Doctoral Dissertation Research in DRMS: Who's at Stake? Nonhuman Agency Concepts and Cultural Resource Conflict Among Indigenous and Mainstream Actors in Panama

Project: Research project

Project Details


This research engages a fundamental question for cognitive science and decision-making: what are the meanings at stake in cultural resource conflict over human-environment interactions? Arguably, the most fundamental meanings under debate involve conceptions of what—or who—is at stake in environmental dilemmas. Through the novel perspective of nonhuman agency, this research investigates environmental cognition and decision-making across two communities in a shared ecosystem: Indigenous Ngöbe and mainstream (Ladino, Euro-American) actors in Bocas del Toro, Panama (with selected comparisons to standard U.S. samples). Proposed studies investigate (1) concepts of nonhuman agency, and associated reasoning about (2) nonhumans as sentient moral subjects and (3) active causal agents in complex ecosystems. Based on four years of research and observation with Ngöbe communities, these constructs are hypothesized to be key factors in local cultural resource conflict. Each proposed study series employs cognitive and psychological methods to target specific predictions. (1) Western and Ngöbe individuals are predicted to recognize intentional agency across a different range of nonhuman entities in nature, organizing this knowledge around distinct conceptual frameworks (folkpsychology or folkcommunication) and prototypes (anthropocentric or biocentric). As a consequence, it is predicted that (2) Ngöbe conceptions of human-nonhuman interactions will acquire moral norms and sacred properties associated with communal relations (not utilitarian relations, as among Westerners); and (3) Ngöbe models of ecosystem dynamics will exhibit more complexity and interdependency of human and nonhuman agency (as compared to linearity and hierarchy in Western models). Overall, anticipated cognitive differences will alter the landscape of environmental decision-making across cultures by determining what (or who) is at stake in human-environmental tradeoffs. This dissertation research constitutes a novel theoretical perspective on environmental cognition by integrating social aspects of folkpsychological thought into the influential work on folkecology and folkbiology. Findings will speak to cognitive scientific theory of domain-specificity by offering a new analysis of the conceptual contents and prototypes involved in folkpsychological reasoning across cultures. Accordingly, results will deepen understanding of closely related processes of mind-perception, attitudes, and moral intuitions toward nonhumans. These cognitive investigations are equally important to the decision sciences: findings will demonstrate how one’s cultural viewpoint may transform environmental decision-making into social decision-making, by determining whether nonhumans are viewed as intentional stakeholders. Ultimately, this project aims to provide actionable insights into the cognitive foundations of human-nature interactions across cultures. A distinct advantage of this work is its focus on under-represented perspectives of Indigenous communities, contributing to the diversity of psychological study populations and providing a new empirical vantage point on environmental cognition. By documenting how cultural concepts and values impact perceptions of environmental tradeoffs, this research offers new insights into the meanings at stake in cultural resource conflict between Indigenous and mainstream communities. More broadly, results will inform multicultural negotiations in settings where diverse views of human-nature relationships must be integrated for consensus solutions.
Effective start/end date8/1/147/31/17


  • National Science Foundation (SES-1427035)


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