Professor Rita Astuti

Professor Rita Astuti

Professor of Social Anthropology

Department of Anthropology

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English, Italian
Key Expertise

About me

Rita Astuti is an expert of the anthropology of Madagascar. Her writings, based on extensive fieldwork conducted since the late 80s, have been about kinship, personhood, gender, group identity and belief. After spending a significant amount of time working alongside cognitive and developmental psychologists (at NYU and Harvard), she started to combine experimental methods with more traditional ethnographic approaches. This way of working has transformed the analysis of her ethnographic material, leading her to challenge some well-established anthropological tenets, e.g., about kinship, and to generate new insights about processes of cultural learning.

More recently, in collaboration with her colleague Charles Stafford, she has been working on the topic of human cooperation: the fundamental cognitive and emotional abilities thanks to which humans manage to engage in joint action, to share goals, to be helpful with one another and even to be outright altruistic. While this is a burgeoning field of study, there is a real need for a robust anthropological intervention: we need to bring scientific knowledge about our evolved dispositions towards cooperation into conversation with the knowledge about how cooperation actually takes place in human societies.

Professor Astuti is the author of People of the Sea: Identity and Descent among the Vezo of Madagascar (CUP, 1995) and, with developmental psychologists Susan Carey and Gregg Solomon, of Constraints on Conceptual Development (Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 2004). Her most recent book, Cognition in the field is due to be published next year.

She is a member of the Advisory Group of the Human Mind Project and is participating in “The Grand Challenge”; you can hear her thoughts on the Human Mind and other topics here:

Expertise Details

cognitive anthropology; cognitive psychology; cross-cultural studies; developmental psychology; gender; identity; kinship

Selected publications

2015. Implicit and explicit Theory of MindAnthropology of this century, 13. 

2015. (co-editor with Denis Regnier). Special Issue: The cognitive challenge. Social Anthropology 23.

2015. (with M. Bloch) The causal cognition of wrong doing: incest, intentionality, and moralityFrontiers in Psychology, 6. 136. ISSN 1664-1078

2013. (with M. Bloch) Are ancestors dead? In: Boody, J. & Lambek, M. (Eds.) Companion to the Anthropology of Religion. Wiley-Blackwell, London, pp. 103-17

2012 Some after dinner thoughts on theory of mind Anthropology of This Century, 3.

2012. (with M. Bloch). Anthropologists as cognitive scientistsTopics in Cognitive Science, 4 (3). 453-461.

2011. Death, ancestors and the living dead: Learning without teaching in Madagascar. In V. Talwar, P.L. Harris & M. Schleifer (Eds.), Children's understanding of death: From biological to supernatural conceptions, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-18.

2010. (with M. Bloch). Why a theory of human nature cannot be based on the distinction between universality and variability: lessons from anthropologyBehavioral and Brain Sciences, 33 (2-3). 83-84.

2009. Revealing and obscuring Rivers’s natural pedigrees: Biological inheritance and kinship in Madagascar. In J. Leach & S. Bamford (Eds.) Kinship and Beyond: the genealogical model reconsidered, Berghahn, pp. 214-236. 

2008. (with P.L. Harris) Understanding mortality and the life of the ancestors in rural MadagascarCognitive Science, 32, 1, pp. 1-29.

2007. La moralité des conventions: tabous ancestraux à Madagascar. Terrain, 48, pp. 101-12.

2007. Weaving together culture and cognition: an illustration from Madagascar. In Culture and Society: Some Viewpoints of Cognitive Scientists, F. Clement and L. Kaufmann (Eds.). Special issue of Intellectica. Revue de l'Association pour la Recherche Cognitive, 46-47, pp. 173-189.

2007. What happens after death? In Questions of Anthropology, Rita Astuti, Jonathan Parry & Charles Stafford (eds.), London School of Economics Monographs, Oxford: Berg, pp. 227-247.

2007. Ancestors and the afterlife. In Religion, anthropology, and cognitive science, Harvey Whitehouse and James Laidlaw (eds). Chapel Hill: Carolina Academic, pp. 161-178.

2004. (with G.E.A. Solomon and S. Carey) Constraints on conceptual development: A case study of the acquisition of folkbiological and folksociological knowledge in MadagascarMonographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, no.277, vol. 69, no.3

2001. Are we all natural dualists? A cognitive developmental approach. (The 2000 Malinowski Memorial Lecture) Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 7, pp. 429-447.

2000. Les gens ressemblent-ils aux poulets ? Penser la frontière homme / animal à MadagascarTerrain, 34, pp. 89-105.

2000. Kindreds, cognatic and unilineal descent groups : new perspectives from Madagascar. In: Carsten, Janet, (ed.) Cultures of Relatedness : New Approaches to the Study of Kinship. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 90-103.

1998. "It's a boy!," "It's a girl!": Reflections on sex and gender in Madagascar and beyond. In Bodies and persons: Comparative perspectives from Africa and Melanesia, Michael Lambek and Andrew Strathern (eds). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 29-52.

1995. People of the sea: Identity and descent among the Vezo of Madagascar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.