Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juni 2004

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Moderation / Chair: Jeff Bernard
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

The Cognitive Basis of Comparison in Anthropology

Michael Kimmel (Vienna)


Summary: The article discusses the ability of cognitive research to shed light on the mental models that anthropology (or similar social sciences) use in comparison and generalization. My core assumption is that qualitative approaches for comparing cultures are usually not based on simple attributes, but on complex relational models of various kinds, including theory nets, analogies and taxonomies, as well as on other imagery in perspectival models or switches between levels of granularity.


Introduction: cognitive science and the philosophy of science

With the publication of Giere's volume (1992) a, from an interdisciplinary point of view, refreshing idea entered the stage, namely "that the cognitive sciences have reached a sufficient state of maturity that they can now provide a valuable resource for philosophy of science" (xv). The simple rationale of this proposal is that the philosophy of science is the theory of how scientists think, so that whatever pertains to it belongs to the cognitive study of academic experts' knowledge.

In line with this, my present focus concerns the conceptual work that social scientists, especially cultural anthropologists, do when they engage in the comparison of cultural units. Much of what we know about cognitive modes of thought indicates complex representations that are too diverse to be captured by one kind of schematism. The cognitive programmatic is compatible with the growing recognition of models not based on formal logic in the philosophy of science (e.g. Carruthers/Stich/Siegal 2002). Model-based reasoning through analogies, visual models, or thought experiments is frequent (cf. Nersessian 2002: 145). As seen by cognitive approaches, mental models employed by scientists are of narrative nature and they often overlap as interlevel models of less than universal scope, middle-range theories operating with prototype cases (cf. Schaffner 1993).

Here I will suggest the first steps towards a better understanding of thought about complex social issues by drawing on psychological schema theory and various linguistic approaches to imagery. I will try to delineate a number of cognitive mechanisms that underlie comparison.


1. The nature of comparison

Space limitations prevent me from discussing the unique profile, history, styles, or recurrent dilemmas of anthropological comparison (for details see Kimmel 2000). Instead, I would like to address some basic questions every scholar who wants to engage in a comparative endeavor has to ask his/herself in the face of the complexities of social reality. One difficulty is to choose units of comparison at the right level of optical "granularity". Do we pick out local communities, regions, or nations? And how do we grasp translocal "ethnoscapes" (cf. Appadurai 1991) and diasporas as a unit? Secondly, should we look for "most similar" or "most different" samples (cf. Ragin 1991)? Thirdly, should we limit ourselves to local comparisons or go for the larger scale? Fourthly, can we limit a comparison of cultures to perceptual aspects and material culture, and if not, what is needed to compare belief systems?

The basic problem underlying all these issues is how to create commensurability between two or more units. The well-known hermeneutic circle emerges: units have to be known as roughly commensurate before embarking on a comparative endeavor, yet how much similarity can we assume a priori? And similarity with respect to what? After all, it is impossible to compare with respect to no specific aspect, just as it is impossible to do it with respect to all of the innumerable possible aspects at once. Hence, we invariably compare with respect to some tertium comparationis. The qualitative social sciences do not usually compare attributes such as size, shape or color, nor always simple kinds of action or material culture like plowing techniques, nor any tidily delineable individual units. Instead, the comparison-generating aspect is usually complex, and involves a recognition of what actors know, believe, feel, etc., and of how they share or distribute these aspects in a collective.

So what is it then we compare with when thinking about cultures? I will submit that we compare with respect to mental models that are realized in concepts, taxonomies, theories, root metaphors and theory nets, all of which are relational (not object oriented) in essence. Here is my argument in a nutshell: (1) Comparison relies on basic processes of analogy, categorization, the inferential use of concepts or theories, and generalization. (2) Comparison activates backdrops: We imagine (or "simulate") complex mental contexts or perspectives against which we accentuate our thought. (3) Fully theorizing social relations requires switching between vantages, and zooming in and out of settings to appreciate concretion as well as abstraction.


