Cultural Holes: Bringing Culture and Social Networks Together

In developing my Biocultural Medical Anthropology grad syllabus, I came across an interesting 2010 article in the Annual Review of Sociology: Cultural Holes: Beyond Relationality in Social Networks and Culture. Here is the abstract:

A burgeoning literature spanning sociologies of culture and social network methods has for the past several decades sought to explicate the relationships between culture and connectivity. A number of promising recent moves toward integration are worthy of review, comparison, critique, and synthesis. Network thinking provides powerful techniques for specifying cultural concepts ranging from narrative networks to classification systems, tastes, and cultural repertoires. At the same time, we see theoretical advances by sociologists of culture as providing a corrective to network analysis as it is often portrayed, as a mere collection of methods.

Cultural thinking complements and sets a new agenda for moving beyond predominant forms of structural analysis that ignore action, agency, and intersubjective meaning. The notion of “cultural holes” that we use to organize our review points both to the cultural contingency of network structure and to the increasingly permeable boundary between studies of culture and research on social networks.

Mark Pachucki is the first author, and a recent Ph.D in sociology from Harvard and current Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholar. Ronald Breiger, the second author, is a professor of sociology at Arizona.

The idea of cultural holes builds on Ronald Burt’s idea of “structural holes,” which Pachucki and Breiger summarize:

Burt’s idea refers to strategic bridging ties that may connect otherwise disjoint clumps of social actors; these ties are hypothesized to lead to enhanced information benefits and social capital for those who bridge holes.

Cultural holes fills a gap (yes, I couldn’t resist) by examining “cultural meanings, practices, and discourse” as part of social networks and social structures, basically positing that conceiving social networks as independent phenomena is wrong. Rather, social networks need to be recognized as “culturally contingent” even as we increasingly recognize the powerful impact of networks over the lifespan.

Here is their main justification in their essay:

The time is overdue for a conscientious shift beyond cultural explanations for social structure, and structural explanations for cultural outcomes, toward a more integrated vision of social scientific explanation. Social relations are culturally constituted, and shared cultural meanings also shape social structure…

[We] need to look beyond the structure at both the content of what is being transmitted—such as social norms and the credibility of information—and mechanisms of transmission, and more importantly how culturally meaningful individual action can result in drastic changes in the dynamics of social networks in which individuals are embedded.

I’ll finish off with the ending to their Annual Review article, which provides a good overview of the whole piece.

SUMMARY POINTS

1. Culture and social networks can be usefully seen as mutually constitutive and coevolving, having grown from common sociological roots in relational thinking.

2. Much empirical analysis over the past several decades has tended to treat social networks and culture as discrete realms rather than together. Notable attempts at synthetic engagement are reviewed.

3. A body of recent work shows how culture prods, evokes, and constitutes social networks in ways that may be envisioned and modeled by new analytic methods. Prominent emerging research areas include narrative and textual analysis, the civic sphere, studies of organizing principles such as fields and actor networks, boundaries, and cultural tastes.

4. In dialogue with the influential concept of structural holes, we suggest that cultural holes captures contingencies of meaning, practice, and discourse that enable social structure and structural holes.

5. Four aspects of cultural holes are identified: (1) Bridging social ties often exist because they connect people who both share and reject tastes, as well as those with complementary tastes. (2) Boundaries as well as affinities among genres are productively understood as patterned around absences of ties among cultural forms. (3) The use of structural holes as distinct from other organizing principles may depend on culture at levels ranging from interpersonal, to intraorganizational, to transnational. (4) Incommensurability in institutional logics prods actors to generate new meanings and forms of discourse.

Link to Pachucki & Breiger’s Cultural Holes abstract & citation

People, Not Memes, Are the Medium!

And that’s the message!

Susan Blackmore is up to her usual shenanigans, promoting memes like the red in her hair, following fashion when it’s just not good science.

She has an essay over at the New York Times, The Third Replicator, and will also be engaged in debate with other folks at On the Human, the online project of the National Humanities Center. The entire essay and further discussion are available there at Temes: An Emerging Third Replicator.

