The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated October 5, 2001

Toward the Founding of Cognitive Social Science


Early in April of 1996, my wife and I arrived, curious and invisible, at a research institute we intended, as prospective residents, to study. A small place, about 200 people, and relatively remote, it was its own world. We were intruders, professional ones, uninvited and unannounced, but also practically unnoticed, since the Institute for Advanced Study's annual purge of most of its population and replenishment with fresh recruits make it a gathering of interchangeable anonymities. Their status, the only one necessary, is that they are "at the institute." To all appearances, we were at the institute, too, where outsiders, to a comfortable degree, become insiders exactly by being there.

Uninvited visitors have no place in this world, so there are few signs to direct them, but the pattern of the institute buildings is conventional, and the receptionist, conditioned to look right through anything resembling an absent-minded professor, dealt with us as though we were not there. Nobody greeted us, but nobody scowled or said anything unpleasant to us either, and that was fine.

We located immediately the common room, with its wooden racks of newspapers and periodicals, which in other circumstances would have distracted us for hours; the mathematics library, with its high windows, spiritual and restful, where, it turned out, I would pass week after week reading by the natural light; the glass-and-concrete dining hall, where a bust of Einstein impassively oversaw the discreet promotional sale of sweatshirts and T-shirts, each carrying an image of a full-frontal naked Truth heraldically matched by a diaphanously veiled but no less anatomically emphatic full-frontal Beauty; the sloping lawns; the serene, kidney-shaped pond; and the 500-acre wood through which our own two Christopher Robins would later pursue the mallard ducks, the Canada geese, the herd of deer, the legend of the baby black bear, and -- the chief attraction, aside from the bow hunters who thinned the herd -- the April eruption of frogs, toads, and salamanders.

We drove past the playground, between Einstein Drive on one side and von Neumann Drive on the other, and I nearly ran the car into the curb as we gaped at the apartments. The elegance of the institute buildings, the pleasure of the woods, and the perfection of the grounds had left us aesthetically unprepared for their full-frontal presentation of Ugly. Before we left that afternoon, it had begun to snow -- on us, on the institute, and on the amphibians.

The School of Social Science in the Institute for Advanced Study had announced its intentions for 1996-97 in a call for applications: "In 1996-97 the school will be celebrating its 25th year. Over these years the school has been associated with the development of 'interpretive social science' (the attempt to supplement models of natural science with explanations for social change drawn from humanities disciplines such as history, literature, and philosophy). In an effort both to review our past and anticipate our future, we will be looking for projects that exemplify the best of existing interpretive approaches to the social sciences, or that point the way to new kinds of social-scientific interpretation, or that assess the strengths and weaknesses of 'interpretive social science.'"

My own work consists of trying to make sense of acts of meaning and, especially, of trying to explain the mental abilities possessed by cognitively modern human beings that make those acts of meaning possible. "Modern" in this context means roughly the last 50,000 years. My method consists of deploying any research instrument that seems promising. My hobbyhorse preoccupation is Erving Goffman's "What is going on here?" So I guessed that I would be a logical candidate for the school, and it turned out that I was right.

A conference on "25 Years of Social Science," to be sponsored by the school and held in the institute's absolutely gorgeous Wolfensohn Hall, was scheduled for May 1997. The announcement of the conference offered, as its grand finale, a breathtaking swash of impossibly broad questions about the future of social science, questions that the conference participants -- no wonder -- later found difficult to address, much less to answer.

Where is social science? Where should it go? How should it get there? My answer, in a nutshell, is that social science is headed for an alliance with cognitive science.

It is no surprise that the fundamental topic of study in cognitive science is mental events, viewed as occurring in single brains or distributively across as few as two brains or as many as all the brains of an entire community and its descendant communities, and lasting as briefly as a few milliseconds or as long as tens of thousands of years.

It is also no surprise that political science, economics, sociology, and anthropology share with cognitive science this fundamental topic of study -- mental events, however distributed. Nonmental facts (the location of coal, the date of the potato blight in Ireland) can mean something in social science only because they bear on mental events. The distribution of oil in the earth's crust can mean something in economics because the geological facts of the matter are enmeshed in a mental world of belief, desire, demand, value, utility, pricing, judgment, decision, competition, cooperation, conflict, and persuasion. The study of oil without mental events is natural science, not social science.

Mental events provide the defining problems of the social sciences. What are our basic cognitive operations? How do we use them in judgment, decision, action, reason, choice, persuasion, expression? Do voters know what they need to know? How do people choose? What are the best incentives? When is judgment reliable? Can negotiation work? How do cognitive conceptual resources depend on social and cultural location? How do certain products of cognitive and conceptual systems come to be entrenched as publicly shared knowledge and method? Economists, political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists refer as a matter of course to mental events and typically must assume some general outline of what those mental events can be and how they can arise.

