Pervez Hoodbhoy and Scott Atran on hope and extremism

By Profs. Pervez Hoodbhoy and Scott Atran

After he circulated his address to the UN Security Council on extremism (available here), Prof. Scott Atran received the following response from Prof. Pervez Hoodbhoy of Pakistan. Prof. Hoodbhoy is a nuclear physicist, essayist, national security advisor, and social activist. A prize-winning scientist with a PhD from MIT, Prof. Hoodbhoy teaches at Forman Christian College University in Lahore and the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. 

Pervez Hoodbhoy, from weblog, Secular Pakistan

Pervez Hoodbhoy, from weblog, Secular Pakistan

In addition to has activism around environmental, social and cultural issues, Prof. Hoodbhoy has also been an outspoken advocate against the development of nuclear arms, including in Pakistan. As Prof. Atran writes about Hoodbhoy, ‘We do not always agree on what are the causes or possible solutions to political violence, but he is one of the most courageous people I know.’

My thanks to both Profs. Hoodbhoy and Atran for the opportunity to share this exchange.


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Category: Critique, Society | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Scott Atran on Youth, Violent Extremism and Promoting Peace

On 23 April, 2015, Prof. Scott Atran addressed the UN Security Council, to our knowledge the first time an anthropologist has ever been asked to speak to this body. In particular, he spoke to the Ministerial Debate on ‘The Role of Youth in Countering Violent Extremism and Promoting Peace.’ His presentation on youth radicalization condenses in a very tight format his insights gained from wide ranging experimental and ethnographic research on young people who have joined violent extremist movements. Scott circulated links to his talk and the text, and he has agreed to let me post it here on PLOS Neuroanthropology so that it can reach the widest possible audience.

7482540_f260Scott Atran is a Directeur de Recherche, Anthropologie, at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, as well as holding professorial positions and chairs at Oxford University, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the University of Michigan. He is co-founder of Artis Research and author of Talking to the Enemy and In Gods We Trust. His research in cognitive anthropology is diverse and fascinating, but his current research is especially urgent, which is one reason I asked him if I could post this here. 

Address to UN Security Council by Scott Atran.

Presentation by Prof. Scott Atran:

Your Royal Highness Crown Prince Al Hussein Bin Abdullah II, Mr. Secretary General, and distinguished representatives, I thank the Security Council and the Government of Jordan for letting me try to help.

I am an anthropologist. Anthropologists, as a group, study the diversity of human cultures to understand our commonalities and differences, and to use the knowledge of what is common to us all to help us bridge our differences. My research aims to help reduce violence between peoples, by first trying to understand thoughts and behaviors as different from my own as any I can imagine: such as suicide actions that kill masses of people innocent of direct harm to others. The key, as Margaret Mead taught me long ago, when I worked as her assistant at the American Museum of Natural History here in New York, was to empathize with people, without always sympathizing: to participate in their lives to the extent you feel is morally possible. And then report.

I’ve spent much time observing, interviewing and carrying out systematic studies among people on six continents who are drawn to violent action for a group and its cause. Most recently with colleagues last month in Kirkuk, Iraq, among young men who had killed for ISIS, and with young adults in the banlieus of Paris and barrios of Barcelona who seek to join it.

With some insights from social science research, I will try to outline a few conditions that may help move such youth from taking the path of violent extremism.

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Category: Critique, Perception, Society | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Plastics, tiny penises, and human evolution

By Greg Downey.  (5000 words)

An Italian study in 2012 found that men’s penises were growing smaller over time — two centimetres lost from grandfather to grandson in the twentieth century. Conservative radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh knew who to blame: ‘feminazis, the chickification, and everything else’ linked to feminism. Other commentators, a bit more scientific, pointed the finger at endocrine disrupting chemicals, such as pesticides and hormones fed to cattle, as likely culprits.

For example, Bucky McMahon at Medium pinned the blame squarely on plastics, offering that ‘virtually all commercially available plastics leach synthetic estrogens,’ implying that plastics are behind the (allegedly) lost penis stature. According to McMahon, plastic-derived xenoestrogens, chemicals that mimic the effects of estrogen, are also responsible for a fall off in the sperm count in men, first reported in 1992 British Medical Journal paper written by a Danish team led by Elisabeth Carlsen (Carlsen et al. 1992; see also Le Moal et al. 2014 for more recent review; and Sharpe 2003).

Some observers argue that the same culprit leads to an opposite trend among women. In 1997, a paper by Marcia Herman-Giddens and colleagues in Pediatrics reported that girls in the United States developed breasts earlier than previously thought: their findings suggested that Euro-American girls were, on average, experiencing the onset of puberty before 10 years of age, and African-American girls, on average, before the age of 9 (Herman-Giddens et al., 1997). A ‘new normal’ was a more precocious onset of female sexual maturity, in some cases long before the girls were emotionally ready. As Dr. Glenn Braunstein wrote for the Huffington post: ‘childhood for girls is shrinking, while the duration of puberty is expanding.’

The potential causes of early onset for puberty in girls include xenoestrogens, but also obesity and higher childhood body weight, an imbalance between high-energy diet and lower levels of activity, the consumption of sugary soft drinks, even sexual abuse or other severe life stress.

