Franz Boas and Neuroanthropology

On Franz Boas

Franz Boas was the founder of anthropology in the United States. A German immigrant, he came to the Americas as a scientist interested in psychophysics, or sensory perception in relation to the physical world. He was interested in whether individuals living in the far north, surrounded by ice and snow, perceived the world differently – a sort of “many words for snow” question. While living among the Inuit on Baffin Island, Boas realized two things: (1) culture works in between human perception and the physical properties of the world, and (2) the history of a place matters in how people act and how they understand the world.

Franz Boas went on to become the founding father of anthropology in the United States. Four-field anthropology – biology, culture, language, and history – dates back to him, for Boas found that he needed all these different elements to better understand the native peoples of the United States and Canada. Boas also pushed “historical particularism,” or the need to understand people’s culture and human variation in terms of their own history. Rather than some universal ranking of civilized or primitive, societies are best understood with reference to local environments, the accidents of history, and the interaction and diffusion of ideas and customs over space and time. As he wrote in 1887 in his essay, “The Principles of Ethnological Classification”:

[Anthropological] phenomena are the result of the physical and psychical character of men, and of its development under the influence of the surroundings…’Surroundings’ are the physical conditions of the country, and the sociological phenomena, i.e., the relation of man to man. Furthermore, the study of the present surroundings is insufficient: the history of the people, the influence of the regions through which it has passed on its migrations, and the people with whom it came into contact, must be considered.

In the United States, one of Boas’ signature accomplishments was his refutation of common but fundamentally mistaken views on how biology shapes race. His mixture of scientific and public anthropology showed definitely that popular views about biology shaping the forms of heads, and thus the contents of mind and character of people, were simply wrong. Not only wrong, but the biology of head shape was remarkably plastic!

Boas worked with immigrant groups, who were thought to come in different biological “stocks” that were immutable, and generally judged to be inferior than the white Anglo-Saxon form of the dominant social group at the time. By collecting rigorous longitudinal data over time on growth and development, Boas convincingly showed that the children of immigrants had significantly different head shapes than their immigrant parents. Race wasn’t fixed biological destiny, slotting people into different levels of society. Rather, biology responded to environment, and immigrant children ended up looking like all the other Americans surrounding them.

In this post as essay (first draft!), I examine how Franz Boas, in particular contemporary interpretations of his meaning for anthropological practice, can inform neuroanthropology. A holistic approach that recognizes biology and culture, that insists on data and innovative methodological and experimental approaches, that uses critical approaches to both our own use of neuroscience and the role of neuroscience in society, and that aims for enough generalization to produce relevance out of our anthropological work – that is the sort of legacy that comes from Boas.

Neuroanthropology: A New Special Issue

In the most recent edition of Anthropology News, Stephen Reyna writes on Boas’s Dream and the Emergence of Neuroanthropology. Reyna opens with an epigraph from Boas: “Biological and cultural life is a whole.”

Anthropology is the investigation of human being. Franz Boas’ dream was of a big anthropology that studied the ‘whole’ of this being, which included the interconnection of the cultural and the biological in all places and all times. Sadly Boas never attained his dream because it was so necessary at the beginning of the 20th century to demonstrate that one biological-cultural connection did not exist, that between race and culture. However, recent publication in Anthropological Theory (AT, March 2012) of an issue devoted to the topic of the brain and culture suggests a new field of neuroanthropology is emerging, offering the possibility of attainment of the Boasian dream.

Reyna provides a narrative coverage of the five different articles in this special issue on Neuroanthropology. (You can find a handy list of all the articles and their abstracts in a previous post). Reyna writes:


-The first of these articles is by Juan Dominguez who proposes a phenomenological future for anthropology, which seeks ‘a theory of the experiential and neurobiological aspects of cultural activity’.

-The second article is by Robert Turner, the son of Victor Turner (himself interested in neuroscience at the end of his life). Turner turns the tables: Instead of showing the importance of neuroscience for anthropology he argues the relevance of culture for a cognitive neuroscience that tends to ignore cultural variability.

-Charles Whitehead, author of the third article, demonstrates neuroanthropology’s utility for the study of human evolution. He formulates a concept of the culture-ready brain and uses it as part of a play and display hypothesis of brain expansion, which seems consistent with fossil and archeological findings.

