Dr. Alessandro Lutri
Lecturer in Cultural anthropology
Faculty of Languages and Comparative Studies, University of Catania, Italy
In the late fifties one of the most famous Italian anthropologist Ernesto De Martino showed a great epistemological sensibility for the anthropological question which he thought was the main question: how is it possible to regenerate mentally the most distant cultural experiences and the states of the common consciousness forbidden and inacesssible ? How can we give reason to what is against it or renounce to it ?
In those years the theories of mind and knowledge were most influenced by paradigm of structural linguistic. This paradigm concerned the ideas about the nature of knowledge and the relationship between the mind and the world until the late seventies.
In this essay I will try to answer particularly to the conceptual and methodological questions by the convenors about “how does the ethnographic study of the knowledge contribute to an understanding of the knowledge of ethnography” and “if notions like tradition or style are useful to analyse the formation of knowledges”, payiing attention to what the members of a little Italian-Albanian community think of themselves and what they would be.
Cognition and ethnography
Dan Sperber assigns to the ethnography the ancillary role of providig the empirical basis experienced by the ethnographer.
In this sense he thinks that the anthropological analysis of the cognition could be structured only seeing what the ethnographic raw materials can bring to cognitive science.
Differently from Dan Sperber I think together with Maurice Bloch that if the anthropological aim is to produce some representations of knowledge of the people we study, the ethnographer needs to know those empirical issues of cognitive sciences that concern the nature of knowledge and its psychological and neurological organisation.
In this section I would like to describe how the different ways to conceptualize the mind and the knowledge (their form and origins ) have influenced the anthropological knowledge.
In the field of the theories of the mind and the knowledge there has been three different phases or revolutions:
1 ) The first phase, it’s called “the first cognitive revolution”, it’s represented by different approaches converging in the study of mind ( the Chomsky’s linguistic, the philosophy of language, the cognitive psychology and the artificial intelligence ) against the behaviourism;
2 ) The second phase arose in the half of the seventies, it’s called “the embodied mind”;
3 ) The more contemporary third phase arose in the eigthies, it’s known as “the narrative thought”.
In the first phase the scholars influenced by the linguistic paradigm about the cognitive capacities considered the mind computer-like, i.e. a machine which works with abstract symbols instead of substance and energy.
For this reason in artificial intelligence and cognitive sciences the intelligence is described as a symbol handling, as the mind works on the base of a thought’s language ( Fodor ).
This means, for these scholars, that the mind could be and should be analysed independently from the brain or the nervous system.
The several different scholars thought that the mind and the proceedings can be described in reference with the rules.
They represent the capacity of knowledging and communicating shaped by rule systems.
The reason and the thought are analysed as to be driven by several kind of logical, semantic and pragmatic rules.
The conceptualization and the study of mind as something independent from the human nature, as something to which and follow the rules, is a cultural and philosophical error rooted in the western culture.
The notion has creates this error is that of representation.
The error, in fact, consists of considering inside the mind what is virtually out of it ( the language, the symbols, the rules, imagines, etcetera ).
This error is favoured by the fact that the mind can inward some of its external products: the language could become interior, the language itself; the sociality with its behaviour rules could be inward to consent the auto-regolation; the behaviour could be transmitted culturally becoming mental habitus.
These capacities cause the error but do not justify it.
One thing is thinking that the external products of the mind are its structures and its ways to work, and another is admitting that the mind could create some external products and then learn to use their inwardly.
The conceptualization of mind as independent from nature is not clearly showed because the cultural and philosophical western traditions seemed good friends of the science and because it is from these traditions that the computer come out with its immense scientific and technological prestige.
The computer has legitimated this tradition, because it has suggested the idea of mind as a computer, that is independent from the nature, like the hardware is indipendent from the software.
The error of getting inside the mind what is out of it ( language, symbols, rules, etc. ), is driven from the notion of the representation, and leads the anthropologists to conceptualize ultimately the culture language-like, that is consisting of linked linear propositions and transmitted as a text through language.
These two ideas were the basics of structuralism and ethnoscience.
