Neuroanthropology and the Contemporary Culture of Entertainment

Thriller Ipod
By Peter Stromberg

Over the last century, anthropologists have often chosen to study exotic symbolic systems — rituals, myth, art — and frequently managed to illuminate the cultural logic underlying what seem initially to be “irrational” practices.

So why haven’t anthropologists leapt to study one of the most exotic and powerful symbolic systems in human history? I’m talking about the Western (and predominantly American) system of “entertainment”. Not only is this system central to contemporary Western culture, it has arguably played a major role in the breakdown of the cultures of many indigenous communities.

Entertainment should be a significant focus of anthropological inquiry. Alas, it is not.

Admittedly, some interest in the topic has emerged in the last couple of decades. Much of this material is promising; often authors pursue the insight that in some ways entertainment activities are similar to rituals. This is not only an accurate observation, but it points to the possibility of beginning to map how entertainment works to establish some of the central meanings of contemporary life.

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Community-Based Work and the Importance of Being Integrative – The Ganey Award and Video

In April I had the honor of receiving the Rodney F. Ganey, Ph.D., Faculty Community-Based Research Award. Given by the Center for Social Concerns at the University of Notre Dame, the Ganey Award goes to a Notre Dame faculty who has done collaborative work in the local community. For those interested in the details of that work, here is the press release – Daniel Lende Wins 2009 Ganey Award. has played a central role in the community-based research I have done with my students. These include posts on using humor in recovery from breast cancer, a support group for women with HIV/AIDS, research to help redesign a local hospital waiting room, and the stories that US war veterans wanted to share about their everyday battles with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Two peer-reviewed articles have come out of the community-based research with my students: Embodiment and Breast Cancer among African American Women, and Community Approaches to Preventing Mother-to-Child HIV Transmission: Perspectives from Rural Lesotho. A great community guide, Underneath It All: Humor in Breast Cancer, was put together by the students, community members and myself, and is now used in a local hospital.

One of the best things about the award was that the Center for Social Concerns made this wonderful video with my community partners and my students. Here’s the YouTube link, but I also present it below as it captures why I do this sort of work.

I also want to share a written version of what I said at the CSC award dinner. No, no, not all the thank yous (there were plenty and all richly deserved), but a reflection on my own approach to my work.

I want to close by speaking to why the work I have done has meshed so well with the Center for Social Concerns.

At its core my work is integrative. Notre Dame had encouraged that integrative spirit. These five factors make that spirit a reality.

First is listening, listening to the person across the table. That is the start to doing community-based work and the start to understanding other ideas.

Second is the synthesis of intellectual and social problems. These are human problems, where compassion and involvement can matter as much as intellectual analysis or abstract policy.

Third is a push to make our research international and interdisciplinary, and not just local and field specific. Integration only happens by crossing boundaries.

Fourth is the combination of traditional publishing with other forms of scholarship, such as a community guidebook and electronic publishing. These forms of scholarship can reach many, many more people than a typical peer-reviewed article.

Fifth, being community-oriented, with an insistence that what we do is relevant to more than just the university. Some of the most challenging questions and even our best answers and outcomes can come from those people across the table, the people with whom we are lucky enough to work.

These five factors – listening to others, the synthesis of intellectual and social problems, making our work interdisciplinary, combining traditional publishing with other forms of scholarship, and having a community orientation – all matter. Together they make a tremendous difference in our lives as academics, students, and community partners.

Varieties of Public Anthropology

So I wrote an overview of Rob Borofsky’s efforts in Public Anthropology the other day. But there are plenty of other varieties of public anthropology.

So here’s a quick guide to some that I’ve found in the form of blogs, associations and communities, some literature that you can access online, and graduate programs with a public anthro emphasis. It’s a US emphasis, as that is what I am most familiar with – though I really wish it could be more international. Feel free to comment to add more!


Society for Applied Anthropology – Podcasts
See in particular the podcast from this session, Public Anthropology, Applied Anthropology and Ethically Engaged Ethnographic Writing.

Culture Matters focuses on all sorts of applied anthro, but you can see all the posts with “public anthropology” here

Open Anthropology – looking for a critical take on the world? Max Forte’s blog is a great place to start and to return.
Here are posts that specifically mention “public anthropology.”

Savage Minds, the leading cultural anthropology blog, has a whole “public anthropology” category, which contains all their relevant posts.

Digital Ethnography – Michael Wesch does public anthropology on YouTube and more.

Antropologi.Info helps spread the word. You can specifically find “public anthropology” mentions here.

On the Human – While more than just anthropology, this project engages the question of what it means to be human, with a particular focus on the issue of “human singularity.” Offers posts, resources and more.