2. Cognitive tools of comparison

Perspectival framing through root metaphors

Every specific act of comparison recruits cognitive backdrops which (oftentimes semi-consciously) shape ways of viewing a problem and which direct inferences. This I will call framing. Scientific discourses, like everyday ones, are embedded in structures shaping a whole epistemological paradigm, which have been called root metaphors by Pepper (1942). Research on conceptual metaphors elucidates how metaphors structure abstract concepts through sensorial ones (Lakoff/Johnson 1999). Thus, arise analogies that shape an entire scientific outlook by accentuating certain aspects of reality and hiding others. Examples include "society is an organism with parts", " evolving entity" "...a machine", " autopoetic system". Or, "epistemology is a landscape", "knowing is seeing". Epistemology as visuality is a master metaphor of various directions of anthropology. Salmond (1982) compares visual metaphors directing the gaze of the scientist and accentuates three patterns: The structuralist view of the 1950s simply accepts the legitimacy of a wide-angle view in theoretical analysis; hence analysis is a distanced bird's eye view of several cultures. The ethnoscience movement of the 1960s, by contrast, focuses on the issue of methods to get "into the heads of the natives" and look at them at close range and at eye-level by describing their own "emic" categories. Yet, this act of inspecting a world-view still leaves the engagement of the ethnographer's person screened out. Recent hermeneutic positions, finally, problematize ethnography as interaction and the encounter of the outlooks of the theorist and those s/he seeks to describe. Their aim is to effect a merger of two horizons, hence a progressive overlap of viewpoints through reflexive interpretation, while wider comparisons appear dubious. In sum, each of these positions defines a limited perspective, some of which presuppose generalization while others tend towards situatedness. (I will argue for combining these in a multi-perspectival model in my conclusion.)

Comparison-generating and generalizing models

Schweizer (1998: 70ff.) distinguishes comparison-generating models in anthropology at four distinct levels of aggregation: (1) Generalization of intra-societal aspects as part of a case study, (2) ad hoc comparative hypotheses close to the observational level, (3) cultural and social types forming theory elements (i.e. posited correlations between human nature, social, economic, or political forces, and the environment, e.g. "What happens to hunter-gatherers when they become sedentary?"), often in material and economic anthropology, and (4) high-level theory nets ("big theories")(1) configuring theory elements from different fields according to an overarching principle. Examples include rational choice theory ("economic man" assumption), evolutionary ecology ("natural selection" assumption) or social network analysis ("relational perspectives between actors" assumption). I will argue in favor of the particular potency of this last type later.

The various levels of aggregation reflect generalizing concepts of different types.(2) At the lowest - the object - level we find dimensions of comparison like houses, cattle, grain with perceptual features. At a second level we have relational concepts grounded in concrete interactions like marriage (a one time event) or family (a permanent pattern of interactions). This level retains ties to the perceptual, but the significance of an event like marriage also requires understanding "non-visible" meanings in the heads of the actors. At a third, explicitly generalizing level scholars have come up with concepts like symmetric alliance systems and moieties (in kinship), caste systems, or social classes. These require having understood a complex cascade of concepts at both lower levels, representing their gist and constructing a summary representation of recurring patterns. At the fourth level we find general causal concepts like culture, society, ethnicity, and personality, which are no more tied to any specific place or time but constitute framing concepts. The theories hiding behind each of these concepts are used to explain partial aspects of settings at the two previous levels (e.g. "the caste system is based on cultural beliefs of purity"), but extend in scope beyond any specific domain. A possible highest level comprises concepts that delineate domains of inquiry or provide perspectives on matters like ideology, ontology, cosmology, and epistemology, but leave causal explanations unspecified and to be filled in depending on the lower level concepts we prefer. It would seem that, the more abstract concepts are, the less rooted in particular contexts they get. Higher-level perspectives are inherently schematic, so that they leave the mental slots for details empty.


The multiple embedding of theory elements in theory nets

One major way in which comparative concepts become relational is their nesting in more encompassing structures. Recent cognitive approaches see concepts in general as emerging (as a "figure") in relation to background knowledge of a mental model or domain (their "ground")(cf. Cienki 1999). Examples of backdrops described in the literature are imaginative scripts/action scenarios and frames of related propositional concepts.

Returning to the notion of the theory-net, aa.  ny act of generalizing or differentiating examples can be set against the ground of several possible theory-elements. Take as an example the cultural knowledge about navigation in Polynesia as seen within the theory-net of cognitive anthropology. Each available theory element of this net specializes the cognitive viewpoint defining the theory core in a different way: Element 1 ("What is culture?") depicts navigational skills as something shared by degrees in a collective knowledge system, in that case by a few experts. Element 2 ("Why does culture spread in populations?") depicts them as invoking certain evolutionary constraints that guarantee that the concept is intuitive. The complementary Element 3 ("How does the individual acquire culture?") studies the elaborate learning procedure of an apprentice. Element 4 ("How does culture shape joint social action?") points to distributed knowledge among the individual seamen. Element 5 ("What is the format and internal structure of cultural representations?") highlights to what extent navigational skills are procedural and imagistic or explicit, propositional and rule-based. Element 6 ("Which mediational tool is utilized?") describes to what extent speech, writing, and maps are used in navigation.

