What Is Social Anthropology? by Alan Macfarlane

I found the following video quite good – rather like getting to sit down in a tutorial and listen to a master speak. Your tutor is Alan Macfarlane, professor in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.

If you’re interested in comparing the master class to the group document, here’s the Wikipedia entry on social anthropology.

Macfarlane’s most recent book is Letters to Lily: On How the World Works, where he brings together his work as historian and anthropologist to answer his granddaughter’s questions, What is love? Why are families so difficult? How do we get justice? How well does democracy work? Who is God? What makes us individuals? And why are we here in the first place?

You can get the full list of questions and some background and a taste of how he answers the questions at Macfarlane’s website.

Macfarlane has written many books, including The Glass Bathyscape: How Glass Changed the World (publishing in the US as Glass: A World History), written with Gerry Martin. The two published a synopsis of the book in Science, Beyond the Ivory Tower: The World of Glass. Macfarlance has also provided us a set of video clips on glass, its making and uses, which highlight the conclusion to the Science piece:

“The different applications of glass are all interconnected–windows improved working conditions, spectacles lengthened working life, stained glass added to the fascination and mystery of light and, hence, a desire to study optics. The rich set of interconnections of this largely invisible substance have made glass both fascinating and powerful, a molten liquid that has shaped our world.”

Also, with a hat-tip to Kerim at Savage Minds, Macfarlane has interviewed an extraordinary range of social scientists in his “Ancestors” page, from Frederick Barth to Roy Wagner, with full audiovisual files available.

Disparity, Disorder, and Diversity

Robert Sampson has just published Disparity and diversity in the contemporary city: social (dis)order revisited in the British Journal of Sociology (BJS). It comes out of the annual BJS lecture that Sampson had the honor to give last fall. This paper focuses on both objective and subjective disorder, in particular highlighting the importance of subjective disorder for understanding the impact of disparity.

In his paper Sampson is basically taking on the Broken Windows approach to disorder, that visible and quite real signs of disorder encourage people to engage in criminal and other deviant acts. In one sense, Sampson wants to bring Durkheim back into the picture, that anomie – or a spirit or sense of disorder – is also vital to sociology.

As he says, “My general thesis is that perceptions of disorder constitute a fundamental dimension of social inequality at the neighborhood level and perhaps beyond… I argue that the grounds on which perceptions of disorder are formed are contextually shaped by social conditions that go well beyond the usual suspects of observed disorder and poverty, a process that in turn molds reputations, reinforces stigma and influences the future trajectory of an area (6).”

Sampson brings an intriguing mix of photoethnography, historical and theoretical analysis, and quantitative data from Chicago. His main thrust is to say that “because the link between cues of disorder and perception is socially mediated, it is malleable and thus subject to change.” He wants to get away from a mono-causal view of disorder to an understanding of disorder as something more complex and interactive, as these two contrasting figures from his paper show.



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Donald Tuzin and the Breath of a Ghost

Donald Tuzin
Donald Tuzin

In the Scientific American piece Ghost Stories: Visits from the Deceased, Vaughan Bell describes how the dead stay with us. An embodied sense of them, present yet gone, comes strongly through our memories and our perceptions: “for many people [loved ones] linger in our senses—as sights, sounds, smells, touches or presences.”

Bell issues a call for more research on grief and embodied remembrances, and then notes, “There are hints that the type of grief hallucinations might also differ across cultures. Anthropologists have told us a great deal about how the ceremonies, beliefs and the social rituals of death differ greatly across the world, but we have few clues about how these different approaches affect how people experience the dead after they have gone.”

I wrote previously on Bell’s article and how writers have explored this terrain in Grief, Ghosts and Gone. Still, the anthropologist in me took Vaughan’s point as a challenge. Ethnographic work is not as widely known in the larger scientific literatures, but it is both broad and deep. My search was rewarded!

Donald Tuzin has a striking 1975 article, “The Breath of a Ghost: Dreams and the Fear of the Dead.” In this piece (scribd full text) he describes his research with the Ilahita Arapesh of northeastern Papua New Guinea and the confluence of their beliefs and practices surrounding the dead with everyday experience.

