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Reading Group report: Embodied cognition and communication studies with British fine woodworkers

At the second meeting of The Scientist and His Tools Reading Group we read Trevor Marchand’s paper Embodied cognition and communication studies with British fine woodworkers, suggested by Sam as a way of talking through the relationship between the cognitive/linguistic frameworks and ethnographic methods Marchand uses to describe his three years of work amongst the woodworkers.

There were only a few of us there, but it was a really interesting discussion, from which I took a much clearer understanding of the distinctions between anthropological, ethnographic and ethnomethodological approaches to observing people doing things.

It seems that Marchand – writing in the Royal Anthropological Journal is very much working with an interpretative approach to his ‘data’ which came out in his descriptions, which were very writerly in the way they illustrated his interpretations of people’s actions eg: “feeling assured, he raised the mallet”. We weren’t sure whether this kind of reportage would be deemed acceptable to anthropologists, it seemed a bit fruity to us. At some point in the paper he does mention that he would like to collaborate with an interdisciplinary team to apply more rigorous ‘ethnographic’ methods to this study.

We also had problems reconstructing his catalogue of theories of mind and models of language and communication. Guest appearances in a somewhat awkward collage included Fodor’s “Language of Thought”, representational theories of mind, along with kinaesthetic theories of embodiment, a small helping of Pragmatics, along with citations of our very own Ruth Kempson and Matt Purver amongst others to invoke an interpretation of Dynamic Syntax that Marchand uses to fill out the edges of a Frankenstein-like collage of sometimes incompatible-seeming conceptual parts.

This sounds dismissive, and Marchand’s pick-n-mix approach did grate a bit, but it was  a very ambitious attempt to use these theories in a practical way to explain some very in-depth and committed research. In the end we were impressed by the amazing feat of spending several years with the tribe of woodworkers of East London, and also by the syncretic reach of the paper which Marchand freely admits, would be improved through inter-disciplinary work with natives to those fields.

Anyway, one of the things it was really good for was having a discussion where we were able to cross-check our ideas and assumptions about different methodological approaches to ethnography, and figuring out where cognitive frameworks fit into a broader epistemological picture. Hopefully this will help us to sharpen our own tools, and our senses for when we may be building Frankensteins out of other people’s theories in our own research. Join us for the next group!

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