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 11.54.51 amAlthough all of these findings are controversial — other studies find no decrease in sperm count or penis size, for example (see Bergman et al. 2012) — the worst-case scenario is grim, indeed. McMahon predicts a sad end to our species, driven to sexual dysfunction and the brink of extinction by plastics messing with our hormones:

In the endgame, we’ll be a race of sexed-up tweener girls and sterile dudes with little dicks wandering baffled through a rubbish-filled world. Then those poor mismatched souls will grow old and die. End of story.

Setting aside the question of whether plastics (or obesity or carbonated corn syrup-laced beverages or the presence of step-dads or hormones in beef or any other factor) are behind changes in our patterns of sexual maturity, what about the possible future? Does evolutionary theory support the idea that xenoestrogens and other endocrine disruption could lead us limping to a kind of slow rolling human apocalypse, as people like McMahon suggest?

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Category: Evolution, Health | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Culture like Relativity

One of the prominent ways to think about culture is as a system of symbols or beliefs. For example, Clifford Geertz wrote in 1973:

Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning…

It is through culture patterns, ordered clusters of significant symbols, that man makes sense of the events through which he lives. The study of culture, the accumulated totality of such patterns, is thus the study of the machinery individuals and groups of individuals employ to orient themselves in a world otherwise opaque.

Recently Bill Dressler reiterated this belief-oriented approach to culture, emphasizing the shared and cognitive dimensions of significance of Geertz:

Culture is the knowledge we use to function in a given social system. As Searle has shown, cultural knowledge is of a special kind generated by a certain class of speech acts. These speech acts, which Searle refers to as constitutive rules, literally construct the world around us; and this is an ontological account consistent with what we know of our biological and evolutionary history.

This is an important approach to culture, with a long history in the social sciences. However, I view it rather like Newton’s approach to motion and to gravity. Newton’s view remains extremely relevant; we use Newtonian physics in many of our daily calculations and interactions. But it is not the only way to view the world.

I was struck by this idea again today, which brought back something I wrote in 2010 on Anthropology, Science, and Relativism:

To really understand what Dooglas Carl is saying, it is important to grasp relativism more directly. The easiest way is by analogy. Isaac Newton developed a linear, determinist physics which still serves us well today, but which also does not help us explain core aspects of the universe that surrounds us. Albert Einstein introduced a revolution in physics through his idea of relativity.

Relativity has two major impacts. First, it changed the idea of “timeless laws” at the heart of the Enlightenment. “For example, it overturned the concept of motion from Newton’s day, into all motion is relative. Time was no longer uniform and absolute.” Much of social science still searches for uniform laws that apply across human societies. Franz Boas, a student of physics and founding anthropologist in the United States, introduced the study of society based on the history of that society. It was a relative approach to the study of humankind.

Second, relativity radically challenged the notion of the impartial, outside observer. First, the frame of reference of the observer mattered in being able to compare results. If two observers are moving relative to each other, their different motions shape how they observe the same event. Moreover, in quantum mechanisms, the actions of the observer are seen to shape the outcome of observations. The observation itself helps determine what actually happens.

Anthropology embraced this view earlier than any other social science discipline. Around the same time as Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski was creating the core research technique of participant observation. Unlike previous “armchair” anthropology, where researchers got data from afar and assembled it to fit their own theories, participant observation required spending time with the people one was studying, and placed emphasis on getting their perspective on their lives. No longer was it just the outsider’s perspective.

To understand human society, it is imperative to recognize that we are already located within society. Just like in modern physics, our observations are relative, and help shape what is actually observed. Moreover, our frame of reference is based on our own movement, our own individual motion. Anthropologists’ main solution to this problem is to encourage reflexivity, an examination of our frame of reference in relation to what we are studying and our own personal and professional histories.

But there is one stark difference between modern physics and modern anthropology. In physics, observations are still done in only one universe. In anthropology, we study multiple societies, both past and present. We have to take relativity one step further.

What is that one step further? A report on recent work on Einstein’s relativity caught my eye.

General relativity describes gravity not as a force, as the physicist Isaac Newton thought of it, but rather as a curvature of space and time due to the mass of objects, Will said. The reason Earth orbits the sun is not because the sun attracts Earth, but instead because the sun warps space-time, he said. (This is a bit like the way a bowling ball on an outstretched blanket would warp the blanket’s shape.) …

General relativity works very well for gravity of ordinary strength, the variety experienced by humans on Earth or by planets as they orbit the sun. But it’s never been tested in extremely strong fields, regions that lie at the boundaries of physics. [The 9 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics]

The best prospect for testing the theory in these realms is to look for ripples in space-time, known as gravitational waves. These can be produced by violent events such as the merging of two massive bodies, such as black holes or extremely dense objects called neutron stars.

Most contemporary anthropologists think of culture as akin to something like a force. There is “structural violence” or “friction.” These are useful ways to capturing the scientific phenomenon we study.

But I also think of culture as something closer to gravity in the way Einstein meant. It’s a curvature of human lives and history due to the mass of ourselves, because the ways we interpret – our language and meaning, those webs of significance – warp us.

It is not a system layered on top, something separate from ourselves. The regularities we observe are not because “culture attracts” but because culture shapes us, warps the very curvature of our lives. The search for universals, of the regularities of how we vary, has faltered largely because they have taken a Newtonian approach to culture, of some laws that are prior to ourselves. But that is not the only way to view things.

