Cognitive anthropology addresses the ways in which people conceive of and think about events and objects in the world. It provides a link between human thought processes and the physical and ideational aspects of culture. This subfield of anthropology is rooted in Boasian cultural relativism, influenced by anthropological linguistics, and closely aligned with psychological investigations of cognitive processes. It arose as a separate area of study in the 1950s, as ethnographers sought to discover “the native’s point of view,” adopting an epic approach to anthropology. The new field was alternatively referred to as Ethnosemantics, Ethnoscience, Ethnolinguistics, and New Ethnography.
The methodology, theoretical underpinnings, and subjects of cognitive anthropology have been diverse.
The field can be divided into three phases:
(1) an early formative period in the 1950s called ethnoscience;
(2) the middle period during the 1960s and 1970s, commonly identified with the study of folk models; and
(3) the most recent period beginning in the 1980s with the growth of schema theory and the development of consensus theory.
Cognitive anthropology is closely aligned with psychology, because both explore the nature of cognitive processes. It has also adopted theoretical elements and methodological techniques from structuralism and linguistics. Cognitive anthropology is a broad field of inquiry; for example, studies have examined how people arrange colors and plants into categories as well how people conceptualize disease in terms of symptoms, cause, and appropriate treatment. Cognitive anthropology not only focuses on discovering how different peoples organize culture but also how they utilize culture. Contemporary cognitive anthropology attempts to access the organizing principles that underlie and motivate human behavior. Though the scope of cognitive anthropology is expansive its methodology continues to depend strongly on a long-standing tradition of ethnographic fieldwork and structured interviews
The earliest practitioners of anthropology were also interested in the relationship between the human mind and society. By viewing his data through the prism of evolution, Morgan continued the Enlightenment tradition of explaining the phenomenon he observed as a result of increasing rationality. E.B. Tylor, who shared many of the views of Morgan, was also interested in aspects of the mind in less developed societies. His definition of culture as the, “complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society,” reflects this interest
Harold Conklin conducted extensive research in Southeast Asia, producing one of the largest ethnographic collections for the Philippines. His interest in linguistics and ecology and commitment to ethnoscience led to pioneering investigations of indigenous systems of tropical forest agriculture. He also made important contributions to the study of kinship terminology including “Lexicographical Treatment of Folk Taxonomies” and “Ethnogenealogical Method”. Conklin’s investigation of color perception in “Hanunóo Color Categories” is characteristic of the sort of study produced by the early ethnoscientific approach. In this article, Conklin demonstrates that Hanunóo color terms do not segment the color spectrum in the same manner as western color terms, and in fact incorporate additional sensory information, such as wetness and dryness. A key observation of the study was that the type of eliciting material used made a difference in the consistency of the responses. In 1969, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay presented a study of color categories in which they trace universal tendencies and historical and cultural development, arguing against the cultural relativism implied in Conklin’s publication. source(books)