The Cultural Content of Cognition and the Cognitive Content of Culture: Implications For Consumer Research

ABSTRACT - This paper introduces the cognitive anthropological perspective to consumer research. This perspective adopts a cultural approach to cognition, synthesizing both cognitive and cultural aspects of knowledge. Individuals' cognitive processes are examined within a specific sociocultural context and the content of culture is suggested to be a product of human learning. Moreover, because individuals have different motivations, abilities, and opportunities to learn cultural information, there may exist rich patterns of intracultural variation worthy of investigation. The theoretical, methodological, and substantive contributions of a cognitive anthropology perspective for consumer research are suggested.


Martin S. Roth and Christine Moorman (1988) ,"The Cultural Content of Cognition and the Cognitive Content of Culture: Implications For Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 403-410.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 403-410


Martin S. Roth, University of Pittsburgh

Christine Moorman, University of Pittsburgh

[The authors would like to acknowledge and thank Jim Boster, Larry Feick, Melanie Wallendorf and three anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier version of this paper.]


This paper introduces the cognitive anthropological perspective to consumer research. This perspective adopts a cultural approach to cognition, synthesizing both cognitive and cultural aspects of knowledge. Individuals' cognitive processes are examined within a specific sociocultural context and the content of culture is suggested to be a product of human learning. Moreover, because individuals have different motivations, abilities, and opportunities to learn cultural information, there may exist rich patterns of intracultural variation worthy of investigation. The theoretical, methodological, and substantive contributions of a cognitive anthropology perspective for consumer research are suggested.


Consumer research has and continues to investigate the full range of issues associated with consumers' cognitions--the way individuals acquire, process, and use product information. In an effort to further enrich the discipline, there has been a movement to study consumer behavior as a function of the context in which it occurs (Bell: 1975, Nicosia and Mayer 1976, Zaltman and Wallendorf 1977, Zaltman and Wallendorf 1983). More recently, this interest in context has concentrated on the effects of cultural factors on a wide range of consumer cognitions and behaviors (Desphande, Hoyer, and Donthu 1986, Hirschman 1981, Hirschman 1983, Sherry 1986, Tan and Farley 1987, Wallendorf and Reilly 1983).

A particular issue which transcends all of these streams of research concerns the knowledge and beliefs which are acquired, processed, and used in consumption contexts. Both the anthropology literature (e.g., D'Andrade 1981, Quinn and Holland 1986, Wolcott 1982) as well as that from consumer behavior (e.g., McCracken 1986, Mick 1986) posit that the knowledge held by individuals is often culturally influenced. Yet clearly the acquisition of knowledge can only occur at an individual level, making such processes innately cognitive. Hence, studying knowledge may best be facilitated when a "cultural approach to cognition" is used that is, when individuals' cognitive processes are examined in a specific sociocultural context.

In this paper we will introduce a new perspective for consumer research which seeks to combine the rich illustrative view a cultural perspective provides while acknowledging the restrictions and generative capacity of individual cognitive systems. This view, more formally called a cognitive anthropological perspective, synthesizes both cognitive and cultural aspects of consumer behavior. We will first distinguish cognitive anthropological theory and methods from other ways of looking at consumer behavior, and then illustrate how such a program of inquiry will facilitate our understanding of the knowledge held and shared by individuals. Specific consumer research areas where a cognitive anthropology perspective can provide substantive insights will be discussed.


The foundation of cognitive anthropology is the notion that cultures are seen as systems of knowledge. According to Goodenough (1981), a society's culture represents "what one has to know, or profess to believe, in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members in every role that they accept for any one of themselves" (p. 109). That the study of culture cannot be separated from individual mental processes is seen by Keesing (1981) as a central tenet of culture theory. In cognitive anthropology, the structure of cultural systems is created, shaped, and constrained by what individuals can think, imagine, and learn. Therefore, to understand cultures, one must be aware of both the content and structure of the knowledge which is learned by members of the community (Goodenough 1957).

