This paper outlines core methodological considerations for neuroethnographic research, covering research design, methods and data analysis. With design, researchers focus on the interaction between neuropsychological processes and local cultural practices, often by attending to the interplay between experiences, behaviors, and contexts. For example, compulsive drug use involves both the function of the mesolimbic dopamine system and the meaning of changes in subjective experience, and is linked to specific contexts that separate users from normative cultural domains.
With methods, researchers use interviews that help informants to produce their own “thick descriptions” of their daily experiences; utilize participatory phenomenology to grasp possible linkages between brain functions and social practices; and employ participant observation to attend to people’s embodied interactions within specific contexts, often focusing on how context and practice feedback to shape behavior and experience. For example, substance abuse involves a series of linked behaviors and experiences in distinct settings. Informants can describe each step in this “cycle of addiction” if asked for more than the knee-jerk answers they often give about illegal drug use.
With analysis, “mutually consistent” interpretations should attend to the concerns of both cognitive neuroscience and psychological anthropology. Using this consistency criterion, grounded theory can be used to build from experiences, behaviors and contexts towards robust explanations that draw on both the relevant neurobiological and sociocultural processes. For example, the cycle of addiction can be usefully explained through the combination of compulsive drug use and ritualized behavior jointly driving highly destructive levels of drug use.
Daniel is a professor of anthropology at Notre Dame. He specializes in medical and psychological anthropology, with a particular focus on neuroanthropology and the integration of biological and cultural theory. He is also concerned with applied outcomes and community-based research.
Daniel’s research centers on behavioral health, with on-going projects on substance abuse, breast cancer, HIV/AIDS, and eating behaviors. His main research problem has been addiction, where he aims to build a holistic approach to understanding substance use and abuse. His publications on addiction range over evolution, desire and intentions, and culture (pdfs available from the author).
Colombia y la Prevención Sociocultural del Uso de Droga (Colombia and the sociocultural prevention of drug use)
With addiction or any anthropological problem, Lende is interested in theory development – theory that reaches for what we know about a phenomenon – rather than theory that reduces the phenomenon to one perspective or cause (say, evolution or brain circuits or social structures). As Walt Whitman wrote long ago in Song of Myself, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Theory can aim for what Whitman expressed in a mere six words.
To accomplish that, it is important to adequately describe the problem in question, as well as challenge basic assumptions and have a framework to think through problems. Ethnography can help greatly with comprehensive description – if we see the problem better, then we can see where theory needs to go. Ethnography also helps us engage directly with a particular problem, and thus in its own way is a way to “think through” things. Those acts of description and thinking through generally end up challenging what we thought we knew about something like addiction.
Ethnography that attends to evolution, brain function and individual experience, as well as to cultural practices and social structures and symbols, is one of the most powerful methods we have at our disposable. But that requires opening our view about what qualitative research is after – it can help us examine brain problems as much as culture problems, and everything in between too.
For those of you who cannot make the AAA meeting in San Francisco, here is the paper Daniel will give: Lende 2008 AAA Paper. It opens the Encultured Brain session, so provides some initial background before turning to ethnography and neuroanthropology.
If you wish to contact Daniel, you can reach him at dlende at nd.edu