Summary of The Cultural Context of Cognition: What the Implicit Association Test Tells Us About How Culture Works by Hana Shepherd

N.B.  This summary is a “follow up” on my reaction to the Implicit Associations Test that I wrote of earlier.  I wanted to summarize a journal article that presented a different perspective than mine even though I am still in disagreement with the intention and what I feel is a bias in the tests that I took.

Summary.  The implicit associations test, according to the author, is a means to determine what role cultural elements play in the understanding and behavior of individuals, especially since elements of the culture in question exist independently from how they are used or understood by the individual.  The question that is asked is what effect that external cultural environment has on the individual. Culture is a major term for this study so it is defined, in short, as the “interaction of shared schematic representations [shared by individuals and groups] and the external world.” (Shepherd: 122).  The author studied literature that draws upon the Implicit Associations Test to determine how culture functions and how it fits into current sociological study.

Arguments.  The author makes several assumptions regarding automatic processes and implicit associations, including some mainstream interpretations.  Most researchers argue that implicit associations are implicit attitudes or prejudices that are stable, unchangeable and unique to the individual.  Shepherd argues that implicit associations are malleable and depend upon environment, group, and circumstances rather than the static, unique, and unchangeable associations presented in the test’s isolation and assumed by sociologists.  The literature on automatic cognition references the process of cognition rather than the content of mental representations that further supports the author’s argument that behavior is “shaped by exposure to elements of the social world”.

Contextual Observations.  The author focuses upon implicit attitudes and implicit prejudices because the studies in the social-psychology literature primarily focus upon these two subject areas.  The physical context is an interesting but not surprising one.  Participants were shown videos of Black Americans playing in a park and Black Americans in a gang-related activity, respondents’ implicit associations were characteristically positive after seeing the former and negatively after watching the latter.  There is no mention of propaganda or cultural conditioning in the observations of the author but they are always there facing everyone in plain sight.  A similar test was conducted with Rap and Popular music and the results were the same.  Additionally, respondent’s implicit attitudes were tested in social and situational contexts with Black men and white women in superior and subservient roles.  Based on the context of the situation or the roles, the results were similar.  The results never seem to be based upon ingrained, inflexible implicit associations.

Conclusions.  The author analyzed the varied implicit association literature in this area and concludes initially that people keep “rich, and diverse representations of people, groups, and institutions whether they are consciously aware of them or not.” (Shepherd:  139).  Shepherd indicates that further studies of racial associations can move beyond the stable cultural characteristics of individuals to a study of the cultural environment(s) that allow for the persistence of contextual racism and the features of such environments.   While this is scientific analysis far beyond the philosophical musings of David Hume on generalities and prejudices, I see the science of the past building and expanding itself, the present using the studies and writings, and observations of past scientists to understand the present and the future.  This is what Shepherd has done here as well.



Shepherd, H. (2011, March). The Cultural Context of Cognition: What the Implicit Association Test Tells Us About How Culture Works1. In Sociological Forum (Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 121-143). Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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