[Alex Rubenstein] Ethnoscience and Cognitive Anthropology

This text was produced by Alex Rubenstein while the person was a student at Macalester. It was distributed for in-class review. Any use of this text necessitates you to contact the person directly for copyright purposes.

Alex Rubenstein

Ethnoscience and Cognitive Anthropology:

Smart words to explain the logic behind what we know as the Spradley Method.

The concept of ethnoscience was born in the middle of the 1950s as a critique of methods used in the field by anthropologists. As the latter part of the term indicates, ethnoscience was highly scientific in nature. The main problem this new breed of thinkers had with traditional methods was that anthropologists up to that point had used their own systems of classification, which were Western in nature, on the data they found, which naturally distorted it. The ethnoscientists believed that these distortions made the old way of doing field work unscientific. The main change that needed to be made was the goal of anthropological field work. McGee and Warms explain that the ethnoscientists’ believed that “anthropologists should attempt to reproduce cultural reality as it was perceived and lived by members of society.” Basically, their main idea was that data should be classified according to the way of thinking of those being studied. That is, the natives should create the different categories rather than the anthropologist inferring where different things should be placed.

While anthropologists are extremely smart individuals, they cannot read minds (although Jack Weatherford…maybe). Therefore, language was the main tool used by ethnoscientists to try to construct the thought processes of the people they studied. This resulted in heavy use of methodology from the Prague school as well as the famed Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. The main influence of the Hypothesis on the theory of ethnoscience was the idea that culture and language were closely connected. The main method used for this form of research was a highly structured interview designed to draw out categories within a culture as were perceived by natives. These categories were known as domains. Domains could be analyzed to determine the way the culture operated.

Cognitive anthropology developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s and was essentially an evolved version of ethnoscience. The CAs believed that one could actually learn how the human mind works by studying thought categories constructed by natives. A key idea was that there were “universal cognitive processes that reflect an innate structure of the human brain”. Like the ethnoscientists before them, the CAs saw linguistic analysis as the best entry way to the understanding of different cultures.

The summary of the two theories ends here. For more, see the intro to the section in McGee and Warms.

Harold C. Conklin: Color me Cognitive!

Conklin’s article is quite brief, so I will be as well in my summarizing of it. The purpose of this piece is to emphasize the argument of ethnoscientists that Western conceptions of different categories cannot be successfully applied to other cultures without distorting the data. He uses the example of the classification of colors by the Hanunoo people on Mindoro Island to argue this point. The Hanunoo have two levels of color categories. Level 1 is comprised of four terms that encapsulate all possible colors, while Level 2 includes any possible color that could be taken from one of the four. Obviously, this is different from the American way of classifying colors, which starts with the primary colors and goes from there. He also notes that Hanunoo incorporate texture when identifying the color of something.

Conklin concludes by arguing that ignorance of the way a culture classifies things can lead to a complete misinterpretation of the aspect of the culture, pointing out that one could simply deem the Hanunoo as being confused in their identification of colors if one is only aware of one’s own classification system.

Stephen “Sweet Emotion” Tyler: Introduction (Yep, that’s the title)

In this piece, Tyler outlines the theory of cognitive anthropology (which makes sense since this piece is an intro from a textbook entitled Cognitive Anthropology). He first criticizes past anthropological methods, as CAs were wont to do, pretty much making the arguments outlined in the introduction to this crib sheet. One interesting observation he makes is that since anthropologists had previously used their own classification systems to organize data, they were in a sense only studying their own culture. Basically, he is saying that ethnographers were creating the culture of the people they were studying through their observations (Take that, Bronislaw!). So, as with the other ES’s and CAs, it always had to be all about the natives with Steve.

An important distinction Tyler makes is that for cognitive anthropologists, material culture is only the surface of the what should be studied. He explains that what is more pertinent is the way material culture is organized the minds of the people. In fact, he defines culture as “cognitive organizations of material phenomena”. To discover culture as it is conceptualized this way, Tyler says that two main questions must be answered: “What material phenomena are significant for the people of a culture?” and “how do they organize these phenomena?”

A key part of Tyler’s argument is that different cultures identify different things in different ways. Therefore, even when two cultures use some of the same things, they may perceive these things differently, which can reveal something about the way they think. However, Tyler also says that beyond variation among different cultures, there is also variation within the same culture, usually as a result of gender, age and class differences. Because of this, he believes there are multiple sets of organizing principles for any culture. Out of all of these points, Tyler emphasizes that because of cultural variation, there cannot be one single THEORY OF CULTURE, but multiple theories of culture.

After explaining that cultures are different, Tyler discusses how one should go about studying them. He explains that the job of an anthropologist is essentially to make sense of everything occurring in a culture, but warns that it must be done within the line of thinking of that culture. Naming becomes a way to make sense of everything, and names of similar things can be grouped semantic domains, which Tyler defines as “a class of objects all of which share at least one feature in common which differentiates them from other semantic domains”. He then describes different ways to keep track of semantic domains, which include all of the different kinds of charts that everyone in this class has learned or is learning in Ethnographic Interviewing, so I won’t go into detail about them here.

Tyler believed that semantic domains could be used to make sense of a culture, and that cognitive anthropology meant to discover the order that held together a culture through the analysis of semantic domains constructed with the native way of thinking in mind. He then relates a way to get information that is pertinent and gives a way to analyze that information: controlled eliciting and formal analysis, respectively. Controlled eliciting is basically rephrasing questions until one is able to extract cultural information in a context significant to the person being interviewed. Formal analysis is simply explaining the relationships of all the parts of a given semantic domain.

Tyler concludes by saying that cultural anthropology’s main goal should be to get at the thought processes of the people of a culture. He then emphasizes that to the cognitive anthropologist, cultural anthropology is a formal science. Finally, he says that while there is still a lot of work to be done, cognitive anthropology will change the way anthropology is practiced.


1. Tyler makes the argument that there is variation within cultures. If different groups within a culture have different practices and ways of thinking, why aren’t they different cultures?

2. Given cognitive anthropology’s emphasis on native thought processes, how would Tyler respond to Malinowski’s notion that a person within a culture can never fully understand that culture?



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