IAS-Research Talk by Sébastien Lerique: “The Epidemiology of Representations paradigm for the enquiry of cognition-with-culture: how online experiments surface problematic assumptions”

Date and Time: June 7, Tuesday, 10:30 a.m.

Location: Carlos Santamaría Building, Room B14

Speaker: Sébastien Lerique

Centre d’Analyse et de Mathématique Sociales (EHESS / CNRS, Paris).                     Centre Marc Bloch (CNRS / Humboldt Universität / MAEE / BMBF, Berlin) 

Title: The Epidemiology of Representations paradigm for the enquiry of cognition-with-culture: how online experiments surface problematic assumptions


Since the very beginning of social sciences and that of psychology and later cognitive science, several authors have attempted to unify the study of cognition and culture (or social) in meaningful ways. While the question already existed in Durkheim’s initial works [5], it was only later tackled in earnest by Mauss’ Techniques of the Body [10], Giddens’ Structuration Theory[7] or Bourdieu’s Sens Pratique [1].
          Today’s debate, however, is more defined by proponents from cognitive science. There is, on one side, a theory allying neo-darwinism and cognitive representationalism that is best summed up in Sperber’s Epidemiology of Representations [11] and Boyd and Richerson’s Gene-Culture Co-Evolution [2]. On the other side an enactive proposition which anthropologists like Ingold, in line with Mauss’ initial intuitions, are calling for [9], is being developed by Froese, Di Paolo, and De Jaegher among others [3] [6]. The whole debate is now being fuelled by the accumulation of discoveries in evo-devo and non-genetic inheritance, which do not fit in the modern synthesis’ account of life evolution [8]; this is creating a need for new unifying paradigms and creative empirical methods to test them [4], need which will likely challenge Sperber, Boyd, and Richerson’s dominant theory.
           Testing this theory, however, and especially its macroscopic cultural aspect, has been a real challenge for the field in the last two decades. My goal in this presentation is to show how online and web-based experiments, which offer openings to rise to that challenge, run into the philosophical problems that critiques like Ingold have identified in Sperber’s works. I will begin by presenting Sperber’s Epidemiology of Representations in more detail, fleshing out what it aims for and what underlying principles it bases itself on. I will then briefly present the method and results of one finished and one ongoing experiment studying transmission chains of short sentences (like a written broken telephone game), both inspired by the availability of large datasets of recorded online interactions and by the possibilities offered by modern browsers and the web. I will then try to show how those experiments run into the problem of interpretation and meaning, and how this is the manifestation of problems in the philosophical basis of the theory. I will conclude by evoking what web-based experiments can bring to the enactive approach of unifying the different levels of the study of life.

[1] Bourdieu, Pierre. 1980. “Le Sens pratique.” Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, coll. « Le sens commun ».

[2] Boyd, Robert, and Peter J. Richerson. 1988. “Culture and the evolutionary process.” University of Chicago Press.

[3] Cuffari, Elena Clare, Ezequiel Di Paolo, and Hanne De Jaegher. 2015. “From participatory sense-making to language: there and back again.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 14.4 (2015): 1089-1125.

[4] Day, Troy and Russell Bonduriansky. 2011. “A Unified Approach to the Evolutionary Consequences of Genetic and Nongenetic Inheritance.” The American Naturalist 2011 178:2, E18-E36.

[5] Durkheim, Émile. 1976 [1915]. “The elementary forms of the religious life.” Trans. J. W Swain (2nd ed.). London: Allen & Unwin.

[6] Froese, Tom and Ezequiel Di Paolo. 2011. “The enactive approach: Theoretical sketches from cell to society.” Pragmatics & Cognition 19:1 (2011), 1–36.

[7] Giddens, Anthony. 1984. “The constitution of society: outline of the theory of structuration.” Cambridge : Polity Press.

[8] Gilbert, Scott F., Thomas C. G. Bosch, and Cristina Ledón-Rettig. 2015. “Eco-Evo-Devo: developmental symbiosis and developmental plasticity as evolutionary agents.” Nature Reviews Genetics 16, 611–622.

[9] Ingold, Tim. 1999. “Three in one: on dissolving the distinctions between body, mind and culture.”

[10] Mauss, Marcel. 1936. “Les techniques du corps.” Journal de Psychologie, XXXII, ne, 3-4. Communication présentée à la Société de Psychologie le 17 mai 1934.

[11] Sperber, Dan. 1996. “Explaining Culture.” Blackwell.