Letter from Ashwin about studying ‘neuroanthropology’
Posted by gregdowney on July 18, 2008
One of our readers, Ashwin, who’s completing his PhD at UCSD posted the following letter on one of our earlier pieces, Where to study neuroanthropology? (it’s response #5), and I thought I should move it up to the front page and make a few comments. It was quite thoughtful and touched on topics that extended beyond merely the issue of where a person might do a PhD in ‘neuroanthropology,’ which really doesn’t exist as a recognized specialization, not only because it is new but also because of certain blind spots in contemporary cultural anthropology. First, I let Ashwin do the talking (and thanks very much for the letter):
My two cents on this query is that as important than what a department looks like on paper/website, past reputation, is to contact faculty to inquire how feasible integrated work will be and will be tolerated.
I am finishing up my PhD in Anthropology and Cognitive Science at UCSD. Ed Hutchins and Tom Csodas (both mentioned above [ed note: see previous post]) are on my committee. Even though I am doing an interdisciplinary degree through an institutionalized mechanism it does not mean that everyone in either department is supportive or even understands what it is I am up to. There is a lot of buzz about interdisciplinary research these days, but persons like me still run up against a lot of traditional disciplinary boundaries/stigmas/epistemological insecurities.
Unfortunately, mainstream (cultural) anthropology still has its head in the sand.
My own experience is that there are still disciplinary dues to be paid, gods to be worshipped, whatever. So it pays to be resilient and fairly clear of intent.
Just something to look out for.
The long and short of it is that there is no official disciple called neuroanthropology. It’s all just too new (which is partly why its so cool). For people wondering about how to get “in”, when looking into graduate programs, [you need to] have specific and feasible research questions in mind and see who (faculty) will support you. How this support happens in practice depends to a large degree on the field. In other words, working in a neuropsych lab and trying to investigate cultural process can be quite different than working in an anthro department trying to investigate brain stuff.
But if you are a biological anthropologist you are probably going to have an easier time interfacing with cognitive neuroscience. When people know that I am also studying cognitive science, they assume I must be a biological anthropologist. But on paper I am a cultural anthropologists. (Though I did study psychology and neuroscience as an undegrad)
Sometimes one needs to take the initiative and make links themselves between people, labs, research problems. Even at world-class academic institutions there are a lot of links that should be there that are not.
For example, as an anthropologist interested in psychiatry, I marched over to the school of medicine and plugged into components of the residency program. Now, we have a psychiatric anthropology interest group that is trying to forge more official links with the psychiatry dept.
University of California (e.g., UCLA, UCSD, UCI, UCD) are potentially good places for attempting neuroanthro studies/research. As mentioned, there is the Interdisciplinary program in Cognitive Science at UCSD and the CBD at UCLA (also great for undergraduates). One should *definitely* look into the Foundation for Psychocultural Research (FPR) at UCLA. Emory University is superb for biocultural studies.
Ok that was more like 3 cents….
I’d have given him credit for more than 3 cents. That’s lots of good advice for anyone interested in pursuing neuroanthropological research for a doctorate; a fair bit of the advice would apply no matter what you were studying, whether or not it is brain- or anthropology-related. Too often, I feel like doctoral students, especially those fresh out of undergraduate programs, think that doctoral programs will be more of the same, with all pathways clearly marked and well trod. The reality is that most interesting anthropological research is not of the ‘I’m-just-going-to-work-in-my-advisor’s-lab-and-do-what-I’m-told’ variety. Almost all of us have to go where there is no map if we’re going to do innovative work.
I’m glad Ashwin offers advice on the California programs; I don’t have any direct familiarity with how they work, though I keep finding that people whose work I enjoy wind up in these departments teaching. I wish I could tell our readers more about what was happening there, but Daniel and I both come out of different streams of anthropological research and institutional histories. Ashwin’s points about needing to make your own connections, and that interdisciplinary rhetoric is often well ahead of actual interdisciplinary reality (especially with some faculty members), are both worth repeating.
The reality of funding, promotion, exams, recruiting, and post-graduate education is still almost entirely discipline-based in most universities. That said, there are some very interesting inter-disciplinary centres arising in various institutions, around the world, where neuroanthropology might find a comfortable home, but I would always recommend to a doctoral student to go where there’s strong institutional support — you don’t want to be the first person to try to do a PhD in an inter-disciplinary centre unless there’s damn good support for it.
Personally, I don’t want ‘neuroanthropology’ to become a recognized, separate field of any sort. I hope that some of the concerns we talk about here, at this site, influence the mainstream of anthropology (if that even exists). I hope that talking about variation in the human brain can bring together people with strong institutional support in a variety of fields rather than having to wait for slow-moving institutions to recognize that this sort of conversation needs to take place. When I read what Ashwin writes, I’m thrilled to hear how the degree is going — it makes me wish that I had been even more aware of what was happening in the brain and cognitive sciences when I was doing my PhD in cultural anthropology (maybe that’s one reason I feel so passionate about doing a website and not just waiting for things to come out in academic journals).
Without saying it, Ashwin demonstrates probably the most important advice that we can offer when looking into where to do a doctorate in neuroanthropology (or any other field for that matter): talk to the people actually doing degrees, not just to the faculty, advisors, instructors, and the like. The day-to-day reality of trying to do inter-disciplinary, even trans-disciplinary work, as a doctoral student may be a fair bit more difficult than policy documents or visions statements make it sound. The people who know best are the people working through the system, not those who (think that they) run those systems.
Many thanks to Ashwin for the letter!