For these two anthropological approachs the classificatory concepts not only have an innate basis but are constituted of a list of essential features as minimal and necessary definitions.
Unlike the classical cognitive approach the second phase of the study of mind has reduced the distance between it and the nature, to inward the mind inside the body.
These studies recognize the corporal character of the imagination and the human reason.
From them come out the ideas about how the mind works, how we conceptualize the world and the origin of language.
The description of the systems as if they follow the rules for these studies is very superficial, because it does not explain some charateristics of the behaviours as their flexibility, the sensibility at the context and the constant learning..
The artificial systems built on the basis of the computer programs which include and applicate the rules, show behaviours that have not these properties.
For these cognitive scholars ( linguistics, philosophers, psychologists ) the mind and the intelligence do not work on the basis of abstract symbols, also if in particular circumstances the intelligence could be creator and user of symbols.
The system of artificial neurological webs behave more similarly to natural intelligence systems because it has a capacity to answer to new circumstances never met before.
Since the knowledge that enables the web to answer in a appropriate way to the different circumstances is not placed in one point of the web but it’s scattered in different points, the web gives good answers also when some parts do not work.
Besides, a connessionist web modifies the force of its connections any time it has a new experience, it is behaviour modifies constantly and automatically to adapt to new circumstances.
The new theoretical tools for the study of complex systems do not share the man from the nature but consider the man a phenomenon rising out of the nature.
These tools also try to refer to other philosophical traditions which are different from those previous ones.
Unlike structuralism and ethnoscience these cognitive researchs have showed that the language is not essential for conceptual thought, the concepts can and do exist independently from language.
How it has been showed in many examples of conceptual thinking in pre-linguistic children, they have the concept before they can say the word.
Consequently the mind does not consist of representations; it does not work on the basis of representations and it does not manipulate representations.
If we translate these cognitive issues in anthropological terms, they will show what has been affirmed by Maurice Bloch “ 1 ) much of the knowledge is fundamentally non-linguistic; that concepts involve implicit networks of meanings which not have a innate basis but they are formed through the experience of, and practice in, the external world; 3 ) that, under certain circumstances, this non-linguistic knowledge can be rendered into language and thus take the form of explicit discourse, but changing its character in the process” ( Bloch, M., 1998: 7 ).
That means that “we cannot understand what our informants explicitly tell us (let me loosely call it culture) if we ignore the theoretical cognitive underlay of their statements” (Astuti, 2001: 9).
The third phase of the study of mind and knowledge is represented by the studies of cultural psychology of Jeremy Bruner.
In the eighties Bruner notes that the radical cognitivism had got to a definite stop.
He became very famous for his studies about the narrative thought, under the influence of Clifford Geertz.
This scholar proposed to go back to the etimology of the word “narrative”.
He conceptualized in fact the narrative as a form of the thought.
This form of thought is totally different from the logic thought, which he calls paradigmatic thought.
The narrative thought is based on the logic of human experience and it connects the actions with the mental estates of a person.
On the contrary the paradigmatic thought use the categorization or the conceptualization, and the operations with which the categories constitute themselves and they become idealized symbols, which through mutual relationships constitute a system.
One of the several main properties of the narrative respect to other forms of discourse is role in organize the experience, that is the structuration of the experience is narrative.
It makes it by means of two aspects: the reduction in schemas and the regulation of the affects.
The reduction in schemas of the experience is not an individual activity but it’s socially.
The mnemonical schemas are under the control of an emotive attitude.
An important reflection of Bruner on these two aspects is about the Self.
For him the introspective activity is subject to make schemas.
This means that the Self is neither essential nor conceptual, but it’s always transactional because it’s context-dependent and dialogue-dependent.
The Self is consequently always situated, that is built and it’s constantly reshaped by the contingent situation in which it operates; it’s always shared, that is not conceptualized as unique nucleus but as a sum and a molteplicity of partecipation acts.