The above reflection on Einstein, and the type of extreme experimentation available now, also relates to anthropology’s long-term use of extreme examples to think about ourselves as humans. It is a powerful approach. Our brains are alien technology, and we’ve pushed them in some amazing directions.

Escaping from our categorical view of culture, of culture as akin to the force of gravity, is something we’ve struggled with ever since Durkheim set out social facts, different and privileged, as the object of study of social science. It works, and works well.

But there are certain things about culture, not as a complex whole, but as the particular historical warping of our lives that we haven’t theorized quite as well as we might have.

Or at least those are my thoughts late on a Saturday.

Update: A further thought. For relativity problem, much of the focus has been on the method – the need for reflexivity. This is important, vital. But it still doesn’t solve the theoretical problem, of what culture looks like from a relativist viewpoint. That is what Einstein, for me, captures as analogy. But we’re not only on the train, trying to observe the velocity, but we’re also helping to make the tracks and the ways we measure velocity in human systems. So it’s complicated. But the basic point stands. Anthropology’s “It’s complicated” is often about relativity (or cultural relativism) as a methodological point. I want it as a more substantive theoretical point.

One example here that I like is Bunzl’s reconsideration of Boas. Another is that we need to reconsider the “human” side, in ways outlined by Jon Marks in The Growth of Biocultural Thought or by me in Nature/Nurture: Slash to the Rescue. I’d like to meld those pieces with Bunzl’s appraisal.

Still, not quite a theory. Or a relativistic update to Boas historical particularism and Geertz system of symbols.

Update #2: One way this post can be taken is that “culture shapes us and warps the very curvature of our lives.” That is a fine anthropological point. But on the theory side, I would want to reverse that, or at least bring into equal consideration, that the curvature of our lives shapes and warps culture. In other words, I’d like a warped theory of culture.

Yet conceptualizations like a “system of symbols” or “habitus” often divorce themselves from the messiness of our lives. But I think our conception of culture would look quite different if we theorized it from a relativist position, rather than using a rationalist approach. Culture as a warped field, something we generate and in turn generates us. Perhaps something that attends more to a post-structuralist approach to get at that dual generation, yet still does the sort of work Geertz did four decades ago.

And by warped, I don’t know if I mean made from crooked timber or at warp speed, since culture lets us transverse space and time faster than the speed of light. Both? 😉

Update #3: Where I’d like to take this is, or where this approach needs to go, is to distinguish how it offers something different than other cultural approaches. In other words, what sorts of insights, predictions, analytic purchase does this type of view of culture give you? If it’s just the same as other approaches, then maybe it’s a neat way of viewing culture, but not much more. I’m definitely open to suggestions on this point.

Category: Culture, Society, Theory, Variation | 11 Comments

Common Brain Mechanisms in Mental Illness

Goodkind et al Common Biological SubstrateAn important new meta-analysis of brain imaging research came out this week in JAMA Psychiatry, “Identification of a Common Neurobiological Substrate for Mental Illness” which highlights the importance of the insula and anterior cingultate in healthy brain function.

Neuroscientist News provides an effective overview of the results that came out of Amit Etkin’s lab at Stanford. I’ll then add in two caveats about the characterization of the deficits and the assumed biological causation that are needed in interpreting these results. Or, to be blunt, that social causes related to how we deal with mental illness in our modern societies have as much potential to explain these common biological differences, since it’s one of the main things that these patients share in common.

But first the overview.

We tried to ask a basic question that hasn’t been asked: Is there any common biological basis for mental illness?

To address that question, he and his colleagues pooled data from 193 separate studies containing, in all, magnetic-resonance images of the brains of 7,381 patients falling into six diagnostic categories: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder and a cluster of related anxiety disorders.

Comparing the images with those from 8,511 healthy control subjects, the research team identified three separate brain structures, several centimeters apart from one another, with a diminished volume of gray matter, the brain tissue that serves to process information.

These structures — the left and right anterior insula and the dorsal anterior cingulate — are known to be parts of a larger network in the brain whose component parts tend to fire in synchrony. This network is associated with higher-level executive functions such as concentrating in the face of distractions, multitasking or task-switching, planning and decision-making, and inhibition of counterproductive impulses.

Gray matter loss in the three brain structures was similar across patients with different psychiatric conditions, the researchers found.

The abstract to the JAMA Psychiatry paper makes this same point:

Based on the voxel-based morphometry meta-analysis of 193 studies comprising 15 892 individuals across 6 diverse diagnostic groups (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety), we found that gray matter loss converged across diagnoses in 3 regions: the dorsal anterior cingulate, right insula, and left insula.

By contrast, there were few diagnosis-specific effects, distinguishing only schizophrenia and depression from other diagnoses. In the parallel follow-up analyses of the 3 independent healthy participant data sets, we found that the common gray matter loss regions formed a tightly interconnected network during tasks and at resting and that lower gray matter in this network was associated with poor executive functioning.

So what is executive function in the eyes of Etkin? What is going on with these parts of the brain?

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Category: Brain, Critique, Culture, Health, Mind, Society, Variation | 5 Comments

Applied Anthropology as Limit

Of late I’ve been saying that the constraints that come with applied work are useful for doing good theoretical and empirical work. Just as experimental models bring demands to the research process that can clarify methods and outcomes, so too can applied work.

