Cognitive Anthropology Essay Sample

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Is there any such thing as theory free data?

Man receives data from many sources & in various forms. There is the information received from the ‘exterior’ such as the world about us; through different media, for instance newspapers, television or radio, & from more educational resources such as books, teachers or the internet. There is the data received through childhood, from parents, siblings, other family, school friends, & possibly from a priest or rabbi or chief, this last one depending on the culture one is born into. We also continue to obtain & process data throughout our adult life. Simply, we process what we can see, what we can taste, touch and smell & hear, but as Gregory (1996) says, our knowledge is not limited to that which we perceive through our senses.

There are things that we ‘know’ of and can understand even though they are unseen or outside of our own experience, Gregory’s illustration here is gravity, other good examples are electricity & space time. Probably on a more fundamental level, there is also the data from the ‘interior’, for example, how we ‘feel’ about something we experience, also, sensations such as breathing & the feeling of our own heartbeat, these all hold meaning for the individual & changes in them can be a sign of changes in how we feel about a perceived stimulus, & these meanings can evolve & transform over time with the integration of continued additional experience. A point here is that, as Turner, (1982) says, we never stop learning our own culture, or other cultures & culture is always changing, therefore our perceptions & understandings will always be changing.

What data that is perceived, or known, can be said to be theory free? Either regarding the human individual or species the inductivist view of growth of knowledge refutes innate or culturally untainted ideas, Atran, (1990) To quote Leach, (1964) from Atran, “The child, in due course, is taught to impose upon this environment, a kind of discriminating grid which serves to distinguish the world as being composed of a large number of separate things, each labelled with a name.” I believe that this ability is not taught, but part of our innate capacity for learning. As one develops from a dependent infant into an independent adult we will attach meanings and interpretations to most, if not all data that is experienced, also, the learning of ordinary, living-kind terms is easy & needs practically no teaching, Atran, (1990) He goes on to say that once a child has a plant or animal pointed out to them they immediately classify it & relationally separate it from other categories.

We may also have differing reactions at different times, or to others, to a particular event or experience according to our own individual, personal ability & past experiences of the type of event as well as being influenced by the way that our culture has taught us to conduct ourselves. Possibly, as a very young infant information is perceived that is without any peripheral theory, but children are born with this innate facility to learn & as they develop their abilities of reasoning & remembering, & increase their general knowledge base, they will attach greater & more varied meaning to what they perceive & therefore as time goes on, the many different types of information they receive will generate more memories, create more response possibilities; more ‘theory’ will be attached.

It was suggested (by C. W) that possibly the only theory free data is pain or pleasure, I think that I disagree with this, because when pain or pleasure is experienced it also triggers thoughts & feelings related to past experience of similar events. This would draw on memory of past knowledge of or comparisons with related activities, & raise different possibilities as to how to deal with the experience effectively, either to decrease or prevent reoccurrence for pain, & to prolong, increase or repeat pleasure.

The ability to receive information, then to process it & act on it is a part of our survival mechanism, Damasio, (1994) without this ability we would not be here, therefore it seems to be innate, & if that is so, then can we perceive anything & not have it elicit responses that are based on memory & understanding, also responses that have their foundations in our nature, which comes from our cultural environment, & our genetic make up, also to raise questions as to how to react to or deal with the information in the best manner. Kenneth Craik’s hypothesis is that thought, models, or parallels reality, & that it’s indispensable feature is symbolism. He says, “If the organism carries a ‘small scale model’ of exte

rnal reality within its head, it is able to try out various alternatives, conclude which is the best

of them, react to future situations before they arise, utilize the knowledge of past events in dealing with the present & future, & in every way to react in a much fuller, safer, & more competent manner to the emergencies which face it.”

There are many systems of symbols used by humans to represent what is understood of the surrounding environment. Language; verbal & written, & mathematics being the two most apparent, a major principle of cognitive science is that the mind is a symbolic system, that it constructs & operates on symbols. Turner, (1982) says that the role of symbols in showing connection across different levels of descriptive structures has been neglected. Also, that symbols can be said to serve as connectives between levels or parts of a system, as well as between the system & its environment.

Two areas of human perception that can be used to illustrate well how data, as perceived by man, is not without attached theory, are vision & language. To quote David Marr, an authority on the theory of visual perception,

“The true heart of visual perception is the inference from the structure of the real world outside.”

