Cognition and Power
There's an ironic twist to the title of this piece: "Cognition and Power." I'm going to defend the study of universal cognition in the face of social theorists' contemporary aversion to species-wide generalizations, yet I venture to point out that in the social sciences today, "power" is about the only interesting human universal that's agreed on. Power is everywhere; not only in Foucault's sense as a permeating force that seeps into the "capillaries" of social interactions, and not only as an apparent universal that recurs across societies and history, but as an academic mantra for our times--one that is wielded to designate injustices but also, sometimes, as a unit of symbolic capital in itself. The popularity of power studies is evident in the ubiquity of such terms as ideology, hegemony, domination, and oppression; and the complementary notions of resistance, agency, and subversion. For at least the last decade in the social sciences and humanities the "hows" of power (the means by which social asymmetries configure shared structures of meaning and individual dispositions) have been widely examined in texts and cultures across the globe. I admire much of the work that's been done in this vein, and it seems clear that a close examination of oppression and its mechanisms has been long overdue. But I do have a critique to register. In many discussions among social theorists, power is implicitly treated as the primary explanation for the operations of human minds, and often the only explanation on offer. In this essay, I examine some ways that the concept of power has been developed, in particular how the notion of "hegemony" has been applied, and then suggest that many social theorists operate with a naive one-way causal story about the relationship between power and mental formations. I'll then try to push the causal story in the other direction by discussing some hypotheses by cognitive scientists and cognitive anthropologists on concept formation. This piece is a call for social theorists to take seriously the possibility that humans as a species are innately susceptible to thinking in particular ways, and that these susceptibilities may be parasitized by local power formations and used in their service.
Let me begin with an outline of the way some social thinkers have conceptualized "power". First I sho uld point out that the ontological status of "power" as social theorists use the term is sketchy at best. The term rarely adduces a singular, simple referent; instead, it functions indexically, to draw the reader's attention to asymmetrical distributions of privileges, resources, status, knowledge production, and other desirables--with the suggestion that there are social forces of some kind or kinds, e.g. interactions, material conditions, practices, beliefs, etc., that sustain these asymmetries. Furthermore, after Foucault (1980) and Gramsci (1971), it is no longer quite viable to speak about an individual or group "having the power" as if it is a count noun that can be possessed like a gun. Instead, the development of "hegemony" theories suggest that all parties, dominators and dominated, are implicated in the force fields that make up a given power formation.
Antonio Gramsci was the first to revivify the notion of "hegemony", construing it as a system of meanings and values that expresses the interests of the dominant class, but permeates all class groups, infusing the entire culture by organizing it around such meanings and values. According to Raymond Williams, hegemony saturates "the whole process of living", and includes the "lived domination and subordination of particular classes" (1977: 110). In this construal hegemony is mundane in its guises, for the machinations of power are to be found in "life-as-lived" rather than overtly marked coercive domination. Furthermore, hegemony includes material relations, practices of all kinds, and ideas, thus conflating "base" and "superstructure" as Marx imagined them and offering an alternative to vulgar materialism. John and Jean Comaroff have emphasized the internalized and naturalized qualities of hegemony; it "goes without saying", for it consists of the signs and practices that serve the interests of the dominant group and come to be "take-for-granted [by all social groups] as the natural and received shape of the world and everything that inhabits it" (1991: 23).
Hegemony theories thus offer the insight that "power" leaves its traces in even the most minute experiences and practices of the oppressed, who inadvertently collude in their own oppression as a result. Now, with the focus on the "received shape of the world" (to use the Comaroff's words) as it is experienced by the oppressed, we might have expected to see a surge of interest in psychology among hegemony theorists. Yet many social theorists have chosen to focus instead on publicly accessible discourse, or on the body rather than the mind (please permit me the split, at least heuristically.) This stems in part from a Bourdieu-inspired concern with "habitus" (that is: recurrent "embodied" practices [Bourdieu 1972(1977)]), and certainly from an abiding prejudice against psychology, vilified as "psychologism" and "scientism" by some who are wary of the histories of arrogant universalism in such disciplines (Stoler 1997). For some, the notion that an isolable mind brings something to bear on its social context is an epistemological mistake, as implied by Michael de Certeau's claim that "a [social] relation...determines its terms, and not the reverse" (1984: xi). The mind, then, has been left unexplored by social theorists, and is assumed to receive hegemonic ideas through a process of unmediated diffusion from the cultural surrounds. Despite the connection hegemony theory draws between "power" and the mental, mentation remains a "site" for the top-down influence of "power" rather than a bottom-up locus of influence itself.