Knowledge, or understanding, is related to experience, and not every member of a society has an equal opportunity to experience or learn all of the information possessed cumulatively by the group. Thus, .different individuals will possess varying levels of "cultural expertise," causing intracultural variation with respect to information shared by the group (c.f., Boster 1986, Garro 1986, Pelto and Pelto 1975, Romney, Weller, and Batchelder 1986). As such, patterns of information agreement and disagreement can provide valuable insights into culture. Therefore, from a cognitive anthropology perspective, understanding culture can best be accomplished by looking at cultural knowledge as it is distributed within a societal system, taking into account the variation among individuals' and groups of individuals knowledge of and their vantage points on culture (Keesing 1987, p. 371).

Cognitive anthropology, then, studies communities in a natural setting which are comprised of the collection of individual cognitive processes. Inquiry seeks to discover and understand those elements of individual belief systems and world views which pervade a social group. Such studies are conducted by synthesizing the individual-level, context-free view of the human information processing system espoused by cognitive psychology with the context-steeped, group-level perspective of sociocultural systems espoused by cultural anthropology. The following sections more clearly delineate the theoretical and methodological positions inherent in cognitive anthropology by comparing this perspective to two other commonly evoked views of consumer research: the interpretive, symbolic view of cultural anthropology and cognitive psychology.

Cognitive Anthropology and the Interpretive, Symbolic View of Cultural Anthropology

One theory of culture which has received attention in consumer research (c.f., Mick 1986, Sherry 1986) is the view espoused by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Geertz (1973, 1983) views culture as semiotic, with the key to cultural understanding being the development of "thick descriptions" constructed through the interpretation of behavior and artifacts which symbolize and characterize a community or society (Keesing 1981, p. 4849). In this view, culture is interpreted to be the public symbols and public meaning shared by members of a community (e.g., the Balinese cockfight).

The cognitive view of culture can be compared to the interpretive view on four dimensions: conceptual strategy, research domain, locus of analysis, and methodological approaches. The conceptual strategy for both fields of anthropology is at the group level. As both are perspectives on how culture should be conceptualized and studied, they are oriented toward understanding how sociocultural systems develop and change (Keesing 1981). Thus, for example, both the cognitive and interpretive views of anthropology would be interested in developing an understanding of Balinese or any other culture.

The research domain of study is markedly different between the two. In the interpretive view, the research domain consists of the behaviors and artifacts experienced by people in a community. These things are viewed as public symbols constituting the cultural meaning system of the community. In cognitive anthropology, on the other hand, the key to understanding culture centers around the body of knowledge and beliefs possessed by people in a community. Such knowledge and beliefs are seen as the criteria used by individuals to attribute value to experiences, discern artifacts and attribute meaning to them, and decide how to accomplish their goals (Quinn and Holland 1986). Hence, while the interpretive view strives to understand Balinese culture by searching for the symbolic content of the Balinese cockfight (Geertz 1973), the cognitive anthropologist tries to understand the Aguaruna culture by searching for patterns of agreement among cultivators' classification systems of manioc vegetation varieties (Boster 1986).

The locus of analysis used to understand culture differs as well. In the interpretive view, the focus is on the symbolic nature of behaviors and artifacts, such as the cockfight, which are publicly displayed and held in consensus by the community. [We acknowledge that Geertz uses individuals in his research as sources of cultural information. However, his goal is to understand the public meaning of culture that members share rather than seeking to understand the knowledge and beliefs held by individuals and the variations therein as does the cognitive anthropologist.] In cognitive anthropology, the focus is on group members' knowledge and beliefs. This focus reflects a central tenet of cognitive anthropology which is that culture is actually constituted in the minds of individual members. This perspective is similar to the interpretive view in that it is concerned with culturally significant phenomenon. However, their point of departure is that cognitive anthropologists will seek to discover the structure and content of member's knowledge of the phenomenon, whereas the interpretivist investigates the phenomenon's symbolic content.