Blackmore’s basic argument is that information is multiplying, and the resulting evolutionary process – due to variation, inheritance, and internet success – is best understood through the concepts of “memes” and “temes”:

All around us information seems to be multiplying at an ever increasing pace. New books are published, new designs for toasters and i-gadgets appear, new music is composed or synthesized and, perhaps above all, new content is uploaded into cyberspace…

It is perhaps rather obvious to attribute this to the evolutionary algorithm or Darwinian process, as I will do, but I wish to emphasize one part of this process — copying. The reason information can increase like this is that, if the necessary raw materials are available, copying creates more information. Of course it is not new information, but if the copies vary (which they will if only by virtue of copying errors), and if not all variants survive to be copied again (which is inevitable given limited resources), then we have the complete three-step process of natural selection (Dennett, 1995). From here novel designs and truly new information emerge…

When our ancestors began to imitate they let loose a new evolutionary process based not on genes but on a second replicator, memes. Genes and memes then coevolved, transforming us into better and better meme machines…

[I]n the early 21st century, we are seeing the emergence of a third replicator. I call these temes (short for technological memes, though I have considered other names). They are digital information stored, copied, varied and selected by machines. We humans like to think we are the designers, creators and controllers of this newly emerging world but really we are stepping stones from one replicator to the next.

The basic analysis is two-step: (a) like so many spectacular failures before, slot humans into a reductive evolutionary analysis – eugenics, selfish-gene sociobiology, and now the memes/temes team (and damn, it makes me mad because this really hampers people’s understanding of how to do good evolutionary analysis!); (b) come up with a categorical concept and apply it everywhere – the replicator (genes, memes, and temes) – even after the complexities of actual genetic “copying” reveal a dynamic and incomplete process, not a prime mover and essentialist causal force (and damn, it makes me mad because this really hampers people’s understanding of how to do neural/anthropolological analysis!).

The great advantage of this is that most people can follow a two-step analysis, a one-two punch, a back-and-forth dance move. It’s easy, often appealing, and doesn’t require a lot of practice or skill to ape.

Let me go back to my initial play on words, off McLuhan’s “the medium is the message.” Here’s a part of the Wikipedia entry on just that phrase which reveals the immediate downfall to Blackmore:

McLuhan describes the “content” of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. This means that people tend to focus on the obvious, which is the content, to provide us valuable information, but in the process, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. As the society’s values, norms and ways of doing things change because of the technology, it is then we realize the social implications of the medium. These range from cultural or religious issues and historical precedents, through interplay with existing conditions, to the secondary or tertiary effects in a cascade of interactions that we are not aware of.

The content of “memes” or “temes,” the simplistic juicy idea, really distracts us from two messages: what the social implications of Ms. Blackmore’s ideas are (and she sure has plenty to say there, and does so often), and how technology actually drives wholesale transformations in ways that makes the the concept of “temes” seem so inadequate, so antiquated. Why are a search engine, a social connector, and a video uploader the three top sites in the world? It’s not because of temes – it’s because people use them.

I could go on and on, but there’s not much point. I’ll let Greg speak for me in his post, We Hate Memes, Pass It On:

So, why do I hate the concept of ‘ideas replicating from brain to brain.’ After all, I work on physical education and imitative learning; shouldn’t I be happy that memetic theory places such a premium on imitative learning? What is my problem!? Ah, let me count the problems… I’ll just give you 10 Problems with Memetics to keep it manageable.

Greg starts with (1) Reifying the activity of brains, (2) Attributing personality to the reification of ideas, (3) Doesn’t ‘self-replicating’ mean replicating by one’s self?, (4) The term ‘meme’ applied to divergent phenomena, and another six gems for you.

In the meantime, here is someone who actually does work on YouTube and other Internet phenomena, anthropologist Michael Wesch.

The Encultured Brain: Why Neuroanthropology? Why Now?

Encultured Brain Large
Why Neuroanthropology? Why Now?

By Greg Downey and Daniel Lende

Neuroanthropology places the brain and nervous system at the center of discussions about human nature, recognizing that much of what makes us distinctive inheres in the size, specialization, and dynamic openness of the human nervous system. By starting with neural physiology and its variability, neuroanthropology situates itself from the beginning in the interaction of nature and culture, the inextricable interweaving of developmental unfolding and evolutionary endowment.

Our brain and nervous system are our cultural organs. While virtually all parts of the human body—skeleton, muscles, joints, guts—bear the stamp of our behavioral variety, our nervous system is especially immature at birth, our brain disproportionately small in relation to its adult size and disproportionately susceptible to cultural sculpting. Compared to other mammals, our first year of life finds our brain developing as if in utero, immersed in language, social interaction, and the material world when other species are still shielded by their mother’s body from this outside world. This immersion means that our ideas about ourselves and how we want to raise our children affect the environmental niche in which our nervous system unfolds, influencing gene expression and developmental processes to the cellular level.

