Social Cognition Essay

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Studies of social cognition attempt to explain how thought or cognitive problem solving takes places in groups. While scholars generally agree that learning can be a collective activity, many are reluctant to accept that thinking itself could have a social dimension. Psychologists and cognitive scientists tend to consider thought as an internal brain activity. Sociologists generally avoid the problem by focusing on social behavior. When sociologists look at consciousness, they generally study how internal psychological processes have been shaped by external social demands. Media scholars examine patterns of persuasion, and political sociologists look at ideology and hegemonic practices. All agree that collective life proceeds through the mind as well as the body, but few consider social cognition or how thinking might take place through interaction.

Scholars doing work in the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) have been the exception. Conducting fieldwork in laboratories, they have repeatedly found that ideas emerge through interaction. Researchers talk to one another about what they are seeing and how they understand their data. Their thinking takes place in conversation and this fact is documented in the long list of authors in many scientific publications.

According to Longino (1990), the reluctance to see cognition as social is grounded on the philosophical assumptions of Descartes and his followers that for centuries privileged the individual knower in the pursuit of truth. Descartes defined outside influences as a source of confusion to anyone seeking knowledge. He argued that authorities can proffer illusions rather than point to the truth, so thinking independently is necessary for the pursuit of knowledge. Longino breaks with this tradition and makes a philosophical argument in favor of social epistemology, using the laboratory from SSK as her guide. She argues that group problem solving can be just as progressive as individual thought. Individuals as well as groups can cultivate illusions, but in fact, she says, the shared professional skepticism of scientists is a better means of dispelling than individual contemplation.

Currently, those who study social cognition do not question whether such a thing exists or not. The evidence for it seems strong. But it is still difficult to differentiate a pattern of social thought from a chain of command. In the former, group members share their ideas and find common solutions to problems together. In the latter, information is fed from the bottom to the people at the top, who do the thinking. More research is needed to make more precise descriptions of this. And more precise theories are needed to distinguish social cognition or distributed thought from other patterns of solving problems.

What is most intriguing in current research are the efforts to clarify what difference it makes that human beings can talk with one another and stabilize common understandings of things. Clearly, groups can sometimes accomplish through distributed cognition what individuals could not do on their own. The question is when and how this capacity is employed and how much of social life is founded on this ability.


  1. Hutchins, E. (1995) Cognition in the Wild. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  2. Longino, H. (1990) Science as Social Knowledge. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

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