Engaging Anthropology and Social Theory

I was recently reading Kay Warren’s chapter, “Perils and Promises of Engaged Anthropology: Historical Transitions and Ethnographic Dilemmas,” where she discusses different strands of engaged cultural anthropology.  Certain approaches—like critical takes on ladino/Maya relations and inequality in Guatemala—struck me as being at quite some remove from neuroanthropology.  But one strand she describes did seem closer to me: 

Another perspective is that we need to move beyond the antagonisms of the past to grapple with new issues: gang violence, alienation, and the mass marketing to the urban underclasses of commodities from foreign clothing styles to mood-altering drugs; the globalization of popular culture that undercuts local authority and parental status in the eyes of many youths and their parents; and consumer expectations and forms of employment that, as they respond to transnational media and forms of production, are independent of local space (Garcia Canclini 2000).

 This chapter raised the question: What are the on-going theoretical and ethnographic discussions in cultural anthropology that are closest to the work we are doing on this blog? 

Or, to take it further afield and include Todd and sociology, what strands of social science research offer the most immediacy to our work?  Where are the fruitful collaborations and theoretical synergies likely to be found? 

I present this as a question to people who read this blog.  I would love to see plenty of comments, and look forward to a fun conversation.

2 thoughts on “Engaging Anthropology and Social Theory

  1. For me, Daniel, the most obvious ones are in the ‘anthropology of the body,’ practice theory, medical anthro, and psychological anthropology (however un-promising the latter is at the moment). I just think that so much of anthropology has become ‘sociologized’ or ‘political-economized’ in scale and subject that we have to really look closely at which niches are even dealing with a scale where individual subjects, nervous systems, and experience are still relevant. That is, so much of socio-cultural anthropology seems to have sociological, political economic, or historical ambitions in its explanatory horizon that it’s very hard to see how we can get these people interested in person-scaled anthropology of any sort (neuroanthropological or other).

    However, the human body and subjectivity have become ‘crutch’ explanations, as in the work descended from Foucault and Bourdieu. So cultural anthropologists use terms like ’embodiment’ or ‘subjectivity’ on the way to what they *really* want to talk about — ethnic identity, social imaginaries, political economic forces, global scapes — so that they are vulnerable to critique, and perhaps, if we’re lucky, even intrigued about embodiment and subjectivity.

    In fact, I think both the terms ’embodiment’ and ‘subjectivity’ are arm’s-length surrogate terms to get around dealing directly with psychology and biology (and related fields like medicine, kinesiology…). That is, by using ‘subjectivity,’ for example, we cultural anthropologists can talk about psychology without having to read any psychology. The issues involved are often obviously overlapped, but most cultural anthropologists would sooner take a nap on hot coals than deal with psychology (sometimes, for damn good reasons).

    So wherever these two terms come up, for me, I think there’s a space for neuroanthropology to intervene. When I look at the passage from Garcia Canclini, I see a number of them between the lines, but I also see an attempt to move directly from immediate, ethnographic-scaled issues (gangs, alienation, parental status and family dynamics, employment, etc.) to larger-scaled causal mechanisms. For us to participate, I think we need to respect that desire in our field, but also show that a really comprehensive, robust anthropology also has to make explanatory moves to a smaller scale (to the biological body, brain, nervous system, behaviour, perception, etc.). Unfortunately, many cultural anthropologists will resist this, I think because of bad experiences in the field with universalizing and reductionist tactics that moved in the same direction, and probably also because of inherited prejudice. And so we need to offer a non-reductionist, non-essentializing, non-universalizing alternative — a neuroanthropology — that will make both explanatory moves, to the large scale and to the small scale, more compelling and well-integrated.

    If I had to make a list, I would say the top candidates include (but are not limited to): illness and healing, gender and sexuality, skill acquisition, emotion, perception, interaction dynamics, relations to the environment, sports, developmental psychology and child rearing, schooling, … just some that spring to mind.

  2. Hello all,

    I am taken by the comment regarding napping on hot coals rather than reading psychology. As a medical and psychological anthropologist, I read widely across a range of fields, but I also know cultural anthropologists who don’t read much outside the discipline, and if they do, it is more on the political and philosophical end of things than the biological or neuroscience materials. So why? Well, perhaps at least in part because anthropological methodology still idolizes the romantic notion of the lone anthropologist going off into the field, and let’s face it, fMRI machines don’t fit comfortably in our backpacks.

    So how do we solve this dilemma? One option is to not ask the interesting questions that would require us to take seriously methodologies that are quite different from those of classic ethnographic research. Another option is to be open to fitting our methodology to our questions rather than limiting our questions to what can be answered with our methodologies. I know a number of anthropologists, myself included — and I suspect each of you — who are open to not only reading across disciplines but open to engaging in collaborative research with people from other disciplines. Cross-disciplinary research allows us to explore arenas and questions that span the range from biological/psychological to individual to local to global far better than I feel most anthropologists can on their own. As you probably know, the recent call for projects out of OBSSR at NIH are explicitly ones that seek co-PIs from both biological and behavioral sciences.

    But this brings me to another part of the puzzle as to why more anthropologists don’t take biology, psychology, neurology, etc seriously in their work — status. Anthropologists, experts in status, have long felt (and justifiably so) to be underfunded and under appreciated in comparison to our non-behavioral scientist counterparts. Saying that we need them may imply to some that we can’t contribute something essential and worthwhile on our own. Or that our results will be reductionistic. I disagree. In my mind, collaboration only suggests that we know that human experience is complex and, in an neo-Boasian sense, holistic: brain, immune system, health, person, local social-cultural world, and local and global processes (political, economic, ecological,etc) processes all interact.

    So where can neuroanthropology situate its interests? In all arenas that look at the left hand of this range. In my opinion, it’s wide-open for people who are willing to engage across traditional boundaries.

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