Increasingly, neuroscientists are finding evidence of functional differences in brain activity and architecture between cultural groups, occupations, and individuals with different skill sets. The implication for neuroanthropology is obvious: forms of enculturation, social norms, training regimens, ritual, and patterns of experience shape how our brains work and are structured. But the predominant reason that culture becomes embodied, even though many anthropologists overlook it, is that neuroanatomy inherently makes experience material. Without material change in the brain, learning, memory, maturation, and even trauma could not happen. Neural systems adapt through long-term refinement and remodeling, which leads to deep enculturation. Through systematic change in the nervous system, the human body learns to orchestrate itself as well as it eventually does. Cultural concepts and meanings become anatomy.

Although every animal’s nervous system is open to the world, the human nervous system is especially adept at projecting mental constructs onto the world, transforming the environment into a sociocognitive niche that scaffolds and extends the brain’s abilities. This niche is constructed through social relationships, physical environments, ritual patterns, and symbolic constructs that shape behavior and ideas, create divisions, and pattern lives. Thus, our brains become encultured through reciprocal processes of externalization and internalization, where we use the material world to think and act even as that world shapes our cognitive capacities, sensory systems, and response patterns.

Our ability to learn and remember, our sophisticated skills, our facility with symbolic systems, and our robust self control all mean that the capacity for culture is, in large part, bought with neurological coin. This dynamic infolding of an encultured nervous system happens over developmental time, through the capacity of individuals to internalize both experience and community-generated tools, and then to share thoughts, meanings and accomplishments. Thus, a central principle of neuroanthropology is that it is a mistake to designate a single cause or to apportion credit for specialized skills (individual or species-wide) to one factor for what is actually a complex set of processes.

Most academic research implicitly or explicitly utilizes a reductive cause-effect approach; in popular understandings of the brain, the tendency to single out causal factors is even more prevalent. Rather than one set of genes or an overarching system of meaning, humans’ capacity for abstract thought emerges equally from social and individual sources, built of public symbol, evolutionary endowment, social scaffolding, and private neurological achievements. In neuroanthropology, the goal is not simply to juxtapose a simplistic critique against a one-side initial account, but to attempt a much more holistic, synthetic exploration of how various elements in these dynamic relations interact to produce cognitive functions.

Neuroanthropology: Areas of Application

Neuroanthropology has four clear roles: (1) understanding the interaction of brain and culture and its implication for our understanding of mind, behavior, and self; (2) examining the role of the nervous system in the creation of social structures; (3) providing empirical and critical inquiry into the interplay of neuroscience and ideologies about the brain; and (4) using neuroanthropology to provide novel syntheses and advances in human science theory.

The interaction of brain and culture is neuroanthropology’s core dynamic, exploring the synthesis of nature and nurture and cutting through idealized views of biological mechanisms and cultural symbols. Using social and cultural neuroscience in combination with psychological anthropology and cultural psychology, neuroanthropology builds in-depth analyses of mind, behavior and self based on an understanding of both neurological function and ethnographic reality. This research creates robust analyses of specific neural-cultural phenomena, recognizing that each may demonstrate a distinctive dynamic; for example, neuroanthropological investigation reworks our understanding of human capacities like balance (often assumed to be something innate), studies how practices like meditation shape and piggyback upon neural functioning, and examines the interactive nature of pathologies like addiction and autism.

Neuroanthropology has profound implications for our understanding of how societies become socially structured. Inequality works through the brain and body, involving mechanisms like stress, learning environments, the loss of neuroplasticity, the impact of toxins, educational opportunities (or their absence) and other factors that negatively shape development. Neuroanthropology can play a fundamental role in documenting these effects and in linking them to the social, political and cultural factors that negatively impact on the brain. At the same time, technological and pharmacological interventions are playing an increasing role in managing behavioral disorders, often with great profit for companies, while cognitive enhancement drugs, brain-computer interfaces, and neuro-engineering will surely be used in ways that create new separations between haves and have-nots. Finally, societal appeals to “hard-wired” differences remain a standard approach by people in positions of power to maintain racial, gender, sexual and other inequalities; a deeper understanding of the complex origins and unfolding of key neural and physiological differences undermines accounts that assume these distinctions are inescapable. At the same time, neuroanthropology points to new ways to think about how people become talented and ways to understand intelligence, resiliency, social relations and other factors that shape success in life.

In societies across the globe, the brain now acts as a central metaphor, a substitute for self, a way to explain mental health, a short-hand for why people are different. In reaction, critical approaches have looked at the interpretation and use of brain imagery, psychoactive pharmaceuticals, public presentations of neuroscience research, and related social phenomena. Meanwhile, the pace of neuroscience research, and innovations in associated technologies, has been breathtaking. One aim for neuroanthropology is to make sense of these three related but often conflicting factors in ways that provide grounded research and critical insight into what the realities of brain and self actually are. Neuroanthropology will play a central role in mediating between the claims of different sides with the expertise gained from empiricism as well as the theoretical and critical framework gained from the combination of neuroscience and anthropology. This aspect of neuroanthropology is an absolute necessity given the convergence of these three recent historical phenomena – accelerating research, social reworkings, and intellectual interrogation of both.

