Letter from Ashwin about studying ‘neuroanthropology’

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!

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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 “Letter from Ashwin about studying ‘neuroanthropology’

  1. First; Ashwin and Greg, this was an truly excellent post. It sums up my own experiences as an undergraduate (social anthropology and cognitive science) quite well. I would like to address two things:

    1. As a prospective masters student at my own institution, University of Bergen (Norway), I am in somewhat distress about how I should proceed when writing my thesis proposal (on socio-cognitive approaches to youth culture and “jihadism” in the Middle-East). Any reference to cognition or psychology (psychoanalysis not included) tends to make most of the faculty frown. There is a lot of good and sound scientific research being done at my institution, but mostly on ecology and ethnicity. But “everybody” knows that getting the right advisor is important. So how does one go about when as Ashwin points out, there is a lot of “disciplinary boundaries/stigmas/epistemological insecurities” that needs to be dealt with first? Constantly defending ones own epistemological commitments in discussions, papers etc. can be quite tiresome, especially against handy straw men such as “biological determinism” and “reductionism”. In my case it boils down to whether one should prioritize ethnographic knowledge at the cost of shared theoretical commitments or vica versa. Did you people just knock on/in office doors when looking for advisors?

    2. My other main concern is how, as a student, to go about when integrating the heavy emphasis on fieldwork (6 months, participant observation) with a sound scientific methodology from cognitive science and psychology. As funding is critical, it can be a problem when applying for grants if ones field of interest falls flat between two departments. For example, my department lacks good facilities for quantitative inquiry (data analysis etc.). It’s even worse if one of these departments has great epistemological and disciplinary barriers such socio-cultural anthropology departments tend to. How did you folks go about? What are your experiences?

    I would love to see a discussion on this!

  2. Mads, in response to your comments:

    1. Door-knocking worked for me. And sometimes one has to resolve to back out of academic relationships if they are not productive. For example, I dropped my departments only Brazilianist from my dissertation committee because he was so psycho-phobic. I had to look elsewhere. Worst thing, I think, is being stuck in a relationship you don’t want to be in (that includes girlfriends, boyfriends too obviously!). But still as important as congruence on research interests is that you actually like each other and can communicate.

    As you point out, the tedium of perpetual epistemological defense can be frustrating. You might try to come armed with simple, pre-conceived responses to anticipated dissenters. My sense is that we can pretty much forecast criticisms from different camps, (e.g, what the po-mo proponent is going to say). It’s sort of like give a conference talk and anticipating what the Q&A will entail and already having powerpoint slides prepared to deal with it. Politicking is just part of the process

    You topic sounds interesting/timely. Maybe you know the work of Scott Atran. He is a good example of someone with clout doing cross-disciplinary work. He core figure in the cognitive science of religion (see In Gods We Trust), but more recently has been working on affiliation in jihadism and political negotiation. I think that demonstrating to faculty mentors that there is already solid work out there that backgrounds your interests (e.g., Atran) would help you make your case.

    Another piece of advice is more pragmatic. If you find too many barriers and too much risk for alienation, don’t sweat it. Just do a solid field study that will be acceptable to your committee as good ethnography, and then move onto the next step, and find an opportunity that will build on you skills/knowledge and develop new areas of research.
    In may case, I am sussing out post-doctoral opportunities where I can bring my background as a cultural/medical anthropologist to bear on issues in behavioral health and social neuroscience.

    2. This point relates to what is likely the most anxiety-provoking issue for graduate student fieldworkers. And it is a huge topic for discussion. I will just say here that if you want to use quantitative or mixed methods for field work (as I did) do some or all of the following:
    -read ethnographies/research articles that DO this, so you know how it can be done
    -study methods handbooks such as H. Russell Bernard’s books on qual. and quant. approaches in anthropology. I think as important as knowing what methods to use is knowing what methods NOT to use for the particular questions/problems you are addressing.
    -if not offered in your anthro department (and very likely they are not) take a course in statistics and/or quantitiative analysis in another department (viz., sociology, psychology, public health, economics)
    -Look for funding sources that require you to employ more empirical approaches in fieldwork. For example, here in the U.S. the National Science Foundation (NSF) has a directorate in social/behavioral sciences that includes cultural anthropology. However, proposals need to specify hypotheses to be tested and a well-articulated methods section and plan for analysis. This is quite different than other foundations for anthro research.
    By the way, the NSF is a great funding source for ‘interdisciplinary research’ that truly does cut across disciplines.
    Another option is to get funding for a project that emphasizes qualitative methods in the proposal and then use quantitative methods anyway, assuming there is a good reason/fit.

    Hope this helps

    1. Ashwin,

      If you ever have the time, I would like to pick your brain about the field of study you are pursing. My undergraduate major is Oceanography, but I am intensely interested in Cultural Anthropology, Neuroscience, Neuroimaging, and Psychology. How did you decide to go in the direction you did?

      For a while now I have been doing something completely different for a living (professional pilot), and I often feel frustrated by lack of intellectual challenge. For some time have been considering going back to pursue studies in things I find fascinating.

      Since I spend a lot of time thinking and reading about this stuff anyway, sometimes I think… well why not?

      Any advice or thoughts to share would be appreciated!


  3. I did my undergraduate training in psychology and neuroscience in the States, and followed that up with a stint in a neuroimaging Center at Yale. A lot of my interests ended up falling under the umbrella of what you’re calling “neuroanthropology” here, and like your letter-writer I wasn’t sure where to follow it up.

    2 years, a Masters degree, and a job with the European Neuroscience and Society Network later, I’m pleased to report there is a LOT more work going on in this area than I realized, but most of it is out of the states. Check out the BIOS group at the London School of Economics (where I’m seated) as an example: a fairly varied group of social scientists using a variety of approaches and methodologies (historians, ethnographers, anthropologists, sociologists, economists) to tackle current bio issues, neuroscience included. This is a great Centre and there are others out there. Do consider stepping outside the States.

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