I mean this point in two ways: (1) Grand theories can be grand and all, but when they are applied, reality often comes to the fore; applied anthropology can test anthropological theory in ways that most ethnographic research does not. (2) Applied work on its own requires a set of considerations that leads to useful knowledge production, a configuration of the research process that illuminates through the types of methods, evidence, and outcomes that are central to applied anthropology.

Types of Methods: Activist and community-based approaches require an active consideration of “the other” that goes well beyond normal anthropological approaches. Having research questions, ways of gathering data, and research partnerships come out of engagement with informants and communities on their own terms represents an important break with research-as-usual. Community-based work is inherently integrative and interdisciplinary, as I have argued before.

Evidence: Applied anthropologists make certain types of connections that university-based anthropologists rarely do. How can data actually reach back to the community, and not just to another peer-reviewed publication? Where is the fit between my research interests and what the community is interested in? How can this work have an impact on policy? These questions lead to the gathering of evidence on aspects of local and larger realities that are often neglected in more traditional approaches.

I learned this lesson the hard way – I did some good research on the neuroanthropology of addiction; when I went back to the field to present the results at the places where I had worked, I quickly got the question, “Great. Now what do we do with this?” I didn’t know what to say. One of the main problems, I realized, is that I had not gotten THE DATA to be able to answer that question. I should have gotten that data while I was in the field; after the fact, it was too late.

The answer to the question of What to do? didn’t magically reveal itself once I had a better understanding of addiction. I needed evidence to connect my own work to the sorts of considerations that made up the daily work and efforts of people I knew in the field. It would have been easy to get in a systematic way. So now I tell my students, Get the applied data while you’re in the field.

Outcomes: Applied work brings a refiguring and expansion of research outcomes that improves the research process. Knowing going into a project that you have to have relevant applied outcomes, whatever shape those might be, brings a set of constraints to the research that can shape the questions, methods, and evidence used. We often think in terms of academic outcomes from research – a conference presentation, a journal paper, and so forth. We need to also think in terms of applied outcomes. Here is my list of the Top Ten Ways for Anthropologists to Make a Difference, as well as Reaching a Broader Public: Five Ideas for Anthropologists.

Applied Work and Experimental Anthropology

By comparing applied work to experimental work, I am channeling Roepstorff and Frith’s 2012 artcle, Neuroanthropology or simply anthropology? Going experimental as method, as object of study, and as research aesthetic.

In any research field, there is an obvious tension between the ideals of method and the realities of the research. For experiments, it is very much about control of those factors that make the experiment possible: control of the variables studied, of the technologies applied, of the experimental design. It does not take much experience as a researcher, or as a fieldworker in a laboratory setting (Latour and Woolgar 1986; Roepstorff 2001), to realize that the research process is rarely just like that. Experimental research is, it is increasingly clear, a complicated practice, a bricolage tinkering with the possible elements (Pickering 1995) to make things work (103).

Figuring out how to get an experiment to work, while at the same time attending to those factors to produce reliable knowledge from experiments, can be a creative process. So too can applied work. Returning to Roepstorff & Frith:

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, and we need to formulate potential mechanisms as a way to gain a better foothold. There may be dialectics at stake here, but the dialectics may be a matter of sending questions, approaches and models back and forth. We need to develop a metalevel discourse that can grasp what happens when experiments and concepts travel. This approach is, we argue, not neuroanthropological, it is simply anthropological. If there is a need for a specific identifier, it could be an ‘experimental anthropology’ (108).

Applied anthropology can also produce that sort of dialectics, and it can be connected into deep debates within the field. We do need a metalevel discourse, but we can also have a practical discourse when outcomes and concepts become engaged. Applied work brings a focus on how factors interrelate in concrete settings and forces a consideration of mechanisms of change. Applied work can be deeply theoretical.

Stuart Hall and the Limit as Method

Over at Savage Minds, Sareeta Amrute wrote a recent piece Learning from Stuart Hall: the Limit as Method.

Hall uses two sense of the limit to ground his research. First, he thinks through limit cases to question a given theorization. Second, he thinks at the limit to uncover what is not yet know about a particular case. The limit as research methodology has, to my mind, a very anthropological sensibility about it, since it uses empirical cases to talk back to establish categories, and at the same time, keeps newly developed conceptualizations open-ended.

I was struck by this section, where Amrute considers Hall’s essay, “When Was The Post-Colonial? Thinking at the Limit”.

As such, [post-colonial’s] periodization, emphasizing as it does the colonial encounter, provides an alternative narrative of capitalist modernity that puts the peripheries at the center of a story normally told from the perspective of European modernization… The essay on the post-colonial mobilizes the idea of the limit to mean an “episteme-in-formation”, denoting an emergent relationship of power, temporality, and knowledge that both carries with it colonial ‘after-effects’ as Hall calls them, and marks a shift that reconfigures those relations.

The limits that come with applied research do the same, bringing forth an emergent relationship of power, temporality and knowledge that carries the ‘after-effects’ of earlier applied work in anthropology and a reconfiguration of those relations. It means producing knowledge that is not just for the academy’s sake, it means training students for jobs outside academia, it means asking questions that find a common ground between the researcher and people living in particular times and spaces.

Pushing this point, applied work does what Amrute covers with how case studies can reveal theoretical limits: “The importance of the limit in this sense of an empirical case that gives the lie as it were to easy theoretical positions and to political polemics.”