Neuroanthropology makes direct contributions to theory development. At the most basic level, it provides a broad umbrella to integrate concepts across academic fields. Embodiment, for example, is an idea explored from basic neuroscience, psychology and cognitive linguistics to anthropology and philosophy. Neuroanthropology provides the conceptual and methodological tools to work through what we mean by such a broad-ranging idea.

Neuroanthropology also has direct implications for anthropology and neuroscience. It demonstrates the necessity of theorizing culture and human experience in ways that are not ignorant of or wholly inconsistent with discoveries about human cognition from brain sciences. Rather than broad-based concepts like habitus or cognitive structure, neuroanthropology focuses on how social and cultural phenomena actually achieve the impact they have on people in material terms. Rather than assuming structural inequality is basic to all societies, neuroanthropologists ask how inequality differentiates people and what we might do about that.

Similarly, on the neurological side, the principal theories of brain development, neural architecture and function remain tied to a biological view of proximate mechanisms and evolutionary origins. Yet it is abundantly clear that many neurological capacities, such as language or skills, do not appear without immersion in culture. Neuroanthropology highlights how that immersion matters to the brain’s construction and function. For example, neuroanthropology can take a basic idea like Hebbian learning — “what fires together, wires together” — and examine how social and cultural processes shape the timing, exposure, and strength of activity, such that the coordinated action of brain systems emerges through cultural dynamics. Neuroanthropology opens up a vibrant new space for thinking about how and why brains work the ways they do.

Neuroscientists and Anthropologists as Partners

By placing the focus on the individual’s nervous system and its relation to the world, neuroanthropology asks challenging questions of scale and depth for both neuroscientists and anthropologists, demanding both groups stretch beyond accustomed frames. For neuroscientists, seriously considering human diversity may require changes in research methods, in such basic processes as averaging and amalgamating imaging data, removing outlying data points (some of the most interesting individuals), and in finding test subjects. It can help cultural neuroimaging researchers to develop a much more sophisticated understanding about what results of comparative brain scan of Asians and Western Europeans might mean and why seeing doesn’t always translate into cultural believing. Thus, neuroanthropology offers to neuroscientists more sophisticated ways of thinking about neural environment, based upon over a century of debate about the nature of cultural variation and how to conceptualize patterns of behavior.

The same thought and subtlety that goes into understanding the relations among parts of the brain and body can be extended to consider how elements of the cultural and social environment are tied into specific brain functions, illuminating some of the specific ways that mind can become extended through cultural leveraging. That is, simply adding ‘culture’ as a single population variable fails to really illuminate the dynamic, inconsistent processes through which neurological potential is channeled by specific cultural institutions or practices. Because the nervous system is embedded within the world, shot through with the environment down to its cellular structure, integrative models of its development must include interacting elements from both inside and outside of the skin.

Although brain scientists have reached out to other interlocutors, we believe that anthropology is an especially strong potential partner. The influence of culture, social interaction and behavior patterns are immediate and susceptible to direct research, often more so than evolutionary theories about brain architecture origin. In addition, ethnographic research offers concrete evidence of how social and cultural dimensions of the environment might affect cognitive function, and illustrates the range of neuroplasticity in developmental outcomes well beyond what most experimental protocols consider. Anthropologists explore naturally-occurring experiments in which the nervous system is developed over a lifetime in diverging directions.

For anthropologists, neuroanthropology entails a return to integrative research after decades in which many biological and cultural anthropologists have seen each other as the primary opposition. The anthropological study of the nervous system calls on anthropologists to make good on our promises of holism. Psychological anthropologists have called for a greater focus on elements of neuroanthropology — affect, memory, neural-based models of cognition, biocultural integration — but a wholesale shift requires anthropologists to maintain a simultaneous consideration of what may have previously been apportioned to different specialties in the field. The nervous system inherently spans boundaries between specialized knowledge of such areas as evolution, child development, physiology, perception, phenomenology, behavioral research, biology and culture. Although some researchers might pull back from considering biology out of a fear of reductionism, the nervous system resists obstinately any simplistic explanation, throwing up counter-examples such as varying degrees of mental modularity, cognitive heterogeneity, and complex mixtures of neuroplasticity and innate endowments shaped by evolution.