I could go on as I consider most blogs as an explicit form of public anthropology. But I’ll stop here and direct you to two ways to explore more. First, our Best of Anthro 2008 Initiative gives you public anthropology on the internet – a collection of the best and most popular anthropology writing and blogging of 2008.

Second, you can check out this “Public Anthropology” Google Blog Search.

Associations & Communities

Society for Applied Anthropology. The society also has its own Ning online community, which is getting close to 800 members strong.

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Encultured Brain Conference – Official Announcement and Submission Process

The Encultured Brain conference will be held 8 October 2009 at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. This conference will promote neuroanthropology, which aims to integrate anthropology, social theory, and the brain sciences.

As the first conference exclusively in this area, The Encultured Brain will provide a vision for the future of this line of integrative research, sparking conversations and establishing connections across disciplinary boundaries.
Patricia Greenfield
Two keynote presentations will be delivered by Prof. Patricia Greenfield of UCLA and Prof. Harvey Whitehouse of Oxford University.

Prof. Patricia Greenfield is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UCLA, heavily involved in (and former Director of) the FPR-UCLA Center for Culture, Brain, and Development and the current Director of the Children’s Digital Media Center.

Prof. Harvey Whitehouse is Head of the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at Oxford, Head of the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology (ISCA), Director of the Centre for Anthropology and Mind, and a Fellow of Magdalen College.

You can find the abstracts for these keynotes here and the preliminary schedule for the conference here.

Harvey WhitehouseThere are two main options for individuals to present their work, both designed to maximize the number of people who learn about each other’s research. A poster session will permit conference participants to show off substantive research and new ideas in a way that facilitates intellectual exchange in this emerging area of research.

Speed presentations are short talks of five minutes delivered to the whole assembled conference about what researchers, from advanced professors to students, are working on or would like to work on. We will have pre-printed message pads to allow the whole conference to share thoughts, as well as ample chances during breaks to make further contact and build substantive discussions.

There will also be a roundtable on research methods for breaking new ground in neuroanthropology. Finally, Greg Downey and Daniel Lende, the conference organizers and founders of, will deliver formal addresses outlining their respective visions for the field.

Thanks to the generous support from the Lemelson/Society for Psychological Anthropology Conference Fund as well as the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, the Graduate School, and the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame.

Conference Site: McKenna Hall, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana 46556

Conference Date: October 8th, 2009
Brain Puzzle
For more information, go to or email us at


All abstracts must be submitted by September 4th, 2009. Early submissions are encouraged.

Abstracts have a 200 word limit. Please use the following format, where you provide your name and short contact info, the title of your proposed poster or speed presentation, the abstract itself, and your indication for a poster and/or speed presentation. Note that co-authors are welcomed for posters.

LASTNAME Firstname (Affiliation; email). Title.
Body of abstract.
Format: Poster, Speed Presentation or Both

Here is an example:

LENDE Daniel (Notre Dame; Addiction and Neuroanthropology.
Approaches to addiction have been dominated by reductionist approaches in both the biological and social sciences…
Format: Speed presentation

The organizers encourage people to indicate the “Format: Both” option, as this will help us accomodate as many people as possible.

Please email your complete abstract to:

Cost: $50. This costs covers registration, conference materials, refreshments, lunch and an evening reception. (Note: the conference is free for Notre Dame faculty and students.)

Actual registration for the conference, including payment by credit card, is being handled through the Notre Dame Center for Continuing Education. Registration and hotel information for the Encultured Brain will be available there in the near future.

Submissions Due: September 4th, 2009.

Wednesday Round Up #69

Time for some fun. That’s just below what’s on top. Then neuro and anthro mix it up.


Lance Gravlee, Bones and Behavior Protocols
Get your basic method protocols here for biological anthropology! Want to measure growth, nutrition, human variation and more? Now you’ve got a great set of guidelines.

Joe Carroll, The Adaptive Function of Literature and the Other Arts
A substantive effort to get beyond evolutionary psychology in thinking about creativity – but still a bit caught up in the debate of specialized vs. general mental function (i.e., nature vs. nurture). Still, a great read over at On the Human.

R. Howard Bloch, What Words Are Worth: In Defense of the Humanities
“Humanists are specialists in an activity upon which we daily depend, consciously or not, in everything we do: the making and assessment of meaning.”

PsychLectures, Michael Merzenich on Re-wiring the Brain
Great discussion of neuroplasticity by one of the founding fathers of this area of work

Daniel Goldberg, On Neuroreductionism
A glowing recommendation for a new article by Walter Glannon, Our brains are not us


Annette’s Blog, The Other AA
AssAholics Anonymous – there is a video out there just for you!