-My own article is the fourth in the issue. It employs neuroscience to answer the question: what is interpretation? Specifically, it argues that within the brain there is a cultural neurohermeneutic system that interprets antecedent events connecting them with subsequent actions.

-Andrea Roepstorff and Chris Firth, an anthropologist and a cognitive neuroscientist, comment on the four articles. En passant, they explicate experimental procedures that could operate as methodological base for certain types of research in neuroanthropology. Additionally, among other matters, they propose a Bayesian interpretation of the (neuro)hermeneutic circle as well as neural implications of cultural dimensions of the self.

On the Emergence of Neuroanthropology

Reyna argues in his Anthropology News piece that neuroanthropology brings us back to questions that Boas originally considered with his work on psychophysics – the relation between the subjective interior and the objective exterior, understood now as a biocultural relation, as dependent on history and development as on physiology and physics.

[Neuroanthropology] furthers knowledge of the subjective; the realm within persons that is so important in giving them their being. The problem of the study of the subjective has been a methodological one… [T]he ‘is’ of subjectivity has been missing.

…If the brain is understood as the most important part of the reality that is subjectivity, then for a long time it was not possible to observationally get inside the living brain. However, gradually a number of techniques were developed, some by Robert Turner, for imaging the brain as it went about the business of minding subjectivity. The most important of these techniques has been magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which began in the 1970s. It is clear from such studies that the brain produces basic attributes of the subjective including unconscious happenings, and conscious sensations, feelings, and reasonings…

Perhaps, a first, and controversial, conclusion of neuroanthropology is that the subjective is objective: The extraordinarily complex, material neural noodles of the nervous system; which are a supremely reflexive organization of structures with the capacity to reflect in the present on the past to produce a future. The AT articles each employ information from MRI studies of the neural noodles, and use them to rethink questions that have been of enduring importance within, and beyond, anthropology. Questions such as: What is interpretation? What is the nature of experience?

I might put it a bit differently, that these new methods open up sources of data about what happens in the brain that we did not have before. This data, along with increasingly sophisticated knowledge about how neural circuitry works in relation to the environment through neuroplasticity, open up novel interpretations for anthropologists. Just as Boas used physical data – the measurements of growth and bodily form – so too we can grasp what happens inside our heads in new ways. This data forces new interpretations of our habits and customs, interpretations that are remarkably Boasian.

Oddly enough, by being remarkably Boasian, this line of research moves against the determinist views that have dominated academic scholarship over the past few decades. On the one side, that biological function, genetics, and evolutionary history definitively shape who we are, with culture as just an added gloss. And on the other, that history and culture and language definitively shape who we are, with biology just a common currency easily placed to one side.

Now we can say no, and that both sides will have to fundamentally reshape their assumptions and their approach to research (for a taste of this on the biology side, see this post on the evolution of morality; for a taste of this on the cultural side, see this post on Bourdieu and habitus). Neuroanthropology aims to do this sort of work, to be in the middle and build new views of what it means to be human and how we vary across space and time. We’ve tackled that, for better or worse, on this blog and in our research, and we thank Steve Reyna for mentioning this blog and our forthcoming edited volume, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology.

I would also add that this type of being in the middle means that the subjective is still subjective, and we need new data and new interpretations here as well. Recent research on phenomenology (see this 2010 Annual Review article, and this 2012 Ethos special issue) show the importance of developing systematic research on the subjective as subjective. And as Greg and I have both shown, ethnographic research informed by neuroscience can provide novel takes on what informants are doing and why, whether that is addiction and desire in Colombia or the sense of balance and capoiera training in Brazil.

Boas and Neuroanthropology

Reyna is in strong agreement with this approach – the subjective and the objective at once. He writes near the end of his piece on Boas’s Dream:

It is time to return to Boas’s dream. I believe asking neuroanthropology to join a big tent, four-field anthropology opens a possibility of realizing this dream. Elsewhere (Reyna, Connections: Brain, Mind, and Culture in a Social Anthropology, 2002) I have argued that what I term I-space (others prefer the subjective) and E-space (others prefer the objective) are physically linked by sensory organs (especially those of sight and sound). This physical linkage means that I-space and E-space, the subjective and objective, are part of the same geography of being.

