I have come up with four broad themes for my work – neuroanthropology, the internet, writing, and applied social science. Hopefully this overview will help acquaint readers new and old with what I do as an academic and a writer.
Project #1: Neuroanthropology
This one should be obvious! Developing the fruitful intersection of neuroscience and anthropology is one of the main things I will do here. The field is so important for understanding the extraordinary range of human diversity and experience. Neuroanthropology also has great potential for examining problems that emerge from the joint dynamics of our nervous and cultural systems.
In that first arena – human diversity and experience – I will often address important public issues that are impacted by both brain and culture. These include topics such as learning and intelligence, race and gender, morality, and how risk and decision making work. Many times I will address how the latest research provides new insight into these areas. Other times I will speak against public misunderstandings of how these domains operate within human life. Ideas about a hard-wired brain or cultural determinism as well as an over-reliance on one type of data can limit how we understand and deal with core debates in contemporary society.
In the second arena – human problems – I will hew closer to my main areas of scholarly research as I address issues of addiction, stress, risk taking, and embodiment. Broadly I am interested in behavioral health. One of my main theoretical interests is how we become deeply involved in everyday activities like eating, sex, substance use, video games, and the like. The intersection of desire and obsession with ritual, sense of self, and social context is simply fascinating. But problems can arise when our nervous system connects with the symbolic meanings and inherent inequalities of a globalized world that increasingly pushes consumerism, consumption, and competition.
Project #2: The Internet, Public Scholarship, and Combining Content and Organization Online
I am excited about PLoS Blogs as a project. I have a remarkable new set of colleagues and a professional organization that augment and expand what we do on Neuroanthropology. This platform opens new vistas for the future of communicating research, engaging the public, and creating community.
I welcome the diversity of science blog networks that has suddenly appeared, because I think the diversity will lead to a richer set of models for how to take advantage of the Internet for the public exchange and discussion of ideas. I also hope that independent blogs remain a valued way of doing blogging within this new ecosystem – that independence helps the public exchange and diversity.
But what I can say is that I’m already learning more in this new format. Us ploggers engage in discussion of important topics, we offer advice, we check out what each other are doing. In one sense, it’s rather like a department at a university. Each person is doing their own thing, but there are still group projects, problems to debate, and ideas to develop.
Matching effective content and effective organization is one of the main problems of the internet, and what it can offer as a platform for human creativity. I have confronted that issue repeatedly in different projects – creating a topic-focused wiki, organizing a project to take students’ academic life online, generating group-written posts that merge research and online media, and so forth.
Continuing to explore and to report on new media, the internet, and scholarship is one project that will mark what I do on Neuroanthropology. In that sense, PLoS Blogs is part of that – a new experiment in how to mix research, communication, and public engagement together. The PLoS Blogs department is now online, bringing together researchers and journalists in a new organization.
Project #3: Writing
One of the main reasons I enjoy blogging is because I get to practice writing on a regular basis. This endeavor, as much as anything else, keeps me in the writing game.
I enjoy trying my hand with essays. Some early examples include Studying Sin, Camping on the Brain, and Wending between Faust and Wimsatt. But I think I can do better, and hopefully will get a chance or two to post longer essays on topics that have been simmering on the back burner for a number of years.
Before that, I will post research, ideas, and excerpts for the book I am writing about my life-long engagement with addiction. My mother was an alcoholic, and that profoundly marked my life growing up. After college I went to Colombia, where my work with adolescent addicts opened my eyes to the world. I returned to graduate school to do research on substance use and abuse that drew on both anthropology and biology. Today I continue to work at fully understanding everything that research revealed to me. This book will hopefully tell the whole of that story.
Video games are an area of research that I dabble in now, but it might become a more important focus over the coming years. I quite like video gaming. Certainly I can get hooked on it! My kids love video games. And I see gaming as an excellent way to examine the intersection of technology and society with our brains and bodies. I have written notes on video games, examining my own obsessions and my kids’ behavior. I hope I can also build on previous posts on gaming at the societal and the individual levels. So that might become another project, where the posts become a route towards a larger body of scholarship.
