Case of the Logical Liberians

Posted on May 17, 2010


Consider the following exchange, in which a researcher explores the formal operations of an illiterate Kpelle farmer in a Liberian village by giving him a test of logic (Scribner, 1977):

Researcher: All Kpelle men are rice farmers. Mr. Smith is not a rice farmer. Is he a Kpelle man?

Kpelle farmer: I don’t know the man. I have not laid eyes on the man myself.

Kpelle villagers who had completed some formal schooling answered the question logically… (p. 471)

Taken from Psychology, Sixth Edition. Douglas A. Bernstein, Louis A. Penner, Allison Clarke-Stewart and Edward J. Roy. Houghton Mifflin, NY: 2003.


I discovered the above item in a university-level introductory textbook in psychology. The item is presented as if, somehow, questions had been answered, as if something had been understood.  Yet I am left confused, with nothing but more questions.

To me, at issue is not whether an illiterate villager answered or didn’t answer a question logically.  There is no way to address that question until I know whether the researcher understood the question the same way that the villager understood the question.  Was the question asked, in other words, the same as the question heard?  —  It would have to be for the answer to matter.

No, to me the real question is the researcher.   How much did he or she already understand about oral and tribal societies before going forth and doing research among the Kpelle?  Did the researcher (or the textbook writer, for that matter) realize that oral societies are not defined by their lack of literacy, for instance?

You cannot define a culture on the basis of the absence of something.  You define a culture on the basis of what is there.

Oral societies are something in themselves.  They have their own ways of apprehending language, of using it.  When language has no written form, then functions which written forms perform in literate societies—contracts, laws, deeds to property—must be performed using oral speech.  That gives speech in oral societies more weight and meaning sometimes, than speech tends to have in literate societies.

In an oral culture, language needs to be more precise, because there is no fallback on the written version.  And you learn to be careful in your speech because, a) in oral societies, unable to rely on written records, people have better developed memories and they will remember exactly what you said, and b) precise and careful speech is valued where alternative written forms of information do not exist.  Precise information is good information.

Now I happen to understand what the researcher’s question was in the example, obviously.  I know the answer it was intended to elicit not merely (or even mainly) because I understand logic, but because I share the researcher’s culture.

What would the question sound like to a Kpelle farmer?  I don’t know, but I have to assume that it wouldn’t necessarily sound the same to him as it does to me.  His world and mine, after all, have no connection to each other.  It was precisely such a lack of connection which resulted in the Kpelle being made the subjects of the study.  (We already know Westerners are logical.)

Therefore, given the distance of culture and circumstance, why should what I hear in a question be the same as what the villager hears?  And therefore, why should anyone expect his answer to be the same as mine?


Consider the following exchange in which Father Theo explores the formal operations of a highly literate Emeritus Scholar of Creationism at the Neemutt School of Christian Technology by giving him a test of logic (Father Theo, Made-Up-On-The-Spot, 2010):

Father Theo:  The Pliocene Epoch ended 1.8 million years ago.  Mammoths lived during the Pliocene Epoch.  Therefore, mammoths lived at least …

Emeritus Scholar:  Nonsense, the world was created in 4004 B.C.!

Despite being literate and highly schooled, the Emeritus Scholar appeared incapable of answering the question logically …


The question which the researcher asks the Kpelle villager concerns somebody who might or might not share an important social relation to the villager.  (The question concerns the Kpelle, and the villager being questioned is Kpelle.)  In tribal societies, there is hardly anything more important than membership.  Who may belong, who may not.  And serious conversation like that requires, as I explained, serious speech where precision becomes ever more important.

Add that to another social reality:  In that villager’s community and culture, talking about other persons might be considered rude or immature (thus potentially damaging to the community’s peace.)  Asking somebody to give an opinion about somebody they haven’t met is asking them to—perhaps—make trouble with a stranger who may not always remain a stranger.  (Are you saying—the villager might be thinking—that Mr. Smith might be Kpelle?)  And in small loosely-structures societies, it is often considered high etiquette not to get involved in other people’s business.

Again, simply because the researcher states ‘facts’ about Mr. Smith does not mean that the villager must or will accept those facts as presented. It is well recognized in many cultures, and especially in oral cultures where authority structures tend to be more fluid, that one person’s view of things often differs from another person’s view of things. Knowledge is not conceived of as absolute, but relativistic. Thus the statements made by the researcher would inevitably–in a relativistic sense–be taken as statements of, perhaps, true belief, but not necessarily as statements of truth.

Thus the researcher’s assertions about Mr. Smith and his rights to membership in the Kpelle may be true, they may not. The fact that these assertions are presented as absolutes by the researcher could, in the context of Kpelle culture, be considered as signs of an immature speaker who has not yet learned to measure his or her words. (Nothing is absolute.  Everything is conditional.)  And it also might not be socially appropriate for a Kpelle man to venture an opinion about such an important matter, certainly without further or more complete information, or without broader community involvement.

Thus, in the context in which it was asked, the villager’s reply may have been rational, and no more than what was expected of an adult in his culture. The villager didn’t know Mr. Smith, as he explained to the researcher, and wasn’t prepared in those circumstances to make a judgment of him.

The textbook fails to inquire about the true nature of the encounter with the villager. As explained, the villager may have been reacting and answering correctly within the social context of his community. The researcher on the other hand may have been attempting to import his own context without explaining that he was doing so, and without understanding that he needed to make such an explanation.

Before you can ask someone to solve a chess problem, you must first explain the rules of chess. The researcher needed to explain to the villager the differing – abstract, non-contextualized, non-social – context within which his inquiry was made before he could really expect to solicit a “logical” (as opposed to a socially rational) reply. It is not clear from the information given by the textbook that the researcher did so.

Consider this example.

Both chess and checkers are games with two opposing sides–usually differentiated by colour—where each side takes turns moving. Both games have a logical structure and well understood rules, and are played on an identical gameboard.  In both games, pieces may be promoted into more powerful pieces by reaching the back squares.

However, in chess, a piece is captured by having the square it is sitting on occupied by a piece of the opposing colour. In checkers, a piece is captured by having a piece of the opposing colour leap over the square it occupies. If a chess player, new to the game of checkers, inadvertently tries to take a checker piece by occupying the square it is sitting on rather than by leaping over it, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t understand logic or the concept of games with formal rules. It just means that he hasn’t yet mastered the rules of one particular game: checkers.

The incident with the Kpelle villager may signify nothing more than the hazards inherent in cross-cultural communication. It may say nothing about the villager’s grasp or practice of formal logic. He was following the rules of chess, perhaps, and the researcher understood only checkers.

Perhaps it was the researcher and not the Liberian villager who didn’t know what was going on, and the researcher who needed further education about other cultures, in particular, tribal and oral cultures, in order to understand the logic of people like the Kpelle.

What I’m talking about is fairly basic stuff, something any anthropologist or sociologist ought to know in relation to dealing with other cultures. The text writers, however, are psychologists who might not be aware of the pitfalls of cross-cultural communication, or if aware, might not have integrated that knowledge.

Still, when you can find such elementary errors in a 21st Century college psychology textbook, it demonstrates, to me at least, how far we have to go to integrate the various streams of study about humanity.