The example illustrates how a complex event acquires multiple comparative features that vary with the immediate theory environment in a changing aspectual dynamic. Each kind of embedding generates a specific comparative perspective. For example, imagery and procedural knowledge occur similarly across cultures. Likewise, similar intuitiveness constraints apply across cultures, and knowledge acquisition takes the same explicit or implicit forms, etc.

Social wholes are notoriously messy for generating comparison. Instances of an analytic category like bureaucracy or "big men" are never the same in the sense two atoms of copper are. Hence, formal models are required for most generalizations (cf. Fardon 1987: 169). I contend that theory nets are best suited to generalize in terms of formal aspects because they differentiate simultaneous dimensions of inquiry in a more complex picture. The true generalizing power of a theory net usually becomes apparent at the level of functional universals, which specify the principles of how humans make meaning in general, i.e. through joint activities, through language and tool use, through narrative thinking, through ritual enaction, through their bodies, etc. This compensates for the fact that substantive universal are limited. (Universals emerging from cognitive anthropology pertain only to aspects such as spatial or color perception, simple everyday logic like learning to drive a car, or some metaphors like "intimacy is closeness" that are experientially rooted in universal nurturance practices.) The ultimate strength of highly abstract and formal theory nets is that they have enough scope to provide both general mechanisms (in our case of human thought) and explain how these can give rise to cultural specifics.

Analogy as compressed relational structure

Psychological research on analogy is instructive for understanding what scientists do when they build complex formal models. The basic questions to ask about analogy building is: Similarity of what? At which level? Analogy research (see Holyoak/Thagard 1995) indicates that the construction of analogies happens at various possible levels. Attribute-based similarity pertains to the level of objects where apples match apples and hammers match hammers. Second, there is relational similarity where two pairs are matched according to the pattern A:B = C:D. A relation can be that of sameness or difference of two pairings. For example, one apple matches a hammer in the same way another apple matches a second hammer and a bottle is different from a bell in the same way a shoe is different from a flower. Third, the human mind can produce higher-order relations called systems mappings. These require forming explicit concepts of relational sameness or difference, in order to compare them in turn, e.g. to notice the sameness of two difference relations. A higher-order sameness is obtained between the following two quadruples

apple-apple / hammer-hammer (2 comparable specimens of object sameness)
shoe-flower / bottle-bell (2 comparable specimens of object difference)

Fauconnier & Turner (2002) argue that the human mind is able to select higher-order system relations (i.e. relations between relations) as objects of attention at almost any level of complexity, once the lower levels have become compressed into a concept.

Scientific thought sets into relational correspondence entire explanatory structures and seeks isomorphic configurations between lower-level objects or object-relations. Holyoak & Thagard (1995: 200f.) give the simple example of an educational analogy used to explain why pandas, though inefficient in eating and reproducing, have survived: "In evolution, as in television, it's not necessary to be good. You just have to be better than the competition." Here the configuration of propositions creates the kind of causal argument the analogy wants to highlight: A1: "Pandas are poor at eating and reproducing", A2: "There have been few organisms that compete with pandas", A3: "Pandas have survived", A4: "A2 explains why A3 is true despite A1". Similarly with television; B1: "TV programs are poor at informing and entertaining", B2: "There have been few TV programs that compete with the existent ones", B3: "Poor programs continue", B4: "A2 explains why A3 is true despite A1". Evidently, the analogy can take effect because both chains display the same logical relation X explains why Y is true despite Z, without any kind of object-based similarity. Causal reasoning, modus ponens or modus tollens syllogisms, and all kinds of more complex reasoning involve understanding and applying "the logic" of relational configurations.(3)

Analogies used in social science aim to bring out that certain relational configurations obtain between themselves complex concepts. For example, the mind in psychology has been compared with containers, hydraulic devices, telephone switchboards, and complex dynamic systems. In sociology, society has been compared to an organism with parts that have identifiable functions. Political scientists have compared the state to an organism, a machine, or a family. Economists have assumed that economies move towards equilibria much like thermodynamic systems, and that the public good can be maintained by a confluence of individual self-interest (Smith's "invisible hand") (see Holyoak/Thagard 1995: 197).

