How Institutions Think (HIT)


HIT is a pilot project to investigate distributed cognition in an institutional framework. The project brings together a collaborative group of researchers from anthropology, archaeology, cognitive science, philosophy of mind, science  & technology studies (STS), and social psychology to empirically explore the phenomenon of distributed cognition under different institutional (social organizational) conditions defined by the density of social and material networks and the extent of social differentiation within such networks.

The project’s focus on social and material networks emphasises the role of things as well as people in sociomaterial processes of cognition. From an anthropological perspective, the work brings together two strands of thought in the work of the late Dame Mary Douglas: her 1986 book “How Institutions Think” and her 1978 work “The World of Goods”, which respectively highlighted the essentially social basis of cognition and the role of commodities and technologies as material signals, alongside verbal, visual and tactile signals, in constituting and enacting institutional arrangements

In the thirty years since the publication of “How Institutions Think”, new ideas in cognitive sciences and the philosophy of mind provide reason for revisiting the question of whether and how institutions think. Specifically the 4E’s of extended, enacted, embedded and embodied mind promise to shed new light on processes of social cognition, discussions of shared intentions and joint actions, the workings of social and cultural institutions of all sorts and sizes and the productive intermingling of social, material, and technical worlds.

Analysing these phenomena from a 4E perspective holds the potential to further develop our understanding of how institutions, their material forms and social practices may not merely shape cognition but actually be part of our cognitive and affective processes. A particular emphasis of the research will be on tracing the cognitive and affective flexibility of individuals as they move between different organizational and material contexts to monitor the extent to which they adjust their behaviour to conform to organizationally appropriate expectations and material conditions in order to understand how, and to what extent the articulation of concepts and values are stabilized in the hearts and heads of individuals or are emergent properties of situated social and material interactions.