With rare exceptions, anthropologists have not participated extensively in the growing movement toward cultural neuroscience. The time is ripe for this engagement: brain scientists are no longer content to just treat cultural difference as a demographic variable, and anthropologists are no longer so afraid of ‘universalizing’ or ‘psychologizing’ that they cannot get involved in this expanding area of research. Anthropologists offer to brain scientists more robust accounts of enculturation to explain observable differences in brain function, a range of resources for extending neurological accounts beyond the individual human organism. Neuroscience research offers to anthropology a more nuanced way of linking universal human tendencies and cultural particularity, and in grounding one foot of the holistic study of human subjects firmly in biology.

Neuroanthropology is a sustained effort, not to mine brain sciences opportunistically, but to engage continually in interrogating the brain sciences to enrich holistic anthropology, while also contributing to the unfolding of cultural neuroscience. Neuroanthropologists will have to keep abreast of new research techniques and findings, and to be willing to modify, expand, or shed outright our theories if they are unsupported by data. Anthropology has tended to be a theoretically heterodox field, producing more than its fair share of paradigms for understanding human social life, so neuroanthropologists should have abundant resources on which to draw, as long as we are willing to range far and wide for our intellectual frameworks, including into the past paradigms of relevant fields.

Unlike some people working in this area, the organizers of this conference do not believe that only one research method will contribute to neuroanthropology, nor that this emerging field of thought will become dominated by a single account of how the brain functions. The brain itself is baroque, fashioned over evolutionary time out of a host of modules and functional units that are still incompletely integrated. Every type of neurological activity does not obey the same rules, nor are they equally susceptible (or immune) to self-reflection and conscious thought. Some cognitive capacities are characterized by deeply-ingrained stereotypical species-general responses; other functions are remarkably plastic, even susceptible to substantial revision and conscious redirection. No one simple theory can explain how every system works so we should recognize that enculturation will vary even among the regions and networks within the brain. If an account of one system remains consistent with its functioning while defying expectations arising from other systems, this is as likely to be a product of the brain’s heterogeneity as it is a reflection of differences in research methods or approaches.

Enough over-arching theories have foundered on human neural heterogeneity to offer ample warning: neuroanthropological theory will have to be partial and incremental rather than overly generalizing and prematurely sweeping. That is, no single enculturation process affects all brain areas equally, so no single account of the relation between brain and culture is likely to prove compelling in all cases. We propose an evidence-based theoretical eclecticism, recognizing that some of our disagreements are likely to arise from the fact that we theorize from different case studies in neural acculturation.

We also see neuroanthropology’s role as a constructive contributor to integrative brain science, not just policing its borders or offering constant critical scrutiny. Certainly, critique has its place, but without helping to produce better paradigms or suggestions for improvement, critique simply leaves conscientious researchers without positive alternatives to the practices that warrant criticism. Full engagement must include constructive proposals for improving both brain science and anthropological research.

Thinking through Human Problems

Neuroanthropology stakes out a new space for research. In examining the interaction of biology and culture, neuroanthropology considers how activities, contexts, and experiences are crucial to forming what it means to be human and how humans are similar and different around the world. Rather than conceiving of subjectivity as a text to be interpreted and the brain as composed of hard-wired circuits or innate modules beholden to selfish genes and evolutionary algorithms, neuroanthropology posits that subjectivity and the brain meet in the things that people do and say and the ways we interact with one another and the environment. Thus, it does not limit itself to psychology, which has a predominant focus on internal states, often separate from the body, physical activity, and the specifics of interaction with cultural environments. Moreover, neuroanthropology does not limit itself to Western notions of mind, self or consciousness, which can dominate discussions in some academic settings.

The inherent variety among different brain systems means that conscious reflection and experience-based accounts have a crucial relation to many of the phenomena we study. Experience-based ethnographic descriptions can offer valuable insights into brain functioning. At times these descriptions can help illuminate the influence of context and experience; at other times, neuroanthropological accounts may highlight the limits of conscious awareness and demonstrate the self-deceptions inherent in some kinds of neurological functioning. For this reason, neuroanthropology brings an ethnographic sensibility to brain research, including a willingness to take into consideration native theories of thought and individuals’ accounts of their own experience. Thus, careful ethnographic research, in-depth interviews, and the analysis of indigenous worldviews will always be central to the neuroanthropological synthesis

At the same, researchers must explore automization, endocrinology, emotion, perception, and other neural systems that contribute to patterns of variation but are not entirely susceptible to reflection. For example, practices of child rearing and early formative experiences are clearly influenced by cultural ideologies about how children should be nurtured, but many of the organic mechanisms through which these ideologies take hold of individuals and affect their long-term development may be unknown, even invisible to the participants.

