I 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 Recently, a number of influential anthropologists who have written on knowledge have shown that an outdated theory of cognition lies implicit in many anthropological texts which see the brain as a computer running programmes and processing information (Sperber 1985;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.