Two major theoretical aspects of relational logic are schematicity and the frequent episodic/sequential nature: When relational logic ascends to higher levels, the imagery of perceptual objects fades out and the knowledge structure becomes so schematic that we only have linkages, bundles, hierarchies, inclusions, balances or sequential distributions in mental focus. Metaphors like "society is an organism" (cf. Lakoff/Johnson 1999) produce global insight into complex compressions of knowledge and bring them down to human scale through the schematic dynamics that are familiar from the logic of organisms. (For how complex relational cascades are held in focus see Fauconnier/Turner 2002.) Generalization, then, involves the mental simulation of connections between compound entities (packages of lower level observations). And self-reflexive science means explicating the relational connections to the specific theory element and to the whole net.

Moreover, relational configurations are often narrativized and episodic. For instance, if we know someone is reluctant to apply for a job opening and a friend tell us "The grapes were too sour for her", we connect the situation to the simile by matching their episodic structures. Thus, explanatory concepts mentally compress the relational structures of cause and effect aligned in sketchy mental scenarios.(4)

Complex categorizing and the problem of polythetic taxonomies

Concepts or theory-elements are usually non-discrete, which in turn makes typologies in social science an intricate business. Cognitive research has discovered that everyday cognition does not usually conform to the ideals of the discrete and tidy categories set by classical logic. While the Aristotelian tradition saw categories as container-like entities with elements in them, which defined a set with necessary and sufficient membership attributes, Wittgenstein's (cf. 1953) discovery that everyday categories may be held together by a chain of so-called "family resemblances" shattered this view. For example, the meanings of "game" are like a thread that is not held together by one long fiber, but by innumerable tiny filaments that overlap. Everyday complex thought also does not conform to Aristotelian categories in that it is not transitive: Some elements A and B as well as B and C might be connected, but not A and C. More recent cognitive research has investigated that categories have complex and graded internal structures. Rosch (cf.1978) showed that categories in folk-models are structured by so-called prototypes. Prototypes are best examples of a category. For example, we perceive a sparrow as a typical bird, while a penguin appears to be at the very borderline of the category. Categories are fuzzy and may overlap at the fringes. This, again, means that the inner part of categories has complex features like graded scales, linked chains, and center-periphery structures that have to be unpacked (cf. Lakoff 1987).

Does all this affect science? In principle we are free to fashion our reflective scientific taxonomies as we wish, but, alas, not if we want to portray social life and cultural beliefs accurately. Needham (cf. 1974) spelled out the consequences of complex categorizing for comparative taxonomies in anthropology. He argues against quantitative research schemes because of the inherently polythetic nature of most classifications. With typological dimensions like kinship systems, which cannot be described on a material or perceptual basis, clearly delineated objects will ever elude us due to four reasons: (1) As opposed to biology, there are no evolutionary core properties. (2) Categories like marriage are abstractly defined and not perceptually. (3) Cultural entities cannot be simply defined without reference to the "emic" models of the people using the concepts (which are non-Aristotelian). And (4) most polythetic categories are circularly defined with reference to more categories of the same sort, instead of being grounded in empirical particulars in any linear sense. The last two points in particular highlight that concepts like "kinship" or their subtypes like "unilinear descendance" or "patrilocal residence" will always depend on our knowledge of other people's complex beliefs. Ultimately we cannot understand typologies with reference to anything like "attributes" (unless it is for the heuristic purposes of quantitative research) but with reference to theories with complex inner structure. Thus, taxonomies are fundamentally interlaced both with descriptive renditions of folk-theories of kinship (or of whatever kind) and with explanatory causal concepts about the relation between knowledge, emotions, motivations, and actions within the wider cultural context.

Taking stock

All of the above cognitive tools have a complex internal structure, which makes them relational. Taxonomies are relational because they depict sets with complex internal structures and overlap at their fringes. Analogies match abstract sameness relations, causality, or event structures (and not physical features). Cognitive backdrops are relational in a different sense: Perspectival metaphors produce limiting constraints on our objects of study and our approach, whereas the embedding of theory elements in theory nets, e.g. by connecting a comparative issue to sibling theory elements, may enlarge our scope.