Mark Strauss, A Harvard Psychiatrist Explains Zombie Neurobiology
This is your brain on zombies. Including Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency Syndrome

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Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You

Caught in Play
Get caught up in things? Fun things, obsessive things, pleasurable things? Then I’ve got a book for you – Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You.

Caught in Play is written by Peter Stromberg, professor of anthropology at Tulsa and blogger for PsychologyToday. Published by Stanford University Press, this book examines the following themes:

Most of us have, at some point, become so immersed in a book or game or movie that the activity temporarily assumes a profound significance and the importance of the outside world begins to fade… [Yet] basic questions remain unanswered [about this immersion].

What do we know about the overall effect of living in a society in which entertainment is so central? What do we know about how entertainment affects society and the people who participate in it? Why are entertainment activities so important to us, yet frequently dismissed as being unworthy of serious reflection?

Chapters begin with “Caught Up in the Game” and end with “Entertainment and Our Understanding of Self.” In between we get romantic realism, role playing, play and agency in legal drug use, and more.

Caught in Play matters because most psychological and neurological approaches reduce experience and activity to something run only through brain processes without attending to the nature of the activity and experience themselves. These real-world phenomena also bring foundational elements to the overall pattern. We get caught up because of brain and culture, and how experience and behavior link both.

Yet cultural anthropologists often want to cut out aspects of individual life, of processes located in and through bodies, from their analyses. Stromberg attends to play, boredom, imagination, and role taking as equal partners in understanding the captivating power of the streams of entertainment delivered to us today. He also shows how modern forms of entertainment, caught up in capitalism and consumerism, are distinctive in how they play on our own individual engagements, often to extreme ends and for the profit of others.
Caught in Play 2
Peter has set up a great website for Caught in Play. You can read an excerpt on romance and popular advice and keep up to date through Peter’s blog. I enjoyed this post on beliefs, explanations and why we really enjoy entertainment. Peter also considers the applied and negative side of his work on entertainment, play and modernity. He offers us resources on addiction, with more resources to come.

For those looking for other reviews, here’s an Amazon customer:

From the first page, Caught in Play captured my attention and opened my eyes to a world of entertainment and advertising that has become essential to our modern lives. Relatable and entertaining, this book gave me incredible insight to a side of my own character that I had not yet acknowledged.

Engrossing stories about the worlds of Role Playing Games, romance novels, and the development of television commercials left me laughing at myself and those I knew, for who among us has not, themselves, been caught up in their favorite movie, TV show, or book?

And Bradd Shore and Daniel Linger have the more academic views:

The surfaces of play mask some surprising hidden dynamics of modern life. Stromberg delivers a high-flying set of reflections on what lies behind our capacity to get caught up completely in the world of entertainment. Exploring our ever-intensifying ‘stimulus hunger,’ his excursion into the history of modern desire provides a new way to think about the forces shaping contemporary entertainment.

With its lively, ambitious examination of how entertainment has replaced ritual as a means of creating and affirming social ideals and motivations, Caught in Play extends the insights of major social theorists such as Durkheim, Weber, and Goffman. It is a stimulating read that will evoke productive debate over the effects of contemporary forms of imaginative involvement.

Public Anthropology

Yanomami Girl by Victor Englebert

Yanomami Girl by Victor Englebert

Public anthropology happens when anthropologists engage with public issues and problems rather than just pursuing discipline-specific endeavors.

As Rob Borofsky writes in Public Anthropology – A Personal Perspective, this approach to anthropology addresses:

important social concerns in an engaging, non-academic manner. Public, in this sense, contrasted with traditional academic styles of presentation and definition of problems… The only way to be taken seriously by the broader public, I am suggesting, is to ask the questions readers beyond the academic pale ask, to answer the questions these readers long to know, to share experiences that add insight and meaning.

Rob Borofsky has been one of the leaders in public anthropology, having founded the Center for a Public Anthropology and serving as editor for the series in Public Anthropology at the University of California Press.

Many prominent books have come out of the UC Press series. Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor is the best-known. Carolyn Nordstrom recently published Global Outlaws: Crime, Money, and Power in the Contemporary World (for a taste, see this video of Nordstrom “Fighting for a Healthy Global Economy”). Rob Borofsky himself put together Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Can Learn From It. The latest is Righteous Dope Fiend by Phillippe Bourgois.

Public Anthropology and the University of California Press host an annual competition for new manuscripts in public anthropology [this is actually the 2009 call here], one aimed at graduate students and the other for scholars more broadly. Here’s Cat Bolton, the latest graduate winner and an incoming faculty here at Notre Dame, encouraging you to submit:

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