Document Type



Anthropology (Pitzer)

Publication Date



Anthropology and education, Psychology, Intelligence, Cognitive learning theory


For at least the last ten years cross-cultural research on the cognitive consequences of education has been dominated by the theoretical dichotomy between "formal" and "informal" education. The paradigm of formal education is the style of schooling developed in the industrialized West. It has been defined as any form of education that is deliberate, carried on "out of context" in a special setting outside of the routines of daily life, and made the responsibility of the larger social group. "Informal education" refers to education that takes place "in context" as children participate in everyday adult activities. It is the predominant form in many nonindustrialized societies (Scribner and Cole 1973:555). Research guided by the formal/informal dichotomy typically has taken tests of memory, tests of logical reasoning, and other tests standardized on Western schoolchildren to a society where schooling is not universal. There schooled (formally educated) and unschooled (informally educated) children's performance on the tests are compared, and, time and again, the unschooled children's performance is found to be inferior. A reasonable conclusion to draw from this research would be that formal education (or, at least, Western schooling) improves cognitive abilities across the board and should be encouraged in international development efforts.

Recent comparative education research has been much more culturally sensitive (see, e.g., Lave 1977; Scribner and Cole 1981). Yet, the formal/informal dichotomy remains the model by which these findings have been interpreted (Greenfield and Lave 1982; Cole and D'Andrade 1982). Lave probably expressed the frustration of many others when she wrote recently, "We cannot afford to hold as our principal basis for comparing educational forms the schoolcentric, simplified dichotomy of formal and informal education" (1982: 185).

I agree with Lave that the formal/informal dichotomy needs to be replaced. My primary aim in this paper is to propose a less ethnocentric taxonomy in its place. However, I disagree with Lave's contention that psychological theory has nothing to offer here; in fact, my replacement is drawn from recent research in cognitive psychology. An additional goal of this paper, therefore, is to defend the use of psychological theorizing in anthropological research. Although my discussion will be focused on cross-cultural cognitive research, some of my points are intended to have more general applicability.


Previously linked to as:,394.

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© 1984 Wiley-Blackwell on behalf of the American Anthropological Association. Any inquiries regarding permission to reprint or use in any manner the following material should be directed to both the American Anthropological Association and Wiley-Blackwell.

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