There seems to exist an implicit assumption that, inasmuch as teaching and learning
concern the transfer and assimilation of knowledge and skills by persons equipped to
do so, the assessment process involves sampling the pool of knowledge, skill, and
competence. This assumption is based on the further belief that if one can produce
evidence of having mastered the assimilated knowledge and skill on demand, one not
only knows but also can put these abilities to use whenever they are required.
Nevertheless, this conception of knowledge and its assessment falls short of the mark,
as it ignores the fact that the traditional assessment process is heavily dependent on
the ability of the person being tested to recall and symbolically represent knowledge
and to select iconic representations of skills (see Armour-Thomas and Gopaul-
McNicol, 1998: xv-xvi for further details). In reality, one works with others in order
to solve problems and often complements one's own knowledge and skill with those
of others. Moreover, one actually engages in performances that contribute to the
solution of real problems rather than producing symbolic samples of one's repertoire
of developed abilities. As Armour-Thomas and Gopaul-McNicol (1998: xvi) assert,
"there is some dissonance between what we typically do in the assessment of intellect
and the ways in which humans exercise intellective functions in real life". In the
present paper, we shall discuss culture and cognition in relation to intelligence, trying
to show that the latter does not rest on test scores but "is a multifaceted set of abilities
that can be enhanced depending on the social and cultural contexts in which it has
been nurtured, crystallized, and ultimately assessed" (ibid.: 129).
AS/SA nº 13,
Culture and Cognition
Human cognition relates to, and describes, the mental activities that manipulate,
translate, and transform, as it were, information represented in any modality. Thus,
it can turn verbal information into spatial representation or pictorial information into
numerical representation. Furthermore, the more commonly cited cognitions involved
in intellectual activities are those related to short- and long-term memory,
comprehension, vocabulary, reasoning, visual processing, auditory processing, and
speed of processing. An important proviso is that all these cognitions do not function
in isolation but depend, in part, on certain kinds of experiences in contexts for their
expression and development.
Conceptions of culture
According to the historian Stocking (1968), the modern concept of culture emerged
at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. The research of early
anthropologists through their field studies of cultural groups the world over sought to
pinpoint the factors responsible for variation in thinking among various groups. In
cross-cultural psychology, a widely cited definition of culture put forth by Geertz
(1973: 89) is as follows: "[Culture is an] historically transmitted pattern of
embodied in symbolic form by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and
develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life".
According to Geertz,
culture and cognition are inseparable, and it seems that this notion of inseparability
is widely shared by cultural psychologists nowadays. Geertz held that the human brain
is thoroughly dependent upon culture for its very operation. Gordon (1991: 101) has
extended Geertz's notion of culture to include "structured relationships, which are
reflected in institutions, social status, and ways of doing things, and objects that are
manufactured or created such as tools, clothing, architecture, and interpretative and
representational art". Besides, in an attempt to portray culture as an overarching
construct in the lives of any social group, Gordon (1991) conceives it as a
multidimensional construct comprising at least five dimensions: a) the judgmental or
normative, b) the cognitive, c) the affective, d) the skill, and e) the technological (for
further details, see Gordon and Armour-Thomas, 1991).
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.
AS/SA nº 13,
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
The use of the concept of activity as the unit of analysis to examine human cognition
in tasks of a sociocultural nature
The dual analysis of development and cognitive process
Analysis of performance integrating cognitive processes at the individual,
interpersonal, and community level
The study of similarities and differences in performance
The research methods as tools in the service of research
The historical and cultural embeddedness of the research question itself
Values and Beliefs of a Culture
Even though there are few 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".
AS/SA nº 13,
Intelligence: A Biocultural Perspective
The 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.
The Problem of the Definition of Intelligence
Intelligence 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 intelligence as
the 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 evidence emerging 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).
AS/SA nº 13,
The 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).
What 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 and nurture.
AS/SA nº 13,
Armour-Thomas, 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 Books.
Geertz, C. (1973). Interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.
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 Erlbaum.
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 University Press.
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 development? American Psychologist, 50(10), 859-877.
Stocking, G. (1968). Race, culture, and evolution. New York: Free Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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