Cognitive Anthropology Edit

By Amanda Polack


Cognitive anthropology is a discipline which was founded in the mid-1950’s and it “generally focuses on the intellectual and rational aspects of culture, particularly through studies of language use” (Cash: 1998). The importance of this is that cultural knowledge is gained through words, and actions, which results in a better understanding of shared and learned behaviors.  Although both words and actions contribute to understanding culture in human beings, language is studied because it differentiates humans from one another and non-human primates.  Through language, cognitive anthropology examines the “knowledge which is embedded in words, stories, and in artifacts” (Cash: 1998).  These features are described by many theorists within the disciple of cognitive anthropology, but three for good reference include Harold Conklin, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Stephen Tyler. Not only does utilizing the methods and knowledge encompassed within cognitive anthropology allow individuals to have a better understanding of how language can impact culture through words, stories, and artifacts, but it also shows us a more general insight to how  “people conceive of and think about events and objects in the world” (Murphy: 2009). 

Cognitive anthropology is a diverse discipline, which is clearly shown by the various array of names that the discipline can also be referred to as, which are as follows: “ Ethnosemantics, Ethnoscience, Ethnolinguistics, and New Ethnography” (Murphy: 2009).  So not only are the theorists provided above excellent references to better understanding the discipline of cognitive anthropology as a whole, each more or less focuses on a specific aspect of the discipline.  Furthermore, as one may have put together on their own, “cognitive anthropology is closely aligned with psychology, because both explore the nature of cognitive processes” (Murphy: 2009).  Keeping the focus on cognitive anthropology; however, it is said that “culture is composed of logical rules that are based on ideas that can be accessed in the mind” (Murphy: 2009).  In other words, it describes “what is socially and culturally expected or appropriate in given situations, circumstances, and contexts” (Murphy: 2009) and states “that every culture embodies its own unique organizational system for understanding things, events, and behavior” (Murphy: 2009).

Cognitive anthropology is a discipline which has been rooted in and has grown from language studies.  Through language, one is able to observe and take the opportunity to understand how various cultures view the world and how we utilize it along with the resources it provides.  Through linguistic observation, we are able to comprehend the diversity that makes up various cultures; and furthermore, how the diversity of cultures influences the world we all share.


Harold Conklin (b.1926)

Claude Levi-Strauss (b. 1908, d. 2009)

Stephen Tyler (b.1932)


Conklin, Harold. 1955. Hanunoo Color Categories. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1967. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Beacon Press.

Tyler, Stephen. 1973. India: an Anthropological Perspective. Waveland Press Inc.


Cash, Jennifer. "Cognitive Anthropology." Anthropology Journal. January 1, 1998. Accessed March 3, 2015.

"Claude Levi-Strauss." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. July 30, 2014. Accessed March 3, 2015.

Lukas, Scott. "Steven A. Tyler." Steven A. Tyler (entry). January 1, 1996. Accessed March 3, 2015.

Murphy, Michael D. "Anthropological Theories." The University of Alabama: Department of Anthropology. January 1, 2009. Accessed March 3, 2015.