Cognitive Anthropology and Structuralism

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Cognitive Anthropology and Structuralism

Jonathan Quaade


        Developed in the 20th century, cognitive anthropology is a concept concerned with what people from different groups know and how that implicit knowledges changes the way people relate to the world around them. The concept can include subcategories called ethnoscience and symbolic anthropology. A french anthropologist also dealt with cognitive process, he established a theory that there are unobservable social structure that generate social phenomena. He named the concept structuralism.

        As the name suggest, cognitive anthropology has a strong emphasis on human cognition; however, the concept hasn’t been universally agreed upon or conventionalized. An anthropologist and structural linguist, Edward Sapir, stated that “cultural behaviour is symbolic behavior shared by culture bearers, and cultures are abstractions of ideas and behavior patterns” with different meanings for each individual. He meant that anthropologist should describe the observable patterns of the society, and from the information gathered, she/he should derive meaning from the people studied, rather than use his own categories to create meaning of his/her data. It was an effort to get at organizing principles that lie underneath the behaviour within a society, and trying to understand the natives categories.

        In itself, trying to get the natives view wasn't new, but making an effort to rule out the ethnographer's categories was new. Several anthropologist advanced a movement based on this idea and called it ethnoscience that used cognitive anthropology for its theory. They were very interested in the understanding of the thoughts of societies anthropologically. A way to elicit information and not place it in preconceived categories of the ethnographer was sought out. To avoid classification, the linguistic processes were only carried out in the native's language to get their view.  Although many other anthropologist found it interesting, it received a great deal of criticism. People said that it didn't have any indication of being remotely useful as it was too relativistic for comparison or establishing generalization of a culture.

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        Another cognitive or mentalist orientation is symbolic anthropology. It is an extension of   culture and culture patterning, meaning that symbolic systems have preservation functions or psychological functions.  For example, a system that has been treated in its own light, and isn't related to a social, psychological or biological system, derive more meaning from biological facts of kinships. The biological facts could symbolize qualities like solidarity and trust. However, ethnographer's have developed several different definitions of symbolic anthropology.

        Structuralism, like functionalism, is not confined to or can be only be applied to anthropology and it has been suggested ...

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