Section outline

  • General Information / All sections

    Time: Wednesdays, 8:50 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

    Class Location: QS D-318

    Instructors: Vlad Naumescu (Sociology and Social Anthropology) and Christophe Heintz (Cognitive Science)

    TAs: Angarika Deb (Cognitive Science) and Tamara Kusimova (Sociology and Social Anthropology)

    OutlineThis course explores the problematic relationship between culture and cognition and the various models that try to integrate them. Despite the fact that intellectual and disciplinary histories attempted to separate mind from culture, there has been a growing recognition on both sides that human cognition cannot be studied independently of the cultural context in which it develops, and that cultural knowledge and practices cannot be studied without reference to human cognition. Pioneering attempts to translate this into interdisciplinary research programs have gained increasing recognition, leading to promising areas of research under the 'social mind' frame. The course will cover this thematics in a series of seminars and invited lectures with guest speakers that best represent the new developments. For this purpose, the course is structured around four themes:

    1. Enculturated minds: Does culture frame how we think? To what extent? 

    2. Cultural transmission: How do ideas and practices spread in a community so as to form a cultural phenomenon? 

    3. Cognition outside of the mind: can the ideas and analyses of cognitive science be applied to explain cultural practices and social organisation more broadly? 

    4. Cross-Disciplinary studies and methodologies: we explore cross-disciplinary approaches to morality, trust and cooperation, essential dimensions of human sociality and culture, main methodological issues and ways to address them.

    Learning outcomes:

    By the end of the course students will: 

    1. have advanced knowledge of several theories and research programs that attempt to elucidate the relation between cognition and culture 
    2. develop an understanding of the particularities of anthropological and psychological approaches and their potential convergences in empirical research 
    3. be able to analyze socio-cultural phenomena by drawing on cross-disciplinary methodologies 
    4. develop an interdisciplinary perspective on the foundations of human sociality and culture.

    Course structure and assessment

    The course has a seminar format, starting with an introductory lecture by the main instructors that sets the ground for the following classes. The main instructors and the TAs will be involved in all sessions, joined by invited speakers in weeks 6-11 who will cover some of the most promising areas in the field of culture and cognition.  Each session includes one mandatory reading and several references for further reading. Beyond the class, the two TAs will work with students to cover the class readings and prepare questions for discussion. Given the multidisciplinary dimension of this course, much of the ground work will be done in separate consultations with TAs and course instructors. Each student will have to send in 2-3 short, relevant reactions to readings during this course . Reactions can be criticisms, questions, ideas about how to go further, etc. The final grade is based on class participation (10%), written responses (40%) and a final essay or research paper of max. 2000 words (50%).

    Reactions are due on Mondays before 12:00 p.m.

    Final essay due by 20 December, 2022.

    Office Hours: 

    Mondays & Thursdays 10:00 a.m. – 01:00 p.m., room D507 (Angarika) 

    Thursday 02:00 p.m. – 06:00 p.m., room A326 (Tamara)

    zoom link:

    • Syllabus 2022 Single File Uploaded 19/09/22, 18:50
  • Week 1 (Sept. 21). Enculturated minds: introduction

    In this session, we will give a historical overview of the relations between the studies of human culture and human cognition. We will especially focus on the models of the human mind used in the social sciences and the nature/culture divide


    Please think about how to characterise ‘cognition’ and ‘culture’ in ways that enable integrated research


    Bloch, Maurice. 2012. Why anthropologists cannot avoid cognitive issues. In Anthropology and the cognitive challenge. Pp. 1-13. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Cerulo, Karen A., Vanina Leschziner, and Hana Shepherd. “Rethinking Culture and Cognition.” Annual Review of Sociology 47, no. 1 (2021): 63–85

    To go further:

    Bloch, Maurice. 1991. Language, Anthropology and Cognitive Science. Man (N.S.) 26:183-198.

    Tooby, John, and Leda Cosmides. 1992. The psychological foundations of culture. In The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture edited by L. C. J. Barkow, J. Tooby Oxford University Press.

  • Week 2 (Sept. 28). Cultural variations in cognition

    To what extent does enculturation shape how we think? In this session, we will review some studies that show that what varies across cultures is not just shared social values and preferences, but also individual cognitive processes that shape how people think.


    Nisbett, R. E., & Masuda, T. (2003). Culture and point of view. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences100(19), 11163-11170.

    Boroditsky’s TED talk.

    To go further:

    Strauss C. and N Quinn. 1997. Chapter 6. Metaphors for  marriage and what they do. A Cognitive Theory of Cultural Meaning, 140-188.