For a long time, anthropologists have focused on culture as a system of symbolic associations, public signs, or shared meanings. But from the perspective of the nervous system, patterns of variation among different groups may include significant non-conscious, non-symbolic traits, such as patterns of behavior, automatized response, skills, and perceptual biases. This neuroanthropological framing opens more space for considering why all types of cognition may not operate in identical fashion, and how non-cognitive forms of neural enculturation might influence thought and action. Given this type of functioning, neuroanthropologists will have to return to an older notion of ‘culture,’ one that considers capabilities, habits and other forms of collective action (and not just meaning). While it can prove useful to speak principally of ‘culture’ as shared representations, we also must recognize that ‘cultural variation’ will include other sorts of patterned, shared conditionings of the nervous system.

For this reason subjects’-eye-view accounts are critical to neuroanthropology in a way that they might not be to other cognitive theorists. First, we recognize that theories about how the mind works or what it needs are themselves part of the developmental environment in which the brain is formed. Even if these ideas don’t accurately represent actual neural function, they do influence the brain-culture system, and can have an impact on the way the brain works even if that is in a way utterly unintended by those who hold the ideas. That is, whether indigenous theories of thought are accurate, they are part of the ecology of brain conditioning.

Second, consciousness itself is part of complex neural systems, adding degrees of self-regulation, restraint, learning, monitoring, cuing, and a host of other capacities. How people understand and experience their own thought is part and parcel of neural activities, although not necessarily an all-encompassing awareness or even the most important part of that function. Yet most of our cultural and neural functioning is submerged, only accessible to consciousness with extraordinary effort and special techniques, if it is accessible at all. Thus, research techniques should focus on capturing both our conscious awareness of why we do what we do and the inherent processes that shape the flow and outcome of that doing.

Third, we would point out that cognitive science itself is a hybrid, composed of researchers working in a range of fields from philosophy and psychology to neurophysiology, artificial intelligence and robotics. Different types of neurological functioning are susceptible to different types of research and demand varying degrees of analytical flexibility, including modeling and simulation. Although neuroimaging has made remarkable strides in recent decades, even its practitioners recognize that it must combine with other sorts of fields and data in order to draw robust conclusions beyond the narrow confines of experimental protocols.

Fourth, cultural resources like subtle differences in language may support distinctive phenomenological insights into the human nervous system. That is, other cultures may notice things about the human nervous system that our own communities have not observed, thematized, or codified. For example, the cognitive neuroscience of highly skilled communities or specialists who refine certain brain functions, such as meditation, perceptual skills, or high performance cognitive abilities in areas like mental calculation, recall or spatial navigation, have demonstrated marked empirical differences in brain function in imaging studies. But something similar might happen as well in indigenous folk theories of thinking or other neural functions, and we lose a vital resource if we do not ask ourselves how ethnographic communities come to their own ideas about the mind and experience.

When anthropologists and other ethnographers have engaged with cognitive science, they have made remarkable contributions. Neuroscientists with anthropological inclinations have made similar important advances. But overall the traffic has been too little in both directions, and the contributions made have been piece-meal rather than systemic or sustained. The brain sciences need the research and insights that anthropologists have developed in order to seriously explore the wide variation in human cognitive and neural functioning. Anthropology must move beyond critique and engage with these fields in a constructive mode in order to answer basic questions about culture, inequality, and human difference. Together, we can help construct the frameworks that allow the best of diverse research on the brain and human nature to be shared across disciplinary lines.

The potential gains are enormous: a robust account of brains in the wild, an understanding of how we come to possess our distinctive capacities and the degree to which these might be malleable across our entire species. The applications of this sort of research are myriad in diverse areas such as education, cross-cultural communication, developmental psychology, design, therapy, and information technology, to name just a few. But the first step is the one taken here – by coming together, we can achieve significant advances in understanding how our very humanity relies on the intricate interplay of brain and culture.

Encultured Color Bar

Greg Downey is senior lecturer in anthropology at Macquarie University. Daniel Lende is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.

This essay on Why Neuroanthropology? Why Now? is the conference statement for The Encultured Brain: Building Interdisciplinary Collaborations for the Future of Neuroanthropology.

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Nature/Nurture: Slash To The Rescue

Slash is cool – creative writing, community, and alternative imaginations all wrapped in one. Like I said at the end of my post Sex, Lies and IRB Tape: Netporn to SurveyFail, if I want to understand slash, I’d read some.

