Ethnographic Perspectives on Culture Acquisition

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Contribution to Book


Courtney L. Mehan and Alyssa N. Crittenden


University of New Mexico Press

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The study of cultural transmission has been dominated by the view that it occurs largely through a process by which adults—especially parents—transfer what they know to children (Chipeniuk 1995:494; King 1994:111; Pelissier 1991:82; Rowell 1975:126; Schönpflug and Bilz 2009:213). However, “instructed learning” (Kruger and Tomasello 1996:377) or teaching is, in fact, quite rare in the ethnographic record (Lancy 2010). Rogoff reports of the Highland Maya that “of the 1708 observations of nine-year-olds, native observers could identify only six occasions as teaching situations” (1981:32). Bruner (1966:59), in viewing hundreds of hours of ethnographic film shot among !Kung and Netsilik foraging bands, was struck by the total absence of teaching episodes. In a very recent study of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in fishing communities on Buton Island, Vermonden reported that “during two years of participant observation, I rarely observed oral transmission of fishing knowledge or techniques” (2009:205). Similarly, among Yukaghir [Siberian] foragers, their “model of knowledge transferal could be described as ‘doing is learning and learning is doing’” (Willerslev 2007:162). Indeed, in numerous cases, direct instruction would be considered an infringement of the child’s autonomy and an unwarranted assertion of rank (Gray 2009:507; Hewlett et al. 2011:1172).1

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