On Biocultural Anthropology

Kate Clancy over at Scientific American has initiated a great conversation about biocultural anthropology, the integration of biological and cultural approaches within the field, as well as how to do interdisciplinary work more generally. Her post, I Can Out-Interdiscipline You: Anthropology and the Biocultural Approach, examines the difficulties of doing interdisciplinary work, opens the door on the frustration a lot of anthropologists feel with the gap between the promise and the reality of current biocultural efforts, and asks for help on how we train to do this type of research and what sorts of literature should people be reading.

How is it that a field that is so good at being interdisciplinary cannot do a good job interdisciplinary-ing itself?

In an interesting way, I think many of the frustrations that Kate expresses are similar to frustrations expressed in the book Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle: Reflections on the Disciplining of Anthropology. That book, largely written by cultural anthropologists, questioned the continued emphasis on anthropology as defined by four fields (biological, cultural and linguistic anthro, and archaeology) with an overarching commitment to “holism,” whatever that means.

Yet what brings many students into anthropology, and still impassions me about the field, is that it does approach the question of “What does it mean to be human?” in the broadest, most interdisciplinary way. And it strikes me that we have some core analytical approaches to that question that matter, and that this style of thinking is what really makes up the holism of anthropology, rather than a particular commitment to four-fields and working across the different sub-disciplines. This human lens includes a comparative approach, an attention to variation across time and space, a recognition that we as researchers inevitably bias our own data, and, yes, a commitment to drawing on multiple strands of research.

One of Kate’s strongest points, and one deserving debate, is that being interdisciplinary is not the same as being good at everything. We need to be a little bit hedgehog if we are going to end up as foxes, to re-interpret Isaiah Berlin’s classic dichotomy of hedgehogs who really dig into one area and foxes who move cannily from area to area.

Being interdisciplinary isn’t the same as being a little good at everything, consistent with the saying “jack of all trades, master of none.” … Students who want to become good biocultural anthropologists must first become experts in biological or cultural anthropology. Scholars need a base from which to reach out to other disciplines. If you are not thoroughly trained as one or the other, you will have a lot of trouble bridging them, or using your critical thinking skills to help ease you into a new field.

Being Interdisciplinary: It’s More than Just Knowing Stuff

Adam Van Arsdale in Biocultural Anthropology and Interdisciplinary Work points out some of the risks involved in pursuing synthetic work as a young scholar, and one structural reason why we might need to be become experts first in one area – simply to keep having a job.

Engaging in interdisciplinary work as a junior faculty member poses risks regarding project failures because of the potentially increased likelihood of collaborative difficulties, unanticipated problems that arise as a result of reaching beyond your core area of expertise, or simply slower research progress. Unless the work you are doing as a graduate student is already well within an interdisciplinary sphere, and I think there are only a few places in the U.S. where graduate students consistently do this kind of work, initiating such work prior to tenure is hard. This is ironic, because from my experience it is my fellow junior colleagues, recent Ph.D.s and graduate students who are most eager to engage questions from an interdisciplinary perspective.

I agree with Adam’s assessment, and find this point one of the most indicting of our present approach to award tenure based on basically five years of professional work. The present system does not reward the risk taking and the reaching out that interdisciplinary work requires. It’s set up precisely against being ambitious in an interdisciplinary way, whether that means biocultural work, engaging new technology and social media, or trying to make your work both theory and applied-driven.

One way around this is to set up collaborative work, which universities do seem to have embraced more than encouraging interdisciplinary careers from the start. John Hawks makes this point in his post, Interdisciplinary interdisciplinarians:

Going deep into an interdisciplinary problem may mean working with other people who have thought long about the other fields you need. It also means working long enough with those people to be able to perceive the times when you’re not speaking the same language.

Besides knowing different languages – getting a sense of how other fields work with problems – I think John highlights one main problem with pursuing expert or master status in one field first – students and young scholars don’t learn to wrestle with intellectual problems in an interdisciplinary way. We learn how to be interdisciplinary through that engagement with other people and with the various facets of specific problems. That’s why I encouraged people, in a long comment over at Scientific American, to make sure students get data from different types of methods, so they could begin that crucial process of playing with different types of data and figuring out how they might fit together in interesting ways.

On Teamwork and Disciplinary Divisions

I also think that anthropologists have not gotten bitten by the collaboration bug for work within our own field. We are quite good at collaborating outside of anthropology. Biological anthropologists working on problems in human evolution do this all the time; cultural anthropologists are lending their expertise to interdisciplinary projects in other countries; linguistic anthropologists work with linguists (often with some conflict!) on a consistent basis; and archaeologists work with historians and other history-oriented disciplines consistently. Out of the four fields, archaeologists are likely the best at team-based approaches with colleagues within anthropology. But archaeologists are not the ones trying to bridge the bio antrho/cultural anthro divide, so it becomes harder for more explicitly biocultural anthropologists to find good models for how do this. Over both the short- and long-term, learning how to work together on anthropological problems is key to advancing a holistic/biocultural endeavor.

Greg Downey, my neuroanthropology colleague, also leaves an important comment on Kate’s post, writing about how we set up boundaries precisely so we don’t have to ask hard questions. (A better approach might be to work with anthropology colleagues who, um, could address those hard parts…) He writes:

Most biocultural anthropologists, in my experience, are biological anthropologists trying to get a grasp on some cultural theory, either because they’re talking about the evolution or emergence of culture or for some other reason.