Given this convergence of cognitive science and the social sciences at their intellectual cores, under the general umbrella of the nature of thought and meaning, it would be natural to conclude that they must converge as disciplines. They have not done so. Although cognitive science is a natural and inevitable part of research in the social sciences, so far technical research in cognitive science has had little effect on the social sciences. The study of cognition is not part of the professional formation of the graduate student of economics, political science, sociology, or anthropology. Cognitive science has been vibrant, but its motion has been contained.

It may be that history is to blame. Paul DiMaggio observed in 1997, in the Annual Review of Sociology, that "30 years ago, behaviorism made psychology essentially irrelevant to the study of culture"; now we can add, to any social scientist who needs a view of mental events. After the grand collapse of behaviorism, there arose a subsequent program of research by cognitivists and developmentalists into perception, long and short-term memory, recognition tasks, acquisition of motor skills, and similar psychological phenomena. Those good traditions of research, however, also offered little to address the questions that interest the social scientist.

There was once (and in pale reduction still is) a discipline of historical influence and prestige whose defining focus was just this convergence of social science around the topic of mental events. Greek rhetoricians took a complex view of cognition, in which individual human beings are equipped with large toolkits of powerful and generative cognitive operations and conceptual structures, to be used for understanding, judgment, decision, and persuasion, including self-persuasion.

The rhetorician strives for conscious awareness of those cognitive operations and conceptual structures, in the hope of discovering ways in which to manipulate them. The effectiveness of the manipulations depends on the shared nature of the cognitive operations and conceptual structures -- they are part of the backstage cognition of the members of the audience. It is in virtue of that backstage cognition that the rhetorician can prompt the audience in one way or another. The rhetorician, in effect, invites the members of the audience to recruit from their background cognitive resources and to use those recruitments for some purpose.

What can be recruited to mental work depends on social and cultural location. Parts of the repertoire are common and can be assumed for any audience, while other parts are special to special communities or special situations. Consequently, it is a basic principle of rhetorical theory that what works in one situation may not work in another. One of Aristotle's definitions of rhetoric is: "the mental ability to see the available means of persuasion in any particular situation."

Rhetoricians undertook the study of why and how people judge credibility, plausibility, and truth-value; of how people reach judgments under uncertainty; of how they erect schemes of payoffs and costs; of the instruments they possess for making sense of situations and for constructing new meaning. Rhetoricians paid special attention to the relationship between language and mental events, since language is itself a surprisingly complex cognitive toolkit of refined instruments for prompting people to do conceptual work. Over two millennia, it was routinely assumed, with varying degrees of emphasis, that politicians, lawyers, diplomats, leaders in business, military leaders, and other practical agents of the social world must have a formation in rhetoric; and equally assumed that technical training in the theory of rhetoric is indispensable to scholars of what we now call the social sciences.

It seems that there is no modern equivalent for the view once provided by rhetoric. We lack a cohesive disciplinary view of how cognitive science, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology converge. It is tempting in these circumstances to return to the tradition of rhetoric, but in trying to exhume it we would, for sociological reasons, only dig our own grave. Rhetoric, in our time, has fallen on abject and humiliating circumstances. It is now associated, for the most part, not with research but with fraud, poverty, and the humanities. We cannot afford those connotations; we must have others: bold scientific research, emerging syntheses, new paradigms, wealth, rigor, power, truth. The National Science Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, the McDonnell-Pew programs, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health will probably not finance rhetoric (although the Henry Luce Foundation might). Apparently, we must toss a handful of earth on the memory of the discipline of rhetoric -- sit tibi terra levis -- and prefer, in its place, a modern name for our project, perhaps something like "cognitive social science."

In the present moment, the social sciences face what appears to be challenging terrain as they look for a conception of themselves and their professional activity. With social science on one hand and cognitive science on the other hand, we might arrange a powerful blended future, a good intellectual marriage. The courtship has begun, but it will take some help getting to the altar.

In brief, cognitive science and social science should be brought together under the umbrella of the study of backstage cognition, or, more specifically, the study of meaning, reason, choice, concept change, and concept formation, as they are subtended by human neurobiology and played out over the world's societies and cultures.

These intellectual suggestions also lead to an institutional recommendation. The combined university and foundation resources for the study of social science are large. Perhaps some of those resources could be devoted to the founding of cognitive social science.

Mark Turner is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland at College Park. This essay is adapted from his Cognitive Dimensions of Social Science, copyright © 2001 by Mark Turner, just published by Oxford University Press.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Page: B11

Copyright © 2001 by Mark Turner