Psychological Anthropology and Linguistic Relativity

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright February 2012


Psychological anthropology and linguistic relativity (the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis) are two ideas that have fired my thinking this week.

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is the concept that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers are able to conceptualize their world, i.e. it controls their world view. Like almost all social science hypotheses is one is hard to prove. The "Ah-Hah!" for this week is realizing that, much more than for most anthropological concepts, this one is instinctively easy for people to believe in -- so people in various communities act as if it's true whether it is or not.

Faith in this concept is at the root of actions to control inappropriate speech. It is the root of the feeling that we should control what speech children hear -- not letting them hear "dirty words". It is the root of controversy over what words can be used on broadcast radio and TV in the US, and it is at the root of the movement to legislate against allowing people to express "hate speech" even though doing so violates their First Amendment rights to free expression.

This concept may not be provable, but de facto belief in it is widespread and powerful. It is a wonderful example of instinctive thinking expressing itself in a civilized environment in a way that may not produce the best results for thriving in the civilized environment.

Psychological Anthropology and Delusion

Psychological Anthropology is about the interaction of cultural and mental processes. So, the question that comes to my mind is: Why should there be any interaction between these two? Why should culture affect an individual's thinking?

The answer is that such interaction has survival benefit. It has survival benefit because humans, like all organisms that live on Earth, must constantly adapt to changing conditions. Many of these changes are predictable and periodic, such as the environment changing from day to night and back again, and many are unpredictable -- life is full of surprises.

One of the "surprises" that humans face is their lifestyle it has adapted to their local conditions. Humans live in thousands of different circumstances. Examples of two extremes are Inuit living on the shores of the Arctic Sea and Polynesians living on the shores of tropical islands. Both of these groups are human, and both could successfully transplant if strange things happened in their lives -- humans have wondrous adaptability. But they both have developed a large mass of information about successful techniques for living where they do.

So part of humans' adaptability is in their thinking, thinking adapts to the environment. If a child grows up on the shores of the Arctic, they expect something quite different when they walk outside on a winter night from what a child growing up on a tropical shore does.

Culture is part of a person's environment. This same talent for thinking adaptability allows culture to influence thinking. A child grows up in a specific culture and learns ways of acting and communicating that work well. As a person grows up they build a body of information that works well in their environment and culture, and that becomes a "given" in their thinking.

When the environment or culture changes around a person, they have to relearn. If they can't relearn, or choose not to, they become "delusional" in their new environment -- their thinking no longer produces good answers to their day-to-day issues. "Harsh reality" will usually fix delusional thinking quickly, but there are times when it doesn't. The most common one is when a person is shielded from harsh reality. When that happens the person won't adapt to it. A famous fable of this happening is the Tale of King Canute. A more contemporary example is Michael Jackson and his relation to children.

The time this represents a hazard to a community is when a decision maker is being shielded, which can easily happen. This will lead to a community tragedy.


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