Review: Cerulo, Never saw it coming

Cerulo, Karen. 2006. Never saw it coming: cultural challenges to envisioning the worst. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 336 pp.

Reviewed by Michael Thomas (Wayne State University)

Evelyn Waugh, a notoriously prickly Catholic satirist, was once asked by his friend Nancy Mitford how he could be so cruel and still call himself Christian, to which he replied, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.” This pithy anecdote is useful to keep in mind when reading Karen Cerulo’s Never Saw it Coming, for it colorfully illustrates a challenge at the heart of any project seeking to evaluate the relative influence of inferred cognitive or ideological inputs on behavioral outputs.

Cerulo’s is an interesting book for a number of reasons; the curious reader is sure to find it valuable wherever they may stand in relation to its sometimes nebulous premises and impressionistic exposition. That is to say, the book primarily articulates its thesis through offering a fair amount of statistical information and some well formulated examples, though at the expense of some specificity with regard to the concepts and mechanisms underlying the phenomenon itself. Cerulo’s bold attempt at synthesizing cognitive and social theory to explain an interactive social phenomenon she calls “positive asymmetry” is less of an analytical argument than an expansive theoretical hypothesis, and so for this reason the lack of specificity may be forgivable given the scope and complexity of the central claim.

According to Cerulo, positive asymmetry functions as a bias toward privileging positive outcomes in decision-making, which can have an ultimately negative effect in that this phenomenon can occlude imagining “worst case” scenarios. The positive asymmetry is, Cerulo insists, pervasive in American, but not only American, culture and can partially explain the inability of institutions or individuals to foresee “worst case” scenarios, or, more accurately, “especially bad” scenarios. As pervasive as this phenomenon is, however, it is not universal and Cerulo is commendably sensitive to identifying where, and under what conditions, it does not apply. Aside from exceptional circumstances, this widespread failure of imagination leaves organizations and individuals vulnerable to any number of potential failure modes.

Essentially, Cerulo’s thesis is that the structure of human cognition relative to classification and inference is such that in the event of uncertainty, such as in future planning or decision making, the mind will categorize according to “best fit”. Relying on the inductive model of the mind, the “best fit” refers to a classification scheme wherein the most salient instance of a category is considered the most representative and so inferences regarding candidate members of some category are made in relation to that exemplar. Her thesis is built upon the model Eleanor Rosch advances, sometimes called prototype theory or exemplar theory, and is typically formulated in contrast to deductive theory theories such as those of Bob Reider and Doug Medin. What this means in practice is that insofar as negative circumstances, and the effects of negative circumstances, are rendered variously insignificant, they cannot participate in constituting classification criteria. For example, where deviant persons relative to the norms of some cultural milieu are ostracized, shunned, or banished, they are no longer salient. This lack of salience prohibits their inclusion in the category “person” so that the “best fit” for “person” is invariably skewed toward positive representation. Subsequent evaluations under conditions of uncertainty thus skew inferences away from “worst cases”.

This model of cognition allows Cerulo the necessary structure to integrate cultural practice, habitus, relationships of power, and social norms into the process of drawing inferences. Cerulo’s description of positive asymmetries at work in scientific measurement serves as a concise starting point for STS scholars interested in exploring the relationship of cognition and laboratory practice. She addresses the structure by which quality standards embody the positive asymmetry in all variety of forms familiar to social scientists such as power or ideology, but throughout the book she provides a deluge of examples, and it is here that the reader sees most starkly the compromise in specificity for the effect of breadth. Cerulo’s examples are numerous and presented in dizzying modalities. Statistical samples, historical narratives, pedagogical anecdotes, mythology, and case studies are but a few of the means by which positive asymmetry is presented. The technique is effective and nearly makes the reader forget exactly what the ontological status of a positive asymmetry actually is. It is of course a social phenomenon, but of what sort? And what does that mean? It is no doubt an interactive feedback effect of particular social forms and cognitive architecture, but the dynamics are fuzzy and one gets confused trying to track the deliberate modulations between “best” or “worst” being used as (1) normative evaluations relative to human welfare and (2) descriptive accounts of classification membership. Consider an admittedly glib counter example to Cerulo’s example taken from competitive diving. Cerulo discusses quality metrics with regard to competitive diving, but what is a “worst case dive” given (1) the diver performs the dive exceptionally well but suffers a heart attack upon such exertion or (2) a diver decides to withdraw from the competition because he feels he needs rest. Cerulo’s account cannot distinguish because the unit of analysis is never clearly defined.

So one question inevitably emerges, how do you know when you are observing an asymmetry? Thinking back to the Evelyn Waugh quote above, there is no clear objective synchronic measure by which one might determine the relative position of some response. Worst cases can always be worse, and best cases better.

The four case studies Cerulo provides don’t seem to help. For example, in chapter six Cerulo discusses Exceptions to the Rule, one such being the Phoenix document that warned of the 9/11 attack. Cerulo attributes the failure of adequate response to the institutionally structural positive asymmetry, though she notes that the administration was distracted by establishing strategic National Missile Defense (NMD), an action undertaken, if mistakenly, to prevent a clearly worse scenario. The problem, then, was not one of asymmetry, but of improper risk assessment. Unfortunately, an asymmetry analyses can only be performed ex post facto, which invites the question, “How is this theory falsifiable?” An example of a failure mode despite negative asymmetry would go a long way to outlining the extent to which her argument operates, lest it be regarded as an inverse tautology where positive outcomes must equal negative asymmetry.

The book closes with both an account of the structural attributes inhibiting or cultivating negative asymmetry and a tentative plan for achieving balanced perspectives in organizations. If one accepts the premises that (1) positive and negative asymmetry describe actual phenomena and (2) these phenomena are causally decisive, then one will find her propositions interesting to ponder, though interest alone may not suffice to traverse the inferential distance between her data and her proposals. In all, this book tackles an important topic of interest to those in the cognitive, political, and social sciences though ultimately readers may find themselves less than satisfied. A less ambitious project, or more narrowly constrained subject matter, may have permitted a more precise understanding of the relationship between cognition and culture relative to quality evaluation.

Aw richts is pitten by

Every year for the past several years, I’ve had my students in my undergraduate linguistic anthropology course do an exercise.  I give them the following text, without any explanation, and ask them to get into small groups and to translate it into English (without searching for it online):

Aw richts is pitten by. Nae pairt o this darg shuid be doobelt, hained in ony kin o seestem, or furthset in ony shape or by ony gate whitsomeiver, ‘ithoot haein leave frae the writer afore-haund. A hae nae pleens whan the abuin is duin for tae fordle the Scots leed in eddication, sae lang’s naebody is makkin siller oot o’t. Ony speirins write us.

The student response usually starts with bafflement, followed by a tentative effort to take on a few obvious words like ‘eddication’, followed by some speculation that it is perhaps Old or Middle English.   I then give them a perplexing hint: ‘This text was written within your lifetimes’, and then give them two more minutes to work on it before we discuss it.

The text above is in Scots, and is taken from the Wir Ain Leed site promoting the Scots language.  As you’ll see (if you haven’t already worked it out), it’s a perfectly ordinary copyright notice.   Once the students realize that this is a genre of text with which they are familiar, there’s a sort of a-ha moment.  Once somebody identifies it as Scots (which really, shouldn’t be so hard since the word ‘Scots’ appears in the text), I read it out loud in its entirety in my not-too-bad but certainly-not-perfect Groundskeeper-Willie-esque Scots.  Once the language and the genre have been established, the rest of the translation, which we do collaboratively as a whole class, moves along well.

The point of the exercise is first of all, to get the students to reflect on what constitutes English (or any language) by prodding at its boundaries.  With Scots, there are still some scholars who would insist that this is ‘Scots English’ – i.e., a dialect of English, albeit a fairly divergent one. Others (I think most, these days) define it as one of two languages descended from Middle English, the other being English, of course, and separate out Scots proper (the language) from various Scottish English registers.

It’s a handy little exercise.   It lets me talk about ‘A language is a dialect with an army and a navy‘, and then to compare and contrast the Scots case with Yiddish. It lets me introduce (and complicate) the question of mutual intelligibility (with reference to cases like Serbian/Croatian); most students are (sensibly) reluctant to define what they just read as English on the grounds that they couldn’t understand it.  It lets me introduce the distinction between ‘a Scottish accent’ and the broader range of features that constitute  dialects or languages, and to link this to our text (McWhorter’s The Power of Babel).

Like I wrote earlier, I do this every year.  Just by chance, ‘Aw richts is pitten by’ was on the schedule for yesterday’s class, just as the Scottish independence referendum looms large in the minds of many.  Even American college students, who are stereotypically characterized as having no awareness of anything else in the world, may have heard John Oliver’s hilarious rant on the subject.  To talk about this issue, just at this decisive political moment, brought an additional level of analysis into play.