“There are structures of E-space (economic, political, etc.) that are connected with structures of I-space (the pre-frontal cortex, the parietal cortex, etc),” Reyna continues. “History is a stately (actually oftentimes not so stately) procession of events in E-space influencing those in I-space that, in turn, influence those in I-space, and on and on through space and time.”

In such an anthropology, social and cultural anthropologists investigate the dynamics of E-space structures that connect with I-space; while cultural neuroanthropologists analyze the dynamics of I-space structures that connect with E-space; and through such practices come to understand how the neurobiological and the cultural are a whole. Such an anthropological practice is neo-Boasian because connected with the cultural is not any old biological phenomenon but, more precisely, the neurobiological.

Reyna here proposes a division of labor, where psychological anthropologists – people interested in history and environment and culture, but using the interpretive lens of the individuals and their subjective experience and cultural psychology – do the traditional sort of Boasian work. Biocultural anthropologists go in the other direction, looking at the inner spaces – the prefrontal cortices and parietal cortex, to use Reyna’s examples – in relation to history and environment and culture. A good example of this later biocultural work is Carol Worthman’s 2009 paper, Habits of the heart: Life history and the developmental neuroendocrinology of emotion.

Boas and Data before Theory

Reyna, in his article Neo-Boasianism, a form of critical structural realism: It’s better than the alternative, gives us another view of Franz Boas, one of a critical scientist committed to data who avoided buying into over-arching ideologies of his time. Before his voyage to Baffin Island, Boas consulted with Rudolf Virchow, the esteemed physician.

Boas, writing just after Virchow’s death, recalled the basis of Virchow’s approach to science, stating: ‘His position rests on the general scientific principle that it is dangerous to classify data that are imperfectly known under the point of view of general theories, and that the sound progress of science requires us to be clear at every moment what elements in the system of science are hypothetical and what are the limits of knowledge which is defined by exact observation’ (1902: 442) (86).

It was this sort of approach that led Boas to reject determinist views, whether that was the physics of the world shaping how the psychology of perception worked in a direct manner or that the different societies of the world could be ordered into some sort of master list on a scale of cultural evolution from primitive to advanced. Boas wanted data first, and for scientists to be careful about their assumptions and theoretical pretensions.

Roepstorff and Frith (2012), in their commentary on the four articles in this special issue, highlight this sort of Boasian approach. They begin with a basic premise that ties together much of neuroanthropology, the commitment to a Boasian holistic approach:

Humans have experiences, they have brains, they are embedded in cultural contexts, and somehow, these different factors interact with each other. This may not appear very controversial, but, as effectively argued by all the papers in this issue, not all recent research traditions investigating the human survive this ‘ontology checklist’ (102).

Here neuroanthropology, and other synthetic attempts in anthropology, simply insists that we check off these different areas in our approach to research. We don’t necessarily need to gather specific data in each area, but we need to take into account each other to have a robust understanding of how different facets of our shared humanity interact in our everyday lives. No longer can be bracket off culture as a light gloss or genes as a common but irrelevant code. Moreover, we have a concrete place to look where culture and biology come together – in the activity and experiences of the neural system.

Much like Boas’ rejection of an overarching narrative or master theory, Roepstorff and Firth urge anthropologists to get good data, and to let the master narratives and grand theories to later, to when we actually understand things better:

We are not convinced that what the field currently needs is the naming of a new hybrid discipline such as neuroanthropology. This suggests a grand theory of how, on an abstract level, the cultural, the experiential and the neurological relate to each other. We believe that something else is more important, something at the same time less ambitious and perhaps more difficult to provide. We need novel cases that can examine and illustrate how these factors interrelate in concrete settings. We need questions and models that can be tested in the field and in the lab (108).

In Roepstorff et al. (2010), Enculturing brains through patterned practices (pdf), Roepstorff and Firth provide a concrete research-based approach to how this sort of research can be done. And they do so by drawing on Boas’ foundational work, that our understanding and interpretation of the world are formed through our own particular histories. “It is not abstract group membership per se but speaking the language – competent performance –, which entrains the particular system of classification. It is taking part in a particular pattern of practice that drives
how subjects perform (1056).”

Theory is important, there is no doubt about that. What I do want to suggest here is that the use of neuroscience and the brain runs the same danger that Boas confronted in research on psychophysics and race. Today we are already have popular theories about what the brain supposedly shows, from hard-wired functions to the reductive basis of our thoughts to the seat of our self. The brain is becoming an ultimate type of arbiter, and that is deeply problematic. First, brains don’t work in this way.

