultimate aim, however, is nothing less than discovering and representing mental processes. But a shift has occurred recently. Many anthropologists are using cognitive techniques for the purpose of eliciting information to facilitate ethnographic description. Applied anthropologists are particularly interested in these techniques. If the past is any indicator of the future, cognitive anthropology will continue to develop around the systematic and structured collection of data.


One of the main accomplishments of cognitive anthropology is that it provides detailed and reliable descriptions of cultural representations. Additionally, it has challenged ideas of monolithic culture and has helped to bridge culture and the functioning of the mind. The culture and personality approach helped demonstrate how an individual’s socialization influenced personality systems that, in turn, influenced cultural practices and beliefs. The psyche is influenced by the representations it learns by participating in the human cultural heritage. That heritage is in turn influenced by the limitations and capacities of the human cognitive system (D’Andrade 1995:251-252). Cognitive anthropology has helped reveal some of the inner workings of the human mind, and given us a greater understanding of how people order and perceive the world around them. By far, cognitive anthropology’s most notable achievement is its development of cultural methodologies that are valid and reliable representations of human thought.


Some of the most severe criticisms of cognitive anthropology have come from its own practitioners. According to Keesing (1972:307) the so-called “new ethnography” was unable to move beyond the analysis of artificially simplified and often trivial semantic domains. Ethnoscientists tended to study such things as color categories and folk taxonomies, without being able to elucidate their relevance to understanding culture as a whole. Taking a lead from generative grammar in linguistics, ethnoscientists sought cultural grammars, intending to move beyond the analyses of semantic categories and domains into wider behavioral realms. Ethnoscientists attempted to discern how people construe their world from the way they label and talk about it (Keesing 1972:306). However, this study of elements rather than relational systems failed to reveal a generative cultural grammar for any culture, and while generating elaborate taxonomies, failed to discover any internal cultural workings that could be compared internally or externally.

While the cognitive anthropologists of the last two decades have attempted to address these problems, they have created problems of their own. One of the most glaring problems is that almost all investigators do the majority of their research in English. This is to be expected, given the elaborate nature of the investigative methods now being used, but begs the question of just how applicable the results can be for other cultures. In addition, there are multiple factors in operation at any given moment that are difficult to account for using standard methods of cognitive anthropology. Recently, cognitive anthropologists have attempted to explore the emotional characteristics of culture that Bateson, Benedict, and Mead had recognized long ago. The difficulties of managing emotion as a factor in schemata are now being addressed, but it remains to be seen just how successful the cognitive anthropologists will be in linking emotion and reason.

Cognitive anthropology deals with abstract theories regarding the nature of the mind. While there have been a plethora of methods for accessing culture contained in the mind, questions remain about whether results in fact reflect how individuals organize and perceive society, or whether they are merely manufactured by investigators, having no foundation in their subjects’ reality.  Romney and Moore (1998), however, suggest that people do think in terms of loosely articulated categories (domains). They review some pertinent work in the fields of neuroscience and psychology and correlate it with findings in cognitive anthropology. In particular, they note that when people see an object, a representation of the image is constructed in the brain in a one-to-one manner (Romney and Moore, 1998:322). Images that visually appear close to one another are mapped as such in mental representations (like multidimensional scaling). Furthermore, people who have experienced some sort of head trauma lose memory not randomly, but systematically. Chunks of knowledge are forgotten, knowledge that concerns certain domains, implying that, “the set of words in a semantic domain may be localized functional units in the brain,” (Romney and Moore, 1998:325).

Another criticism is that universal agreement on how to find culture in the mind has yet to emerge. When one compares the works of major figures in the field, such as D’Andrade, Kronenfeld, and Shore, it is clear they each have a different idea about just how to pursue the goals of the field. While some may contend that this is a deficiency, it attests to the field’s vitality and the centrality of the issues under contention. Moreover, when approaching an issue as complex as the human mind, mental processes, and culture, it is salutary to seek a multifaceted convergence.

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