Big Theory and Our Biocultural World

Recent books with widespread public acclaim show that the biological and cultural approaches claimed as proper to anthropology are now part of the common social science agenda.  My question is, where does this leave anthropology?  

Certainly the rather ham-handed combination of biology and culture in these books leaves anthropologists with the familiar refrain of criticism and particularity.  But do we have a genuine alternative?  Do we have a big theory to offer? And if not, are we on track to get one?   

The books in question are Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World and Lee Harris’ The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the Enlightenment.  They are both provocative books, with forceful theses and grand-standings authors, a tried-and-tested recipe for popular books in the intellectual vein.  I am not particularly concerned with each of their theses today, but here they are anyways. 

For Clark, it is that the Industrial Revolution was driven by the successful over-reproduction and downward social mobility of the upper classes, complete with their literacy, discipline, and delay of gratification.  For Harris, it is that the West, by being too wed to reason, fails to understand the radical threat represented by how Islam has spread through the world.  I am sure that many anthropologists will use these books as their favorite new targets. 

Rather, what interests me is the style of argument that they use to buttress their main point.  Continue reading “Big Theory and Our Biocultural World”

Drugs and Biosociality

By Daniel Lende 

There’s an article in the NY Times today, “Drugs Offer No Benefit in Curbing Aggression, Study Finds.”  Here’s the lead-in: “The drugs most widely used to manage aggressive outbursts in intellectually disabled people are no more effective than placebos for most patients and may be less so, researchers report.” 

What’s particularly interesting are quotes from the article such as “the message to doctors should be, think twice about prescribing, go with lower doses and monitor side effects very carefully…  Or just don’t do it. We know that behavioral treatments can work very well with many patients.” 
Continue reading “Drugs and Biosociality”

Repressed Memory

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIn the January-February issue of Harvard Magazine, there is a short piece on “Repressed Memory: A Cultural Symptom?  The basic point: some “neurological” symptoms are cultural.  Harrison Pope, co-director of the Biological Psychiatry Lab at McLean Hospital, posted a $1000 bet that no one could identify a “case of dissociative amnesia in any work of fiction or nonfiction prior to 1800.”  The exception was found—a 1786 opera—and the $1000 dolled out.  But that only helped prove the researchers’ premise: unlike some other neurological phenomena, repressed memory appears to be a culture-bound syndrome.  (What’s also impressive is that these are hard-core neuroscientists arguing for this…)

 For example, accounts of hallucinations and depression appear in the world’s literature for hundreds of years.  But the development of amnesia after a serious traumatic event, such as being raped or witnessing the death of a friend, appears to be a phenomena developed initially in modern Western culture and then imposed on the brain.    Continue reading “Repressed Memory”

Made to Stick

Yesterday’s New York Times had this article, “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike,” which quickly became the #1 emailed article on the site.  While a little light, it raises several points that bear reflection. 

First, in discussing the “curse of knowledge,” the difficulty in remembering what the world looked like before you became an expert, I am struck by this as one apt metaphor for culture.  It is so hard to escape from our own ways of thinking, which is why living in another culture, literally becoming a non-expert once again through participant observation, is such a core part of becoming a good cultural anthropologist.  After that experience, or the similar experience of indoctrination into evolutionary theory, anthropologists in general struggle to create knowledge that is useful to people beyond anthropology, to both market it and make it relevant. 
Continue reading “Made to Stick”

Marian Radke-Yarrow

I think some of you might appreciate this short piece, The Anthropological Psychologist, on Marian Radke-Yarrow, who pioneered the studies of parenting and depression.  What I find striking is her longitudinal work and her use of observation and description to reach her conclusions.  She passed away this past year.

Avatars and Cultural Creole

Can video games change the way we think about culture?  Yes!  In the previous posts I’ve explored how the interaction and embodied perception that both designers and players use outlines an area of research for neuroanthropology.  And I’ve dropped plenty of hints that gaming can help us re-think culture.  Today I’ll continue to develop those ideas some more. 

Let’s start with a rather conventional statement on “culture” in relation to this new world of Internet, gaming, and all the rest.  Arturo Escobar, professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (and better, a Colombian!), has a chapter, “Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture,” which appears in the book The Cybercultures Reader.    Continue reading “Avatars and Cultural Creole”