How people are socialised into cultures –
cultural ontogeny – is a vital part of cultural reproduction and adaptation, since people only function as effective actors in their societies if they have been taught the values, language(s), cognitive outlooks and technological practices that characterise them, and have been socialised into the local social network.
Changes in socialisation are also the main point at which the effects of contact and innovation enter into the system. Yet comparative studies of cultural ontogeny lag way behind those that compare adult practices – research on child development has been historically skewed towards studies of WEIRD populations. In anthropology, few questions in the Ethnographic Atlas, the Binford Hunter-Gatherer Data Set, or in D-Place address ontogenetic issues.
This theme investigates the developmental processes that both enable and constrain individual cultural adaptation. Humans are a symbolic species, and while our capacity for symbolic representation is universal, children are enculturated into and acquire culturally-specific symbolic systems (e.g., language, religious practices). We will study the developmental roots of symbolic cognition across our diverse region, using a mixed-methods approach that aims to achieve both depth and breadth of coverage.
To this end, we propose several sub-projects. The first sub-project will focus on the development of language, the dominant symbolic system used by humans. Here we will conduct in-depth studies of language acquisition and socialization in strategically selected cultural groups, in addition to broader but necessarily less detailed studies across a wider range of languages and cultures. The second sub-project will focus on children’s first unambiguous demonstration of symbolic capacity – symbolic play (i.e., pretence, such as pretending a rock is an apple). Like language, symbolic play appears to be universal, and there are suggestions that the practice has played a significant role in cultural and linguistic evolution. We will conduct the most comprehensive cross-cultural study of the emergence of symbolic play to date. Finally, we will investigate another complex trait – relational cognition – how children come to understand complex mappings between symbols that are both universal (e.g., the relationship of duck to duckling is the same as tiger to cub) and culturally specific (e.g., human kin relations). A crucial feature of this strand will be leveraging recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) methods to quantify children’s everyday experience. We will a) continuously sample children’s day-to-day experience, b) filter and process the raw data and organize it into meaningful psychological units, such as interaction quantity and quality, and c) model change in cognitive processing in relation to these units.