The Cultural Mind:

Environmental Decision Making and Cultural Modeling

Within and Across Populations

Scott Atran



5. The Grammar of Culture. In anthropology, there is a long tradition of considering

culture along the lines of language, that is, as being a rule-bound system with its own

“grammar.” This view of culture is most strongly associated with the “structuralist” school of

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1963) in France and Mary Douglas (1970) and Edmund Leach (1976) in

Great Britain. On this account the bewildering variety of social phenomena and cultural

productions are variations generated from a universal structure of the mind (a grammar of

culture), which allows people to make sense of the world by superimposing a structure based on

a few underlying principles. The structuralist’s task is to gather as many variations as possible of

some grammatical subsystem of culture (e.g., myth, kinship) in order to identify the most


fundamentally meaningful components in the sub-system, and to discern the structure through

the observation of patterning. Following the linguistic theory of Ferdinand Saussure in which

phonemes (the smallest unit of linguistic meaning) are understood in contrast to other phonemes,

structural anthropologists argued that the fundamental patterns of human thought are also based

on a system of “binary contrasts” to produce more elaborate systems of cultural meaning.4

Structural anthropology had little knowledge of the theories of cognitive architecture

developed over the last few decades by cognitive and developmental psychologists,

neuropsychologists or generative linguists. The fundamental properties attributed to the human

mind, such as “binary contrast,” were few and simple-minded (or so general and vague as to be

applicable willy-nilly to any phenomena at all).5 This is not to deny the insights that structural

anthropologists garnered into the relationships between different aspects of cultural life within

and across populations (e.g., linking myth, kinship, folkbiology, hunting and cooking practices,

residential architecture, etc.). Instead, it is only to deny that structuralist theories provide any

principled causal explanation concerning how these relationships might have come about.

More current anthropological views of the grammar of culture are less committed to a

specific theory of the cognitive architecture responsible for cultural productions than to the belief

that culture consists of a bounded set of rule-bound systems, each with its own grammar-like

structure. A more recent work in linguistic anthropology describes the “culture as grammar”

view as follows:

to be part of a culture means to share the propositional knowledge and the rules of

inference necessary to understand whether certain propositions are true (given certain

premises). To the propositional knowledge, one might add the procedural knowledge to

carry out tasks such as cooking, weaving, farming, fishing, giving a formal speech,


answering the phone, asking for a favor, writing a letter for a job application. (Duranti,


Anthropology, then, is the discipline of “writing” the grammar of culture (Keesing,

1972:302). From this perspective, it seems that virtually any patterned activity that numbers of

people share in can be considered “grammatical,” from pottery making to story telling. For

example, “religion belongs to the elementary grammar of culture” (Kannengeiser 1995; cf.

Lawson & McCauley 1990). But there may be nothing interestingly “grammatical” (generated by

few and finite rules) about how various cognitive systems link up together to make up “religion”

(Atran, 2002; Atran & Norenzayan, in press) or “science” (Atran 1990; Atran 1998) or “culture.”