Overview of the CAKTAM Workshop January 2018

Overview of the CAKTAM Workshop January 2018

Notions of family and kin terms vary in complexity and structure, so to what extent does linguistic and cultural variation affect the acquisition of kinship knowledge? While kinship provides the major framework for social organisation in many societies, we still know very little about how children learn to categorise different kinds of kin.  The ‘Children’s Acquisition of Kinship Knowledge: Theory and Method Workshop’, led by EXCD lab of University of Bristol, provided a unique opportunity to explore and refine ideas in this largely overlooked area of research. Early-career researchers and distinguished academics alike, from anthropology, linguistics and psychology, gathered at The Engine Shed, Bristol in late January 2018, to propose theories and share in discussion. The result was a truly stimulating event.

Kicking off the two-day workshop, Professor Fiona Jordan’s introduction emphasised the EXCD lab’s interdisciplinary approach, highlighting the restricted variation of kinship systems, the question of ‘unthinkable families’ and the notable diversity of cousin systems around the world. Eve Danziger, Professor of Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Virginia, followed with a consideration of the syntactic and pragmatic parallels between kinship and spatial relationship terms, and their origins in “gesture-calls”. Using kinship acquisition data from her fieldwork with Mopan (Mayan) speakers, Eve showed how cultural elaboration of respect for elders complements the semantic feature “sex-of-senior”, producing cultural and cognitive consequences for sense of self.

Eve Clark, Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University, our second speaker of the day, offered interesting reflections on her pioneering 1974 study of the semantic complexity of kinship term acquisition using elicited definitions. This fresh perspective suggested further consideration should be given to children’s experience with kin terms in their communities, looking at both address and third-person reference.

Next, we heard from Bob Parkin, Emeritus Fellow of Oxford University’s School of Anthropology who considered the lack of current research on children’s learning of kinship within social anthropology. Bob’s presentation pointed towards the widespread anthropological objections to Malinowski’s extensionism, its unsuitability to all terminologies and its shortcomings as a universal theory of learning.  We then heard about infants’ observational learning skills from Tanya Broesch, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Simon Fraser University. Tanya told us about learning from behavioural cues such as infant-directed speech, gestures, and facial expressions and how these cues aid interpretation of complex group member information such as defining friend or foe. The talk included an overview of Tanya’s multi-methods, cross-cultural approaches and her current data, collected via natural observation in multiple societies.

After lunch, a close analysis of the acquisition of kinship concepts in Australian Murrinhpatha-speaking communities followed, with interactional linguist Joe Blythe, of Macquarie University. Joe’s personalised experiments involved photos of individuals from each child’s genealogy, along with pre-recorded audio clips and stick figure animations, in order to determine children’s comprehension of kinterms. Leading on from this, EXCD team member, linguistic anthropologist Alice Mitchell of the University of Bristol, presented preliminary findings into kinship learning among Datooga children of Tanzania, as studied over nine months of fieldwork. Initial observations focused on child-anchored kin terms as a source of information for children. She then considered children’s understanding of the kin term for ‘mother’ and the apparent resistance to the use of word when referring to classificatory mothers.

As the afternoon progressed, we heard from Francis Mollica of The Computational & Language Laboratory, University of Rochester. Using a probabilistic Language of Thought model, Frank discussed simulations scrutinizing how simplicity, data distributions and assumptions about relatedness interface, giving rise to behavioural effects observed in children. These included a trajectory from under- to over-extension of kinship terms, and, in the case over over-extensions, the characteristic-to-defining shift.  The next presentation, by Annie Spokes from Harvard University’s Department of Psychology explored conceptual understanding of kinship as a social category and expectations for social interactions in 3-5 year old children in the US. She also examined how infants track relationships in care-giving networks within the first two years of life, forming expectations and early inferences about kin.

Julia Nee of the Department of Linguistics at Berkeley addressed us for the final session of the day via video-link. Julia’s field research with Teotitlan del Valle Zapotec speakers allowed her to examine whether languages show an optimization of complexity and communicative cost in dividing up the semantic domain of kinship, compared with English-speaking participants. Having covered a great deal of ground on the first day, workshop attendees met for dinner in central Bristol during the evening and talked over research ideas and experiences.

Friday provided an opportunity to focus on research methods. Joe and Alice introduced the first hour with a talk on elicitation and experiments. Camilla Morelli, Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Bristol, then provided an overview of the use of visual and sensory methods in child-centred anthropology. Drawing on her ethnographic fieldwork with indigenous children in the Peruvian Amazon, Camilla suggested ways in which such techniques can be applied when investigating kinship and the acquisition of kinship knowledge.

After a morning break, we heard again from Joe and Alice who led a wide-ranging discussion about linguistic and corpus-based methods. This useful, interactive session provided an opportunity for a closer exploration of the various approaches. Their two methods talks covered questionnaires and surveys for eliciting definitions and factual information, stimuli-based tasks using photos and/or dolls, and collecting behavioural data, both linguistic and non-linguistic. The discussion provided an opportunity to appraise successes and difficulties encountered in each of the approaches and the group exchanged experiences in the field.

We were then delighted to hear presentations from three early-career Phd Researchers. Sheina Lew-Levey from Cambridge University’s Dept of Psychology outlined her recent findings into the transmission of foraging knowledge as well as social and gender norms through play, word-play and teaching among Mbendjele forager children in the Congo Basin. Noa Lavi of Cambridge’s Anthropology Dept followed, with an overview of kinship concepts and flexible patterns of relationality among the Nayaka, hunter-gatherers in Nilgiri, South India. Noa described how Nayaka children’s knowledge and knowledge acquisition are based on gradual learning of the ability to alternate between different kinship concepts. Lastly, Gabriella Piña, a social anthropologist from the London School of Economics, talked about her work with the Pehuenche people of Southern Chile. In this society, independence and freedom are highly valued and offset by the practice of visiting and hosting, to support collaboration and avoid tension. She examined children’s participation in these activities and how these practices develop their understanding of kin.