In addition to these substantive differences, there are methodological differences as well. In both fields, naturalistic inquiry (Lincoln and Guba 1985) is conducted, typically consisting of ethnographic fieldwork and depth interviews. Both perspectives use these techniques to familiarize themselves with the culture and to determine what aspects of the culture are particularly salient to the sociocultural system. The interpretive view then uses participant observation and key informant interviews to arrive at the shared symbolic content and meaning of the cultures' salient behaviors and artifacts. However, the cognitive anthropologist, by using field experiments (conducted on representative samples of community members) and structured data collection tasks which are analyzed through statistical tools, attempts to explain how such phenomena are represented in the minds of community members (c.f., Burton--1973, Romney, Weller, and Batchelder 1986) [Here the phrase "structured data collection tasks" is used to refer to the respondent being asked to perform a set of procedures, e.g., a sorting or identification task. Such procedures typically yield quantitative data which is used to assess individuals' knowledge content and structure. The interpretive view, in its adherence to a naturalistic mode of inquiry, may be equally structured; however, data are usually collected in the form of observations and thus are typically qualitative in nature. Certainly, ethnography may involve the use of quantitative data, although traditionally this has not been the case.]. Researchers then use their ethnographic base to interpret these experimental findings. Hence, the cognitive anthropologist trades off a continuation of rich ethnographic fieldwork for experimental research in their pursuit of cultural understanding.

Cognitive Anthropology and Cognitive Psychology

Since the field of cognitive psychology has played a major role in the development of the field of consumer behavior, a review of its basic tenets is not germane here (the interested reader is referred to Bettman 1979, Engel, Blackwell, and Miniard 1986). However, it is meaningful to contrast cognitive anthropology with cognitive psychology along the same four dimensions used above.

In cognitive psychology, the conceptual strategy and research domain are concerned with uncovering the mechanics of individual processing systems which are generalizable to all individuals, e.g., knowledge structures, attitude and belief formation, information processing (c.f., McGuire 1976, Hansen 1976). In cognitive anthropology, the conceptual strategy is oriented toward the group rather than the individual, and yet, like cognitive psychology, it is concerned with knowledge structures and attitude and belief formation. Thus, when studying a topic such as categorization, the cognitive psychology orientation focuses on a set of individuals and attempts to generalize to a greater population. On the other hand, the cognitive anthropology perspective would be oriented toward understanding the cognitions of individual group members and using the information as a means of interpreting the sociocultural system. [Although the cognitive psychologist may focus on particular populations in their research (e.g., children, housewives), they do not tend to do so from a sociocultural perspective as does the anthropologist.]

Both cognitive anthropology and cognitive psychology share the same locus of analysis--the content and structure of individual cognitive systems. However, there are two very important differences between cognitive anthropology and cognitive psychology along this dimension. First, they differ in the kinds of questions they pose regarding the manner in which cultural information is processed. As D'Andrade (1981) notes:

the cognitive psychologist wants to know how the machinery of the brain works on all types of information, including cultural information, while the cultural anthropologist wants to know how cultural information is constrained and shaped by the way the brain processes information (p. 182)

and, we might add, by the individual's unique perspective on the information.

The second important difference concerning the individual locus of analysis is that cognitive anthropology aggregates individual differences by the culture or subculture being studied. [A subculture is defined by Jorgenson (1979) as any group of people who, while sharing some traits in common with the surrounding culture (e.g., language), may be differentiated from it by their beliefs, symbols, and/or material artifacts.]

Cognitive psychologists, on the other hand, take individual-level responses and aggregate them without concern for the cultural content of the responses. Similarly, consumer researchers often take individual-level responses and aggregate them according to demographic or geographic dimensions again without concern for cultural content (e.g., Tan and Farley 1987, Tan and McCullough 1985). Interestingly, when cultural knowledge and beliefs are not segregated to a particular location, patterns may be identified in groups not traditionally associated with their presence (e.g., Ellis et al. 1985, for a discussion of Chineseness in the Southwestern United States). As such, it seems clear that our traditional concern with demographic, psychographic, and geographic indicators of consumer cognitions and behaviors could be complemented with an understanding of consumers' cultural meaning systems (i.e., by studying groups that are aggregated and segmented according to learned knowledge, beliefs, and world views in addition to variables such as age, income, lifestyles, and areas of habitation).