    Boroditsky, L., 2001. Does language shape thought?: Mandarin and English speakers' conceptions of time. Cognitive psychology43(1), pp.1-22.

  • Week 3 (Oct. 5). Innate vs. acquired: how deep does culture go?

    We will look at how the innate/acquired distinction plays out for one specific cognitive capacity, viz. Theory of Mind (aka Mind-reading and naive psychology).


    Astuti, R. 2015. Implicit and Explicit Theory of Mind. Anthropology of this century, May 2015.

    see also:

    To go further:

    Heyes, Cecilia M. 2018. Chapter 7. Cognitive Gadgets : The Cultural Evolution of Thinking. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 

    Keane, Webb 81. 2008. "Others, Other Minds, and Others' Theories of Other Minds: An Afterword on the Psychology and Politics of Opacity Claims.". Anthropological Quarterly 81 (2):473-482.

  • Week 4 (Oct. 12). The nature of cultural beliefs

    Some beliefs seem to be especially cultural: they are held by most members of a community but differ across communities. Religious beliefs are cases in point. Why are these beliefs so successful within their community? 


    Astuti, R. & Bloch, M. 2013. Are Ancestors Dead? . In: Boddy J. & Lambek, M. (eds.) companion to the anthropology of religion. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell pp. 103-117.

    Further readings: 

    Sperber, D. 1985. Apparently irrational beliefs. In On anthropological knowledge : three essays. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Boyer, Pascal. 2000. Functional Origins of Religious Concepts: Ontological and Strategic Selection in Evolved Minds. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 6 (2):195-214.

    Sperber, D. 1997. Intuitive and Reflective Beliefs. Mind & Language, 12, 67-83.

  • Week 5 (Oct. 19). Cultures of Explanation (Invited Speaker: Daniel Nettle)

    People in all societies provide each other with explanations for what happens. What types of explanations do they deploy, how do these vary, and how do they generate ways of talking about particular phenomena in particular societies?


    Berent, I., & Platt, M. (2021). Essentialist Biases Toward Psychiatric Disorders: Brain Disorders Are Presumed Innate. Cognitive Science, 45(4), e12970.

    Further Readings:

    Spelke, E. S., & Kinzler, K. D. (2007). Core knowledge. Developmental Science, 10, 89–96.

    Weisman, K. et al. (2021). Similarities and differences in concepts of mental life among adults and children in five cultures. Nature Human Behavior 5: 1358–1368 

  • Week 6 (Nov. 2). Pedagogy and ostensive communication (Guest speaker - Radu Umbres)

    During this session, we will investigate how ostensive communication works and contribute to spreading some beliefs. We will focus on two ethnographic examples: opacity and secrecy, as they appear in rituals and in pranks. 


    Umbreș, Radu. "Buckets of Steam and Left-handed Hammers. The Fool’s Errand as Signal of Epistemic and Coalitional Dominance." Journal of cognition and culture 22, no. 1-2 (2022): 1-19.

    Gergely, G., and G. Csibra. 2006. "Sylvia's recipe: The role of imitation and pedagogy in the transmission of human culture. " in Roots of Human Sociality: Culture, Cognition, and Human Interaction. Edited by N. J. Enfield and S. C. Levinson, pp. 229-255: Oxford: Berg Publishers. 

    Further readings:

    Sperber, Dan, Fabrice Clément, Christophe Heintz, Olivier Mascaro, Hugo Mercier, Gloria Origgi, and Deirdre Wilson. "Epistemic vigilance." Mind & language 25, no. 4 (2010): 359-393. 

    Umbreș Radu, 2022 (forthcoming in Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion) Ritual Animals also Require Pedagogy, Communication, and Social Reasoning. 

    Jagiello, Robert, Cecilia Heyes, and Harvey Whitehouse. "Tradition and Invention: The Bifocal Stance Theory of Cultural Evolution." Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2022): 1-50.

  • Week 7 (Nov. 9). Distributed cognition (Guest speaker-Mathieu Charbonneau)

    Cognition is often organised in systems that include 'cognitive tools' and several individuals. We will analyse some of these systems.

    In this session, we will reflect on the social and psychological process at work in constituting systems of distributed cognition. It will be the occasion to:

    1.  go back to the human mind as holding and producing representations that construct and maintain distributed cognitive system

    2.  rethink functionalism in the social sciences as explaining social institutions


    Hutchins, Edwin. 2013. “The Cultural Ecosystem of Human Cognition.” Philosophical Psychology 27, no. 1 (January 2, 2014): 34–49.

