In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cognitive Sociology

  • Introduction
  • Overviews and Methods
  • Organizing the Field: The Disciplinarity of Cognition and its Challenges
  • Journals

Sociology Cognitive Sociology
Michael W. Raphael
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0187


Cognitive sociology is the study of the conditions under which meaning is constituted through processes of reification. Cognitive sociology traces its origins to writings in the sociology of knowledge, sociology of culture, cognitive and cultural anthropology, and more recently, work done in cultural sociology and cognitive science. Its central questions revolve around locating these processes of reification since the locus of cognition is highly contentious. Researchers consider how individuality is related to notions of society (structures, institutions, systems, etc.) and notions of culture (cultural forms, cultural structures, sub-cultures, etc.). These questions further explore how these answers depend on learning processes (socialization, acculturation, etc.) which vary according to the position one takes on the role of language in cognition. It is from these positions that we operationalize a theory of human nature and construct a justification for the organization of the state of human affairs and the related conceptualizations of identity, self, and the subject. In this way, cognitive sociology seeks to establish the minimal model of the actor (the ontology) that underpins not only other subfields of sociology but also the human sciences in general. In this way, cognitive sociology analyzes the series of interpersonal processes that set up the conditions for phenomena to become “social objects,” which subsequently shape thinking and thought. In classical cognitive sociology, the historical traditions of the sociology of knowledge and phenomenology are emphasized, with the work of Bourdieu and Goffman given special treatment, given their contributions as precursors to many of the contemporary contingencies and consequences of debates in culture and cognition. The principle organizing the more contemporary literature are the paradigmatic assumptions concerning the locus of cognition, which have been organized into five ideal-types. These elucidate the points of agreement and disagreement in the field by addressing how thematic concerns (e.g., knowledge, rationality, embodiment, practices, discourse, etc.) highlight the priority of individuality in modeling society, to illustrate what makes cognitive sociology at once interdisciplinary yet contentiously distinct in addressing the politics of “tacit knowledge.”

Overviews and Methods

Cognitive sociology is a popular area of research that attracts attention from scholars in sociology, social psychology, anthropology, and cognitive science. Few texts have been written that survey this ever-growing literature since the field is still trying to figure out what it is. Of what has been written, these texts are authored by leading scholars and provide an overview of various strands of cognitive sociology, as in Cicourel 1973, Zerubavel 1997, and DiMaggio 1997, and how this research is conducted, as Manning 1987 and Zerubavel 2007 illustrate. Saferstein 1993 and Cerulo 2005 are two brief pieces useful for undergraduates.

  • Cerulo, Karen A. 2005. Cognitive sociology. In Encyclopedia of social theory. Edited by G. Ritzer, 107–111. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    This article introduces the strand of cognitive sociology that focuses on the sociocultural factors that shape and guide the process of human thought. Cerulo provides an overview of how these factors affect the sensation and attention to stimuli, the discrimination and classification of such input, the representation and integration of information, and the storage and retrieval of data.

  • Cicourel, Aaron Victor. 1973. Cognitive sociology: Language and meaning in social interaction. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

    This is one of the first texts to use the phrase “cognitive sociology.” It is also notable because it is an account of how the problem of everyday meaning challenges the use of concepts like role and status in the analysis of social structure and stratification.

  • DiMaggio, Paul. 1997. Culture and cognition. Annual Review of Sociology 23:263.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.23.1.263

    Although dated, this useful review articulates the cognitive presuppositions of cultural sociology by showing the implications for the study of identity, collective memory, social classification, and logics of action. The author extends this by discussing models of schematic aggregation, cultural change, and the relationship between analogy and generalization. More recent reviews overemphasize embodiment.

  • Manning, Peter K. 1987. Semiotics and fieldwork. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781412985826

    This short book aims to show how reification can be demonstrated empirically. Whereas the semiotics of structuralism was plagued by binaries, this text provides an alternative since its aim is to illustrate the orders and classes of abstraction present in everyday life.

  • Saferstein, Barry. 1993. Cognitive sociology. In The handbook of pragmatics. Edited by J. Verschueren, J. -O. Östman, and J. Blommaert, 140–147. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    This short piece provides a historical overview, examines the interrelation of interactional sense-making processes within social organization, and highlights key concepts in one strand of cognitive sociology focusing on the propositional content of discourse.

  • Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1997. Social mindscapes: An invitation to cognitive sociology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    This is one of the few texts that is accessible at an introductory level. Zerubavel illuminates how cognitive acts (perceiving, attending, classifying, assigning meaning, remembering, and reckoning the time) rely upon a concept of the individual as a social being. He shows how each of these acts require more than just certain personal cognitive idiosyncrasies and certain universal cognitive commonalities. Zerubavel introduces this typology by arguing against individual cognitivism and universal cognitivism.

  • Zerubavel, Eviatar. 2007. Generally speaking: The logic and mechanics of social pattern analysis. Sociological Forum 22.2: 131–145.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1573-7861.2007.00010.x

    This develops social pattern analysis as a methodology well-suited for isolating the normative features of cognitive acts. It emphasizes social geometry, multi-contextual evidence, cross-contextual similarity, and a theme-driven focus.

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