UConn HomeThe UConn Advance
Send a printer-friendly page to my printer 
Email a link to this page.

Cultural anthropologists need quantitative training, says professor

by Cindy Weiss - November 6, 2006

Roy D'Andrade graduated nearly 50 years ago, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.

It was in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that he first studied anthropology and conducted research as an undergraduate.

He arrived in Storrs as a sophomore in 1954, after spending his freshman year at Rutgers and serving time in the Army.

At UConn, he took courses in what was then a combined sociology/anthropology department, where anthropology professor Melford Spiro inspired the direction of his career.

It has been a career marked with honors. D'Andrade, who returned to UConn in 2003 as a professor of anthropology, is the only full-time faculty member at Storrs elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

He has collected a lifetime achievement award from the Society for Psychological Anthropology and a Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Chicago, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He also served three terms as anthropology department chairman at the University of California at San Diego, and was department chairman at Rutgers.

D'Andrade was one of the first scholars in the field of cognitive anthropology, which he describes as the study of how much cultural knowledge people have and how it is stored. He is one of the few cultural anthropologists to base his work on quantitative analysis.

As a scientifically oriented anthropologist, he has been critical of post-Vietnam-era mainstream anthropology, which he feels is more interested in political agendas than in finding out about the world.

He believes that not enough cultural anthropologists are receiving quantitative training: "Relatively few cultural anthropologists understand statistics or quantitative methods," he says.

Almost no intact tribal societies are left now for anthropologists to study, D'Andrade says. Anthropology has lost its primary object of study and has yet to find a new direction.

"What's going to happen to the field, I couldn't tell you," he says.

His own contributions in cognitive anthropology are reflected in a steady stream of papers written since he earned a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1962.

Their titles vary from the plain language of, "It's not really red, green, yellow, and blue: an inquiry into perceptual color space," to the highly specialized: "The distribution of response spectra in the lateral geniculate nucleus compared with reflectance spectra of Munsell color chips."

His topics have included the absence of fathers and its effect on identification and identity; memory and behavior assessment; beliefs about illness, abortion, and welfare; an analysis of chimpanzee and human mitochondrial DNA; emotion and color; and cultural Darwinism.

D'Andrade has conducted field research in Mexico, Nigeria, and Ghana, and has studied the cultural orientation and attitudes of Americans, Vietnamese, and Japanese.

He was a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, and collaborated with a scientist at Bell Labs.

What launched him into cognitive anthropology was collaborating when he was an assistant professor at Stanford with A.K. Romney, who also liked to work with numbers.

They developed a series of simple tests to determine how Americans understand the structure of English kin terms.

It was one of the first anthropological studies to use quantitative methods taken from psychology to find out how cultural materials are organized.

"I don't even know when we began to speak of ourselves as cognitive anthropologists," he says.

Professor Roy D’Andrade, one of the first cognitive anthropologists.
Photo by Jordan Bender

Cognition was the new agenda in psychology in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the shift from a behaviorist approach happened across a variety of fields, he notes.

D'Andrade's work has revolved around the idea that "a lot of what people understand about the world is shaped by their culture, particularly the way it passes through language."

He uses psychological methods to find and define what he calls cultural models, or cultural schemas.

An example would be differences in the way Americans and Mexicans understand disease.

He wrote a widely cited paper about this in 1972, analyzing the problem through a computer program he wrote, trying to simulate people's reasoning about the relationship between symptoms and diseases.

He continues to study the relationship between cultural schemas and reasoning.

An undergraduate, for example, can solve a problem easily if it involves a well understood cultural schema, but not if it consists of arbitrary material, he says.

Reasoning brings into play a person's stock of the cultural models they have learned.

"In simple terms, culture makes you smart," he once wrote.

Not all cognitive anthropologists rely on quantitative techniques, using instead informal interviews to elicit information about emotions, values, and motivation, for instance. Such work can also be successful, he says.

His own current work is on values, the subject of his latest book, which will be part of a Society for Psychological Anthropology series.

His study shows that differences in personal values across different societies are surprisingly small.

"The personal values of my Japanese sample were hardly more collectivistic (versus individualistic) than my American sample," he says.

But the norms of many Japanese roles are much more collectivistic.

People may share similar values but don't see themselves as similar because the cultural norms that are associated with the values are different, he found.

Both Japanese and Americans value independence for children in day care, for example, but differ dramatically in the ways they try to help children achieve it.

"Many of our political debates are about what values attach to, not about the values themselves," he says. "What hooks on to the same values can be hugely different."

D'Andrade is also interested in the problem of value congruity - what happens if your personal values do not fit the values associated with the roles you assume, such as being a mother, an undergraduate, or a member of the military.

D'Andrade says anthropology has provided him with the chance to find out about the world. "It's been intellectually exciting," he says. "It still is."

ADVANCE HOME         UCONN HOME The UConn Advance
© University of Connecticut
Disclaimers, Privacy, & Copyright
EMail the Editor        Text only