The body as a cognitive artifact in kinship representations: Hand gesture diagrams by speakers of Lao
Enfield, N. J.
The body as a cognitive artifact in kinship representations: Hand gesture diagrams by speakers of Lao. Current Anthropology, 46
Central to cultural, social, and conceptual life are cognitive arti-facts, the perceptible structures which populate our world and mediate our navigation of it, complementing, enhancing, and altering available affordances for the problem-solving challenges of everyday life. Much work in this domain has concentrated on technological artifacts, especially manual tools and devices and the conceptual and communicative tools of literacy and diagrams. Recent research on hand gestures and other bodily movements which occur during speech shows that the human body serves a number of the functions of "cognitive technologies," affording the special cognitive advantages claimed to be associated exclusively with enduring (e.g., printed or drawn) diagrammatic representations. The issue is explored with reference to extensive data from video-recorded interviews with speakers of Lao in Vientiane, Laos, which show integration of verbal descriptions with complex spatial representations akin to diagrams. The study has implications both for research on cognitive artifacts (namely, that the body is a visuospatial representational resource not to be overlooked) and for research on ethnogenealogical knowledge (namely, that hand gestures reveal speakers' conceptualizations of kinship structure which are of a different nature to and not necessarily retrievable from the accompanying linguistic code).