But second, and more importantly for this piece, our research needs to take account of our own biases, and the reasons we might find using neuroscience compelling or important. Data, whether ethnographic or experimental, provides a good gut-check, as does the sort of critical analytical approach embodied by neuroanthropology, where whole areas of human experience and activity cannot just be sectioned off because it is convenient to do so. Examining our own assumptions and using a holistic checklist will get us much closer to the pursuit of truth that Boas himself advocated.

Boas and a Critical Approach

Today, after works like Writing Culture and The History of Sexuality, we are more aware of how early ethnographers took on the role of scientists, casting informants in the role of informants. Scientists were objective, natives subjective; the view of the academic or intellectual was privileged, and assumed to be apolitical and unbiased.

Such a fiction has complicated our notions of how to do ethnography. We must be reflexive, and pay attention to power in the field (often using the lens of gender, race, and ethnicity). These become part of the practice of fieldwork. But they don’t necessarily dissolve the distinction between self and other.

Matti Bunzl takes this issue on in his 2004 essay, Boas, Foucault, and the “Native Anthropologist”: Notes toward a Neo-Boasian Anthropology.

The Boasian tradition offers more than experimental methodologies; it offers a radically different understanding of the epistemology of fieldwork. This understanding does not rest on a distinction between ethnographic Self and native Other but, instead, draws its analytic leverage from a rigorous historicity that refigures the question of Otherness in terms of temporal rather than cultural alterity (437).

I find this distinction useful. I have no problem viewing myself as part of a deep historical tradition of Western inquiry; my informants are part of different traditions. Moreover, we have both gone through very different patterned practices over our lifetimes. Yet there still is that intimate ethnographic encounter. Any understanding I arrive at in that moment is as much a product of what I interpret and understand as what my collaborators show me. The prototypical moment of ethnographic insight is just that – a breakthrough on my part, when I grasp something about the lives of my informants, in combination with their own words and actions. Their words and actions are data. As Bunzl writes:

For Boas, the reason to explore cultural phenomena was not that they were “Other” but that they were “there.” This seems like a trivial distinction, but it has enormous epistemological ramifications. As an heir to the German counter-Enlightenment tradition, Boas took the historical specificity of cultural and ethnic phenomena for granted. But rather than focus on their inherent Otherness (in an act of reification), he sought to understand them as the products of particular historical developments. Ultimately, it was not their difference that made them interesting, but the fact that they contributed to the plenitude of humanity(437).

Bunzl goes on to draw out the implications of this approach, noting the parallel with Foucault’s approach to understanding Western phenomena – say, the view of “homosexuals” as different or other because of particular Western ideologies. While Bunzl acknowledges that many anthropologists have incorporated Foucault into their analytical framework, he asserts that the same type of lens has not applied to the actual doing of ethnography. Here Boas can help.

The Boasian framework shares Foucault’s constitutive goal of suspending the reification of difference through its historicization. In dealing with the fiction of difference, Foucault focuses his attention on the moment of its historical invention. In contrast, and as an inherently ethnographic project, a neo-Boasian anthropology would turn its analytic gaze much more decisively on the order of difference in the present. In this sense, the present would never appear as a transparent entity, but as the very site of a critical investigation into ongoing processes of
historical reproduction (441).

For Bunzl, such a move brings us to focus on “secondary explanations.” Rather than the moment of origin – say, when in Western history the homosexual/hetersexual distinction took on such freight – ethnography can also focus on the historical present.

Reaching beyond the originary moment of speciation, the reality of “homosexual” difference and culture would thus become intelligible as the function of secondary explanations, the historically specific fictions that have been articulated through and around the “homosexual.”

Such a neo-Boasian approach would neither demand that the experiences of those constructed as “homosexual” be discounted, nor would it suggest the dismissal of the discourses circulating around them. On the contrary, those
would be the very phenomena in need of investigation, revealing, as they do, the processes of secondary explanation
that reproduce the ethnographic reality of “homosexual” Otherness. As a history of the present, a neo-Boasian anthropology emerges in this fashion as a genealogy of secondary explanation (441).

