Artifacts and Original Intent: A Cross-Cultural Perspective on the Design Stance

Journal of Cognition and Culture 8 (1-2):1-22 (2008)
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How do people decide what category an artifact belongs to? Previous studies have suggested that adults and, to some degree, children, categorize artifacts in accordance with the design stance, a categorization system which privileges the designer’s original intent in making categorization judgments. However, these studies have all been conducted in Western, technologically advanced societies, where artifacts are mass produced. In this study, we examined intuitions about artifact categorization among the Shuar, a hunter-horticulturalist society in the Amazon region of Ecuador. We used a forced-choice method similar to previous studies, but unlike these studies, our scenarios involved artifacts that would be familiar to the Shuar. We also incorporated a community condition to examine the possible effect of community consensus on how artifacts are categorized. The same scenarios were presented to university student participants in the UK. Across populations and conditions, participants tended to categorize artifacts in terms of a creator’s intent as opposed to a differing current use. This lends support to the view that the design stance may be a universal feature of human cognition. However, we conclude with some thoughts on the limitations of the present method for studying artifact concepts.

Author Profiles

Eric Margolis
University of British Columbia
Stephen Laurence
University of Sheffield


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