If the nature of knowledge itself is always situated and it’s shared, it has from the ethnographic point of view two consequence: 1 ) if it’s true that the observer is always part of the observation -how stated by Levì-Strauss- the Self are at least two, that of the observer and that of the observed, and if the observers are many the self are as much; 2 ) if the self is always contextualized, the ethnographic context becomes fundamental to understand the several interactions between the self but also to understand how it builds the ethnographic knowledge.
The ethnographic knowledge cannot be in fact always an enceclopedic knowledge -that is the information helps to understand the knowledge shared by the groups and the world in which it lives ( the native concepts, the local political and economic strategies, the local conflicts, etc. ).
The ethnographer should follow the native narrative thought, s/he should be a narrator; s/he moves displaceshim/herself from the observation to the participation to the narratives.
It’s only this moves towards the participation which promotes the insertion of the ethnographer in some tracts of other lives.
Re-thinking the mind and the knowledge
Although the approaches about how the representations rise out in human populations have been defenetly sociological ( let’s think to Weber, Marx and Durkheim ), focusing on the formal interrelations between categories of representations and separating the human being from the nature, the most contemporary Sperber’s theory of the epidemiology of representations -with which he explains the widespread of representations arguing that there are specific mechanisms in our neural hardwiring that make us more likely to reproduce certain types of representations than others-, goes on separating the human being from the nature.
This theory is infact based on a reductive and trivial vision of mind-as-computer, in which neural hardwiring is linked to the Fodorian’s concept of modular mind.
Sperber defines a “module” as “a genetically specified computational device in mind/brain ...that works pretty much on its own inputs pertaining to some specific domain and provided by other parts of nervous system” ( Sperber, D., 1994: 40 ). For the cognitive scientists inspirated by Fodor’s theory the modules inside the mind/brain are a limited variety, providing the basic hardware for learning.
This hardware is transmitted genetically and it’s activated through the assimilation of socially transmitted software: the rules, values, norms, classifications and other representations of a given culture.
For this reductive theory the effects on human populations are caused by single cause -single modules- and they are isolable from their environment, in which the processes can be repeated and don’t generate new elements.
More recently some anthropologists of different cognitive inspirations ( Ingold, Toren, Whitehouse), have proposed an integrated cross-disciplinary-theory of the mind and knowledge based on a synthesis of recent theories in anthropology, psychology and neuroscience.
For Whitehouse one of the main critical points of dualistic Sperber’s epidemiological theory is its “neglect of emotions”
The neglect of emotions which is rooted in the division between concepts and feelings, cognition and emotion, intellect and affects, is not an universal division, because as Cristina Toren has well showed we do not find it in all cultures.
Whitehouse retakes the Edelman’s theory of neuronal group selection to overcome the distinction between “innate” and “acquired” mental process, because according to him this theory gives the possibility of a “unitary theory of the formation of all types of representation ...situating the process in a social and historical context and because it establishes a bridge connecting neurology, psychology and sociology, and it integrates cognitive and affective processes” ( Whitehouse, 1996: 105 ).
For Edelman the engagement with the environment is not a process of instruction or modularity (as in conventional computer-like processes) but of natural selection.
Three are the basic tenets of Edelman’s theory:
1 ) “The developmental selection”;
2 ) “The experimental selection”;
3 ) “The reentrant mapping”.
The first of these three basic tenets shows us “how the neuroanatomy of organisms is not genetically programmed” and that “the wiring of an organism is constantly changing”.
The second shows that “particular synaptic connexions become established through regular biochemical reinforcement in conjunction with the organism’s behaviour”.
The third shows how “the firing patterns involved in perceptual processes involve many different parts of the brain” ( Whitehouse : 108 ).
On the contrary of other cognitive theories that do not explain most behaviour charateristcs as for example their flexibility, the sensibility to the context and the constant adaptation, the Edelman’s theory is consistent with the plasticity of human thought processes, because they are constrained but they are not genetically programmed.
No aspect of neural activity is pre-equipped with modules for classifyng the world or for acquiring grammars, it comes about by means of process of gradual reinforcement through the experience.