Project #4: Anthropology, Science & Medicine, and Applied Social Science
Demonstrating the relevance of anthropology to our public understanding and appreciation of science and medicine is my final project. Using medical anthropology, scientific research, and critical insight into science, I hope to add to our conversations and reporting here on “diverse perspectives in science and medicine.”
Many times my main message will simply be: Anthropology matters! I love anthropology, and I find its insights relevant every single day. Quite simply, anthropology provides me the information and ideas to understand my life and this world.
I also like its quirks. The sheer oddity can be entrancing, from canoe types among the Trobianders to sexual practices among the Etoro. But that sense of human diversity also opens my own eyes. Through cross-cultural examples, I can better understand the links between sexuality, childhood development, and sense of self – something I am definitely confronting as my oldest son heads towards puberty.
I also love that anthropology tries to combine such different endeavors under one umbrella. Four different fields all in one! Archaeology and its study of our human past. Biological anthropology which ranges over human evolution, primates, and biological variation worldwide. Cultural anthropology, with its qualitative appreciation of human life and its core concerns with how meaning and inequality structure our lives. Linguistic anthropology, with its technical concerns with how language actually works to examining how language shapes thought and how communities shape language.
Like many others, I include applied anthropology within the anthropological hearth. To take one example, the global buzzword “development” often means we apply our ideas to change your lives, generally in ways that suit us and disregard what matters to you. Applied anthropology also has an increasing emphasis on practice, examining how to make a difference in getting medicine to the poor, improving forestry practices, and effectively managing our rich cultural resources, both past and present.
I strongly believe that developing the applied and public sides of anthropology is key to increasing the impact the field has. Like many academic fields, anthropology often remains focused on its own internal debates and safely within the generous bounds of academia. It often views its potential public role in two ways – to provide research, for example on human evolution or on cultural variation, and to critique, for example, to point out the faulty cultural assumptions behind government or corporate endeavors or the lack of evolution in work of medicine or policy.
But I believe anthropology can do more than that. We can put anthropology into practice, and test our ideas about what makes a difference and learn from our mistakes as we try to help people. Other fields, like medicine or psychology, have rich applied sides, and this is often what the public recognizes first. I want to contribute to the continued development of applied anthropology.
Given the interdisciplinary nature of neuroanthropology – premised on the idea that we can better understand our lives by integrating relevant research from different arenas – it shouldn’t surprise people that I view applied anthropology in an interdisciplinary light.
First off, other fields have made their mistakes, and there is no reason to repeat them. They also have learned a lot about what works and what does not, and we should certainly draw on that as well. This interdisciplinary view of applied work, where anthropology works with other fields and practitioners, offers similar benefits to neuroanthropology: exciting developments, greater impact, and fewer mistakes.
So my larger interest is in applied social science. Applied social science tackles human problems and uses an integrated approach that draws on the best of anthropology, neuroscience, public health, psychology, and other relevant domains.
This applied social science is not premised on an engineering view, of finding a technical solution to solve material problems. Nor is it in the economic vein, where an idealized model of how economies function becomes the basis for policies that often oblige people to follow those presumed macro-ideals. Given how anthropology views human life – where inequality and meaning matter, and different arenas of social life inform each other – technical and policy solutions are often inadequate. Indeed, many anthropologists have pointed out how the engineered solution or top-down policy approaches are often riddled with mistakes, and create as many problems as they aim to solve.
Rather, I view applied social science rather in the vein of medicine, where we develop practical knowledge and skills that apply to specific problems. The main difference is that applied social science engages human problems, rather than diseases. And human problems generally require on-the-ground solutions that address the complex and interlinked facets that help to create the problem.
To be honest, I won’t be able to do all of this! I feel rather like the knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – run away! run away!
But at least you have a sense of my interests now. Hopefully I will touch on all of these projects here, and develop some of them. If I had to pick three, right now I’d go with my addiction book, online projects, and applied social science. But neuroanthropology is what I put first, and I am sure you’ll get healthy doses of that too. You know, it being the title of the blog and all…
All right, it’s time to run away and get engaged in any number of modern diversions – Sunday night football, the new Halo game, a fresh beer, surfing the web… It’s, um, for research!