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Home > Cristina Grasseni > Practice and Cognition, an anthropological view

Practice and Cognition, an anthropological view

by Redazione FGB [1], 14 November 2005

About the topic, already touched upon in the previous posts, of the role played by communities of practice in the processes of emergence and management of innovation, I wish to draw the readers' attention to the interview by Mara Benadusi, to myself and Francesco Ronzon, about our recent book Practice and Cognition. Notes of ecology of culture, on line at "Formazione e Cambiamento [2]", the webmagazine of FORMEZ [3], (V/ 37, October 2005).
Here below you can find a few quotes in translation.
(Mara Benadusi is Researcher in Cultural Anthropology at Bergamo University. Francesco Ronzon teaches Cultural Anthropology at the Academy of Fine Arts in Verona).

«The idea of interviewing Cristina Grasseni and Francesco Ronzon about the book Pratiche e Cognizione (Meltemi, Roma, 2004) of which they are co-authors, stems from a research project of Formez about communities of practice as a phenomenon typical of organisations and as a locus of production and reproduction of knowledge. This volume offers to the Italian readership a systematic introduction to the ecological investigations on the link between practice and cognition, as seen from the discipline of cultural anthropology. Mind, skills, language and processes of apprenticeship and organization are investigated as the result of a number of open-ended and evolving relations with one's natural and social environment. The outcome is an original and innovative interdisciplinary scenario that is rooted in the analyses of ethnographic cases drawn from the worlds of art, science and everyday life.

The theoretical references of your book are still little debated in Italian anthropology. How and why did you come to deal with these topics?

Cristina: We both found ourselves looking for theories that were sufficiently rich and fruitful to account for an ethnographic analysis of the processes through which we make sense of the world, we identify with a community and we subject ourselves to apprenticeships that mould us as social and 'intelligent' individuals. I was influenced by Wittgenstein and the debate on the incommensurability between forms of life. The first attempts to share these interests with other anthropologists led me to organise a workshop entitled "Practices of locality" in April 2000 at the University of Milan-Bicocca, where I had a post doc fellowship in epistemology and visual anthropology. There we met and started working together.

Francesco: I began with an interest for mind and cognition, being dissatisfied with the rigidity and abstraction of the models offered by cognitivism and by "classic" cognitive anthropology (such as ethnoscience). To get out from these theoretical dead ends I moved towards interpretive anthropology (Geertz) and phenomenology (Csordas). But here I was dissatisfied by the lack of analiticity and also by the residue of idealist sensibilities in the hermeneutic tradition. I wanted to answer questions about how individuals operate concretely in the actual world. So after all these theoretical wanderings I came to the conclusion that the theories we deal with in our book are the best sofar at offering a mediation between analytical rigour and interpretative thickness.

As anthropologists, which potentials do you see in the investigation of expert practice, and not only scientific practice, through ethnographic methods?

Francesco: Every human activity can be investigated ecologically, since they are all learnt and practiced socially: an art workshop, a religious sect, a scientific laboratory, a civil servant's office... The same goes for an ethnographic approach. If the relationship between individuals and environment is not only necessary but unavoidable, its analysis cannot avoid the modalities in which such interaction takes place concretely in a definite time and place. Since these are not mechanical and rigidly determined processes, only by being present during their unfolding you can observe and underline the factors that allow to understand the process and its final outcome.

Cristina: For an anthropologist this means to be sensitive to the ways in which action is organised in an environment, that is to the relational, ideological and hegemonic qualities develop from specific and local ways of managing practice - whether these are professional or playful practices, informal or formal, knowledge-oriented or action-oriented. This also sheds new light on the concepts of expertise, skill, material culture and technology. These need not stand for niche-knowledges that only interest technologists and foloklorists. These represent instead the very texture of identity discourse, sense-construction, dominant or marginal cultures - all topics that anthropologists wish to unravel in their analyses of the complex contemporary world.

The concept of "community of practice" has met a keen interest in the latest years; you too devote a specific space to it in your book. How do communities of practice contrubute to individual and collective identity construction? How do they impinge on learning processes?

Cristina: The concept, however evocative in itself, contains in fact a wide range of analytic approaches to identity construction and learning. A particularly relevant notion is that of legitimate peripheral participation, which the anthropologist Jean Lave has developed together with Etienne Wenger in order to study learning processes as socialisation processes. One learns through a progressive admission to more and more central roles within a community of practice, moving from the periphery to more integrated roles and responsibilities. Learning is then viewed as a process of continuous apprenticeship which involves the whole person, with her relational capacities, her life history, her practical skills, and her positioning within a network of relationships and hierarchies both internal and external to one community of practice.

Francesco: The notion of community of practice is often used but also abused, to the point of becoming a slogan for company meetings or theoretical debates. By offering several levels of analyses in our book, quoting different authors and examples from the micro- to the macro sphere, we wish to offer a tool box to develop empirical researches. We do not offer one model of identity or learning, but a repertoire of theoretical resources that can be tapped and adapted to various socio-cultural context. So for instance to study children's learning in Italy or Siberia does not only mean studying values and meanings, but specific types of training: from formal school learning to informal village tutoring. Similarly, the collective identity of a native tribe, rather than of factory workers, or of a Christian integralist sect differ not only for the contents of their beliefs but for the practices they generate: rites and cosmological ceremonies, gossip about the boss or reading circles about class struggle, the social control within rural communities or the televisual preachings of charismatic religious leaders.»

Read the entire interview (in Italian) [4] on the web-magazine Formazione & Cambiamento.

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