The Epidemiology of Beliefs
Beliefs are a little like germs, good ones are highly contagious. Over the past two decades, a new approach has emerged that seeks to explain cultural phenomena by explaining why some ideas are catchier than others. Different scholars stress different dimensions, some focusing on ecological factors, others on cultural issues, while others on psychological architecture. All seek to identify those factors that underlie the distribution and stability of beliefs within a population, much as medical epidemiology seeks to identify the factors that underlie the distribution and stability of diseases within a population. In this interdisciplinary seminar we will examine the pioneering work of the cognitive scientist Dan Sperber, anthropologist Scott Atran's evolutionary account of religion, popular versions of the approach such as Gladwell's best seller, The Tipping Point, Ian Hacking's influential, Foucauldian analyses of mental disorders, and Richard Dawkin's biologically-inspired notion of meme. Students will be encouraged to think with these concepts in their ethnographic and psychological research.