Knowledge About and Knowledge How

But applied limits go beyond that, because they force very concrete consideration of what engaged Stuart Hall, those case studies “through which to think more carefully about how the politics of class and of race are aligned and fractured under certain historically specific conditions.” Applied work can quickly bring the researcher right up against how social and biological realities are aligned and fractured and constructed under certain historically specific conditions. Applied work becomes a way to do theory, to “push at and delineate the limits of what is currently known.”

And there is one more way to see applied theory, not just as focusing on knowledge about things – the limits of what is currently known – but knowledge on how to do things. As I relayed earlier, I thought knowledge about addiction would magically transform itself into knowledge about how to do something about addiction. That was a big mistake. Psychology, for example, has a whole arena of applied theory that is distinct from academic theory; some of the most productive approaches in psychology fall solidly on the practitioner side (I am most familiar with motivational interviewing) and in the space between applied and academic work – the whole field of cognitive-behavioral therapy is testament to that. Anthropology has not developed its practitioner and applied side as much, but I am confident that such work will yield exciting theoretical and practical developments in the years to come.

Recognizing the productive limits for research that come from applied work proves a powerful way to think about the benefits of being applied. How-to knowledge is important, as I’ve written about before in this 2012 article with Greg Downey:

Too often researchers unfamiliar with the challenges of applied research assume that theory leads directly to application in an unproblematic fashion. Neuroanthropologists will need to advocate developing knowledge about a problem and knowledge about how to make a difference. That how-to knowledge can include applied theory, familiarity with local resources for change, and an awareness not just of a community’s needs but also what social structures might limit or appropriate any plans for a program or policy change.

But today I am as struck by how applied work as limit can make us better researchers. As I wrote in that same article, applied work can require “ongoing testing both in terms of the theory we apply and our modes to intervene to generate change in dynamic systems, because engagement will require a broader empirical basis for understanding how systems and communities function (12).” But it’s not just the testing of knowledge (another form of being critical, whether it’s empirical testing or testing our assumptions). It is generating that broader empirical basis for understanding how we create, shape and change our lives.

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Oppression, Mental Health, and the House Science Committee

Folmar Dalit 3By Steven Folmar, Associate Professor and Associate Chair of Anthropology, Wake Forest University

     On September 15 of this year, I learned from my Program Officer at the National Science Foundation (NSF) that the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology had requested the “jacket” for my NSF-funded project, “Oppression and Mental Health in Nepal.”

The jacket is an informal term that refers to all information related to a project, as specified in a Letter from Representative Lamar Smith, Chair of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, to the NSF, including:

“every e-mail, memorandum, record, note, text message, all peer reviews considered for selection and recommendations made by the research panel to the National Science Foundation (NSF), or document of any kind that pertains to the NSF’s consideration and approval of the grants…including any approved amendments.”

Because of its broad relevance to theory and practice, I was surprised that the project was selected by the Committee. Research on mental health in Nepal matters because it can help us clarify how mental health interacts with culture in a wide variety of ways. For example, mental health appears to be positively correlated with a strong sense of spirituality. Understanding how the two are actually linked is crucial. By providing new ideas and information, the research in Nepal can help improve knowledge and treatment of psychiatric problems in ways that will improve the mental health of our own citizens.

I treated my Program Officer’s call to me as a heads up only; my project was scientifically sound, but I needed to be aware that the project might turn up in unexpected places and that I might be contacted by reporters. I was advised to inform the News and Communications Office of my university (Wake Forest) of the Committee’s request, so that they could advise me if need be.

Shortly thereafter, I started receiving communications from outside Wake. A smattering of friends and associates told me they had seen the news that I was one of the PIs (principal investigators) of NSF grants under the Committee’s scrutiny. I welcomed their support.

I also appreciated the American Psychological Association for writing to my co-PI, Dr. Lisa Kiang, a psychologist, to offer whatever assistance they could. My colleague and president of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies, Dr. Mary Cameron, reached out in the same manner. I hope that other organizations of which I am a member, such as the American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology, will also express their support.

Reporter Jeffry Mervis of the Association for the Advancement of Science interviewed me for an article, Battle between NSF and House science committee escalates, which he published on October 2 in the News section of Science. I was given the opportunity to explain my reaction to being one of TheNSF50. My project was one of 30 jackets demanded at the time; 20 others were included in a previous request.

Mervis wrote about my project:

The 3-year, $160,000 award supported [Folmar] and two colleagues in a study of how social status affects the mental health of Nepalese adolescents. Folmar has worked on and off in Nepal since 1979, and he says the country’s economic and cultural divisions are so striking that it’s an ideal place to measure the impact of discrimination on those in the lowest caste.

Folmar says that his first reaction after hearing that his grant had been singled out was to hunker down and keep quiet. “I felt like somebody in a war movie, with bullets whizzing over my head.” But after further reflection, he thinks that speaking up may not be such a bad idea.

“I’d tell [Smith] that our work has a great deal of relevance to this country,” he says. Measuring how social inequality can cause depression and anxiety is valuable information for U.S. public health officials, too, he explains, noting that some Nepalese victims display symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder.

The project was a bargain, he adds. The grant covered several months of field work by three senior researchers and their graduate students, he notes, “all for about $50,000 a year. That’s pretty cheap science.”

