In praise of partial explanation (and flowcharts)

Created by RPM at Evolgen

Created by RPM at Evolgen

During our panel at the American Anthropology Association last year, Prof. Naomi Quinn warned that ‘a flowchart is not a theory.’ She stressed the limits to the explanatory power of a simple diagram; her skepticism, of course, is entirely warranted.

But since I was one of the prime offenders with the explanatory flowchart, and I seem to be using them more and more, I wanted to offer a stalwart defense of the use of flowcharts and diagramming in neuroanthropology, especially as both contribute to the practice of partial explanation. So, to pick up a theme from a number of my posts, ‘yes-you’re-right-but-I-still-disagree,’ here’s why I find flowcharts particularly useful and think anthropologists should be doing a lot more diagramming to highlight complex patterns of causation, situating more broadly the parts of complex systems that they are exploring.

But before I go any further, I need to direct all our readers to the recent announcement of the first Neuroanthropology conference which Daniel posted. Although I want to post, I feel like I also want to keep drawing attention to this announcement. But on with it…

As with all of her comments, I felt that Prof. Quinn cut to the quick, highlighting an issue in a cautionary fashion rather than rejecting specific arguments our panelists were making (at least I don’t think she was just calling me out…). In the case of flowcharts, Prof. Quinn suggested that diagramming relationships was a preliminary step, not a final goal – at least that’s one of the ways that I took her comments – and I agree.

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