Let me be absolutely redundant here and say that I find the study of oppression and its minute workings laudable, much-needed, and humbling. But there are number of problems with the way we've given "power" so much power over the human condition. First of all, the top-down approach to human behavior is underwritten by a problematic utopianism. As Barbara Ehrenreich and I suggested in an article in the Nation several months ago (1997), much talk abut social construction nurtures the hope that if a social formation is entirely culturally constructed it is malleable, whereas if it's influenced by innate cognitive predispositions it's immutable and inevitable. Neither side of this equation seems right. The assumption that biology is destiny stems from a crude and outdated estimation of what kinds of tendencies may be innate and what it means to be innate in the first place. And the notion that wholehearted social constructivism implies a brighter political outlook (some kind of immanent "reconstruction," perhaps) should be equally suspect--particularly if power formations reach into the most minute, individual and apparently mundane spaces to sustain themselves.
The second problem with the fetishization of "power" as the shaping force of culture and the mind is that in this formulation, power takes on an explanatory burden that's unreasonably heavy, becoming a mysterious agent in a general conspiracy theory about why the social world is the way it is. Let me use an example from Marx to underscore this problem. Like hegemony theorists after him, Marx noted that oppression is often not experienced as such; it's more insidious, largely because patterns of mind tend to become isomorphic with the values of society. The subject mystifies underlying social relations, so that oppressive social orders--in particular the material arrangements of a capitalist base--are sustained by misinterpretations of social life, what he termed "false consciousness". So, for example, wages come to seem a fair reward for labor rather than an exploitative fraction of what is due from one's efforts, while commodities are imputed with inherent value when in fact their "value" stems from complicated relations between people and (other) semiotic objects. Marx's subterranean psychology, insightful as it is, begs a number of questions. To say that psychological distortions of the subaltern function in the interest of the ruling class is not an explanation for the distortions themselves, nor for their inception. Why should such distortions recur time after time in capitalist formations, as Marx himself suggested they would? How might capitalist "power", whatever that is, manage this hat trick?
Marx's own work pointed at the possibility that the psyche sustains these forms of oppression because human minds are better at representing some things than others. It seems as if, for example, the single link between value and labor may be easier for the mind to grasp than the complex relations between wages, money, value, commodities, etc. that Marx felt objectively underlay our category mistakes. But a model of mind painted with the broad brush strokes of the hegemony theorist won't capture this. We need a finer-grained understanding of cognitive processes, and we need to be open to the likelihood that the mind finds some types of concepts easier to think than others.
This leads me to my final complaint about the way that power is treated in social theory today; namely, that it's utterly isolated from the insights of cognitive psychology and is hence predicated on a misleading construal of how the mind works. The implicit model of mind espoused by most theorists of hegemony (cf. Bloch 1989) is what I'll call the "sponge theory". In the sponge theory, which many if not most cognitive scientists have abandoned since Chomsky challenged Skinner in the 1950s (Chomsky 1957) and debated Piaget in the 70s (Piatelli-Palmarini 1980), the mind is undifferentiated and porous, and soaks up the representations given by the sociocultural context. Mental representations, in this account, automatically serve the interests of the ruling class through a top-down process of social construction. But as Chomsky so powerfully demonstrated in the domain of language, children's' rapid grasp of linguistic behavior is underdetermined by their cultural environment and cannot be easily explained by learning alone. Similar arguments have been made in other cognitive domains, with the suggestion that innate cognitive structures play a key role in, for example, the ways people understand their biological and physical worlds and project and process the contents of other minds (Boyer 1994; Hirschfeld and Gelman 1994). The cumulative lesson is that the mind is not simply a sponge that absorbs ambient beliefs and practices, but rather is equipped with architectures that attend to, parse, and organize incoming information in particular ways.
Alert to the significance of these findings, anthropologist Dan Sperber (1996) has suggested that we conceptualize culture in terms of an "epidemiology of representations": a formation made up by the distribution, survival and spread of some types of cultural meanings. The representations that survive and spread sufficiently to count as cultural are sustained in part by public and material structures, in part by learned mental habits, and--crucially--in part by innate cognitive predispositions. Under Sperber's epidemiological model, the perniciousness of hegemony cannot be taken for granted as a mere effect of "power"- for properties of the mind may actually facilitate the uptake of certain ideas.
So, I'll move on to suggest one such interaction between mind and power. I should offer the caveat that work on innate mental structures is young, and the jury is still out on the accuracy of today's dominant models. Nevertheless, there has been some suggestive work in the area of what I'll call "conceptual structure", of which I offer this brief outline. For several decades, psychologists studied concepts in terms of classification, with the assumption that people form and manipulate categories on the basis of perceptual similarity. So, for example, what makes a skunk a skunk for us is the way it looks (and probably the way it smells.) But in recent years, researchers have suggested that the cognitive use of many categories involves something deeper than perceptual information: something theory-like that facilitates inferences, explanations, and predictions, and something that, in Doug Medin's words, "[gives] concepts life, coherence, and meaning" (1989: 1474).