I don’t have a horse in this race, which actually surprises me a bit, since I lived for a decade in Quebec as an ethnolinguistic minority amidst an environment of secession fever.  But then, of course, most Scots don’t speak Scots regularly, if at all, and the debate there isn’t about linguistic nationalism to any significant degree.  Regardless of how it all turns out, it cast a poignant light on a favoured classroom moment, at a critical juncture in the history of two nations.

Review: Bloch, Anthropology and the cognitive challenge

Bloch, Maurice. 2012. Anthropology and the Cognitive Challenge.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  234 pp.

Reviewed by Sarah Carson (Wayne State University)

Maurice Bloch’s ambitious work, Anthropology and the Cognitive Challenge, suggests nothing less than a complete overhaul of the discipline. Bloch first discusses the rift between social and natural science and how it would benefit both groups to reconcile and understand each other. This opposition is framed in terms of the omnipresent nature versus culture debates (although Bloch avoids the word “culture,” finding the concept problematic and imprecise, preferring “history”). Bloch explains the dichotomy’s falsity as humans being “psychologically and physically one at all levels,” and therefore that cognitive and social scientists are talking about the same thing, the human animal, and should pay more attention to each other to understand a more complete picture of human life within a naturalist framework. Interdisciplinary research and the benefits of cognitive scientists and anthropologists working together form the basis of the book, and Bloch returns to these points throughout.

Bloch insists that the concerns of anthropologists and natural scientists about each other can be worked past. For instance, the innate capacity for genetically transmitted knowledge makes many anthropologists uneasy, because arguments about people’s behavior resulting from biological inheritance can devolve into racist or sexist ideas—beliefs that one racial group is naturally more intelligent, for instance. These are bad arguments for multiple reasons, including “race” being a social rather than biological concept without clear genetic categories, characteristics not being clearly determined by single genes, and the immense genetic differences that exist within populations, which may outnumber the differences between them.  But beyond all of these arguments, Bloch insists, lies the fact that there is no legitimate reason to treat people differently just because genetic differences exist. Thus, recognizing innate psychological differences does not justify discrimination, and social scientists should not shy away from these facts out of a fear of racism or sexism. Anthropologists’ beliefs that humans are different from all other animals because of our complex capacity for history, communication of knowledge and culture should also not be used to avoid considering innate knowledge, something all animals possess. Humans are unique, but we are not absolutely different from all other living species.

This point that anthropologists should not forget that humans are animals returns us to Bloch’s fight against the nature-culture dichotomy. When studying people, innate predispositions (babies’ understanding of basic physics and that people have their own minds, for example) are inseparable from our culturally and historically shaped aspects. The nature versus culture reasoning is inadequate: it is fundamentally static, while people are complex and dynamic. Furthermore, the natural and social scientists are closer than they believe, since scientists and “natives” live in the same world and are the same species, making an internal “native” point of view necessarily external (or all human internal), and the external scientist’s view necessarily dependent on internal factors of history of the person they study. Natural and social scientists are looking at different levels of the self and arguing about who does it better because they think they are looking at the same thing. The human animal must be looked at as a complete being with all characteristics taken into account. So, Bloch’s idea of “the blob” comes into play to explain these levels, which are really points in a continuum.

Bloch’s “blob” consists first of the core, with general characteristics involving “a sense of ownership and location of one’s body” and a sense that one is controlling one’s actions. The next layer of the blob is the minimal self, involving a sense of one’s continuity in time, necessary for long-term memory and recognizing oneself, as well as the ability to “time travel” (Bloch discusses this concept at length, and it refers to remembering information from the past to inform present behavior or planning future behavior, which necessitates having an imagination that allows one to “be” in the past or future). The third level is the narrative self, linked with autobiographical memory, and the ability to tell stories about oneself, the implications of which for consciousness and language remain debatable. Those who create meta-representations, or who tell others about their inner states, have an additional blob element, which Bloch hesitates to call another level since it is not fundamental. The differences between those who create many meta-representations or not are akin to the differences between individualist and collectivist cultures anthropologists study. But all blobs are fundamentally the same, and are also organically united with each other and constantly transforming by connecting with each other both physically (birth and sex) and mentally (social exchange).