Things are normally seen automatically & with no effort. It seems that seeing things is ‘easy’ for our brains to do. This simplicity gives us our subjective experience of direct contact with the real world. But, what do we ‘do’ with what we can see? How are objects identified? How do we perceive depth? This essay is not the place for a detailed explanation of the theory of visual perception, but put simply, identification of objects requires learnt knowledge which is accumulated throughout the lifetime of the individual, which is dependent on learning & the ability to recall what has been learned. Another type of ‘knowledge’ arises from evolution, Johnson-Laird, (1993). This implicit data is built into the processes of the nervous system & is necessary to the perception of depth & distance, these innate mechanisms that we use to understand what is being perceived are essential to our being.

As we acquire the ability to use language effectively we are attaching meaning to symbols, symbols that we use to represent concepts & describe objects & relations between them in the real world. Utilising a complex code we use words & sentences to communicate information & to express ideas. Almost everyone has that skill-so with almost no exception the data that is communicated is attached to theory. Language is a skill that we have an innate faculty for, & our competence improves as we develop, & as we practice it, Kess, (1991) We use it to describe the world around us, as well as to describe feelings about things & abstract concepts. Once one is proficient at using language, it is difficult, almost impossible for a person to hear it spoken and not ascribe meaning to what is heard, this means that memories of what the words heard mean to the individual are accessed & processed, & often, a response is then generated.

It is the same for the written word; once a person has learned to read & this process, with time has become automatic it is impossible to see text & not ‘read’ it & understand it. It is not only language that is heard, it is not only text that is seen, there are the everyday sights & sounds of the world around us; trees, people & buildings, birdsong, car engines & laughter. We process & recognise these sights & sounds because we have something within memory to compare it to. Different sights & sounds can also stimulate different feelings & stir up memories according to what they represent to the individual. Inspired composers have been particularly adept at writing music that brings about deep emotional response in the listener. Artists strive for the ability to evoke emotional reaction in the viewer.

The inference of Durkheim & Mauss, (from Atran), that cognitive categories are essentially cultural in origin, is, I believe, wrong. Atran (1990) says that the fundamental collection of basic cognitive dispositions that are responsible for the graded structure of folk biological classification seems to be unique in its universality across human minds & societies. Atran also declares that although our ‘common-sense’ dispositions do give way to thoughts that are less inhibited & more subject to cultural impact, these are secondary to our primary, innate dispositions. There are other species that, even with limited reasoning and memory, demonstrate complex social interactions & co-operation. It is obvious that humans also have many of these innate qualities, but as a human race we live by very elaborate social conventions & ethical structures & as Damasio (1994) says, these extremely complex rituals must have arisen & been transmitted culturally, but our facilities to use these complex structures are based on intrinsic built in mechanisms that enable our perception to have rationality based on inferencing & deduction.

To return to the question, is there any such thing as theory free data? I believe the answer is no. We obtain information in many ways, in addition to that which we perceive through our senses; there are abstract concepts & ‘known’ facts about those things that remain unseen. This data, our brain processes & devises responses to, these responses come about from our understanding of & feeling about what we have perceived, & from the meaning we attach to it.

This can vary, according to our culture, also with stage of development, & according to the individual’s knowledge base, inferencing & reasoning abilities, level & scope of education & personal experience. Even as an extremely young infant, I don’t believe that any data received can be said to be theory free, the structures to process, to reason, to infer & deduce are already there or developing, & all mammals are exposed to maternal influences in utero and during periods of postnatal suckling so babies, therefore, can potentially acquire information and behavioural practices from their mothers, Gibson, (2002) The very way in which we communicate data to each other is making use of a complex system of symbols that represents said data, this has evolved over time & exploits innate facilities for most importantly, survival, as well as language & learning.


Atran, S. (1990) Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Craik, K. (1943) The Nature of Explanation. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Damasio, A. R. (1994) Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason & the Human Brain. Macmillan Publishers Limited. London.

Gibson, K. R. (2002) ‘Customs & Cultures in Animals & Humans: Neurobiological & Evolutionary Considerations’. Anthropological Theory. 2(3): 323-339

Gregory, R. L. (1996) Eye & Brain: The Psychology of Seeing. Weidenfield & Nicholson. London.

Johnson-Laird, P. (1993) The Computer & the Mind: An Introduction to Cognitive Science. Fontana. London.

Kess, J. F. (1991) Psycholinguistics: Psychology, Linguistics & the Study of Natural Language. John Benjamins Publishing Co. Philadelphia.

Marr, D. (1982) Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation & Processing of Visual Information. W. H. Freeman. San Francisco.

Turner, V. (1982) From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. Performing Arts Journal Publications. New York.

Melanie Darwood, 95152482

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