Finally, the methodological approaches are notably different. In cognitive psychology, most descriptive work is experimental in nature. In cognitive anthropology, field experiments have been used, although structured data collection tasks (See note 3) are more frequently conducted. In addition, ethnographic or naturalistic inquiry is performed infrequently in cognitive psychology, whereas in cognitive anthropology, such accounts are typically utilized as described previously. A summary of the ways in which cognitive anthropology contrasts with the interpretive view and cognitive psychology appears in Exhibit 1.


The paradigm of cognitive anthropology outlined above represents a rich alternative to entirely individual or solely group level understandings of consumer behavior. In fact, it seems to accent positive features of the other approaches while eliminating some of their key limitations. Cognitive anthropology values individual cognitions and attempts to capture their structures and content using many of the highly replicable and empirical techniques employed in cognitive psychology. Cognitive anthropology complements and grounds this work by investigating the cultural context of cognitions and by relying on the more subjective and highly interpretive fieldwork techniques from cultural anthropology. However, eliminated is the tendency of cognitive psychology to use samples that are not easily aggregated with respect to shared knowledge and beliefs and the interpretive view's reliance on key informants to understand the cultural system which fails to uncover the rich variation in members' knowledge and beliefs which may constitute the culture. As a result, this paradigm can be seen as providing both highly reliable and highly valid insights.

In addition, the cognitive anthropology paradigm allows a dialectical process of inquiry to unfold, as the researcher can move the analysis freely between the group and the individual. Rowan and Reason (1981) argue that individuals understand and make sense of their world by acting, reflecting on, and interpreting both the present and the past, and the self and its place within a culture. So can the researcher move in a hermeneutic circle to capture the cultural reality derived from the meanings associated with the individuals as a part of the sociocultural system and the sociocultural system comprised of individual meanings. Exhibit 2 illustrates how an ongoing understanding and interpretation of the cultural reality can be achieved as one moves dialectically between the individual and sociocultural system.

This view of culture is consistent with Sherry's (1986) position that culture is both constituted and constituting. It is constituted or composed of a body of meaning that assists group members in their derivation of what is, what can be, how they feel about it, what they can do about it, and how they should go about doing whatever they have decided to do (Goodenough 1963, p. 258-9). It is constituting because it is being ever created and changed by an influx of individuality, the cross-fertilization of cultural meaning systems, and the injection of technology, marketing, and other agents of social change (c.f., Hirschman 1986, Moorman 1987).


We have shown that cultures have a unique system for perceiving and organizing material phenomena-things, events, behavior, and emotions (Goodenough 1957) and that the object of cognitive anthropology is not these material phenomena, but the way they are organized in the minds of people. . . cognitive organizations of material phenomena (Tyler 1969, p. 3). Thus, culture can be viewed as an information pool which emerges when individuals in a community attempt to make sense of the world and each other (Boster 1986, D'Andrade 1981). In addition, the knowledge contained in the information pool must be intersubjectively shared by all members of the sociocultural system (D'Andrade 1987). Intersubjective sharing makes certain facts of the world seem obvious (e.g., a pitch thrown over the catcher's head is a ball) and limits the amount of information that must be made explicit (i.e., the fourth "ball" thrown to the batter when the bases are loaded implies, without need for explication, that a run has scored). Thus, community members are able to convey, often implicitly, information that is rich with intersubjective (culturally shared) meanings (Roth 1987, Taylor 1971).