Finally, Bloch illustrates his points about how social and natural scientists think they are looking at the same thing when in fact they are not to the topic of memory, which seems straightforward but can mean anything from the mental processes that cognitive scientists study to anthropological ideas of collective memory or public commemorations. He focuses on the neurological theory of connectionism, which suggests that knowledge is organized in webs of interconnected networks. Bloch concludes the book by discussing how, as illustrated by topics like memory, anthropologists often generate conclusions without thoroughly examining the complexity of issues. Ethnography only provides surface glimpses of second-order meta-representations like language, and not scientific analyses of thought processes. Yet anthropological contributions can be important if done in cooperation with other scientific disciplines, in the attempt to look at the total of human physiological, psychological, and historical processes. Thus, Bloch believes that anthropology as a discipline should return in part to its scientific roots.

While Bloch’s observations are undeniably important and deserve consideration, the book is not without fault. Bloch reiterates his thoughts at the beginning of every chapter, which, while helpful if one was reading each specific chapter separately, makes for very repetitive reading. The vocabulary used is sometimes esoteric and cumbersome to the point of making the book a difficult read, yet the subject’s importance indicates it should be accessible to as large an audience as possible. This density also makes the leap when Bloch uses the colloquial term “blob” to explain the self somewhat startling, although welcome.

Bloch’s insistence that anthropologists and cognitive scientists move forward by understanding each other is admirable. However, his challenge to ethnography to look more broadly and examine the particular situation in terms of general questions about humankind could be seen as devaluing ethnography to the point of it being useless if one does not make big-picture, general, or evolutionary statements. Yet Bloch insists that the anthropologist is not equipped to make such claims and should really be collaborating with natural scientists to do so. Bloch’s determination to understand all facets of the human blob and his emphasis on interdisciplinary work is admirable. Hopefully his seemingly radical ideas can become accepted by mainstream natural and social scientists and lead to a greater understanding of cognition within culture.

Anthro X: An anti-seminar in culture and cognition

As mentioned in my previous post, this term I’m running a special course on the topic of culture and cognition, for six of the students in my Culture, Language and Cognition course from last term, all of whom were highly successful and, because I’m advising them in one way or another, are highly motivated to do some more work in this field.    I’m running this as a joint directed study – it looks like a seminar, and acts like a seminar, but keeping it ‘directed’ allows me to schedule it and manage enrollment more effectively.   I’m calling it ‘Anthro X’ as a conscious homage to the late physicist Richard Feynman, and his ‘Physics X’ informal seminars at Caltech. 

Last term’s course was skewed a little towards ‘cognitive anthropology’ construed narrowly, within the American tradition outlined by Roy D’Andrade in his The development of cognitive anthropology (1995).  This sort of work is obviously important, but hardly scratches the surface of the broader subject of ‘culture and cognition’ (across anthropological subfields and related disciplines).  It’s that broader field where I position my own work on number and numeracy, and thus, where I decided to go in this new course.  I chose recent book-length works, all from the past ten years, and a heavy skew towards the past two years. Partly that’s because these particular students already have a broad reading background in the older material, so are more than ready for contemporary stuff.  Partly it’s because they’ll be writing book reviews, which they’ll be posting here in the weeks to come.  Partly it’s because I haven’t read half this stuff myself, and assigning it to students provides me a good incentive to do so. 

Anyway, here’s the planned reading list – comments and questions are welcome!

Bloch, Maurice. 2012. Anthropology and the cognitive challenge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cerulo, Karen A. 2006. Never saw it coming: cultural challenges to envisioning the worst. University of Chicago Press.

Cohen, Emma. 2007. The mind possessed: the cognition of spirit possession in an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ingold, Tim. 2007. Lines: a brief history. New York: Routledge.

Kockelman, Paul. 2010. Language, culture, and mind: natural constructions and social kinds. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lende, Daniel H., and Downey, Greg, eds. 2012. The encultured brain: an introduction to neuroanthropology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Lloyd, G. E. R. 2007. Cognitive variations: reflections on the unity and diversity of the human mind. Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press.

Malafouris, Lambros. 2013. How things shape the mind: a theory of material engagement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Saxe, Geoffrey. 2012. Cultural development of mathematical ideas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Suchman, Lucille Alice. 2007. Human-machine reconfigurations: plans and situated actions (2nd edition). Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tomasello, Michael. 2014. A natural history of human thinking. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wengrow, David. 2013. The Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wierzbicka, Anna. 2013. Imprisoned in English: The Hazards of English as a Default Language. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wynn, Thomas, and Frederick Coolidge. 2012. How to think like a Neandertal. New York: Oxford University Press.

Another summer gone

All lies.  The promises I made to myself that I’d post here even while I was doing my fieldwork: all the products of a self-deluded mind.  Is this what happens when you get tenure?  Who knew?

