Culture & Cognition: Implications for Theory and Method


Norbert Ross

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  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
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  • Dedication

    This book is dedicated to the memory of Thomas Schweizer, whom I appreciated not only as a colleague, but also as the warm human being he was.


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    This book will have many opponents. Experimental psychologists will accuse me of introducing flaws into essential aspects of experimental design and supporting an approach that lacks the necessary rigor to provide meaningful results. By the same token, many psychologists will question the need and virtue of studying nonstandard populations (non-undergraduate students).

    Trained as an anthropologist, I tended to think that by defending their positions psychologists tried to maintain the status quo of their research, a highly time-efficient (and comfortable) research setting, where student subjects are forced to participate in studies, often run by their student colleagues.

    By now I have come to think of an additional reason for this choice. Many cognitive psychologists still do not regard culture and social processes as of any interest for an understanding of processes in high-level cognition. While I have no sympathy with researchers who try only to maintain their research settings intact, I hope that this book will be read by more inquisitive minds in cognitive psychology and maybe even interest them in the topic.

    Obviously, the approach proposed in this book also differs significantly from the more traditional anthropological approach of studying people from different cultures in their normal day-to-day context. While anthropologists will agree with my quest to abandon the study of undergraduate students, many will reject the idea of introducing formal experimental methods and statistical models into the field. Again, I hope their opposition does not prevent them from engaging with my arguments. I hope they will agree with me about the dire need to develop methodologies that allow us a better understanding, combined with more detailed theories about human culture, human thought, and human behavior.

    In a sense, then, this book attempts to chart some middle ground between the two fields of inquiry, trying to unite the different perspectives of two academic disciplines that should never have been separated in the first place.



    This book is the fruit of many peoples' ideas and influences in the course of my academic development. The manuscript was written while I was a postdoctoral researcher and later an assistant research professor at Northwestern University. Here I learned many of the skills and problems of cognitive psychology and had plenty of time to discuss my ideas with colleagues, both graduate students and faculty. Most of the ideas presented in this book are, therefore, not to be seen as a reflection of my individual achievement. Instead they represent a mirror of my intellectual development within a very encouraging academic environment.

    I tried to give credit to this fact by citing as much as possible of the work that was developed within a team effort to understand folk biology and both the cultural aspects of cognition and the cognitive aspects of culture. Still, it is hard to account for the many nights of discussion and hours of advice that I shared in the Petén (Guatemala) or central Wisconsin with Douglas Medin and Scott Atran. Especially, Douglas Medin helped the shaping of many of my thoughts, although I know that he will not agree with everything said in this book. I also want to thank Professor Ulrich Köhler for steering me toward this topic. I know he probably expected a very different book, but once more he took on the task of guiding me on my detours, making sure that I didn't lose track on the way.

    Finally, I want to thank my family. As on previous occasions, they allowed me the extravagance of writing a book, using time that should have been theirs.

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    Author Index

    About the Author

    Norbert O. Ross is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University. Previously, he was Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, Northwestern University, where he co-founded the Program in Culture, Language and Cognition. His research deals with the broad issue of culture and cognition, targeting questions such as effects of cultural change, the acquisition of cultural knowledge, and effect of culture on human thinking and behavior. While most of his research is within the realm of folk biology, he also conducted research on issues of health and religion. He is principal investigator or co-principal investigator on several research grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health.

    Dr. Ross is fluent in two Maya languages and most of his research takes place among Maya people in Mexico and Guatemala. In addition, he also conducts research among Native Americans and Hispanic populations in the United States. He is the author of two books (published in Germany), several book chapters, and many journal articles. Originally from Germany, he earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Freiburg.

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