chapter  11
15 Pages

Memory and selective attention: Bartlett and Evans-Pritchard


SELECTIVE ATTENTION To read F.C.Bartlett on the subject one would expect that the cognitive theories which his work helped to establish would give recognition to an important cultural element. Bartlett and Rivers both emphasised that individual memory is supported by social institutions. In the 1920s anthropology was expected to contribute to psychology and close exchanges were made between these disciplines. Bartlett’s concept of conventionalisation (e.g. 1923, 1932) was inspired by the works of A.C.Haddon, the anthropologist who led the famous Cambridge expedition to the Torres Straits in 1898-99. Haddon’s work interested Bartlett. He wrote that when studying:

Psychology and Primitive Culture (Bartlett, 1923) quoted many American and British anthropologists. It started out with the assumption, established in philosophy and psychology, that the process of cognition is a selective screening and organising of sensory inputs. And with Rivers he insisted that selective screening must be influenced by social experiences. Institutions constituted screens and selective principles. He worked this out with many ethnographic examples. His analysis of the folk tale is particularly convincing. He declared that the search for the origins of a folk tale is futile; likewise the discovery of those grand archetypal themes dear to many psychologists, or the attempts to use folk tales to establish the history of past institutions. He said firmly:

Following Rivers he insisted that taboo was not to be explained by fear. Many writers of the time named fear as the primary emotion explaining taboos. ‘But when we turn to popular stories…descriptions of fear seem to occupy no very important position’ (Bartlett, 1923, p. 110). Bartlett himself explained taboo by a sociological requirement to control conflict by separating spheres of action and even creating separate cognitive spheres. For the ‘general determination of boundaries’ and for the social control of curiosity, Bartlett’s words were remarkably explicit: ‘The history of any primitive group, in fact, reveals certain

spheres of activity within which curiosity is not readily to be allowed full sway. The limitation does not necessarily produce disorder. Curiosity is allowed its own realm’ (Bartlett, 1923, pp. 117-118).