Maurice Bloch's short book proposes several points of reconciliation between cognitive science with current anthropology. In Bloch's view, cognitive science remains locked in a broadly Darwinian program of finding what is common, and presumably genetically driven, in humans. Postmodern anthropology emphasizes profound cultural differences, to the point of denying that there is common humanity at all. Bloch notes that this latter tradition goes back to Boas and Durkheim, cultural relativists at heart.
The extreme views are, in fact, true only for the extremist thinkers in each field. Bloch clearly realizes he is oversimplifying (since he cites several exceptions on both sides), but thinks the fields have diverged enough to need serious accommodating if they are to retain value.
He proposes some general accommodations in regard to "innate" vs. "cultural," making the obvious points that people do differ but not to the point of mutual incomprehensibility. More valuable are his investigations of what this might mean for studies of time, self, subconscious mentation, and memory. Concepts of these differ from culture to culture; culture shapes the last three and shapes experience of the first one. But in all cases there are limits set by human cognitive capacities. His discussion of all these is interesting and useful.
The problems are in the details. He starts on a wrong foot by misunderstanding Durkheim on "collective representations" (page 4), charging Durkheim (as British social anthropologists love to do) with claiming that there were transhuman thoughts that somehow mystically propagated. Durkheim was not such a fool; he merely said that people in a given culture are taught, often quite deliberately, to respond in certain ways (behaviorally and emotionally) to certain symbols and symbol-systems. My generation of Americans was taught that we should respond to the American flag in particular ways; we mostly approximated the correct plans, and at least understood what was supposedly the standard. We cannot feel unaffected by the flag, even if we have lost the naive patriotism of 60 years ago. Bloch goes on to misrepresent Boas also, spinning the old nonsense about his being nontheoretical and not given to generalizing. In this case we soon learn that Bloch knows better, for he gives a quite good introduction to Boas' theories on page 154. (He deals with Boas on language, not getting into details on Boas' whole theory of culture as communication, but he clearly understands it, and he also realizes that Boas had some good ideas about human biology and the cultural malleable body.) A number of other theorists are similarly cited in rather simplifying (if not distorting) ways, to help with the overall program of contrasting culturological anthropologists with geneticist cognitivists.
He sees structuralism and structural linguistics as part of the problem, being too cut-and-dried and remote from experience. He sees hope in the practical, behavior-based anthropology of Malinowski and ther practice theory of Pierre Bourdieu, seeing an escape from the tyranny of language-based or text-based approaches. He correctly notes that humans are born with a great deal of innate thought propensities, though he tends to stick these into the Procrustean beds of "naive physics," "modules," and so on, now rather outmoded concepts in many cognitivist circles (because they are exactly the sort of structuralism that Bloch reasonably critiques!).
It is then perhaps understandable that Bloch does not cite much modern cognitive anthropology. He dismisses early cognitive anthropology as too linguistic, taking language as all there is--a bit unfair (he cites the more extreme thinkers once again), but in the early days of both cognitive anthropology and cognitive psychology there was indeed too much focus on the Word. But then he neglects most of the subsequent work in the field. He is not entirely unaware of it, citing major books by Scott Atran and by Claudia Strauss and Naomi Quinn, but he has missed Atran's later work, and does not deal at all with Norbert Ross, the team of Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, the work of Joseph Henrich and Samuel Bowles with cognitive economists Herbert Gintis and Erst Fehr, the recent work of Ed Hutchins (who takes a more "practice" approach), David Kronenfeld, and many other recent writers. The BLACKWELL COMPANION TO COGNITIVE ANTHROPOLOGY (David Kronenfeld, ed.) was presumably too new to make it into this book. It deals at a very sophisticated level with most of the issues Bloch raises. There are also many anthropologists who have embraced biology and made their own accommodations outside of the "cognitive science" orbit: Arthur Wolf, Tom Leatherman, Alan Goodman, E. A. Smith, and the entire cultural-ecology and political-ecology fields, for instance.
Bloch's reading of cognitive science is similarly a bit thin. He relies heavily on Steven Pinker (a linguist, not a cognitive psychologist) and Daniel Dennett (a biologist-philosopher), and again has missed recent work. Pinker's magistral book THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE is also, unfortunately, too recent to have made it in. It does a stunning job of resolving cultural influence and biological predisposition in its fine-grained analysis of why violence has waned in most of the world in the last 300 years in spite of whatever "innate aggression" humanity may have. Bloch does not cite cognitive psychology in depth. He does not cite cross-cultural psychology or the anthropological attempts to come to terms with it and temper its excesses of generalization, though he discusses some of the very problems they address (e.g. "self" and its different meanings in different cultures). He thus does not quite get the standard accommodation that has emerged between innatism and culturism over the years: innatism gives general tendencies and general capacities, culture fine-tunes them. Consider fear: it is perfectly recognizable in mice and even squids, yet not only people of different cultures but even my wife and I (at least as similar as members of a couple generally are) have quite different phenomenological experiences of fear. Or take the concept of "eye": every culture has it, and all higher mammals must have some sort of concept of it, but cultural connotations of "eye" differ profoundly. Cognitive scientists often work at a high level of generality, assuming people will recognize the cultural fine-tuning. Anthropoloigsts work at the ground level, attending to the fine details.
The result is that more than a few pages of this book consist of reinventing the wheel. Fortunately, this is not really a wasted effort. Bloch is a sharp thinker who has done extremely thorough and insightful research on Madagascar. Malagasy cognition is about as different from British academic thinking as thinking could get, but still quite explainable and translatable, and Bloch has done a great deal of outstanding work in that regard. He has a solid understanding of likeness and difference across cultures. Thus, his thinking about time, self, subconscious, and memory is interesting, original, and insightful, and where it does not simply reinvent recent cognitive thinking, it has a lot to contribute. Serious students of this area of research need to read it. On the other hand, his thinness in the cognitive field sometimes traps him; he dismisses social and political systems as merely "imagined," examples of pure mentation, though in fact there is a very complex behavioral and cognitive picture here (far too detailed for the present review, unfortunately). Boas was right to stress communication as the basis of culture. People do learn profoundly deep things from each other.
Unfortunately, this book is probably not really adequate for its intended audience: beginners in the field. It paints too broad-brush a picture of the extreme positions in each field, and it neglects too much recent work that has done much to resolve the differences. Readers might prefer, and should certainly be aware of, CULTURE AND COGNITION by Norbert Ross, or the aforementioned COMPANION.