When concepts aren't perceptually or similarity based, what then might be their structure or organizing p rinciple? In recent years, a number of cognitive scientists and cognitive anthropologists such as Gelman and Wellman (1991), Medin (1989), and Hirschfeld (1996) have suggested that some concepts, particularly our concepts of things found in the natural world, are structured by what they term an essentialistic mode of thinking. According to Medin, essentialism takes the following form: "People act as if things (e.g. objects) have essences or underlying natures that make them the thing that they are. Furthermore...[the essence] provides causal linkages from deeper properties to more superficial or surface properties." (1476) Essentialist modes of thinking have a profound influence on the structure of concepts: among other things, they link surface features together by virtue of a hidden essence; they offer a story about the inherent potential of category members; and allow the maintenance of category identity over surface transformations--as an example, experimentation by Gelman and colleagues has revealed that young kids tend to label a creature a skunk even if it looks like a fox, as long as it has skunk insides (Medin 1989). In essentialist thinking, appearance is not the most important aspect of a concept; instead something presumed to be internal and nonobvious organizes our understanding of what category members share.
There is some debate among these researchers about whether essentialism is a promiscuous, domain-general strategy or whether we are cognitively predisposed to apply essentialist thinking in some domains more than others. Larry Hirschfeld (1996) draws on cross-cultural research on children's development to suggest that humans have an innate, domain-specific tendency to classify human kinds in essentialist ways. We are predisposed, he argues, to take a special epistemological stance towards other human groups, one that links visible properties to non-visible, deeper, supposedly inherent qualities, and in so doing homogenizes and naturalizes differences between groups. This propensity does not determine particular concepts of race (or gender, or any other essentialized human kind category) in any straightforward way, but it does facilitate racial or gendered thinking, and helps to explain why the political construction of such social taxonomies has proven so effective and "catchy" in so many cultural contexts. Hirschfeld is not arguing that race is a biological category; instead, he says, the way we think about race might be due to a biological predisposition.
The latter point is an important one, for it allows for cognitive contributions to hegemonic formations without making a straightforward deterministic claim about what the content of those formations will look like. The tendency to essentialize human kinds, if Hirschfeld is right, does not tell us how the pie will be cut in any particular social context or why certain groups will be valued or devalued--that will depend on the socioeconomic histories of different groups and how they've jostled for control over resources, ideas, and values. Nevertheless, according to Hirschfeld these local, contingent political systems recruit what is already available as a universal, innate mental architecture. This possibility is reiterated by colonial historian Ann Stoler, who argues in a recent article in Ethos that "certain categories of power [may] acquire the weight ... they do ... because of the ways in which they feed off and build upon categories of the mind." (1997: 102)
Essentialist thinking may facilitate other hegemonic social orders in less obvious ways. Let me present you with a brief example from my own fieldwork on the coast of Kenya (prefaced by one of the thinnest ethnographic accounts you'll ever see from an anthropologist.) In the vaguest possible terms, there are several groups living on the coast of Kenya, including the Swahili and the Giriama, who place high status on the Arabic language, which is associated with a centuries-old Arab hegemony on the coast. The populations living in coastal towns are mixed in their knowledge of the language; some people, particularly high-status men, are schooled at madarasa (Quranic school), whereas many others know the language only inasmuch as they see it on the exterior walls of local mosques and hear it inside the mosque or in prayer calls. A number of spirit specialists working on the coast sometimes claim to be possessed by an Arab spirit and commence to read, write, and speak Arabic--thus enabling them to participate in high-prestige, lucrative practices such as "reading" and "writing" prayers out of the Quran for use in amulets. Although the actual "speech" and "writing" under these circumstances is recognizably different from standard Arabic and sometimes hardly resembles it at all, I was startled to find that a number of the people who are schooled in standard Arabic seem to accept these productions as "Arabic". The more I explored this phenomenon the more it seemed that the Arabic language is so deeply associated with unseen powers and properties that the very criteria that confer identity on the language seem in some contexts to be invisible ones. This is a pattern redolent of the essentialist thinking about natural and social kinds that I've just sketched. It seems that the status distinctions that arise from manipulations of "Arabic" are facilitated by the fact that people don't seem to be assessing whether or not something is Arabic on the basis of careful similarity judgments. Instead, they may be conceptualizing the language using an essentialist heuristic that shifts the playing field, so that culturally designated "experts", with access to the sacred essence of Arabic, can make judgments about what counts as Arabic and what does not. The mystique of Arabic, and the enduring hegemony that this supports, survives in part because the very structure of the concept of "Arabic" confers it with what Stoler would call combined elements of fixity and fluidity--fixity in its imagined sacred essence, and fluidity in its perceptible guises and social uses.
