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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Roots
  • Growth of Cognitive Anthropology (1970s–1980s)
  • The New Linguistic Relativity
  • Future Trends

Anthropology Cognitive Anthropology
Giovanni Bennardo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0070


Cognitive anthropology is the study of human cognition in cultural and cross-cultural contexts. Cognition is investigated both as content, or knowledge, and as process(es), such as reasoning. The cultural context typically includes an ontology, a geographical location, language(s), social relationships, values, and beliefs. Cognition is conceived as playing a mediating role between perceiving and codifying/classifying the world, such as the formation of and relationships among concepts, and also guiding and generating behavior in that same world. This anthropological focus on cognition, while present since the inception of the discipline, became more prominent in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The focus on kinship, color, and ethnobotany gave way in the 1970s and 1980s to the investigation of a number of knowledge domains whose results were conducive to universalistic claims out of cross-cultural variability. Rich in theoretical approaches about the mind, such as generativism, linguistic relativity, distributed cognition, cognition in practice, and cultural models, cognitive anthropologists have shown a keen attention to the acquisition of empirical data and the use of innovative methodology, including componential analysis, experimental tasks, consensus analysis, discourse analysis, and social network analysis. After looking at the contemporary research conducted in cognitive anthropology, the article ends with a view of trends for future development.

General Overviews

As outlined in Blount 2011, the focus on the mind as the locus of culture was characteristic of anthropology since its inception, as far back as in Tylor 1871, which offers the classic definition of the concept of culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (p. 1). In the first half of the 20th century, the same focus is clearly present in the work of some founding fathers of anthropology, such as Boas 1911a, Boas 1911b, Sapir 1921, Whorf 1956, Lévy-Bruhl 1925, and Lévi-Strauss 1962 (all cited under Roots). In Goodenough 1957, culture is defined as “whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its member . . . It is the form of things that people have in mind, their models for perceiving, relating, and otherwise interpreting them” (p. 167). This definition clearly affirmed that culture is essentially a mental phenomenon. This manifesto generated a great amount of research, which was first labeled the New Ethnography and was later assigned the name of “cognitive anthropology.” Key examples of this research include Casson 1981, Dougherty 1985, Spradley 1972, and Tyler 1969 (see also D’Andrade 1995, cited under the New Ethnography). Listed in chronological order, three major lines of research can be found within cognitive anthropology: research on a number of knowledge domains, such as Kinship, Color, and Ethnobotany; research on Cultural Models; and research on linguistic relativity (see the New Linguistic Relativity). These lines of research are discussed in Levinson 1995 and Brown 2006.

  • Blount, B. G. 2011. A history of cognitive anthropology. In A companion to cognitive anthropology. Edited by D. B. Kronenfeld, G. Bennardo, V. C. de Munck, and M. D. Fischer, 11–29. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444394931

    The most recent piece in which a brief history of cognitive anthropology is delineated. Especially insightful is the treatment of the roots of the discipline since Tylor’s definition of culture (see Tylor 1871). Latest and future research trends close the piece.

  • Brown, P. 2006. Cognitive anthropology. In Language, culture, and society: Key topics in linguistic anthropology. Edited by C. Jourdan and K. Tuite, 96–114. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511616792

    An outline of the history of cognitive anthropology is followed by a focus on the work on cultural models and on linguistic relativity in the domain of space in the 1990s.

  • Casson, R. W. 1981. General introduction. In Language, culture, and cognition: Anthropological perspectives. By R. W. Casson, 1–10. New York: Macmillan.

    A brief introduction to cognitive anthropology in which special emphasis is devoted to language. Contributions of “culture and personality,” structural anthropology, and symbolic anthropology are also acknowledged.

  • Dougherty, J. W. D. 1985. Introduction. In Directions in cognitive anthropology. By J. W. D. Dougherty, 3–14. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

    The Chomskian-derived “cultural grammar” concept is considerate inadequate in light of several years of research in cognitive anthropology. Culture learned and constructed by the individual is now proposed as embedded in context.

  • Goodenough, W. H. 1957. Cultural anthropology and linguistics. In Report of the Seventh Annual Round Table Meeting on Linguistics and Language Study. Edited by Paul L. Garvin, 167–173. Monograph Series on Languages and Linguistics 9. Washington, DC: Georgetown Univ. Press.

    In this work one finds a clear statement about the study of culture being similar to the study of language. The widely cited definition of culture as a mental phenomenon is also contained in this seminal short article.

  • Levinson, S. C. 1995. Cognitive anthropology. In Handbook of pragmatics. Edited by J. Verschueren, J. Östman, and J. Blommaert, 100–105. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    Starting from an acknowledgment of the decline of cognitive anthropology in the late 1980s, Levinson outlines the path within which it can reacquire the prominence it deserves.

  • Spradley, J. P. 1972. Foundations of cultural knowledge. In Culture and cognition: Rules, maps, and plans. Edited by J. P. Spradley, 3–38. London: Chandler.

    Clearly in line with linguistic theorizing of the time (see Chomsky’s generative-transformational grammar), this piece provides an assessment of the working of the individual mind and the collective/cultural mind. The whole itinerary from perception to action through cognition is presented.

  • Tyler, S. A. 1969. Introduction. In Cognitive anthropology. Edited by S. A. Tyler, 1–23. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston.

    The first and most explicit manifesto of what cognitive anthropology is supposed to be. Special emphasis is devoted to methodology and especially to obtaining linguistic data and how to analyze them.

  • Tylor, E. B. 1871. Primitive culture: Researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, language, art, and custom. London: Murray.

    In this work Tylor laid out his theory of cultural evolutionism, wherein humans are supposed to have evolved through different stages represented by the various cultures in the world (the European one being at the pinnacle of this process). It is here that one finds his famous definition of culture.

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