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Notes on O’Brien and Shennan (2009) Issues in Anthropological Studies of Innovation

March 22, 2010

O’Brien, M.J. and Shennan, S.J., (eds.) 2009. Issues in Anthropological Studies of Innovation. In Innovation in Cultural Systems: Contributions from Evolutionary Anthropology. MIT Press.

3 Innovation not an easy term to define, anthros have struggled with it for over a century

5 At heart of cultural relatedness debates in C20 US archaeology were two contrasting processes: diffusion vs. independent invention.

5-6 Notion of ‘culture trait’ left unexplained most of C20. Anthros have however made insightful remarks about trait complexes, i.e. “groups of culture elements that are empirically found in association with each other” (Golbeck 1980). Important cos suggests ‘cultural phenomena may evolve as complex wholes, not as tiny parts’. Evolutionary analysis can’t make assumptions either way about whether innovation and change will be atomistic or holistic, must study this empirically.

6 At any rate must consider “emergent aspects” = ‘aspects that have irreducible novel properties’

6 All agreed that traits not genetic but learned. 7 But what is the unit of cultural transmission? Some modern memeticists have suggested that they have a physical nature akin to that of genes.

7 Perhaps social learning is “as accurate and stable a mechanism of inheritance as genes” (Boyd and Richerson 1985)

8 Because cultural transmission is exponentially faster and less faithful to original than biological transmission, ‘the transmission process itself can be a continuous creator of innovation’. Much more so than in biology. ‘tempo and mode can interact in cultural situations to create a new source of innovation and to create it at scales that may be both large and complex’ [see Manchester School as well as ICT domestication processual models, incl. Kapferer’s 2005 recent discussion of former].

In the social sciences there is a tendency to think of innovations as monolithic entities — the television set, ceramic cooking vessels, and the like. It might be useful, however, to remember that innovations are amalgams of units of varying scale that are linked functionally (and sometimes not [Shennan 2001; chapters 8 and 9, this volume]).

8 Innovations are like recipes, e.g. both materials (‘ingredients’) and behavioural rules (‘instructions’) are needed to make and use a tool. Cognitive psychologists suggest that people see tools as entailing scripts that govern how to construct and use them. Recipes are often culturally transmitted.

8-9 Why notion of recipe useful?
(1) can stand in for cultural trait
(2) people can reconfigure the ingredients and rules to create a new ‘recipe’
(3) this notion signals how flexible human praxis is and yet results in ‘a usable product’

9 Two Too much emphasis in existing models of cultural evolution on selection. Yes, selection is crucial but not necessarily the key to evolution, must also attend to how variation produced and passed on and on the effects on cultural evolution of that production and transmission.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 23, 2010 12:20 pm

    Re: RECIPES and PRACTICE THEORY, Cathy Greenhalgh writes:

    “Film-making contains much tacit practice which is beyond language and discourse. Much of it is learned by doing, through osmosis and intuition, habit and repetition. Recipes in cooking are theories of practice, but are used differently as the learner develops. They are a ‘set of instructions for designing action’ (Schön, 1983 : 147).

    (from Greenhalgh’s chapter in Bräuchler, B. and J. Postill (eds) in press, due Sep 2010. Theorising Media and Practice. Oxford and New York: Berghahn)

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