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Culture, Cognition, and Intelligence
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
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Transdisciplinary Research on Context and Cognition

During the past three decades, numerous studies have been conducted both within and across a diversity of cultural groups, with a view to examining differences in performance on cognitive tasks. These studies have been underpinned by different perspectives about context, learning, and cognition from sociolinguistics, education, psychology, and sociology. A common enquiry across disciplines was the search for an explanation for the finding of context-specific cognition within and between individuals in diverse settings and cultures. Let us briefly review some of the research in this area.

Anthropological and Cultural and Psychological Research

In interpreting the variable findings in the early cross-cultural Piagetian studies, Cole, Gay, Glick, and Sharp (1971: 233) made the following insightful observation: 'Cultural differences in cognition reside more in the situations to which particular cognitive processes are applied than in the existence of a process in one cultural group, and its absence in another'. Vygotsky's Mind in Society (1978) can be better understood in the light of this observation. In this work, Vygotsky provided a theoretical frame for understanding the observed variation in performance on cognitive tasks. According to him, a person's cognitive potential emerges, develops, and finds its expression in a sociocultural milieu-a view that tallies with Geertz's (1973) notion of culture.
Rogoff and Chavajay (1995) identified the following key assumptions common to disciplines taking a sociocultural approach to the study of differences in cognitive performance:

1. The use of the concept of activity as the unit of analysis to examine human cognition in tasks of a sociocultural nature
2. The dual analysis of development and cognitive process
3. Analysis of performance integrating cognitive processes at the individual, interpersonal, and community level
4. The study of similarities and differences in performance
5. The research methods as tools in the service of research
6. The historical and cultural embeddedness of the research question itself

Values and Beliefs of a Culture

Even though there are no studies of human intelligence that have explicitly examined the values and beliefs of a culture as independent variables on cognition, these constructs are embedded in the tasks and social interactions in which children engage and, thus, serve an important socialising function in shaping intellectual development. Among other researchers, Goodnow has commented on these constructs. According to her, cognitive problems or tasks do not exist in a vacuum nor are they connected to some abstract set of principles or framework. Rather, they are bounded by a culture's definition of the problem to be solved and its definition of "proper" methods of solution (Goodnow, 1976). What is more, Goodnow (1990) contends that cultural values contain tacit understandings of what constitutes an appropriate goal and posits that individuals learn 'cognitive values'. In short, culture defines not only what its members should think or learn but also what they should ignore or treat as irrelevant aspects that she terms 'acceptable ignorance or incompetence'.

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