What This Research Tackles

Here I want to expand on why the Oppression and Mental Health (OMH) project matters. OMH-Nepal is a number of years in the making. I began doing research for my doctoral dissertation in anthropology at Case Western Reserve University on how fertility changed under conditions of “modernization” in caste-Hindu society in Nepal. In 1991 I updated that research, and returned again to Nepal in 2000, when I began to look at how oppression operated in Nepal.

Since then I have traveled to Nepal more than a dozen times and have increasingly focused on the people at the bottom of the caste system, who are called Dalits. The caste system is a complex social structure with castes ranked hierarchically and semi-bounded by ritual practice and rules that discourage marrying people of other castes. The most difficult aspect of the caste system for Dalits is that it is very difficult to move up, especially for those who are in the lowest positions.

In 2001 I visited the tourism village of Sirubari, which offered cultural programming from the Gurung ethnic group for tourists. The traditional style wedding music offered by members of one of the Dalit castes formed a significant part of the cultural offerings in Sirubarai. Here is one example of this type of music, much as a tourist might experience it.

I became interested in how the Dalit contributed to the local tourist economy and what they gained. Here is the oversimplified summary of what I learned over several trips to Nepal: the contribution was much and the benefit insignificant.

So I began to ask broader questions about Dalits in this area of Nepal: How do they and others perceive being Dalit? In what ways are Dalits talked about and treated? What are their living conditions like? Are things like family, opportunity and discrimination changing for Dalits?

The more I looked into the daily lives of the least privileged people in Nepal, the more apparent it became that the psychological burden of their social status must be great. That is why I began orienting my research more toward questions of the mind, especially psychological suffering. I asked them about dukkha, a term commonly translated as “suffering,” which the Dalit peoples experience and talk about rather freely.

Dukkha is quite a broad ranging concept. A person might apologize that he caused dukkha for someone who made tea for him. Or he could complain that his hardscrabble life was the cause of much dukkha (worry, sorrow, mental anguish, all wrapped up as one), which is the type I focus on.

In the NSF project, alongside the research on how social status affects mental health, we also examine how identity affects that relationship. I conceive of identity as a cognitive orientation toward status, a way of thinking about it. On the extremes this sense of status could be viewed as either an immutable, innate substance, an identity that is impossible to change, or alternatively as something constructed by society and mutable. There are similar dynamics with identity and status in the United States, where ideas about identity can impact rich and poor, racial and ethnic groups, immigrants, and even people with mental health diagnoses like autism, schizophrenia, or addiction.

Folmar Dalit 1Why This Research Matters

This research is in the national interest, one of the concerns expressed by Congressman Lamar Smith, Chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology in his communications with NSF (complete correspondence here).

Logically speaking, we would expect that people at the bottom of the social ladder would suffer more mental angst (dukkha) than those at the top. This point takes reality in government statistics in Nepal and in research conducted there and elsewhere. The relationship is not a perfect one, however, and is affected by such things as material circumstances, gender, and other factors. These factors help explain some but not all the variation.

What my colleagues and I seek to understand is how identification with a group alters what the other factors would predict mental anguish. We are especially interested in the extremes of how we identify with social status, where some people see their social status as innate and unchangeable (in many circles this is called, “essential”) and others as constructed and changeable. Do those different perspectives on identity and social status matter?

We have just started to analyze the results, but we can see that some of the basic relationships are holding. Our main hypothesis is that Dalits who believe in a constructed Dalit identity will fare better psychologically than those who feel locked in by an essential view of their identity. And we predict that the effect will work in the opposite way for high caste people – those who think their status is essential will have better mental health than those who think identity is constructed. This situation has a rough parallel with race in the United States, where some people believe it to be a biological essential and others think it is a social construction.

But one of the most important take-away messages is that context matters. While caste and race share some similarities in how they affect people, they are not the same thing. When we study questions like the effect of social status on mental health, it is helpful to conduct it in a place that is culturally different from our own surroundings. The fact that culture is different makes it more visible and helps us get to how culture affects mental health more clearly. Then, we can take these lessons, modify them appropriately, and see how they apply to our situation.

Folmar Dalit 2The Research Itself: Science in Action

The project adheres to a mixed-method approach which is highly valued in anthropology because it emphasizes the strengths of two perspectives that are often at odds, the scientific and the humanistic, the quantitative and the qualitative.

The wedding of these two approaches is important for making future progress, and this is nowhere more evident than in the field of cross-cultural psychiatry. For example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Orders (DSM), considered the bible for psychiatric diagnosis, now pays serious attention to culture. This awareness has come through the recognition that qualitative and quantitative data each contribute different strengths to understanding complex problems of the mind.

The research team spent nearly two years collecting data on the formation of identity and how it is related to mental health among adolescents in Lamjung District. We studied three samples of 100 adolescents, each divided evenly between girls and boys, living in urban and rural locations. The three samples we drew were from a high status group (high caste Hindus), a low status group (Dalits), and an intermediate status group (ethnic Gurungs). We gathered economic data, household censuses, ideas of identity, and mental health status. At the same time, we lived among these people in several locations, visited their schools and teashops, spoke to people frequently about caste and identity issues and attempted to firmly understand the relationships we sought to study.

