Sociological cognition


The research cluster explores the significance of the distributed view of language for the social sciences and, conversely, what the social sciences can contribute to embodied cognitive science. In the context of the distributed language group (DLG), this research cluster is a platform to integrate research between disciplines. The research cluster is open for all researchers and others who are interested in the interrelationship between cognition, interaction and long term cultural patterns. It thus invites collaboration from people who work, for instance, in the fields of sociology, anthropology, psychology, semiotics or cognitive science. The website is a place to share ideas, resources, and announcements concerning distributed or situated cognition. Researchers and students are invited to use these resources and, of course, add to them.


Individualistic approaches within sociological theory aim to explain social phenomena in terms of individual actions. Individuals preferences become the main independent variable in research. At first sight, this seems to open sociology to psycholinguistics. However, the actor models of the individualistic approach mostly rely a priori models of rational insight. The example of economic actor models serve as a prime role model. These models highlight preferences and operations based on preference ordering that are taken to model an agent’s mental representations of future states of the world. Preference generation depends on syntactic arrangements of ungrounded tokens.

However, empirical research cannot examine the independent variables. Disciplinary stop rules circumvent cross-disciplinary dialogue. For this reason, theories of agency as well as of language rely on folk psychology. In folk psychology, intention, mind and language are seen as brain-bound. This segregates the cognitive and social sciences. The focus of this research cluster is to overcome this artificial division.
In particular, the impact of language on social theory is greatly underexplored. This can be traced back to the reliance on brain bound models of symbol processing. However, in contemporary cognitive science this model is challenged by embodied and embedded models that build on neuroscientific evidence showing the implausiblity of this view. As brains manage perception and action, they do not need disembodied symbols. Unlike symbol processing, language arises as coordination between living bodies that make use of practices and artefacts of a changing social environment and cultural heritage. Cognition is dynamical, embodied, embedded, distributed and situated. This opens up a relational view on human agency. Thus, by emphasising the distributed view on language it becomes apparent that human agency is essentially social. While the individual might explain the social, as Durkheim saw, the social also explains the individual.

By opening the investigation of social agency to theoretically informed empirical research this research cluster should provide a platform for studies of how cognition, co-action and long term cultural patterns recursively generate each other. This enfolds research questions such as:

• How do biological humans self-construct as social actors and how is this affected by evolution, interaction and ontogenesis?
• What is the basic unit in-between culture, interaction and the body?
• A theoretical long term goal is to bring together research that allows to replace the micro-macro distinction by the study of the entanglement of diverse time-scales.

Of course, this view on social agency builds on a rich intellectual legacy. As seen by Hegel, Marx, Vygotsky, Mead, Cole and others, the individual is not the basic social unit. Early ideas that emphasise the ‘situated man’ can already be found in the philosophical anthropology of the first half of the 20th century, including authors such as von Uexküll, Scheler, Plessner or Gehlen. Likewise the socio-psychological approach as developed by Mead, and its influence on the interactionist programme as outlined by Goffman and others, have emphasised that the individual is always entangled in its social embedding. Wittgenstein’s idea of language games provides a profound milestone in linking language and action. In the philosophy of mind, we have built on Dennet’s notion of an intentional stance and Davidson’s considerations about the inseparability of language and thought. In the cognitive sciences, the enactivist programme as outlined by Varela and Maturana provides a scientific legacy to overcome a brain bound picture of mind.


Currently, we are developing a theoretical and empirical programme.
Theoretically, we investigate the relation between methodology and ontology to investigate the ontological foundations of methodological individualism. Agency and rationality, like language, are both collective and individual. For this purpose a conceptual framework is under development to integrate cognitive science, linguistics and sociology. This is elaborated by investigating developmental processes. For instance, long before mastering speech, infants discover how formats (e.g. nappy changing) can be used in pursuing their concerns. This relates to sociological actor models: Without real-time social interaction infants would not develop skills to become a rational man. Rationality is essentially a feature of language and real-time languaging which is essentially social.

Empirically, a project is to investigate the impact of fluid identities in ethnically mixed cultural heritages on processes of social integration and disintegration. This is calibrated at the example of the wars in former Yugoslavia: How have the Yugoslavian nations become regarded as an object under threat? Moreover, in Bosnia the religious community of the Muslims became a nation. This opens up the theoretical question: How do ethnic and cultural categories evolve?

Reading suggestions

Cowley SJ, Moodley S, Fiori-Cowley A (2004) Grounding Signs of Culture: primary intersubjectivity in social semiosis. Mind, Culture and Activity 11/2: 109-132.

Gilgenmann K, Schweitzer B (2006) Homo – sociologicus – sapiens. Zur evolutionstheoretischen Rekonstruktion soziologischer Menschenmodelle. Zeitschrift für Soziologe 35/5: 348-371.

Hilbert, R (1990) Ethnomethodology and the micro-macro order. American Sociological review 55: 794 – 808.

Hutchins, E. (1995) How a cockpit manages its speed. Cognitive Science 19: 265 – 288.

Keller, H., Hentschel, E., Yovsi, R. D., Abels, M., Lamm, B., & Haas, V. (2004). The psycho-linguistic embodiment of parental ethnotheories. A new avenue to understand cultural differences in parenting. Culture & Psychology 10/3: 293-330.

Major, JC. (2010) States of becoming. In: Cowley, S., Major, J.C., Steffensen, S. Dinis, A. (Eds.): Signifying Bodies. Biosemiotics, Interaction and Health: 101 – 118.

Maturana HR. (1978) Biology of language: The epistemology of reality. In: Miller GA, Lenneberg E (Eds.) Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought: Essays in Honor of Eric Lenneberg. Academic Press, New York, pp. 27-63.

Neumann, M (2008) Cognitive Architectures of normative agent systems and social mechanisms of emergence and immergence. In: Proceedings of the AISB Convention 2008, Aberdeen.

Opp, KD. Das individualistische Erklärungsprogramm in der Soziologie. Entwicklung, Stand und Probleme. Zeitschrift für Soziologie 38/1: 26 – 47
Tomasello M (1999) The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Cluster Coordinator: Martin Neumann |