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Cultural transmission and social communication: a cognition and culture approach to everyday metaphor about knowledge, learning, and understanding

Green, Helen (2015) Cultural transmission and social communication: a cognition and culture approach to everyday metaphor about knowledge, learning, and understanding. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Cultural transmission theory and methods focus on the qualities of cultural artefacts (e.g. religious beliefs, supernatural ideas, folk stories) to understand how and why some spread and last better than others. This epidemiological approach is part of a broader project, cognition and culture, which seeks to understand links between mind and culture. Cognition and culture is concerned with universal, recurrent cultural phenomena, whose developmental acquisition and patterns of distribution and variation may be linked to innate mental competencies. Anthropologists, ethno- and cognitive linguists, and cognitive and developmental psychologists have established that metaphor exhibits exactly these characteristics—universality, cultural variation, and developmental acquisition patterns. Yet, the cultural transmission of metaphor has not been addressed in the cognition and culture literature. This thesis proposes a novel application of an epidemiological account of cultural transmission to small-scale, linguistic, cultural artefacts—everyday, sensorimotor metaphorical talk about knowledge, learning, and understanding. Serial reproduction tasks, experiments, interviews, and metaphor analysis were used in a mixed-methods approach to investigate the use and transmission of metaphorical language. Three initial experimental studies, which aimed to investigate transmission advantages of metaphor, showed no statistically significant effects of metaphor on transmission fidelity of short stories across serial reproduction chains.Four further studies were conducted to follow up on these findings. Results of the first follow-up experiment, more sensitive to the agency of speakers in communicative exchange, indicated that metaphorical prompts to invent stories yielded more metaphors in the story endings and descriptions. Findings from experimental and conversation-based judgement tasks suggested that metaphorical language provided more inferential potential than non-metaphorical language to support assessments of the verbal material and inferences about the speaker. The final qualitative study revealed ways that metaphor is used to support social interaction and co-operation in more naturalistic conversation contexts. Overall, it was found that social and pragmatic aspects of communication, undetectable in traditional serial reproduction experiments, contribute significantly to the wide distribution, or cultural success, of metaphor. An account of the cultural success of metaphor based in inferential processes that support social interaction is proposed. Reflections are offered on its theoretical and methodological implications for the epidemiological view of cultural transmission and its generalisability to different types of cultural artefacts.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2015 Helen Amelia Green
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare. Criminology
Sets: Departments > Psychological and Behavioural Science
Supervisor: Franks, Bradley

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