Christina Toren, Our Intersubjective Relations, and Ethnography

Christina Toren is a professor of anthropology at the University of Saint Andrews. In the Encultured Brain session, she will give a talk on Inter-subjectivity and the Development of Neural Processes. The abstract goes like this:

How might inter-subjectivity be understood to inform the development over time of each one of us considered as an autopoietic (self-creating, self-organizing) system? This paper argues that the development of the neural processes that characterize human conceptual development is an emergent aspect of the functioning of an embodied nervous system for which inter-subjectivity is a necessary condition. The genuine multiplicity of human beings as organisms characterised by historicity is not explained, indeed usually not even fully acknowledged, by current neuroscience models of infant and child development.

This paper proposes a dynamic systems approach to the anthropology of human development which shows why cognitive science on the one hand and, on the other, cultural construction, cannot explain the multiplicity of human being – that is, how it comes to be the case that what differentiates us is a function of what we have in common.

In her paper Christina draws on the founders of the idea of autopoiesis, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, who co-authored the book Autopoiesis and Cognition. She also discusses the recent book Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology and the Sciences of the Mind by Evan Thompson. Varela and Thompson, along with Eleanor Rosch, co-wrote the classic The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience.

Christina approaches the problem of the embodied mind, our development, and our ways of understanding each others’ ideas and experiences as an ethnographer first. Insisting on the importance of ethnography has been a consistent theme in her work. In her chapter Ethnography: Theoretical Background in the volume Handbook of Qualitative Research Methods for Psychology and the Social Sciences, she argues for an ethnography “that is open, phenomenologically oriented, reflexive and free of predetermined hypotheses.” More recently, she wrote in How Do We Know What Is True? in Questions in Anthropology, “The explanatory power of our ethnographies must be made to reside in rendering our informants’ categories analytical,” by which she means amenable to historical and social analysis. “The meaning of a category cannot properly be taken for granted… it requires, always, an ethnographic investigation to establish how it is used and what its implications may be.”

Christina does a lot of her ethnographic work in Fiji in the South Pacific. Recently she published the article Sunday Lunch in Fiji: Continuity and Transformation in Ideas of the Household, which examines how the ritualization of eating, the intensification of commodity exchange, and children’s development help us understand both cultural continuity and change over time in the concept of what we might call home (even though household means something rather different there). Her earlier book Mind, Materiality and History: Explorations in Fijian Ethnography has the following Amazon description:

Mind, Materiality and History: Explorations in Fijian Ethnography is the outcome of over a decade’s research into how Fijians live their lives and constitute their knowledge of the world. Through this exploration, the author aims to derive a new theory of embodied mind that works as well for explaining ourselves as it does for explaining others. Investigating the processes by which humans interact with the material world of objects and with other people, the book addresses the issue of how we form our identities in connection with, and in contrast to, the identities of those around us. Mind, Materiality and History demonstrates that the human mind is the fundamental historical phenomenon.

Fiji. Some anthropologists get the best field sites… But that’s not why we do it! As Christina writes in her profile, “As an anthropologist, I am fascinated by the extraordinary variety and complexity of human beings. What interests me is how we become who we are – each one of us uniquely ourselves – and how the history of our relations with others informs this process of becoming ourselves.”

If you want to get in touch with Christina, her email is christina.toren at

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