Two chapters in new Harris volume on Knowledge

harrisways.jpgI just received a copy of a book edited by Mark Harris of the University of St. Andrews, Ways of Knowing: New Approaches in the Anthropology of Experience and Learning. If you’re interested, it’s being published by Berghahn (Berghahn Amazon). Harris does great fieldwork in the Amazon and theoretical work on skill acquisition, religion, history, and knowledge. He put together a conference in January, 2005, that included a great line-up of scholars who provided chapters in the volume. There’s many of the anthropologists that I’ve certainly drawn on in my own work and thinking: Tim Ingold, Michael Herzfeld, Cristina Grasseni, Dominic Boyer, Otávio Velho, Paul Stoller, and a number of others. The whole volume is worth checking out, and I’m loathe to single out any particular chapters, but two specifically discuss relationships between the anthropology of knowledge and research in the neurosciences (the subject of this blog).

The chapters by Trevor Marchand (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) and me (Greg) specifically deal with neuroanthropological concerns. As Harris describes in his introduction:

…biological processes also mediate experience. What place should they have? Recently, a number of influential anthropologists who have written on knowledge have shown that an outdated theory of cognition lies implicit in many anthropological texts which see the brain as a computer running programmes and processing information (Sperber 1985; Bloch 1998; Toren 1999; Whitehouse 1999; Ingold 2000). This view of the brain is indefensible since it implies a series of assumptions about biology and culture, the individual and society, sensation and perception, which are not always consistent with each other or supported by analyses from beyond anthropology. (Harris 2007:2)

Later in the introduction, Harris gives Marchand and me credit for attempting ‘a response to the challenge work like [Maurice] Bloch’s presents’ (ibid.:14): that is, to offer anthropological accounts of knowledge that deal responsibly with biological and psychological dimensions of knowing. Whether or not readers think we are successful, both Marchand and I do try to incorporate new research in the brain sciences into anthropologically and ethnographically informed accounts of knowledge practices. For Marchand, the discovery of mirror neurons and dynamic syntax models provide a foundation to better understand how masons working on temples in Mali communicate as the coordinate their efforts. I can’t do it justice, so I’ll just have to hope that Dr. Marchand provides us with a richer discussion at some point; in the meantime, check out, ‘Crafting Knowledge: The Role of “Parsing and Production” in the Communication of Skill-Based Knowledge among Masons.’

My chapter in the book, ‘Seeing with a “Sideways Glance”: Visuomotor “Knowing” and the Plasticity of Perception,’ looks at the different visual systems in the brain and how practitioners of capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art, seem to have noticed that the visual field is not equally sensitive to all sorts of visual phenomena. They’ve noticed that peripheral vision seems to track movement very well, and they appear to train their visual perception systems to become more sensitive to the kinds of sensory challenges posed by the art.

Maybe I’ll write more about it later, but in the meantime, I just wanted to let all neuroanthropologists out there know that Harris has gotten this volume out. Congratulations to him — it looks great! — and I’m really happy to have been included.


Bloch, Maurice. 1998. How We Think They Think: Anthropological Approaches to Cognition, Memory, Literacy. Boulder: Westview.

Harris, Mark, ed. 2007. Ways of Knowing: Anthropological Approaches to Crafting Experience and Knowledge. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Ingold, Tim. 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge.

Sperber, Dan. 1985. On Anthropological Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Toren, Christine. 1999. Mind, Materiality and History: Explorations in Fijian Ethnogrpahy. London: Routledge.

Whitehouse, Harvey, ed. 1999. The Debated Mind: Ethnography versus Evolutionary Psychology. Oxford: Berg.

Published by


Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

4 thoughts on “Two chapters in new Harris volume on Knowledge

  1. That looks like an interesting volume and could potentially be a useful in my research on cultural transmission (one of my main research interests and an important topic in archaeology). Too bad it’s $75, though. Private sector archaeologists don’t get paid enough to maintain an academic library.

  2. Dear Marshdrifter —

    Yeah, the price of the hardback is a back-breaker, but I’m under the impression that a soft cover should be out soon. It’s a constant pain in the ass to negotiate this stuff with presses, and, for all you younger scholars, it’s one of the things that we need to negotiate most fiercely about. Without your books going to softcover pretty fast, it’s really hard to get them read. I know that it was one of the big considerations for me when I did a book with Oxford (they promised to get it out and keep it under US$20) and with Duke (who also promised simultaneous hard and soft cover on the edited volume I did with Melissa Fisher).

    I don’t know what Berghahn promised, but Mark’s pretty savvy, so I expect it won’t be long til there’s a soft cover version of this available. You might see if the press will contact you directly when it does become available.


  3. A friend, who has published books in a different field, once told me that some academic publishers don’t understand that individuals would buy academic books. They’re only interested in the library sales.

  4. I’ve heard that, too, and I’m even considering doing my next book with a high quality non-fiction publisher that is NOT a strictly academic press. Because I work on sports, though, there’s the possibility of some serious cross-over that gets these sorts of presses interested. They probably wouldn’t want to work with most academic topics simply because they, too, couldn’t image how to market serious books.

    It’s ironic that academic publishing is changing this way when the number of us doesn’t seem to be shrinking at all, and I don’t think we’re spending less per capita on books.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s