In December 2015, an international and interdisciplinary group of scholars gathered at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City to attend the workshop “Populations of Cognition: Interconnected histories of human variation in Latin America.” We enjoyed a lively three-day meeting replete with bilingual interventions, and afternoon enjoyment of Oaxacan food and mezcal.

Inspired by the scholarship of Warwick Anderson, who in 2012 coined the term sites of cognition, workshop organizers initially proposed populations of cognition as a closely related concept that would draw attention especially to the practice and context of knowledge production about human populations—namely how they are characterized, classified, and made objects of intervention. Following Anderson’s lead, we also took up “cognition” as distributed, intensely social, and historically situated. The notion of cognition points us to the practices and lived experiences of those collectively attempting to define and account for human difference. Moreover, it reminds us not only of scientists’ physical immersion in these populations’ locations and ways of life, but also of the affective dimensions of their experiences there—admiration, empathy, and even horror are all part of the histories we want to narrate through this analytic.

Populations of Cognition posterFor the workshop participants, the populations of cognition analytic served to foreground the practice of scientific inquiry into human populations in Latin America. Through this concept, we sought to deepen understandings of the complex historical and sociopolitical dynamics that have made certain human populations integral to the production of scientific knowledge within and about the region. Drawing on nine empirical cases from across Latin America, we worked to advance theory relevant to the relationship between place and knowledge-making, while grappling seriously with issues of alterity, recognition, and contact.

During the workshop participants also questioned the utility of championing a new “buzzword,” wary of the way analytical terms are often socialized—adapted from a single case and then stretched, loosing specificity and sometimes usefulness along the way. However, the populations of cognition analytic emerged from a collection of stories, drawn from different sites and disciplinary perspectives. Part of its strength, we believe, is nested in its potential to advance understanding of the relationship between knowledge-making and human populations across space and time, and its applicability for the social study of fields as diverse as physiology, evolutionary biology, forensic genetics, and public health. As we continued to develop the analytic during the workshop, we also maintained awareness of how the concept might further mire us in “populationist thinking”[1] by deepening the traction of technoscientific schemas of human difference even as we seek to deconstruct how and why they form. Workshop participant Michael Montoya asked, “Who do we think we are?” and pushed us to consider the ways in which we, as anthropologists and historians of science and STS scholars, may also “reproduce hierarchies by placing ourselves as separate from those [experts] whom we critique,” figuring them, ultimately, as a population of “cognators”.

As the workshop papers revealed, populations of cognition have mutable itineraries over time and space, often involving continuous assembling and disassembling (through different partitions, sampling procedures, and transactions). The case studies also pointed to the ways that populations of cognition reach beyond the local/regional to larger scales of legibility. While the scientific importance of populations of cognition may be rooted in specific historic-socio-geographic attributes, through scientific practices they circulate beyond nation-state boundaries.

Among the participants, Marcos Cueto’s (Casa Oswaldo Cruz, Fiocruz, Rio de Janeiro) paper explored the work of applied anthropologists in 1950s Peru to modernize the indigenous peasant community of Vicos, and the assumptions about race and culture that underpinned their long-term intervention. Ricardo Ventura Santos (Fundação Oswaldo Cruz and Museu Nacional/UFRJ, Brazil) described biomedical research carried out by Yale virologist and epidemiologist Francis Black on Amazonian indigenous populations, while Rosanna Dent (University of Pennsylvania) took up human geneticists’ interdisciplinary efforts to study the Xavante in Central Brazil in the 1960s. Joel Vargas (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) described the production of nutritional and metabolic knowledge based on anthropometric measures of the indigenous Otomí in Mexico in the 1930s. Edna Suárez-Díaz (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) presented on the incorporation of isolated indigenous populations into research on blood diseases in the southern US and Mexico as a public health approach in the 1960s. Santiago Molina (University of California at Berkeley) examined the emergence of “populationist thinking” in the context of the Human Adaptability arm of the International Biological Program (IBP-HA), a large-scale collaborative effort to study human adaptation between 1964 and 1973.

Examining more recent scientific work, Raúl Necochea (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) explored the efforts of surveyors who constructed and promoted the concept of ‘unmet need for contraceptives’ in Latin America over the second half of the 20th century. Vivette García-Deister (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) presented on her work with Lindsay Smith (University of New Mexico), which focuses on the rise of genetic and social technologies for capturing “the disappeared” in contemporary Mexico. Finally, Michael Montoya problematized expert and bureaucratic configurations of an urban, predominately Mexican community in Los Angeles, USA. In addition, Soraya de Chadarevian (University of California at Los Angeles), Carlos López-Beltrán (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), Elizabeth Roberts (University of Michigan), and Fabrizzio Guerrero McManus (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) offered keen commentaries that both problematized and helped to further clarify the concept of populations of cognition.

Across the papers author reflected on the deep entanglement between scientists—those who know—and the populations they technoscientifically articulated. In contrast to earlier theorizations at the intersection of science and its populations, especially Hacking’s (1986) dynamic nominalism,[2] we were particularly moved by the silence of the populations under study in Latin America, but like Anderson (2012) we also located, at times, a kind of agency, especially in the affective dimensions—both positive and negative—of the encounters between science and the “primitive,” the “fertile other,” or the “massacred.”

Thinking about populations of cognition has also pushed us to recognize the failure to produce knowledge, which may not simply amount to the absence of knowledge, but rather to the deliberate act of removing knowledge, manufacturing uncertainty, and producing ignorance—what Proctor and Schiebinger (2008) have called “agnotology.” Within this line of thought, ignorance-making with respect to certain populations (such as “the disappeared”) is part and parcel of population-making. The population itself becomes the border of cognition, delimiting what is knowable from what remains caught up in the epistemic murk (Taussig 1986).

Finally, Adreissa Páez, a PhD student at UNAM, posed the following question, which remains an open one: Can the populations of cognition analytic be extended to non-human social organisms, such as insects?

Taking up these musings, concerns, and questions, a special issue focused on populations of cognition is currently in preparation for publication in an international journal. Emily Vasquez (Columbia University), who outlined the theoretical underpinnings of the analytic and acted as scribe/critical interlocutor at the workshop, will join the team of guest editors for the special issue.


Works cited

Anderson, Warwick. “Hybridity, Race, and Science: The Voyage of the Zaca, 1934–1935.” Isis 103, no. 2 (2012): 229–53.

Hacking, Ian. “Making Up People.” In Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individuality, and the Self in Western Thought, eds. T. C. Heller & C. Brooke-Rose, 222–36. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986.

Taussig, M.T. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Proctor, Robert, and Londa Schiebinger, eds. Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.


[1] As Santiago Molina’s contribution to the workshop explained, “populationist thinking” emerges in opposition to the “typological” thinking of race science in the early 20th century. Based on a flexible understanding of human difference, this view serves as an epistemic rationale for organizing research about human subjects, centered on the population as unit of study.

[2] Hacking’s dynamic nominalism holds that the people classified by social categories will themselves be affected by the classification.

Edna Suárez-Díaz: contributions / website / / Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
Vivette García Deister: contributions / website /
Emily E. Vasquez: contributions / website /