And so I have, exploring recommend pieces over at Whispered Words. Cassandra Claire’s The Very Secret Diaries on the Lord of the Rings made me laugh and laugh. Greyworlf’s Kirk/Spock And In the Darkness Bind You was erotic, intense, and well-written, a classic of slash according to Whispered Words.

But today I want to expand on what I thought was a throw-away line in that post, and connect it to some of what Greg wrote about in his post on ethnography, hard-wired assumptions, and sexuality in SurveyFail Redax. (For more on SurveyFail, see Rough Theory; you can also follow the controversy in more detail through the links rounded up at Anti-Oppression Linkspam Community.)

The throw-away line was this: “But nature/nurture is dead (except perhaps in slash?).”

Today I am making it the punchline. Slash can save the day for nature/nurture.

Nature versus nurture refers to the debate of genes versus environment, human nature versus culture, of our animal side versus our civilized side, and so forth. As Greg said, it’s a very old theme in Western thought. In SurveyFail, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam operated from a restricted and dichotomized view of nature versus nurture, where nature, dictated by evolution and primitive brain circuits, dictate sex differences and sexual interests. Here’s how Greg put it:

In their responses to some of their critics, Gaddam offers the blanket explanation that, ‘When we talk about the ‘oldest parts of the brain’ [the subcortical regions], it is in the context of the tectonic tussle between these and the prefrontal cortices that give rise to the peaks of our culture and the terrain of our behavior.’ Daniel points out that Gaddam describes an opposition in the brain between the ‘oldest’ pre-cultural, primitive elements and these newer cortices that produce culture; nature v. culture played out in brain layers.

Slash can change that. Not by having nature and nurture meet in a bar (though if someone knows some slash on that, by all means leave a comment!), but in how slash works as an imaginative process.

Quite simply, nature vs. nurture is an oppressive division. Slash reworks the relationship between nature/nurture in ways that help us in our thinking and that are closer to the actual reality of how nature/nurture works.

Continue reading

Engaging & Dispatching Memetics

Engaging Anthropology
I am reading the book Engaging Anthropology: The Case for a Public Presence by the anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen. Quite enjoying it – definitely recommended.

I’ve just finished his section on Memetics and the Anthropologists. He systematically dismantles meme theory from an anthropological point of view, just like Greg did in his post, We Hate Memes, Pass It On. (Greg’s version is snarkier…) Eriksen also ties in the popular success of meme theory to a consideration of how anthropology can gain public relevance. This description resonates with much that we do here on this site.

Memetics may be beyond salvation as a theoretical project. However, it raises a few questions which are just right for anthropology seen as an endeavour of public relevance. It sees human culture as part of nature yet rejects the simplifications of human sociobiology, and it asks highly pertinent questions about cultural transmission, cultural diffusion and cultural change. The notion of contagion is useful and has not been properly explored in cultural studies, including anthropology.

But – I repeat- without an understanding of the human subject, no advance will be made, and of course, context is everything. Curiously, in attempts at applying memetics, the biology itself seems to suffer. In Ingold’s words, the genotype exists ‘in the mind of the biologist’ (Ingolg 2000: 382). The ambition of offering a simple and straightforward analytic account of the human mind has led to an untenable abstraction (62-63).

Eriksen pushes us to make generalizations and to take cross-cultural analysis seriously, to examine these big questions of cultural change and diffusion. But he ties that into a grounded understanding of the person, the human subject. Those subjects, or people, are always found in specific contexts, and these local environments help shape culture and subjectivity (beyond the generalizations of, say, contagion). Biology comes in as a crucial mediator here, from helping to understand the contours of cultural change to being a crucial player in the relations of subject and environment. At least that is how I read it. Memetics fails because it is not anthropological, neither grappling with the rich tradition of research on cultural change and meaning nor with the actual realities of people and their lives.

Eriksen then relates his analysis of memetics and anthropology to a larger public project.

The lesson from the experiment of memetics is that we have to do better: those of us who feel that memetics is insufficient have to come up with a better alternative than merely stating that things are more complicated than this. Saying ‘things are more complicated’ is like having endless meetings to avoid making a controversial decision.

The anthropologist’s account of human nature has to be holist – it must include the recipe, the ingredients, the oven and the cook – and it must supersede the conventional culture/nature divide. Looking in the direction of biology, it is likely to find more by way of inspiration in ecology than genetics. It must also take human experience seriously as an area of enquiry. These general delineations notwithstanding, several paths are possible and might shed light on the human condition. The field is open: with a handful of exceptions, there have been few attempts since the Second World War to develop a theory of human nature which draws on biological knowledge without succumbing to the temptations of easy fixes (63).”