Whitehouse translate the Edelman’s theory in a new echological and transactional approach to cognition affirming that “all types of representations are created through integrated processes of engagement with the environment and, since the most stimulating aspects of the human environment are social, we are obliged to envisage all processes of transmission in terms that are simultaneously sociological, psychological and neurological” (Whitehouse: 111).
More recently Cristina Toren has suggested a “theoretical synthesis to force a genuine shift in the way we, as anthropologists and human scientists, conceive ourselves and other human beings and, willy nilly, in the way we do our research” ( Toren, 1999: 4 ).
Her theoretical synthesis contained in the formulation that the “mind is a function of the whole person constituted over time in intersubjective relation with others in the environing world” (Toren: 12), is synthetized in six principles:
1 ) “We are social beings in our very nature and it is because we are, that history of our relations with others informs who we are as particular persons”;
2 ) “All human behaviour is culturally patterned and, by the same token, all our many and various ideas of the substance of living things, including ourselves, are historically constituted;
3 ) “The workings of the brain cannot be understood apart form the workings of the nervous system and the body to which they are intrinsic”;
4 ) “Our ideas are constituted in material relations with one another and we communicate with one another in and through the materiality of the world, its manifest objects, and awareness of our common humanity”;
5 ) “The validity of our objective descriptions of the world is guaranteed via inter-subjectivity”;
6 ) “The structures as a geranium, a frog, a human being are constituted in and through transformations” (Toren: 5-6).
The absurdity of the essentialistic thought
Although there has been several theoretical syntesis to describe the factors liable of the neural activity as the conceptualization of the world (sociological, psychological and neurological), to overcome the classical anthropological divisions between culture and biology and its derivatives such as sex and gender, individual and society, person and organism, there still who proposes these divisions with really elaborate theoretical hyphotesis.
One of the youngest scholars is Gil-White (2001).
This scholar criticizing the constructivist approach about the conceptualization of notion of ethnic group, which according to him has no reflection in the cultures because the “ethnic actors represent ethnic groups as essentialized natural groups despite the fact that the ethnic essences do not exist”, pushes forward than Atran his reflection about the cognition of living kinds and other kinds.
Gil-White admits infact as Atran that in all cultures the rules governing the cognition about living kinds is governed which are diffrent from those related to other kinds and that in all cultures the rules governing the cognition of living kinds are the same, but he argues in addition to that the cognition of an ethnic group is in all cultures the same because it is similar to that of living kinds.
The main similarities are “category-based endogamy and 2 ) descent-based-membership” (Gil-White: 515).
As well as Hirschfeld (1996) also Gil-White thinks that people everywhere gather themselves into essentialized groups, such as racial and ethnic groups, whose apparent regularities are thought to be caused by some deep underlying natures unique to the group and not spotted by observation.
Both the scholars think that “the people cognitively privilege essentialized groups as providing the most dependable or trustworthy context for forming and inferring beliefs about themselves and others and for taking life-enhancing collective action based upon these beliefs (mating, economic cooperation, etc.)” (Atran, 2001: 537).
This brings casual coherence to a group and it promotes convergent behaviours and interactional discriminations within the group (normative endogamy, patriotic ideals) and generates reliability about one’s group relative to behaviours of members of other groups.
Gil-White’s hyphotesis that the child is cognitively pre-programmed toward essentializing human kinds towards an “ethnicity module”, learning particularly fast and in particular ways about the category of ethnic groups is motivated by the straightforward evolutionary assumption that “domains important to our survival and reproduction in the past have probably selected for machinery specifically dedicated to processing the domain-relevant inputs.
As Gil-White replies to Rita Astuti, whose evidence consist of the results of a questionnaire administred to a group seminomadic pastoralist states “these results are very interesting, but they do no more than provide an ethnographic example of essentialist reasoning about ethnic groups” (Astuti, 2001b: 536).
They are insufficient to prove his claim of the existence of an innate domain-specific cognitive module designed to process ethnies like animal species, because as it’s well evidenced by the ethnographic data of Rita Astuti on the Vezo of Madagascar “all over the world” people do not base ethnic ascriptions on blood but on the social positions they have within mutual relationships.