These meaning systems are explicitly and implicitly transmitted to new cultural members so they too can participate in the world view (Spindler 1973, Schwartz 1981). In the transmission, intersubjective meanings are shaped by individual circumstances, histories, and interpretations (Kessing 1987). For example, in Western culture we conceive of price as the value a seller requests for exchanging ownership of a product. We may also intersubjectively share the belief that a certain good is priced highly. However, the interpretation of a price level might include very different individual, subjective realities, e.g., high price-high quality, high price-rip off, high price-high status. As a result, the content of culture is also a product of human learning--the ways in which people organize their experiences. This is an interesting twist to our typical understanding of culture and knowledge structures in consumer research. Generally, we neglect to inspect the cultural content of knowledge and assume away its presence in our analysis. Moreover, we also fail to investigate the fact that the content of culture is also a product of learning. In a cognitive anthropology perspective, individual motivations, abilities, and opportunities to learn affect the knowledge members acquire which in turn shapes the content of culture. A failure to appreciate these considerations results in a very homogeneous view of culture--one that fails to account for intracultural variation and its important contribution to understanding the evolution and adaptation of cultural meaning systems. The remainder of this section discusses intracultural variation and the rich repercussions it has for the methods we adopt and the questions we ask in consumer research. Others have argued that the analysis of culture from a cognitive perspective should deal with the issue of intracultural variation (Dougherty and Keller 1982, Furbee and Benfer 1983, Garro 1986, Matthews 1983, Pelto and Pelto 1975, Sankoff 1971). Pelto and Pelto (1975) call for a more heterogeneous view of culture, warning anthropologists and other social scientists about the dangers of generalizing from single informants and of aggregating members of a culture without comparing the extent to which intracultural and situational variation are expressed in their classificatory systems. In consumer research, we generally fall victim to the latter pitfall.

In this paper, we are interested in the organization of intracultural diversity. By this we mean the extent to which cognitive maps are shared, which aspects of them are not shared, and how this varies from individual to individual (Sankoff 1971). We are interested in the organization of intracultural variation for a variety of important reasons. One key reason is that we feel consumer researchers may lose an abundance of crucial information about cultural occurrences such as influence, sharing, and transmission by failing to compare individual cognitive maps of cultural phenomena. In other words, one result of this perspective is that it can contribute to our understanding of the acquisition and transmission of culture as an individual process (Matthews 1983). Failure to account for individual differences has led us to ignore the fact that there may be patterning in individual variation and that such patterning may ultimately provide us with important information about just which aspects of cultural systems are shared and how such sharing occurs (Hays 1976).

Many studies have, in fact, found patterns to variations in cultural knowledge. For example, Boster (1986) assessed differences among individual Aguaruna informants in terms of their knowledge of manioc plants, i.e., their ability to identify different species. He found that although there is a single model of identification, there are deviations from this model according to the sexual division of labor, membership in kin and residual groups, and individual expertise. Likewise, Garro (1986) found that Tarascan curers and noncurers did not differ in their abilities to evaluate symptoms as indicators of illnesses; however curers did share a specific body of knowledge learned through experience in treating disease not shared by noncurers. These variations in cultural knowledge may be of theoretical interest because similarities and differences in belief systems of cultivators and hunters, physicians and their patients, and marketers and their customers are likely to affect how maniocs, medical treatments, and products are perceived and utilized.

In consumer research, we may investigate the extent to which consumer cognitions or behavior vary within a population or culture, however we often fail a cognitive anthropological investigation of intracultural variation in two important respects. First, we rarely investigate truly "cultural phenomena." Boster (1985) states that "in studying variation, it is essential to investigate what is important to the informant, not just what is important to the (researcher)" (p. 179). Recently, consumer researchers have tried to investigate activities and things important to consumers (Belk 1987, Wallendorf and Arnould 1988). Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton's (1978) work investigating the meaning of household objects is another good example of this orientation. Second, when looking at cultural aspects of consumer behavior, we generally collect information about preferences, attitudes, or consumption behaviors (e.g., Tan and Farley 1987, Wallendorf and Reilly 1983) but have not been interested in how cultural phenomena are classified depending on individual factors or consumption contexts and their patterns within the culture. Clearly, all of these aspects of consumer research (i.e., attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and knowledge classification systems) are relevant to our understanding of culture's impact on consumption.