The data collection for the project ended in the summer of 2014, and we are now in the process of conducting our analysis of the qualitative and quantitative data. And while we are not prepared to release statistical results yet, we have learned much. Perhaps most significantly, we understand better the relationship between culture and mental health: how mental health issues arise in specific local contexts, are detected through local means, discussed through local idioms of distress and treated, however imperfectly, through local healers.

Significantly, it is clear that a Western paradigm based on psychiatric assumptions of mental health and its causes and consequences is at best a misfit between measurement and phenomena. Western psychiatric methodology is designed to tap into concepts from Western medicine, so how well will it find cultural data that it is not looking for? This conundrum speaks directly to the relevance of the project for the US, where many people are working diligently to develop better, more culturally sensitive ways of diagnosing and treating mental health in America.

Thus, our overall research approach pertains directly to studying mental health in the US; if we narrow our focus only to medicine, how do we understand how family, world view, and spirituality intersect with our mental well-being? Only by using a more open, comprehensive methodology will we know.

All NSF applications require that we speak to the broader impacts our work will have on society, both in its application to science and to the public’s welfare. Our project alone will not solve the most difficult of questions about the intersection of psychological health with culture, but it will contribute to that effort.

Another positive effect is the cross-fertilization of scientific theory and practice among the three disciplines represented among the co-PIs, anthropology, psychology and psychiatry (Dr. Guy Palmes). The project, which cost $160,000, supports this scientific effort for three years. It includes salary support for the three investigators and one research assistant (full time at present), besides also supporting a native Nepali research assistant of Dalit background. The project promises to have meaningful scientific payoff and challenges the stereotype that qualitative data comes at a high price. In a previous academic life, I worked on many worthy projects, including clinical trials. As worthy as they were, data for dollar, they were significantly more costly than OMH-Nepal. And in terms of relevance to the US, OMH-Nepal has just as loud a bang for the buck.

As the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology argues, science should be transparent and serve important national interests. Inequality affects health, both physical and mental. Understanding how is crucial to better public health approaches and to improvements in medical care. The research in a small area of Nepal, where this relationship stands revealed in sharp contrast, joins a long line of case studies that address significant health issues. Imagine if the study of milkmaids hadn’t revealed so much about how to prevent smallpox. Or that penicillin can kill bacteria. We’ve addressed those problems, but for the epidemic of mental health, we need the best case studies possible to understand how we can help people who suffer.

Category: Application, Culture, Health, Inequality, Mind, Society, Stress, Variation | Comments Off on Oppression, Mental Health, and the House Science Committee

Asifa Majid on language and olfaction

When I first ran across Asifa Majid’s  article with Ewelina Wnuk in Cognition, about how speakers of Maniq, a language indigenous to southern Thailand, have a vocabulary for talking about smell, I was taken aback. In anthropology, especially since the work of people like David Howes, Constance Classen, and Andrew Synott, we know very well that different cultures privilege olfaction and other senses more than Westerners do. The anthropology of the sense has made it clear that the ideological privileging of vision in the West, and relative underdevelopment of sense of smell or proprioception, is not matched elsewhere.

Prof. Asifa Majid

Prof. Asifa Majid

However, Wnuk and Majid were attacking, with empirical observations and psychometric testing, one of the pillars of Western philosophical accounts of how human senses evolved: the idea that human evolution had tipped the balance decisively away from olfaction. The alleged weakness and imprecision of olfaction was taken for granted in perceptual psychology.

Some of these theories of sensory evolution hold that our ancestors had, in a way, paid for our distinctive cognitive and perceptual development by sacrificing olfactory acuity. Vision increased precision at the expense of olfaction.

In fact, some theorists of brain evolution go so far as to suggest that there was a kind of neurological trade-off: language use could only grow as our ancestors lost a capacity for smelling. The restraint and remove from the immediate sense-world necessary for logic and abstract thought was opposed to the kind of complete immersion and sensory triggering of behaviour that other animals had because of the way aromas dominated their perception. Were the senses in a zero-sum exchange where visual acuity and a distinctly human way of life made acute olfaction impossible?

Research conducted by Asifa Majid, together with her collaborators, suggests that language and olfaction are not at odds; the right language can actually enhance the perception of aroma, as language has also enhanced, inflected and refined our other senses. Rather than a fact of human being, the neglect of olfaction in the West is a result of our own cultural presuppositions and sensory biases: smell suffers from neglect, not an inescapable evolutionary trade-off. (Majid’s research got a mention recently from Tanya Luhrmann in an op-ed in the New York Times: Can’t Place That Smell? You Must Be American: How Culture Shapes Our Senses.)

I ended up writing at length about their research in an earlier post, Giving names to aromas in Aslian languages, and Prof. Majid and I subsequently exchanged emails. She agreed to answer some questions about her research, which I’m really happy to present today as an interview (below the fold).

Continue reading »

Category: Announcements, Culture, Language, Skill | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Our Brains as Alien Technology

Cargo Cult PlaneOur brains are alien technology. We don’t understand how they work, and the glimpses we have gotten so far indicate that our brains work quite differently than our own smart technology.

After a century of research, we are just beginning to understand the brain. Unlike the heart, or even our DNA, we do not have an in-depth sense of how the brain accomplishes its basic functions. How does it generate emotions? Make decisions? Learn? Become encultured?