3. Zoom out - towards a stereoscopic view of specificity and generality

While ethnography is concerned with describing the specific, theoretical anthropology engages in generalization, by application of shared analytic concepts to different case-studies, by juxtaposition of cases in theme volumes, etc., or by explicit comparison. The acceptability of generalization has been called into question by postmodernist views, because it raises problems of hegemony, oppressive gazes, and the impossibility of achieving "representation" of the other (cf. Clifford/Marcus 1986). Yet, it remains part-and-parcel of science. Cognitive findings suggest that generalization is often automated (e.g. Louwerse/van Peer 2002). Summarization, gist extraction, schematization, analogy-building, and applying cases and exemplars to new inputs are things we do all the time as humans.

As Eriksen (cf. 1991) underscores, anthropologists face the challenge of creating models that allow for a perspectival switch between formal models and specific social observations. The ability to move back and forth between different levels of granularity and to understand interconnections is more integral than ever (as in the practice of "multi-locale ethnography" of symbolic communities without geographical coherence). Psychological theories of gestalt imagery provide a clue, or at least an expository metaphor, about what underlies the transformations between generalization and specificity. Barsalou (1999) suggests that abstract reasoning of all sorts involves imagistic matrices of a schematic sort, which allow zooming in on (and thus decompositions into) specifics. If this is correct, generalizing and specifying partake in the perceptual logic of figure and ground as well as parts and wholes. It then resembles inspecting the individual specks in a pointillistic painting and then stepping back to appraise the contours of the whole. In this sense prototypical cases are embedded in general theory skeletons which they flesh out with details.

After having set aside overblown doubts about the a-priori legitimacy of generalization, the job for anthropological theory is to reach a stage of self-reflexivity about the relation between the specific episodes of ethnography and the abstract, summarizing concepts we employ for global insight. This is tantamount to understanding the interwoven connectors between our models of cultures in the plural and of culture in the singular (i.e. the general theory of shared knowledge, motivation, and action). As the interaction of, or conceptual transformation between these two levels is not well understood yet my claim is that future cognitive research can become instrumental for fostering such self-reflexivity. Understanding the cognitive complexity of the topic of culture leads to a shift away from an interest in comparing isolated attributes and thus away from quantitative approaches. The current move of widening interdisciplinary theory nets will lead to functional universals and general models of human action. Cognitive insights about theory structure, categorization, or analogy may therefore help phrase comparative research questions in more nuanced ways.

© Michael Kimmel (Vienna)


(1) According to the structuralist theory of science (e.g. Balzer/Moulines 1996) scientific theories comprise a core model, conceptual definitions, an intended range of applications, paradigmatic examples, and methodological prescriptions. At the lowest level of abstraction they are formed by one theory element about a particular phenomenon. When the formal core is extended and specialized for several domains the resultant theory elements for a complex theoretical pattern are called a theory net.

(2) We usually see the content of concepts as empirical generalizations and their function as building blocks of theories. However, psychological research brings to light that they are miniature theories in themselves and theory-laden (cf. Seiler 1982). Concepts wrap up complex inferences (see Lakoff/Johnson 1999).

(3) When the comparison's target remains implicit (as in a parable or with an unsolved problem), we may browse through our mental stock of schematic episodes to find the closest match possible (assimilation to a schema) or we can creatively adjust a schema to create a new permanent concept (accommodation of a schema). Finally, creative inference may result from mixing aspects from familiar knowledge spaces. Examples in Turner (2001: ch. 4) show that often adding given structures (i.e. retrieving analogs from memory, mapping them, and then projecting the accompanying inferences) is insufficient. Instead emergent structure is inferred, sometimes only for a fleeting representation, within an ad hoc "blend".

(4) Cognitive research on how abstraction is based in the perceptual world is still nascent, but points to the fact that abstract concepts also evoke episodic representations. While Turner (1996) argues that we think in "small spatial stories", Barsalou (1999) similarly assumes that reasoning is generally situated in mental episodes. Experiments suggest that abstract notions involve the mental simulation of goals, intentions, beliefs and feeling states in schematic configurations, which are homologous to physical ones. I believe that a task for the future is to examine in detail how anthropological concepts, say ethnicity or the social self, activate mental episodes of abstract inter-agent relations.


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Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1953). Philosophical Investigations. New York: Macmillan

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Moderation / Chair: Jeff Bernard
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

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For quotation purposes:
Michael Kimmel (Vienna): The Cognitive Basis of Comparison in Anthropology. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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