Special Issue of Anthropological Theory on Neuroanthropology

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The March 2012 issue of the journal Anthropological Theory is dedicated to Neuroanthropology.

There are articles by Juan Dominguez, Robert Turner, Charles Whitehead, and Stephen Reyna, with commentary by Andreas Roepstorff and Chris Frith. You can get the two-page introduction to the special issue, also written by Stephen Reyna, for free.

Here are the articles and abstracts:

Juan Dominguez, Neuroanthropology and the dialectical imperative

In this article, the ontology, epistemology and methodology of anthropology are questioned with the purpose of arguing for the possibility of a neuroanthropological approach capable of investigating the relationships between the neural, the experiential and the cultural. The author contends that the dichotomization of objects and subjects, objectivism and subjectivism, and explanation and understanding that characterizes anthropology is no longer viable and that a dialectical alternative is required that regards each member of these dyads as standing in a dependent relationship to one another. It is shown that this dialectical view ultimately calls for the investigation of the neural and mental dimensions of human activity as they are embedded in their cultural matrix. The discussion is substantiated by reference to debates around how to bridge the gap between the mental and the neural. The author draws on his experience in anthropology and imaging neuroscience to assess the process of knowledge generation in both fields with a view to showing that science and humanism are interdependent. Following from this, neuroanthropology, and anthropology more broadly, are characterized as having to oscillate between scientific humanism and humanistic scientism.

Robert Turner, The need for systematic ethnopsychology: The ontological status of mentalistic terminology

The conceptual foundations and ontology of cognitive neuroscience are rarely analysed in cross-cultural perspective, although they are manifestly the outcome of historical currents in specifically Western psychological science. How robust such concepts are, and how generalizable to other cultures, is thus quite problematic. Users of empirical techniques in imaging neuroscience are now actively exploring such topics as attention, volition, emotion and empathy, but with little awareness of how well or badly these concepts can be translated. This essay addresses issues of cultural bias and the potentially misleading use of extended metaphors in the typical deployment of mentalistic terminology, and suggests that there may be alternative conceptualizations, perhaps inspired by phenomenology, which would have less cultural baggage. Ultimately, the most scientifically useful ontology for interpreting and predicting human action may result from an integration of high quality ethnographic reports of mentalistic concepts and terminology found in other cultures. Social and cultural anthropologists are urged to prioritize the identification of such concepts during their fieldwork experience.

Charles Whitehead, Why the behavioural sciences need the concept of the culture-ready brain

From the conceptual gulf dividing social from biological anthropology this paper infers an ideological problem affecting science as a whole. Cultural biases have tended to inhibit or subvert appropriate theorizing and research into unique aspects of the human mind, brain and behaviour. To resolve this problem I suggest that we need a systematic anthropological critique of ‘collective deceptions’ affecting western science, and greater anthropological collaboration with neuroscience and other disciplines. I discuss recent imaging studies which may contribute to a better understanding of the culture-ready brain. Taken in conjunction with fossil and archaeological data, the findings seem more consistent with a ‘play and display’ hypothesis of hominid brain expansion than with current cognocentric hypotheses, suggesting new directions for research. Such research, I argue, could assist integration between behavioural disciplines.

Stephen Reyna, Neo-Boasianism, a form of critical structural realism: It’s better than the alternative

A good paper should have fortifying doses of reason and revelation. The revelation in this paper is the identity of ‘the alternative’ mentioned in the title. The article reasons that neo-Boasianism should be an approach of broad interest in anthropological research. Argumentation extends across two sections. The first section explains the merits of critical structural realism. Different sub-sections introduce the realism, structuralism, and critical science of critical structural realism, taking pains to compare it with postmodernism. The second section introduces neo-Boasianism, showing how it is a form of critical structural realism – one that permits analysis of connections between brain and social structural realms. The notion of a cultural neurohermeneutic system is advanced as a neurological structure allowing antecedent social action to be connected with subsequent action. Finally, revelation comes at the paper’s conclusion: it is shown what alternative neo-Boasianism is better than.

Andreas Roepstorff and Chris Frith, Neuroanthropology or simply anthropology? Going experimental as method, as object of study, and as research aesthetic

Neuroanthropology is a new kid on the academic block. It seems to offer a methodological and conceptual synthesis, which bridges current fault lines within anthropology, both as discipline and as departments. We are not convinced that it will deliver on these grounds. However, it has the potential to open up novel ways to do and think ‘experimental anthropology’, as a method, as an object of study and as a research aesthetic. This approach, we argue, is probably not neuroanthropological – it may simply be anthropological.

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