Essentialist reasoning may give some concepts the "richness" Medin called for. However, there are other contributions to the study of conceptual structure that suggest the opposite: some of our most important concepts may be impoverished. Dan Sperber (1985) has suggested that some of the categories humans think with are structurally "empty", inasmuch as they are not fully defined. Sperber suggests that beliefs in concepts like "dragons" or "God" can be culturally widespread without being clearly grasped because people are capable of mentally manipulating "semi-propositional relations"; conceptual representations that are not fully understood or representable in propositional form but that reserve a place-holder for the absent facts. According to Sperber, such semi-propositional beliefs are possible because of the human meta-representational faculty, which enables us to entertain or believe something without having a grasp of its content or definition. The architecture of such concepts is different from essentialized ones; rather than possessing an imagined and immutable essence, the house is empty.
Essentialist reasoning and semi-propositional beliefs, if they prove durable as psychology proceeds, indicate one general fact about human conceptual structure: people think with rickety concepts. We impute essences and let surface features slide around over them; or we believe in notions that we barely grasp. Importantly, both cases open the door to culturally designated experts to control some aspect of such concepts. The philosopher Hilary Putnam makes a similar point about natural kind terms in his celebrated essay "The meaning of 'meaning'" (1975). According to Putnam, when people use a natural kind term like "gold" or "elm tree" or "quark", they have a vague, culturally current notion of how to conceive the term, but they may have no clear idea how to recognize the set of things in the world picked out by that term. Yet they assume that there is some obscure essence, generally detectable only by experts such as scientists, that confers identity on such things. Sperber has similarly argued that semi-propositional concepts are often believed in because we've received the notions from "the ancestors" or some other group (religious elite, for example) who are presumed to have the full understanding that we lack. So despite the ricketiness of our concepts, they survive; they are poorly interrogated, yet deeply held and presumed to be metaphysically fixed. Their ill-defined conceptual structure may be preyed on by authorities who can redefine the surface features or definitions in subtle ways to suit the exigencies of their power. By virtue of our cognitive structures we may not notice the shifts or contradictions in the uses of such terms.
I've offered one example of how cognitive analysis might enrich our understanding of what social theorists term "power". There are numerous other underexplored possibilities--and as the cognitive revolution continues to bear fruit and developmental psychology continues to develop the possibility of domain-specific reasoning strategies there will be a flourescence of others. I'll just offer one tantalizing possibility as I close. Psychologists Carol Nemeroff and Paul Rozin (1994) suggest that the concepts of contagion and contamination may emerge from evolved, universal patterns of human thought that assume the presence of unseen contaminative forces. As anthropologist Mary Douglas (1966) and many others after her have noted, contamination is a culturally wide-spread notion that reinforces social boundaries and power structures; one can think of innumerable examples, such as colonial notions of the "dirty native". If Nemeroff and Rozin are right, social boundaries may be more easily scored when this psychological predisposition toward revulsion is cued and harnessed. So disgust towards particular other groups is a learned aspect of hegemony, but the shape of our disgust, and the rapidity and viscerality of our reactions, may not be. Understanding the cognitive architecture that may undergird social attitudes could help us to recognize and, if it should ever be possible, thwart what can otherwise be a mutually reinforcing link between innate predisposition and local hegemony.
To conclude: Despite de Certeau's claim that "a [social] relation always determines its terms, and not the reverse", the amassing evidence from cognitive psychology suggests that the individual human does indeed bring something influential to the table. Understanding these psychological predispositions might greatly enrich our understanding of social "power" by helping us to understand how and why certain hegemonies catch and stick. I should add that incorporating the cognitive into the study of the social is not a mere "biologization" of the human condition. Most of what I've said does little or nothing to threaten the deep, broad, saturating effects of cultural surrounds. Furthermore, nothing I've said suggests that cognitive tendencies beget inevitable social formations. Rather, they facilitate some social formations over others. If social theorists are to give a complete account of human impressionability and of the mechanisms of power, conflict, and peace they must register both our innate tendencies and the local systems of meaning and power that give added potency to particular representations. This two-way causal story may complicate our models of the human condition, but whatever else happens, we can be guaranteed there will be no dead ends.
Copyright © Janet S. McIntosh, 1997
Department of Anthropology
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University of Michigan
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