    To go further:

    Hutchins, E., 1995. Chapter 9. Cognition in the Wild (No. 1995). MIT press. pp. 353--75

    Charbonneau, Mathieu. 2013. “The Cognitive Life of Mechanical Molecular Models.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44 (4, Part A): 585–94.

    Lave, J., 1988. Chapter 5. Cognition in practice: Mind, mathematics and culture in everyday life. Cambridge University Press. pp. 97-123.

    Heintz, C., 2007. Institutions as mechanisms of cultural evolution: Prospects of the epidemiological approach. Biological Theory, 2(3), pp.244-249.

  • Week 8 (Nov. 16). Cultural epidemiology and other models

    During this session, we will review models of cultural evolution and evaluate their psychological assumptions.


    Sperber, Dan. 1985. Anthropology and Psychology: Towards an Epidemiology of Representations. Man 20 (1):73-89. 

    Miton, Helena, and Hugo Mercier. “Cognitive Obstacles to Pro-Vaccination Beliefs.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 19, no. 11 (November 1, 2015): 633–36.

    Further readings

    Heintz, C., 2017. Cultural attraction theory. The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, pp.1-10.

    Heintz, C. and Claidière, N., 2015. Current Darwinism in social science. In the Handbook of Evolutionary Thinking in the Sciences (pp. 781-807). Springer, Dordrecht.

  • Week 9. (Nov. 23) Some dos and don'ts for combining ethnographic and experimental methods (Guest Speaker - Rita Astuti)

    Based on Astuti's interdisciplinary work in Madagascar the presentation will illustrate how methods from anthropology and psychology can be combined fruitfully in the field, discussing the discrepancy between inferential reasoning and culturally codified statements; the importance of context / priming and how complicated it is to sort out what’s innate and what’s culturally constructed. 

    Astuti, Rita. 2007. "Weaving Together Culture and Cognition: An Illustration from Madagascar." Intellectica 2-3 (46-47):173-189.

    Further Readings:

    Heintz, C., Charbonneau, M., & Fogelman, J. (2019). Integration and the Disunity of the Social Sciences. Contemporary Philosophy and Social Science: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue, 11.

    Deb, A., & Knežević, A. (2020). Towards Methodological Pluralism in Psychological Sciences. Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Sciences.

    Lamont, Michèle, and Ann Swidler. “Methodological Pluralism and the Possibilities and Limits of Interviewing.” Qualitative Sociology 37, no. 2 (June 2014): 153–71.

    Miton, H., Claidière, N., & Mercier, H. (2015). Universal cognitive mechanisms explain the cultural success of bloodletting. Evolution and Human Behavior, 36(4), 303-312.

  • Week 10 (Nov. 30) Situated and embodied cognition

    The turn to practice and embodiment had a big impact in anthropology and sociology. Similarly, the study of interactions between processes of perception, action and thinking as they unfold in particular social environments led to a reconsideration of cognition beyond the mentalist, representational view. By combining a focus on the body and contextual interactions with questions about cognitive mechanisms, the new approaches promise a meaningful interdisciplinary pursuit.


    Marchand, T. H. J. 2010. Embodied cognition and communication: studies with British fine woodworkers. JRAI (N.S.), 16, S100–S120

    Naumescu, Vlad, and Natalie Sebanz. 2018. Embodied Cognition. In International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, edited by H. Callan: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Further readings:

    Downey, Greg. 2010. "‘Practice without theory’: a neuroanthropological perspective on embodied learning." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16:S22-S40. 

    Wacquant, Loïc. 2014. "Putting Habitus in its Place: Rejoinder to the Symposium." Body & Society 20 (2):118-139. 

    Lizardo, Omar. 2004. “The Cognitive Origins of Bourdieu’s Habitus.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 34(4):375–401.

  • Week 11 (Dec. 7). Open Session

    For the last session, we would have the following three agendas:

     1. We encourage you to go over the major themes and questions that we have covered in the course. Please look back on the responses you and your colleagues have made. If there are some questions that you feel we have not yet answered, we would encourage you to raise those, and we discuss them in class. 

    2. We will discuss a few key research problems that can productively be addressed by the cognition & culture approach, and what we ourselves have learnt about interdisciplinary work, from being PhD students and supervisors in this Cognition and Culture track.

    3. Please ask us questions about writing your final essays. We would encourage you to already have a topic chosen by next class, so you can discuss the specifics with us.