Just to be clear, by recipe, ingredients, oven and cook, Eriksen means DNA, development, the environment, and subjectivity (or an actor). So I would certainly agree with a holistic approach that supersedes the conventional culture/nature divide. In biology, I actually hope that both ecology and genetics play a role. But I would point out that neuroscience is actually the closest to many of the areas that interest him as an anthropologist – experience and behavior, interactions with the environment, possible biological dynamics that help shape culture, and so forth. In other words, neuroanthropology.

To be honest, neuroanthropology probably has a branding problem, rather like cognition and culture. The term doesn’t shout out “public relevance.” But as a site to explore the proper combination of recipes, ingredients and cooks, and to gain an online presence, well, it’s a good start. Next stop, a theory of human nature. Right?

In any case, here’s the Google Book link to Engaging Anthropology. The “Memetics and the Anthropologists” section starts on page 57. Just do a search for memetics; it looks like you can read the entire section online to get Eriksen’s excellent analysis of the weaknesses of memetics.

And for more on Thomas Hylland Eriksen, he is a professor at the University of Oslo. He also runs a rich website called Engaging with the World, where you can see how he’s put his words into practice.

What’s the Dope on Music and Drugs?

Record Player
But in the long run these drugs are probably gonna catch up sooner or later
But fuck it I’m on one, so let’s enjoy,
let that X destroy your spinal chord, so it’s not a straight line no more
So we walk around lookin like some wind-up dolls,
shit stickin out of our backs like a dinosaur,
Shit, six hit’s won’t even get me high no more,
so bye for now, I’m gonna try to find some more

- Eminem, Drug Ballad

Drug strewn lyrics and references are found in much of today’s popular music. What effect do these words have on the average listener? Would you let your 10 year old listen to this? Why not… they’re just lyrics right?

School House Rock: Monkey Hear, Monkey Do?
John Markert: Two Schools of Thought

1) Reflection Theory : “Music is popular because it reflects the values and beliefs of those who consume it.” Proponents of Reflection Theory examine cultural forms such as music lyrics to gain insight into social beliefs. Here music is used to probe the connection between society and culture. Supporters of this intellectual tradition see the audience consuming with a critical eye, selecting songs because the theme relate to them and their world.
Woodstock
2) Arnoldian Theory : “Music is didactic and acts as a socializing agent by teaching behavior.” The concern by those at the other end of the intellectual tradition is that song lyrics may teach inappropriate social behavior. Mathew Arnold laid the foundation for this perspective in the last century, and his initial assessment continues to remain popular.

This is where the real debate can begin. Are the music and lyrics of songs with drug, alcohol, sex, and violence references putting adolescents at a greater risk of alcohol and drug use? Or is it simply the culture that these songs and music are created and engulfed in?

Pros and Cons of the Two Schools

One can make a case for both opposing ideologies. On the one hand, it is easy to see how the music and general lyrics can influence adolescents into using drugs and alcohol. For example, when browsing for songs that contain any type of alcohol or drug reference it is not hard to find hundreds of songs that contain one if not both. “White Lines”, “Fight for Your Right to Light the Bong,” and “Crack Monster” are just a few of the songs that diminish the dangers and actually commemorate the use of drugs and alcohol.

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What Is Social Anthropology? by Alan Macfarlane

I found the following video quite good – rather like getting to sit down in a tutorial and listen to a master speak. Your tutor is Alan Macfarlane, professor in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.

If you’re interested in comparing the master class to the group document, here’s the Wikipedia entry on social anthropology.

Macfarlane’s most recent book is Letters to Lily: On How the World Works, where he brings together his work as historian and anthropologist to answer his granddaughter’s questions, What is love? Why are families so difficult? How do we get justice? How well does democracy work? Who is God? What makes us individuals? And why are we here in the first place?

You can get the full list of questions and some background and a taste of how he answers the questions at Macfarlane’s website.

Macfarlane has written many books, including The Glass Bathyscape: How Glass Changed the World (publishing in the US as Glass: A World History), written with Gerry Martin. The two published a synopsis of the book in Science, Beyond the Ivory Tower: The World of Glass. Macfarlance has also provided us a set of video clips on glass, its making and uses, which highlight the conclusion to the Science piece:

“The different applications of glass are all interconnected–windows improved working conditions, spectacles lengthened working life, stained glass added to the fascination and mystery of light and, hence, a desire to study optics. The rich set of interconnections of this largely invisible substance have made glass both fascinating and powerful, a molten liquid that has shaped our world.”

Also, with a hat-tip to Kerim at Savage Minds, Macfarlane has interviewed an extraordinary range of social scientists in his “Ancestors” page, from Frederick Barth to Roy Wagner, with full audiovisual files available.