Understanding and explaining the patterns in cognitive views of cultural phenomena is a very important activity--one that could benefit consumer researchers. This richness may help researchers conceive of a variety of conceptualizations that consumers hold of material phenomena, understand how these conceptions are shared or patterned in cultures, and discover why members of a culture appear to respond to marketplace phenomena differently. One particular application of the cognitive anthropological research on variations in medical knowledge could be in the area of planned change when opinion leaders may be targeted as the disseminators of an innovation. If opinion leaders hold conceptions of the innovation that are incompatible with the remainder of the culture, their influence may be limited. In a recent study, Gilly and Zeithaml (1985) failed to consider individual cognitive variations in elderly views of technologies, acknowledging only that compared to the non-elderly, the elderly were in almost all cases slower to adopt new technologies. A cognitive anthropological view of intracultural variations may have suggested a richer view of the adoption process. We feel it is fair to suggest that by understanding how such patterns of intracultural variation arise, we can better understand both the culture's meaning systems and the flow of material goods through the culture (Sherry 1986, McCracken 1986).

Another reason to look at intracultural variation is use knowledge of the causes of variations in a predictive sense to guide the development of testable hypotheses or to manage the consumption patterns within a culture. For example, members of a bicycle club may vary in their beliefs about the value of after-market components depending on the types of riding they do. If we discover that competitive racers think Italian tires perform best in racing conditions, we could use this information to test a specific prediction about the way tires are perceived by other racers. In such a manner, informant characteristics (i.e., type of riding) can be used to test a specific prediction about the way knowledge is distributed. Moreover, understanding patterns of intracultural variation also facilitates the management of cultural phenomena. For example, the introduction of a new health care delivery system to a rural, non-western culture would be facilitated by an understanding of how health care givers and receivers perceive themselves, each other, and the content of their transaction. Understanding these perceptions will enable the innovation to be introduced and managed in such a way as to minimize the occurrence of cultural conflicts within the system.

Some studies have shown that cognitive classifications also tend to vary with the context or the task at hand. Matthews (1983) found that Oaxaca food classifications varied by the objective at hand, e.g., reinstating sex drives, balancing a meal. These and other findings (e.g., Dougherty and Keller 1982) have important consumer research implications. Although it has been suggested that consumer researchers need to pay attention to the situational characteristics in which consumer behavior occurs, it has not been suggested that researchers look at how cognitive classifications tend to vary with the context. An important-finding from Matthews (1983) is that context affected both the classifications of objects, in this case foods, as well as the particular defining attributes utilized to make such classifications. For example, the manner in which a man classifies automobiles may vary with the type of cultural criteria he evokes. When thinking about purchasing a new car, the defining attributes used when his wife is present may be economy, roominess, and storage capacity; however, when with rugby team members, sportiness, high performance, and color may become the defining attributes. By capturing this variation, we can better understand why and under what conditions people make consumption decisions. To suggest that determinant attributes vary by context is an interesting question for future research.

Obviously not all cultural phenomena have revealing patterns. However, by overlooking this particular source of information, we may be missing out on insights into why groups function as they do, why they maintain certain meaning systems, and why they divest themselves of other meaning systems. Pelto and Pelto (1975) argue that we should begin with the assumption of cultural heterogeneity, attempt to get these fundamental micro-processes under theoretical control, and then move to group assertions. For example, Saegert, Hoover, and Hilger (1985) make sweeping generalizations about Mexican American consumers' brand loyalty, patronage at familiar stores, and price consciousness without considering either within cultural variation or the cognitive maps members hold of cultural phenomena Accounting for intracultural variation (e.g., empirically observing strong and weak Hispanic identifiers) appears to solve many questions we have about the meaning systems of various cultures (Deshpande, Hoyer and Donthu 1986).


The cognitive anthropological view is attractive to a variety of consumer research domains. One particularly interesting area of application for a cognitive anthropological perspective is in the study of interpersonal influences. Past studies have attempted to determine the extent to which different types of reference group influences affect product and brand choices (Park and Lessig 1977) and privately and publicly consumed products (Bearden and Etzel 1982). This perspective has been enriched recently by the application of social network analysis which suggests that interpersonal relations vary depending on the structure and content of the relation (Reingen et al. 1984). Cognitive anthropology could supplement our understanding of groups or networks in an important way.

