Cognition, and Intelligence
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
A Biocultural Perspective
construct of intelligence has remained one of the most controversial
topics in the history of psychology. Some researchers have
pointed to the impressive evidence of neural efficiency in
accounting for individual difference in intelligence, thus
further bolstering the biological argument. Proponents of
the cultural view, on the other hand, argue that observed
behaviour is not independent of the cultural forces that shape,
support, and guide its organisation and development. Despite
the strong claims on each side of this "either-or"
and "how much" debate, we shall take an interactionist
perspective, which may shed light on the issue.
is a culturally derived abstraction that members of a given
society coin to make sense of observed differences in performance
of individuals within and between social groups. The search
for an objective definition with universal consensus is fraught
with a lot of difficulties. As Horn (1991b: 198) states, '[e]fforts
to define intellectual capabilities "once and for all"
are doomed to failure because not only is the universe of
these capabilities so vast that its boundaries are beyond
comprehension, but also because it is constantly evolving
into a new vastness'. Therefore, we shall tentatively define
deployment of culturally dependent cognitions in adaptation
to meaningful encounters in our environment in a purposive
manner. Its expression as behavior reflects the gradual transformation
of biologically programmed cognitive potentials into developed
cognitions through a process of cultural socialization
(Armour-Thomas and Gopaul-McNicol, 1998: 59).
The emerging evidence from various disciplines that human
cognition is context specific in addition to evidence of the
strong influence of culture on cognitive development provide
the empirical basis for the assertion that intelligence is
a culturally dependent construct. More specifically, the evidence
suggests that the mind functions and develops within 'cultural
niches' (ibid.: 59) and as such the comingling of biological
and cultural processes is inescapable. Although the range
of cognitive potentials may be constrained by biological programming,
which potentials develop and find expression depends, to a
great extent, on cultural experiences. In view of this, the
mental life of individuals is inseparable from the culture
that gives it direction and meaning.
There are four assumptions underlying the biocultural perspective
of intelligence: a) The interactions between biologically
derived cognitive potentials and forces obtaining within the
child's culture are reciprocal, b) the interdependence of
knowledge and cognitive processing in the development of cognition,
c) instruction is a precursor to the development of cognition,
and d) motivation as energy activated from both within and
outside the person. We shall only briefly discuss a).
biocultural perspective asserts that the characteristics of
the individual and characteristics of specific characteristics
within the child's culture are reciprocally interactive. All
human beings are born with capabilities that enable them to
think in complex ways, such as the capacity to encode, transform,
reason, store and retrieve information from memory. It is
culture, however, that determines when, how, and under what
conditions these potentials develop and manifest themselves
in behaviour. Moreover, whether these cognitions will reach
their fullest possible expression, remain undeveloped, or
show stunned or uneven development depends on two factors:
a) the opportunities and constraints within the culture that
may foster or impede their growth, and b) the receptiveness
or vulnerability of the organism at critical points in time
toward these liberating and inhibiting forces operating with
the culture (Armour-Thomas and Gopaul-McNicol, 1998: 60-61).
emerges from this short discussion is that culture permeates
the daily life of a people and as such plays a pivotal role
in human development. In terms of its role in cognitive development,
and more specifically intelligent behaviour, it seems that
it has the potency to shape and transform biologically constrained
potentials into developed cognitions. One's cultural experiences
and context are integral to the development of one's cognition.
It is culture that dictates the amount of time a child will
spend on a particular task; it is culture that will form the
types of tests and formal examinations that are supposed to
check students' competence and then categorise them accordingly.
Those students who are not comfortable in decontextualised
settings under impersonal and timed conditions are likely
to be thought of as "less intelligent," even if
the difficulties that beset them have nothing to do with cognitive
abilities. For some people, intelligence resides in our genes
and "grey cells"; for others, it is the result of
the interaction of a "thinking human being" with
other such human beings. For us, though, intelligence is the
residue of a "chemical reaction" between nature
E. and S. Gopaul-McNicol. (1998). Assessing Intelligence:
Applying a Bio-Cultural Model. London: Sage Publications.
Cole, M., Gay, J., Glick, J. A., & Sharp, D. W. (1971).
The cultural context of learning and thinking. New York: Basic
Geertz, C. (1973). Interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic
·Goodnow, J. J. (1976). The nature of intelligent bahavior:
Questions raised by cross-cultural studies. In L. B. Resnick
(Ed.), The nature of intelligence. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence
Goodnow, J. J. (1990). The socialization of cognition: What's
involved? In J. W. Stigler, R. A. Shweder, Q.G. Herdt (Eds.),
Cultural psychology (pp. 259-286). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
Gordon, E. W. (1991). Human diversity and pluralism. Educational
Psychologist. 26, 99-108.
Gordon, E. W., & Armour-Thomas, E. (1991). Culture and
cognitive development. In L. Okagaki & R. J. Sternberg
(Eds.), Directors and development: Influences on the development
of children's thinking. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Horn, J. L. (1991b). Measurement of intellectual capabilities:
A review of theory. In K. S. McGrew, J. K. Werder, & R.
W. Woodcock (Eds.), A reference on theory and current research
to supplement the Woodcock-Johnson-Revised Examiner's Manuals
(pp. 197-245). Allen, TX: DLM.
Rogoff, B., & Chavajay, P. (1995). What's become of research
on the cultural basis of cognitive developmen? American Psychologist,
Stocking, G. (1968). Race, culture, and evolution. New York:
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of
higher psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
English Literature and Linguistics at Athens University
and then did an MA in Applied Linguistics at Sussex
University. After that, he earned an MBA from Mooreland
University and is currently finishing the second year
of my PhD studies in Education at Nottingham University.
His academic interests include fostering cultural awareness
and learner autonomy, as well as such issues as language
and ideology, Critical Discourse Analysis, Pragmatics,
Sociolinguistics, and the Psychology of Education.
can be contacted at:
the beginning of the article
to the articles index