Tuzin pays particular attention to “the functional implications of (1) the different ghost types encountered by the Arapesh dreamer as distinguished by degrees of familiarity in life, and (2) the strikingly different beliefs held about ghosts as against the more temporally remote ancestors (556).”

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Charles Whitehead: Social Mirrors

In the depths of the Bad Semester (how I now refer to the last four months), Dr. Charles Whitehead contacted me to share notes on neuroanthropology. I’m trying to catch up with the immense backlog of material I need to work through, but I thought I would post a short note and a link to his website, Social Mirrors. It’s a pretty interesting spread of thinking, and Dr. Whitehead has provided numerous links to his papers and other material.

Dr. Charles Whitehead
Dr. Charles Whitehead

I especially like his piece with Prof. Robert Turner, downloadable here, on the effects of collective representations on the brain. In particular, the Turner and Whitehead article argues that the idea that certain areas of the brain are networked into a ‘social brain’ — implying that the rest of the brain is ‘not social’ — is hard to support. I’ll admit that I don’t necessarily use the same language or conceive of how the brain works in the ways described by Turner and Whitehead, but it is well worth the read to check it out, if for no other reason that it provides a corrective to some emerging ways of theorizing brain enculturation.

Turner and Whitehead take the multiple senses of the word, ‘representation,’ especially the conflicting use by anthropologists and social scientists, on the one hand, and brain sciences, as a point of departure. Normally, I just find the overlap annoying and have argued that it is one reason that anthropologists don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to neurosciences (for example, in Beyond Bourdieu’s ‘body’ — giving too much credit?). But Turner and Whitehead have something more constructive to say about the unstable term (from their conclusion):

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Cognition and Culture Institute website

Olivier Moren just got in touch to tell us that the International Cognition and Culture Institute has just opened a new website/blog at http://www.cognitionandculture.net. I just surfed over to check it out, and there’s already plenty of stuff happening. Although it’s a new site, there’s a lot of good content already, and a formidable group of writers, from the sound of it. The writers used to have the AlphaPsy blog on humanities and human nature, but that site hasn’t had any new postings in a while, so it’s nice to have the group back with new material.

The International Cognition & Culture Institute comes out of the Department of Anthropology and apparently the Department of Political Science of the London School of Economics and Political Science with support from the Institut Jean Nicod (ENS, EHESS, CNRS) in Paris. Their website also includes a section for job listings (excellent!) and an intriguing note about a grant competition coming up in 2009:

Sometime in 2009, we will hold a small grant competition. Successful applicants will be funded to carry out the same research task in a variety of cultural settings, thus generating a body of comparable data

I’ll be interested to see what they come up with and the resulting data.

Although I’m fascinated by cognitive anthropology, cross-cultural psychology, and the field that we might describe as ‘culture and cognition,’ I often feel that some of the stuff that we do at Neuroanthropology doesn’t sit well within the ‘cognition’ category. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I put together thoughts for a book proposal, but I worry that — nifty alliterations aside — the term ‘cognition’ puts front and centre certain qualities of the brain, body, and nervous system, and (even unintentionally) marginalizes other qualities, some of which I’m particularly interested in. Of course, the term ‘neuroanthropology’ has problems, too, as we’re just as interested in the effects of culture on the skeleton, muscle tissue, endocrine system, and other viscera as we are upon the neural wetware.

All reservations aside, I’m really happy Olivier contacted me. I’ll be putting their site on our blogroll (if Daniel hasn’t beaten me to it) and keeping a close eye on what they produce. Looking forward to the online seminars and more about the comparative projects that the Institute is able to sponsor.

Foxy Evolution

Here’s a great video that shows how selection can work its effects–in this case artificial selection, demonstrated through the work of the Russian Dmitri Belyaev and his tame silver foxes. Still, what I find most striking about this video is the analogy to ourselves.

Jim Rilling, a neuroanthropologist at Emory, once commented to me that humans are wired to cooperate (in his latest work, he’s doing neuro-imaging on what happens when people don’t reciprocate, having researched the neural bases of cooperation earlier). The example Jim used has stuck with me ever since. Imagine 50 chimpanzees trying to sit down and watch an introductory lecture together. Pandemonium with those chimps. For us, it’s the most mundane sort of thing. People do it everyday around the world.

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