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.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

One thought on “Review: Bloch, Anthropology and the cognitive challenge”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: