The Cultural Diffusion of Sophisticated Ideas: How Laypeople Understand Expert Knowledge and How This Affects the Spread of Ideas

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Why do certain theories or sophisticated ideas become culturally shared, while others remain indefinitely closed within specific circles? How does the way in which laypeople treat expert knowledge affect cultural evolution? I argue that the cultural transmission and retention of a sophisticated idea is contingent upon a special combination of environmental and cognitive factors which triggers a naive comprehension of that idea on the part of laypeople. Naive comprehension is defined as a kind of understanding whereby an idea is considered merely for its immediate relevance to a certain context, without further delving into other aspects or implications. A theory of naive comprehension is proposed which describes the cultural diffusion of sophisticated ideas as a consequence of their naive comprehension on the part of laypeople. This means that, contrary to traditional accounts of cultural diffusion, and to conventional wisdom, under certain circumstances variation of an idea’s conceptual content motivates the transmission of that idea and is, therefore, a cause of its spread, not an effect of it. A summary of the empirical work that supports the theory is reported.


Keywords: Cultural Evolution, Cognition and Culture, Relevance Theory, Analysis of Beliefs, History of Ideas, Rationality
Stream: Anthropology, Archaeology, Cultural Studies, Humanities
Presentation Type: Workshop Presentation in English
Paper: On the Social Diffusion of Sophisticated Ideas


Stefano Adamo

Associate Professor (Sept. 2008), Department of Italian, Banja Luka University
Rome, Italy

I am a junior scholar (PhD. in Comparative Studies from Siena University - 2007) and freelance journalist. Starting in September 2008 I will be Assistant Professor of Italian History and Lecturer in Italian at Banja Luka University (Bosnia and Herzegovina). I was trained as a cultural historian but my research interests led me to delve, over the years, into a wider range of disciplines which includes the cognitive sciences, the philosophy of the social sciences, and the history of economic thought. When I was an undergraduate, I worked as a journalist and press agent, an experience that gave me a firsthand knowledge of the dynamics of communication and that eventually led me to contribute to the second major Italian newspaper, “la Repubblica.” As a graduate student, my familiarity with different fields led me to develop a method for understanding the nature of ‘lay knowledge’. All my educational and professional experiences have converged upon my PhD thesis, which I am presently translating in English. The thesis presents a cultural/historical investigation on the circulation of economic ideas in the Early-Modern period, featuring an innovative approach to cultural studies based on the cognitive analysis of beliefs.

Ref: I08P0942