February 13, 2017

Kinship thinking as core cognition

Doug Jones, University of Utah

The study of kinship is perhaps cultural anthropology’s greatest contribution to the human sciences. But scholars disagree on what kinship is and why it matters. In this talk I will try to find a way forward by situating the study of kinship within cognitive science. According to many cognitive scientists, human beings have multiple systems of “core cognition” which act as the scaffolding on which culture-specific explicit theories are built. These include systems for distinguishing and tracking physical objects in space, and for distinguishing animate from inanimate objects based partly on the way they move. Both language – especially closed class forms like spatial prepositions, and pronouns – and experimental psychology – especially the study of elementary perceptual processes – provide windows onto core cognition. Kinship is one potential domain of core cognition, relatively underexplored within psychology. Humans (and probably some other animals) don’t just form attachments to their kin, but recognize their own and others’ kin as belonging to a richly structured cognitive domain. Kin categorization seems to involve more than just calculating coefficients of relatedness in order to regulate altruism and inbreeding (contra some evolutionary psychology). And kinship across cultures seems to have a relatively invariant genealogical core (contra some cultural anthropology). Language – especially kin terminology – provides one window onto kinship core cognition. This talk will summarize the linguistic evidence regarding “kinship space.” The talk will also introduce some ongoing research in the psychology of kinship, investigating whether elementary perceptual stimuli – blobs on a screen – can evoke kinship thinking.