Who’s at Stake? Nonhuman Agency Concepts and Cultural (Folk)ecologies

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This dissertation presents a program of research on cultural cognition of the natural world, involving long-term research with indigenous Ngöbe partner communities (Panama) and selected comparisons to Western samples (US). In two series of experiments focused on agency concepts, we show that cultural frameworks recruit distinct principles for inferring agency across distinct sets of nonhuman actors, and these frameworks productively guide predictive inferences for the actual behavior of nonhuman actors. We consolidate these findings by using bottom-up consensus modeling to show that Ngöbe and US cultural differences reflect two distinct conceptual models of agency rather than variations on a single (universal) model. We argue that these cultural differences in basic conceptual frameworks reflect distinctive cultural organization of social and ecological domains. Findings are considered in light of current cognitive psychological theories of domain-specific folkpsychology, and an alternative account is offered based on a folktheory of communication that infers agency on the basis of relational interactions rather than having a mind. Finally, we place these findings in the context of the broader interdisciplinary research on animism with a focus on recent innovations in ontological anthropology. This dissertation research raises significant questions concerning theories of concepts, culture, and their interaction—and what this means for mutually sustainable human-environment interactions.

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  • 04/18/2018
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