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Cognition in the Wild

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Edwin Hutchins combines his background as an anthropologist and an open ocean racing sailor and navigator in this account of how anthropological methods can be combined with cognitive theory to produce a new reading of cognitive science. His theoretical insights are grounded in an extended analysis of ship navigation -- its computational basis, its historical roots, its social organization, and the details of its implementation in actual practice aboard large ships. The result is an unusual interdisciplinary approach to cognition in culturally constituted activities outside the laboratory -- "in the wild."

Hutchins examines a set of phenomena that have fallen in the cracks between the established disciplines of psychology and anthropology, bringing to light a new set of relationships between culture and cognition. The standard view is that culture affects the cognition of individuals. Hutchins argues instead that cultural activity systems have cognitive properties of their own that are different from the cognitive properties of the individuals who participate in them. Each action for bringing a large naval vessel into port, for example, is informed by culture: the navigation team can be seen as a cognitive and computational system.

Introducing Navy life and work on the bridge, Hutchins makes a clear distinction between the cognitive properties of an individual and the cognitive properties of a system. In striking contrast to the usual laboratory tasks of research in cognitive science, he applies the principal metaphor of cognitive science -- cognition as computation (adopting David Marr's paradigm) -- to the navigation task. After comparing modern Western navigation with the method practiced in Micronesia, Hutchins explores the computational and cognitive properties of systems that are larger than an individual. He then turns to an analysis of learning or change in the organization of cognitive systems at several scales. Hutchins's conclusion illustrates the costs of ignoring the cultural nature of cognition, pointing to the ways in which contemporary cognitive science can be transformed by new meanings and interpretations.

A Bradford Book

402 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1995

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Edwin Hutchins

6 books3 followers

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5 stars
73 (40%)
4 stars
70 (38%)
3 stars
29 (16%)
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4 (2%)
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5 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 16 of 16 reviews
68 reviews
September 4, 2010
Why is this book so good? The prose is solid, but rather workmanlike at times. Yet it is utterly a classic. At its core, Hutchins argues that we think in an environment -- that how we are not a computer that sits on its own, and interfaces with an environment. Instead, we are fundamentally a part of that environment. Moreover, a well-constructed environment can let us, as part of a team, think things we cannot individually thing. He develops this notion in terms of the way a navigating team, with its equipment, can do computations that no member of the team directs or does on their own. But the idea is really more general -- that a team can know things without any member of the team knowing it, a team can solve problems without any member of the team solving them, and the basic devices with which a team does it work is a fundamental part of the team's knowing and thinking -- and so better devices can lead to better thinking even without changing any of the individuals doing the thinking.
Profile Image for Amy.
22 reviews5 followers
July 9, 2008
I read this book for Professor Hutchins' class on distributed cognition, and I loved it. The reading takes seemingly ordinary events on a Naval Carrier and breaks them down to illustrate the ways in which cognition is not only in the brain but also situated in the world. Sometimes a bit one-sided, but an important book that will change the way you view the world.
Profile Image for aloveiz.
90 reviews10 followers
November 23, 2012
Fascinating analysis of navigation methods, and the neurocogntive structures they suggest. Compares Western, tool-dependent navigation to purely mentation based methods of tribal pacific islanders.
141 reviews7 followers
July 31, 2011
Pretty amazing phenomenological ethnography. Detailed, complicated, yet grounded in [bracketed] reality.
Profile Image for D Ding.
85 reviews
June 11, 2023
I'll give it a reluctant 4 star. I've read and liked the author's work in the 90s about mode management interfaces and analogue speed indicators and been wanting to read this book for some time. I appreciate the detailed ethnography of ship navigation and the connection with the incredible feats of Polynesian navigators, but honestly the book is way too long to communicate the essential messages. The latter chapters are especially difficult to get through without my attention constantly slipping away, and it became a chore to continue.
We need more (but not getting any) detailed ethnography studies and research into cognition with the environment and team work, but hopefully future authors will keep their work short and to the point. This is especially important for practising designers who need to know everything but don't have that much time to chase down all leads.
Profile Image for Fernando.
224 reviews
November 1, 2019
I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone at least he or she is really involved into applied psychology or cognition studies. The author is a qualified anthropologist and psychologist who got involved as ethnographer in an on duty U.S. navy vessel. His main study was to explore how "social cognition" and individuals are interrelated while navigating the seas. Assuming that complex tasks and decisions can not be made by a single individual, he tested "the individuals" separately into what he calls "the wild" which is the natural constructed environment. There's lots of technical description about navigation, computing and error testing. I found it amazing when he compared western navigation techniques with the traditional way finding in Micronesian islanders.
Profile Image for Andrew Hatch.
20 reviews1 follower
June 24, 2020
I am not a student of psychology or anthropology but I had high hopes for this book coming at it from wanting to know more about human cognition in the wild. However it was incredibly hard to read as the book goes into so much detail about nautical navigation that I found it really hard to get through. You seriously have to love and find this interesting and enthralling to get the most out of it

Can totally respect that other people would love it, unfortunately it just didn't hit the mark with me I hoped for
Profile Image for William O'Hanley.
60 reviews1 follower
October 1, 2022
"This ant seems to work so much more efficiently than did its ancestors of weeks ago. Is this a smart ant? Is it perhaps smarter than its ancestors? No, it is just the same dumb sort of ant, reacting to its environment in the same ways its ancestors did. But the environment is not the same. It is a cultural environment."

thought as material, ideas as artifacts, the great inheritance of knowledge. both humbling and inspiring
Profile Image for Stuart Macalpine.
240 reviews12 followers
January 24, 2016
I had seriously high expectations of this book, which realistically it was not going to meet... but it is a brilliant and imaginative ethnographic account of the nature of a 'cognitive ecosystem'.

The lengthy aside on how Micronesian navigators use 'imaginary, over-the-horizon islands' and the azimuth of groups of stars that form 'star lines' or a 'sidereal compass' to navigate for days out of sight of land to make landfall on extremely small atolls, is fascinating.

One of the most interesting and central ideas is related to the detailed ethnography of how navigators use their tools. A single statement encapsulates some of the thinking:

"Perhaps this should also give us a new meaning to the term "expert system". Clearly, a good deal of the expertise in the system is in the artefacts (both the external implements and internal strategies) -not in the sense that the artefacts are themselves intelligent or expert agents, or because the act of getting into coordination with the artefacts constitutes an expert performance by the person; rather, the system of person-in-interaction-with -technology-exhibits-expertise."

This could just as well be applied to the way that teachers use pedagogical tools (assessments, instructional techniques, classroom set ups etc. etc.) as it can be used with naval navigators, and is a quite brilliant perspective.

Overall the book is probably a bit techy unless you are really interested, but if you are... then it is a wonderful read and a worth addition to what we know about professional judgement and expertise.
Profile Image for Nic.
160 reviews4 followers
April 11, 2014
"Interesting, though a bit dry at times. While I agree with him that cognition certainly has external, social and cultural elements, I'm not really convinced that he has successfully argued against the conventional, internal, symbol-oriented view of cognition."
Profile Image for Matthew.
27 reviews1 follower
April 24, 2011
Great book, really makes you think about how we think.
27 reviews2 followers
January 14, 2014
Distributed cognition is something that many still can't wrap their heads around, and Hutchins work is what brought this way of thinking out of the shadows and gave it a name.
21 reviews5 followers
November 4, 2012
A nice ethnographic study of group cognition in the real world in real time.
Displaying 1 - 16 of 16 reviews

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