But above all, as it’s showed both by Astuti and Toren, that evidence “[...] should be based on empirical studies of infant knowledge that emerges well before infants can conceivably have acquired it from the environment and appears to constraint the way infants learn” ( Astuti, 2001b: 537 ).
As Astuti comments about the supposed “natural dualism” in the conceptualization about mind/body, culture/biology, and its derivatives such as gender/sex, individual/society, person/organism, describing this cognitive hyphotesis “as a socially and cognitive praticable form of thought does not amount to endorsing its philosophical validity. The issues of description and philosophical validity are separate and should be kept separate” ( Astuti, 2001a: 5 ).
I believe that behind the task of trying to discover what is universal to human beings there is again any residual exotic and hierarchic never confessed claim to be overwhelmed to conceptualize the others, to attribute particular identities -the ethnic identity, the class identity, etc.- that distinguish the ethnic actors from non-ethnic actors.
Since we are those which have normally the capacity or the power to produce or to legitimize these attributions, we should be the most evoluted and able to understand the ethnics that are always the others and never us.
How regenerate the way to feel and to conceptualize the Self
For the Italian anthropologist Ernesto De Martino the question of otherness does not concern the irrevocable diversity in the terms of the incommensurability of cultures.
An incommensurability as a warrant of non-interchangeable of the positions between ones and the others.
In De Martino the pathway to understand could be covered only reviving.
Although the human beings relate the reality and fiction on the same way, as showed very well by the Italian semiologist Umberto Eco (1994): reality is not a text.
As I could personally experienced listening to the several different personal stories I was told by members of a little Italian-Albanian community (arbëreshë), the world in which they are immersed and to which they belong is not constituted by a related unique nucleus but it follows a fragmentated flux of microinteractions, thoughts, memories which constant replaced them back in time and by expectations, dreams, imaginations and fragmentated thick sharings which cast forward them.
I peronally realized this ethnographic situation I tried to experience their world understanding which schemas they follow to organize within their minds the different horizons they belong to -the family, the local community, the ethnic group, the regional and national contexts.
An experience of comprehension of the several fragments of cognition, the fragments of emotions and the fragments of practices at which the members of community made me partecipate.
A comprehension which I tried to pursue through the suggestion giving me by Anton Blok whom I met during my first fieldwork in the same Italian-Albanian community which him conduct his fieldwork during the seventies: “do not ask anything, remain silent, listen to them”.
A suggestion of which I understood all its epistemological and cultural value only after that I understood that my informers not beerg happy to have me among them asking questions and that they did not understand the meanings of my analitical questions about them.
What’s stroke my attention was that I should have endurance, because if I wanted to understand them I should not abstract them from their local context, but I should set them either in the social and cultural story of their community and in their personal stories.
All this is not because as Maurice Bloch says “much of knowledge is fundamentally non-linguistic” and “under certain circumstances, this non-linguistic knowledge can be rendered into language in the form of explicit discourse, but changing its characters in the process” (Bloch, 1998a: 7), but for cultural and epistemological reasons: 1) “the Sicilian people do not love to be asked, the ideal person is that which minds about his/her own business”; 2) “in Mediterranean area is considered stupid and irresponsable to tell the truth, because the information could be used against oneself”; 3) “setting out some questions is risky for the ethnographer because s/he could introduce hierarchies, between who knows and who does not know”; 4) “to introduce and impose involuntarily personal categories on those people whose categories the ethnographer would understand and identify”; 5) “the people can answer to the ethnographer’s questions saying what they think the ethnographer want to hear”; 6) “to set out questions in a interview style it’s possible to obtain information isolated from their social and cultural context”; 7) “the most important questions are those concerning the ethnographic research. The ethnographer cannot wait him/herself that the local people are in conditions to give some answers to these. People need analitic and social abilities, and the capacity to bring together distance and involvement to make it. The ethnographic questions are about aspects that the local people take for granted” (Blok, 2000: XXIX-XXXI).