Friday afternoon was dedicated to a round-up discussion. The group gathered in an open session to exchange views on the creation of a ‘field-kit’ intended to aid the study of the acquisition of kinship terms, for use by the group and other researchers.

In addition, as an ongoing interest, the group intend to make a joint interdisciplinary contribution towards a forthcoming article which will address a universal set of concerns relating to kinship acquisition. Most notably, the event was the first of its kind in its interdisciplinary draw and related events are likely to follow. One of the most considerable outcomes of the workshop has been the momentum created for future ventures and collaborations around developing the questions of kinship, forming new ideas and attracting newer researchers from an even greater diversification of approaches.

Conversation across languages and cultures: Dr Joe Blythe

The past few weeks the lab has hosted Dr Joe Blythe as  Benjamin Meaker Visiting Fellow from the University of Bristol’s Institute for Advanced Studies (thanks IAS!).

Joe’s final event is this evening, and we’re delighted to be hosting his public lecture:

Conversation across languages and cultures: Cross-linguistic perspectives on taking turns to talk.

Details:

Thursday 8 February 2018

17:00 – 18.00 & drinks reception

Lecture Theatre 3, Woodland Road Arts Complex

Phyloseminar: Testing hypotheses about cultural evolution

I’m giving a Phyloseminar next Tuesday at 17:00 GMT.

“Testing hypotheses about cultural evolution”

Anthropologists had a name for the non-independence-of-species-problem way back in the 1880s. Solving “Galton’s Problem”, and the promise of comparative methods for testing hypotheses about cultural adaptation and correlated evolution was a major catalyst for the field of cultural phylogenetics. In this talk I will show how linguistic, cultural, and archaeological data is used in comparative phylogenetic analyses. The “treasure trove of anthropology” – our vast ethnographic record of cultures – is now being put to good use answering questions about cross-cultural similarities and differences in human social and cultural norms in a rigorous evolutionary framework.

Phyloseminar is an online videoconferenced series of seminar talks on (you guessed it) phylogenetic subjects. Details about how connect up to join in the live broadcast and ask questions are here. Alternatively, the seminars are recorded so that, no matter your time zone, you can watch them afterwards.

My talk is the second in a mini-series of seminars on Phylogenetics and Language. The first was by Simon Greenhill, previously interviewed on my blog here. You can watch his seminar here (and please do, as I will be building on some of what Simon said). Tom Currie will be giving the final seminar. Many thanks to Erick Matsen for the invitation.

Upcoming talk: Coevolution in counting and culture

I’m giving a talk tomorrow (Tues 21 Feb) at the University of Bath, for the AI folk in the computer sciences department. My thanks to Joanna Bryson for being adventurous and inviting an anthropologist to speak to CompSci folk!

Counting coconuts for the chief: coevolution in language and culture

Across the world, languages vary in their ways of enumeration. Some languages, but not others, have dedicated linguistic mechanisms for counting certain objects and/or large numbers. Numeral classifiers are words or affixes to nouns that are used for counting certain classes of objects, such as “animate things” or “coconuts”. Specific counting systems go a step further and count specific classes of objects by units greater than one, such as (e.g.) pairs or twenties. Examining Oceanic languages, Bender and Beller have advanced the idea that numeral classifiers and specific counting systems are object-specific, refer to culturally-salient semantic domains, and are often used to enumerate large quantities. Here we test their hypothesis that these linguistic features may have co-evolved with aspects of socioecology, specifically, norms of redistribution such as chiefly tribute that are found in socially stratified societies. We use comparative data across a sample of Austronesian ethnolinguistic groups, lexical phylogenies of these languages as a model of population history, and statistical methods from evolutionary biology to (a) reconstruct the most likely model of history of counting systems and social structure and (b) test for causal co-evolutionary processes. Using phylogenetic approaches not only allows us to control for Galton’s Problem but allows us to test these language-culture coevolutionary hypotheses in a framework that delivers estimates of the processes of cultural change. These results speak to broader issues regarding the flexibility of human numerical cognition, as well as shed light on the specific development of counting systems within the Austronesian cultural context.

Details here.

Upcoming talk: the cultural evolution of land tenure, residence and labour

I’ll be giving the following talk in the Bristol Archaeology and Anthropology Research Seminar on February 8th 2012.

To the Manor Born? The cultural evolution of land tenure, residence and labour in Austronesian societies. 

Cross-cultural differences in norms of land tenure may reflect both individual and population-level adaptations to ecological and social factors. A complex interplay is likely to exist between kinship practices such postmarital residence and descent, the type and division of subsistence-related labour, and the form of land ownership. Here I present work from a number of comparative studies in which we have used phylogenetic and simulation methods to disentangle the (co)evolution of these factors in the Austronesian-speaking societies of the Pacific. This framework allows us to practice “virtual archaeology” to infer past states of social norms, and to test adaptive hypotheses derived from behavioural ecology and anthropology about both the coevolution of kinship and subsistence labour, and land tenure and kinship. More broadly, I hope to demonstrate how these approaches can bring together social anthropology, population prehistory, and evolutionary theory in a new cross-cultural anthropology.

Link and info here.