Not a lot of cultural anthropologists get into biological theory, in part, as I’ve argued before, because socio-cultural theory has invented a whole vocabulary that allows us to talk about things that are sort of biological without ever having to dip our toes into biology. We can talk about ‘race’ without ever mentioning genes; ‘cognition,’ ‘signification,’ and a host of other topics without ever mentioning the brain or nervous system; the list could go on. We’ve created a surprisingly Cartesian layer of insulation so that we never have to deal with biology or hard sciences (although we’re happy to criticize Descartes).

In my own lengthy comment on Kate’s strong essay, I echo Greg in talking about disciplining happens:

There is one really big BUT to the “being good in one field first” approach. In training, each field works to actively discipline their students, to shape them into a particular mode and to encourage certain types of foundational knowledge and methods as more valued than others. This process happens implicitly and explicitly.

In other words, students get a value system along with a knowledge system, and for the most part, that value system works against interdisciplinary work. So from the bio anthro side, the importance of evolutionary theory, the need to look at biological mechanisms, the necessity of quantitative methods – if this is what you are supposed to do, then it becomes more difficult to actually end up doing what you should really do, which is the interdisciplinary work.

To end, I want to return to one of Kate’s points about the problems that a biocultural approach addresses:

Identify the core questions that a biocultural approach can tackle better than any other. If a bio or cultural approach would satisfy the question, but you are tacking on the other field because it seems sexy, your grant proposal or manuscript submission is unlikely to make it through. But if you can recognize a problem that only this approach can solve you will be able to better develop the theory.

I think there are actually several core problems that biocultural anthropology asks but that we don’t separate them enough, and thus often create a mish-mash of stuff that gets an overall biocultural label. Certainly this “throw everything biocultural/interdisciplinary in” approach didn’t work as well as I hoped with my course on biocultural medical anthropology. The course didn’t provide enough structure for them to understand the different problems and approaches . It gave them familiarity, but not enough guidance and depth in particular arenas. That’s why I’m excited to teach neuroanthropology at the graduate level this next fall, to really dig into one area that aims to integrate biological and cultural anthropology and be interdisciplinary at the same time. The specificity matters.

So while I encourage grappling directly with biocultural research and multiple types of data, I also do think we need to develop enough specificity and depth in defined areas. My hope is that in the future, this depth might encourage training and the development of expertise and jobs within the biocultural domain itself, rather than still needing a home base within one of the major sub-fields of anthropology.

Five Areas of Biocultural Research

And, oh, what are those core problems? I see five basic ones, all different versions of anthropology’s core motivating question, What does it mean to be human? They overlap and can mutually inform each other, but seem distinct enough to my eyes that research groups are forming around each one.

What is the nature of human variation? Here human biologists and bioarchaeologists examine the patterning of human variation. To quote from a recent job ad for a biocultural anthropologist at Oxford, ” Biocultural approaches explicitly recognise and work with the dynamic interactions between humans as biological beings and the social, cultural, and physical environments they shape and inhabit.”

How do social structure, political economy, and inequality shape human life? Rather than looking in-depth at the dynamic interactions of biological mechanisms and the environment, this research highlights how social roles, discrimination, and inequality can drive human biology in specific ways. It requires an attention to critical thought and social theory in ways that are often not part of other types of biocultural approaches.

How did we evolve as biocultural beings? More specifically, how did culture evolve and feed back to shape who we are as humans? There is a great ferment of interdisciplinary work on this topic right now, from genetics to cultural modeling to linguistics to primatology to archaeology. I think it’s one of the great questions happening in science right now, and thus broader than biocultural anthropology itself. But the answers that anthropologists develop to this question will be crucial to developing a firmer intellectual basis for why we should do holistic research. It’s an area where, I hope, cultural anthropology will engage further, because that expertise is truly needed.

How does enculturation happen? How does culture get under the skin, and from there, become part of the cultural dynamics that shape our everyday lives? This question is one of the core ones facing neuroanthropology. It is also the question that most specifically requires a developmental approach. This area also demands more attention to cultural and social theory than other varieties of biocultural research.

How does science, both as a form of knowledge and a form of ideology, shape our lives and the governing and marking off how we are similar and different? This question is the one most addressed by people on the cultural side of things, with their approaches to biosociality, biopolitics, and the like. It’s a rich arena, yet also in need of a stronger appreciation of how science works and the actual biology of our lives. Put differently, this area analyzes the cultural production of knowledge. This knowledge production – and the uses to which it is put socially and politically – is increasingly based on interdisciplinary notions, including many ideas (a lot of them bastardized) from anthropology. Biocultural anthropologists are well positioned to do more of this kind of work, to understand how our knowledge production works and how interdisciplinary knowledge of biology and of what it means to be human (or not) circulates and is used in society.

I left out an explicitly applied angle, I know. I think each arena will have its important applied component – forensic anthropology and human variation, social policy and political economy, public outreach and evolution, education and enculturation, and the critique of our own knowledge. And I’m hopeful that in a couple years, we will be able to point to a more specific applied question within the broad range of biocultural approaches.

What is that question? Well, let’s get to work answering that…

Link to Kate Clancy’s I Can Out-Interdiscipline You: Anthropology and the Biocultural Approach

Link to Adam van Arsdale’s Biocultural anthropology and interdisciplinary work

Link to John Hawks’ Interdisciplinary disciplinarians

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