Cognition in the Wild

Cognition in the Wild

By Edwin Hutchins

A Bradford Book





Edwin Hutchins combines his background as an anthropologist and an open ocean racing sailor and navigator in this account of how anthropological methods can be combined with cognitive theory to produce a new reading of cognitive science. His theoretical insights are grounded in an extended analysis of ship navigation—its computational basis, its historical roots, its social organization, and the details of its implementation in actual practice aboard large ships. The result is an unusual interdisciplinary approach to cognition in culturally constituted activities outside the laboratory—"in the wild."

Hutchins examines a set of phenomena that have fallen in the cracks between the established disciplines of psychology and anthropology, bringing to light a new set of relationships between culture and cognition. The standard view is that culture affects the cognition of individuals. Hutchins argues instead that cultural activity systems have cognitive properties of their own that are different from the cognitive properties of the individuals who participate in them. Each action for bringing a large naval vessel into port, for example, is informed by culture: the navigation team can be seen as a cognitive and computational system.

Introducing Navy life and work on the bridge, Hutchins makes a clear distinction between the cognitive properties of an individual and the cognitive properties of a system. In striking contrast to the usual laboratory tasks of research in cognitive science, he applies the principal metaphor of cognitive science—cognition as computation (adopting David Marr's paradigm)—to the navigation task. After comparing modern Western navigation with the method practiced in Micronesia, Hutchins explores the computational and cognitive properties of systems that are larger than an individual. He then turns to an analysis of learning or change in the organization of cognitive systems at several scales. Hutchins's conclusion illustrates the costs of ignoring the cultural nature of cognition, pointing to the ways in which contemporary cognitive science can be transformed by new meanings and interpretations.

A Bradford Book


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262082310 402 pp. | 6.875 in x 10 in


$50.00 X ISBN: 9780262581462 402 pp. | 6.875 in x 10 in


  • Hutchins argument that 'the physical symbol system is a model of the operation of the sociocultural system from which the human actor has been removed' has great force. Hutchins challenge to the formal account of human cognition is based on what he knows about how humans actually navigate their way through the world, not on a philosophic doctrine. Overall, I think this is a great book. It has lots of ideas, rich data, and innovative analyses. It is highly disciplined, clearly written, and thoughtful. I believe it will be a real landmark for other naviagators of the cognitive ocean.

    Roy G. D'Andrade

    Department of Anthropology, University of California

  • This timely work has the potential to make important contributions to cognitive science, artificial intelligence and computer supported cooperative work communities. It addresses difficult problems of great importance with novelty and creativity. The general area of situated cognition is a lively and important one, spanning areas as diverse as anthropology, robotics, and office information systems. There are two fundamental persepctives that are central to these efforts: that cognition must be studied in realistic contexts, and when viewed in these contexts much of what we consider intelligence is really not in the head but out in the world. Given these persepctives, there are two research questions that need to be addressed - how can we go about studying cognition in the real world and how does this affect the way we study what is going on in heads of the people the way we study what is going on in heads of the people embedded in these contexts? Hutchins tackles both of these questions in new and intriguing ways.

    James Martin

    Computer Science Department, University of Colorado