If, for example, we wanted to investigate patterns of influence within a college fraternity, it would be necessary to focus on product categories which are particularly salient for group membership (e.g., music, beer, sports, and other recreation activities). [Focusing on product categories which are salient for group membership is consistent with Reingen et al.'s (1984) findings that brand congruence and referent influence are not necessarily associated with product conspicuousness (i.e., products that appear to be important to the group because they are publicly displayed)] A cognitive anthropology perspective would insist that researchers collect data about the individual fraternity members cognitions of these cultural phenomena. Specifically, they could ask members what music means to-them and have them categorize, for example, different types of music, performers, and radio stations. Moreover, members might also be asked to make attributions about other members' tastes and preferences regarding these phenomena. These data would then be analyzed and mapped to reflect individuals' knowledge and beliefs about the cultural phenomena and how they perceive one another's knowledge and beliefs about these phenomena. This information would identify patterns of convergence and variations in shared knowledge. Used in conjunction with data on the sources, processes, and settings of information exchange, these patterns should reveal whether members that share similar conceptions of music influence one another, the extent to which dissimilar members influence one another, and why certain patterns of influence evolve or fail to evolve in the fraternity.

A cognitive anthropological view may also shed some light on patterns of informal marketing communications (e.g., word of mouth) within a culture. By understanding individual differences in amounts and types cultural knowledge, consumer research may be able to better understand the evolution of patterns of communications. Recently, Feick and Price (1987) identified market mavens as consumers who have and are willing to share information about many kinds of products, places to shop, and other facets of the market with others and suggested that market mavens may be a unique source of referrals and influence for other consumers. However, from a cognitive anthropology perspective, this analysis is incomplete. To truly understand the presence of market mavens, we must investigate the effect they have on other people's behavior, e.g., use of maven-provided information, search for additional information, and the development of purchase criteria or determinants. By focusing on the sociocultural system and understanding the cognitive maps members have of the maven as a cultural resource of market information, researchers may develop insights into maven effectiveness, i.e., when and in what ways maven resources are used. A cognitive anthropology perspective enables consumer researchers to analyze patterns of convergence and variation in product information seeking, sharing, and utilization which pervade the group.

A cognitive anthropological perspective may also have implications for the way we formulate and model consumer acquisition, encoding and categorization processes. Cohen and Basu (1987) have recently advanced a contingent processing formulation which acknowledges that the categorization of products can be shaped by specific learning histories of individuals and the contextual influences of both choice and consumption environments (p. 462). In other words, where, how, and under what conditions consumers learn about products and in what contexts they will evaluate, choose, and use the products are keys to understanding how such products are categorized in the mind. By acknowledging the automaticity with which cultural models and meanings are invoked by consumers and yet recognizing the individual-level interpretations and histories we bring to the process, a cognitive anthropological framework complements the advances inherent in the contingency processing framework.


The field of cognitive anthropology was explored as a means of increasing our understanding of current issues in consumer research. Cognitive anthropology was shown to possess a rich body of literature and to differ significantly from the symbolic, interpretive view of culture as well as from cognitive psychology. By studying communities in a natural setting using the analysis of individuals' knowledge and beliefs, a unique perspective which merges both culture and cognition has been shown to offer new insights relevant to the study of consumer behavior. One particularly interesting insight involved identifying and explaining intracultural and situational variation expressed in classificatory systems of a sociocultural systems' members. This perspective was also shown to offer theoretical and methodological insights into such topics as reference groups and other forms of interpersonal influence, diffusion of knowledge and innovations and more generally, the management of culture, and explains the failure of past cultural studies to generate a clear picture of the effects of culture on marketplace activities.


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Martin S. Roth, University of Pittsburgh
Christine Moorman, University of Pittsburgh


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15 | 1988

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