In any event, yes, I’m still alive, and yes, as alluded above, I now have tenure and can spend the next 30 years ranting about ‘kids these days’ or whatever I choose, but no, I haven’t been around much online – although I have been spending some time on Twitter @schrisomalis.  But enough wallowing.  No time for wallowing.

Once again I’ll be teaching my undergraduate Language and Culture class, which starts tomorrow – except where I had 36 students last year, this year I have 61 (!). Who knows how it happened, although I’m not really complaining.    I am running the Lexiculture project again, no matter how ill-advised that may be with a class of that size.  With luck, I’ll end up with a dozen or more papers submitted to the online repository, volume 2.  I’ve been collecting new words for the project all year, and now have about 70 or so, which of course, I thought would be plenty, but turns out to be barely enough.  But enough, nonetheless.  I’ll post the full list I’m making available to the students. 

I’m also trying something really new this year.  Last winter, my Culture, Language, and Cognition course was successful but big for a senior/grad course – I had over 20 enrolled, not all of whom had an enormous interest in the topic.  But I have several grad students working on projects with such a bent, or prepping for qualifying exams, or otherwise interested, and they didn’t really get as much of a chance to engage with the ideas as they would have in a seminar.  So this term I’m running a sort of weird hybrid directed study / seminar for a half-dozen of the folks from that class, a book-a-week thing focused on contemporary books in the field (broadly construed).  The students will be posting reviews of these books in this very location – stay tuned for more on that!

In the spirit of general exhaustion, I’ll be doing three or four conferences this year, publishing some results off my long-term ethnographic project at the Math Corps (hard to believe it’s been six years, really), finishing off a couple of articles that have been roaming the mighty savanna of my desk for far too long, and getting to work on the next book(!).  After all, there’s always the next promotion!   Apparently I am too stupid to realize that I don’t have to exhaust myself with work.



Jim Lambek, 1922-2014

I learned the sad news today that the mathematician Joachim Lambek (Jim to all of us who knew him) passed away yesterday at the age of 91.    Jim was one of my mentors and an external committee member for my Ph.D.     Jim will be known to mathematicians (of whom I suppose relatively few if any will read this blog) for his many articles in formal subjects far beyond my knowledge or ability, but also as a warm and generous scholar.

I came to him in a rather roundabout way; in discussions with my advisor, Bruce Trigger, he suggested to me that if I really wanted to do this numbers thing, then I should have a mathematician on my committee just to make sure I wasn’t mucking things up too badly.  As it turned out, I was very fortunate that Jim was at McGill, as he was a major pioneering figure in applying mathematical methods to linguistics (1958, 1979), had written several pieces on the analysis of kinship systems using techniques pioneered by, for instance, Floyd Lounsbury, had also published anthropological material with his son Michael (who I later met at the University of Toronto) (Lambek and Lambek 1981), and was also the co-author of a superior undergraduate text on the history of ancient mathematics, The heritage of Thales (Anglin and Lambek 1995).  At our first meeting I must have seemed such the infant, but he graciously passed me an offprint of his recent paper ‘A rewrite system of the Western Pacific’ (Bhargava and Lambek 1995) and suggested that we could have some future discussions, which we did.  His impact on Numerical Notation and on my work as a cognitively-oriented linguistic anthropologist is subtle but great.    I am hardly the sort of person who can summarize his much broader impact on his home discipline, except to say that he will be missed.

Anglin, WS, and Joachim Lambek. 1995. The Heritage of Thales. Springer.
Bhargava, Mira, and Joachim Lambek. 1995. “A rewrite system of the Western Pacific: Lounsbury’s analysis of Trobriand kinship terminology.” Theoretical linguistics 21 (2-3): 240-253.
Lambek, Joachim. 1958. “The mathematics of sentence structure.” American mathematical monthly:154-170.
Lambek, Joachim. 1979. “A mathematician looks at Latin conjugation.” Theoretical Linguistics 6 (1-3):221-234.
Lambek, Joachim, and Michael Lambek. 1981. “The kinship terminology of Malagasy speakers in Mayotte.” Anthropological linguistics:154-182.

A new look

As you will see (at least, if you view the site on the WordPress page as opposed to on an aggregator or somewhere else), I have changed the theme and layout for the site.   Hope you like it – any theme is going to have its advantages and disadvantages.   Frankly I was getting annoyed at the small text size and plainness of the old theme, which had been around since the blog’s inception in 2008.  This one has larger text and is more modern, and the main headings are larger and clearer (now at the left sidebar).    Comments and criticisms are welcome, bearing in mind that this is a free WordPress site so my options are somewhat limited.