To turn that around, ethnographic work could also focus on the ethnographic reality of “heterosexual” Selfness, and examine the ideologies and cultural practices that maintain dominant forms of thinking and behaving. Or, to extend the same insight to neuroanthropology, to do research on how brain narratives have come to increasingly dominant ways we talk about self, and how we use powerful drugs to control certain populations, and justify policies based on assumed differences, such as mental illness or pathological brain condition.

In other words, a critical approach must also be a part of neuroanthropology, from research that examines how brains and human development and specific historical environments contribute to the production and reproduction of inequality, to ethnographic research and critical inquiry on how scientists, policy makers, and health professionals use discourses about the brain.

Much of this work is being done under the label “Critical Neuroscience.” There is an excellent 2012 volume Critical Neuroscience: A Handbook of the Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience, which focuses largely on how scientific knowledge is getting produced and used. But there is also needed work that looks at neuroscience in people’s everyday lives, and to question paradigms like “poverty poisons the brain.”

For neuroanthropology as a whole to succeed – to be something like a worthy representative of Boasian anthropology a century after Boas – this type of critical approach needs to be a part of how we do our work.

Boas, Generalizations, and Public Impact

A four-field approach that draws on neuroscience, innovative methodologies that do not engage in over-reach and look at specific patterns of human variation, and a critical inquiry in how neuroscience is done and how we ourselves do our work – all of these help form a Boasian approach for neuroanthropology.

Bunzl (2008), in his article The Quest for Anthropological Relevance: Borgesian Maps and Epistemological Pitfalls, highlights another important dimension that a Boasian approach provides. Lest we get so caught up in particularities and reflexivity that we need up saying nothing at all, we must also move to making generalizations. Saying “it’s complicated” is not a recipe for having a broader public impact.

In a classic reach for a middle ground, [a Boasian tradition] recognizes the limitations of anthropological generalization but is not terrified by this possibility. It knows the impossibility of finding laws in a natural scientific sense but is prepared to uncover meaningful connections through interpretive speculation. It is aware that in a philosophical sense, all empirical knowledge is provisional, partial, and subjective, but it seeks to transcend that limitation to find the truth about the world. It understands that objectivity is not fully possible but strives for it nonetheless. And it sees “culture” for what it is: an ideal type that may or may not have heuristic value in telling us something about the world we live in.

Culture, in that framework, is a scientific abstraction, not something that corresponds to an empirical reality in a narrowly positivistic sense. But like “individualism,” “imperialism,” “feudalism,” and “mercantilism” (Weber’s examples to make this point), or “physicist” and “cosmographer” (the figures in the foundational text of Boasian anthropology), it has the potential of rendering the world’s complexities in an analytically meaningful way (59).

Saying It’s turtles all the way down, and look, what complicated shell patterns – each one unique and different – is not a recipe for saying something meaningful about the world. We will have to generalize, but do so on our terms.

I have tried to outline some of those terms in this essay. We will have to theorize, and will have to do so as anthropologists and human scientists. That theorizing can impact both how we understand the world and understand ourselves, as well as the ways that we tackle the significant problems that we face today.

Neuroanthropology is anthropology. And part of a Boasian tradition of anthropology, but needing a renewed consideration not just of the historical links and origins of a particular way of doing anthropology, but even more importantly, a re-invention and re-interpretation of how to do Boasian anthropology in ways that can draw on human difference and similarity, biology and culture, experience and history.

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4 Responses to Franz Boas and Neuroanthropology

  1. Pingback: What is American Anthropology - 4 July 2012 | Anthropology Report

  2. darrel armstrong says:

    Daniel,
    I am in full agreement on both the problem in anthropology and the potential.
    As an ecologically oriented archaeologist, I haven’t seen a clearer accounting of the strengths of Boas’ position. The on going research in psychology, ecology, and genetics offers us much to bridge idealist and materialist perspectives, and we need to acquire better understanding of outside disciplines to accomplish that, and also to allow us to play a bigger part in guiding their research from our study of humans perspective. Those other researchers share fundamentally the same motivation as we do. They are humans. Culture, contra much science fiction, does not seem able to come into existence outside bodies and their chemical soup…neuroanthropology gives us new tools. The human mind is not the crown of creation, but it is a unique set of adaptations and the study gives us a chance to make anthropology more integrated than four field turf wars. Our traditional biases need to be exposed, understood and discarded.

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