Steven Pinker channels Mary Douglas

Steven Pinker has an interesting article in the New York Times that lines up nicely with recent research into cultural cognition and develops (unwittingly) the ground-breaking work of Mary Douglas. Leaving aside the (minor and entirely unnecessary) bits about Chomsky, evolution, and biology, the piece comes down to a broad-ranging discussion of the ways that people tend to be sensitive to clusters of moral concerns.  He talks in particular about widespread values like harm-avoidance, fairness, community, authority and purity.  Part of what is nice about the Pinker discussion is his acknowledgment that these values are almost always contingent on culture — it’s culture that determines what is perceived as harmful, what is fair, who one’s community is, when (and what forms of) authority should be respected, and what makes something pure, what contaminated. 

This is precisely the point that anthropologists have long been making and, were Pinker an anthropologist his not mentioning Douglas would be unforgivable. But Pinker makes and effort and does draw on a number of recent anthropological studies to make his points. He also notes that the content of these values not only vary across communities, but change over time (smoking becomes impure, homophobia becomes unfair, and so on). If this is the sort of thing that floats your boat, then I’ll point you to a study by Dan Kahan, James Grimmelmann, and your truly that goes one step further, suggesting how these shifts occur and why they occur in recognizable patterns.  And if you want to read from one of the giants on whose shoulders Pinker and the rest of us value-scholars stand, have a look at two Mary Douglas classics: Purity and Danger and (with political scientist Aaron Wildavsky) Risk and Culture. We miss you Mary!

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