As the norvegian anthropologist Unnie Wikan says “beyond the words” there is other which permits the interaction (Wikan, 1992: 468).
If then we want to come in “resonance” with the people we study, if we want to catch not the discourse or the reasoning, but what the people really say, “those aspects to be and to behave in the world, through which the concepts born living there is not need to learn to speak the local language of the natives, because its knowledge does not give any warranty to come in resonance with the people.
The resonance is what links the human beings, the culture is what shares them.
What has come out partecipating to the narrations of the personal stories of the members of this Italian-Albanian community is a confirmation of the hypothesis of Jeremy Bruner about the transactional and the shared Self : they infact do not organize cognitively in the same way the different horizons they belong to, but organize them on the basis of their several personal stories.
Someone feels and thinks the descent-based membership, and he or she organize hierarchically the several horizons they belong to: at the top there is the ethnic horizon and then the others (the community, the family, etc.).
If one go to their homes it is possible to see the main Albanian symbol of their ethno-nationalism sentiment, the eagle with double head.
They follow to organize some cultural manifestations to celebrate their Albanian origins.
Other people do not give much importance to the blood and they do not celebrate explicitly their Albanian origins, because the personal respect and the protection of the traditional culture of their community are more important for them.
A respect and protection that flow through the living practices of the culture of their local community.
They have not an ethnic feeling but only a strong link with their community.
These people do not consider the several horizons -local, ethnic, regional and national- in conflict with each others.
It’s then heuristically poor to reduce the different ways to conceptualize and to live the Self to an unique way, an unique Self essentialized and abstracted from the experiences, emotions and expectations of their different bearers, the natives, an unique cognitive and cultural core that very few share.
The people do not live and do not partecipate in the unique horizon they belong to, but they live in a molteplicity of horizons.
It’s necessary to gather one’s own personal experience of partecipation, the several fragments of cognitions, the several fragments of emotions and the several experiences of the natives to these horizons.
As De Martino recalls the route to comprehension experiencing of other’s reality is not only praticable, but it’s perhaps easier than that of the reasoning (which it does not flow), which claims to preserve the identity’s distinction between us, entitled to comprehend and those (the others) that are the object of our comprehension.
This should be carried out not becoming others, but as an endeavour to think the others in ourselves.
Given the internal difference of population, it is necessary to rethink the idea of unique Self, and to think double, that is organize duplicated mental landascapes in which the first tematization of identity (our identity) does not flow in the second, in the tematization of alien.
As recently suggested the portoguese anthropologist Ventura i Ollier “we must be aware that the societies are intrinsically pluralistic -within each local communities, within each family and within each generation- so all fieldwork representations must be individuated” (Ventura i Ollier, 2000: 64).
It is then mistaked to propose an prejudicial identity’s model thinking it as unique and exclusive, without which we should neglect the reality of identifiable cultural groups.
In a given society and a given historic moment the ways to know the cultural objects could to intersect, to join, upon itself over between them in precarious and rough synthesis, never definitive.
The local knowledges do not shape closed systems, stiff cognition and meanings always the same.
The cultural categories are in people’s heads, but also can be viewed as consisting of bodies of historically cumulated knowledge and shared symbol systems beyond any single individual.
The recognition of the fuzzyness of semantic boundaries in the conceptualization of the Self, it should not mistakes the epistemological level with the ontological one.
As American anthropologists Mahmood and Armstrong recall mentioning Obeyesekere “the existence of behavioural regularity may often indicate the existence of shared culture, but the absence of behavioural regularity or shared behaviour does not entail its absence. Culture refers to collectively held ideas, and ideas are phenomena of the mind, not thingson the ground” ( Mahmood & Armstrong, 1992: 11 ).
The fact that the members of the Italian-Albanian community in which I conducted my fieldwork did not identify in the way initially I thought of them, it does not mean that they do not think themselves as culturally different from other local communities.
The question then is not to verify the existence of reality of particular social and cultural objects, confronting the observer’s representations and the observed’s representations, but that more complex to understand where are the causes of this misundersting.
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