Two issues come up as we try to grasp how the brain works. First, we think we know how we think. Our visceral sense of feeling and thought, as well as cultural traditions of how to understand ourselves, combine to provide some shallow illumination on how our brains work. But since Freud, it is apparent that our subjective experience and linguistically-mediated thought only scratch the surface of what our brain do. Even today, we still use inadequate metaphors to understand the brain – brains are like computers, except they really are not.

Second, unlike other organ systems, the brain does many things at once. The richness of our lives, from the four f’s to learning and language, runs through our brains. These multiple functions developed over evolutionary time, meaning that our evolutionary history has gifted us with an organ of cobbled contingency. The upshot is that even if we figure out something about the brain (per #1), it’s not immediately generalizable. While one can expect evolutionary tinkering – modifications on existing functions – there is also the potential for engineering different solutions to the many problems we need to solve every day.

For interdisciplinary efforts in brain science, including endeavors like neuroanthropology and cultural neuroscience, these two issues highlight an interesting problem. If there is not just one way the brain works, not one code (like DNA) that will unlock the brain’s mystery box, then we are in a situation where many people will develop partial answers. However, those answers are tentative, and there is no clear framework for integrating them. Put differently, we are dealing with a normal academic situation – multiple fields with multiple truths.
Blind Men and Elephant
A metaphor that is often used to portray research on complex problems is that of blind men feeling an elephant. One touches the tail, another the trunk, a third the foot, a fourth the tusk, a fifth the ear. They argue over what animal they touch, each declaring that the evidence at hand indicates a specific type of animal. The story is often used to highlight that we have difficulty grasping a larger truth – that there really is one elephant there, the men are simply touching different parts of it.

But in the case of the brain, research points to multiple mammals, not one big grey beast. It as if one touches an elephant, another a rhinoceros, a third a hippopotamus. They might seem the same, but they are quite different animals. And one might even have stumbled across a gorilla that others simply don’t see as they busily pass their science ball hand to hand. In other words, the elephant in the room isn’t really an elephant, but a whole menagerie.
Rock hyrax
It can get even more confusing. We think (see #1) that the elephant, rhinoceros, and hippo might be closely related. They are big, they live in Africa, they eat plants, and so forth. But evolutionary research actually points to the closest relatives of the elephant as manatees and hyraxes. Looks can be deceiving, and what we think goes together might not. Elephants live on the savannah and in the forest, hyraxes on rocky terrain, and manatees in the ocean. Understanding the brain, then, might mean overcoming our lookalike assumptions and the then integrating information across very different scholarly ecologies.

In the meantime, it likely makes good sense for researchers to tackle how the brain works in conjunction within a specific ecology. The elephant’s multifunctional trunk here, the hyrax’s undescended testicles over there, a manatees’ cutting encounters with speed boats in the distance. These different types of problems might not fit together, but each represents different aspects of these evolutionary relatives’ lives.

But that’s not so juicy, is it? It doesn’t fit with what we already so cunningly know – it’s common sense – or with a need to find one overarching logic. But, remember, the brain is an alien technology. Folk psychology and computer technology, especially when combined, don’t make for a robust brain-ology. So when making generalizations, it often pay to be circumspect – or at least informed by science and technology studies – before sounding off on grand generalizations based more on the sexes of planetary systems and computers using 10% of their processing power than anything else.

Elephant on FirePerhaps we need to recognize that we have multiple spirit animals in our brain. Elephant, hyrax, and manatee. And they animate us in ways like the phlogistons of old, fire elements that burn as we come alive. Sounds like it could be a best seller.

In the end, I am most struck by the multiple codes idea. That’s what evolution has gifted to us. So different ways of tackling the brain, and of using neuroscience to illuminate problems, are needed. History runs differently through brains than vision. Language is separate from circadian rhythms. We won’t find one code, because there isn’t just one.

This little essay was inspired by two recent pieces of writing and a video lecture. The oddness of biology and evolution, the fact of multiple codes as part of neural function, and the utter strangeness of the brain. Here they are, Gary Marcus, Christof Koch and Gary Marcus again, and Terry Sejnowksi.

Gary Marcus, The Trouble with Brain Science

Gary Marcus, professor of psychology at New York University, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, taking on recent controversy over the direction of large-scale government funding into neuroscience. He illuminates that controversy because the funding is largely going to quite technical and ultimately narrow approaches towards understanding the brain. Many neuroscientists want something much broader. Marcus explains the background to why:

Different kinds of sciences call for different kinds of theories. Physicists, for example, are searching for a “grand unified theory” that integrates gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces into a neat package of equations. Whether or not they will get there, they have made considerable progress, in part because they know what they are looking for.

Biologists — neuroscientists included — can’t hope for that kind of theory. Biology isn’t elegant the way physics appears to be. The living world is bursting with variety and unpredictable complexity, because biology is the product of historical accidents, with species solving problems based on happenstance that leads them down one evolutionary road rather than another. No overarching theory of neuroscience could predict, for example, that the cerebellum (which is involved in timing and motor control) would have vastly more neurons than the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain most associated with our advanced intelligence).

But biological complexity is only part of the challenge in figuring out what kind of theory of the brain we’re seeking. What we are really looking for is a bridge, some way of connecting two separate scientific languages — those of neuroscience and psychology…

We know that there must be some lawful relation between assemblies of neurons and the elements of thought, but we are currently at a loss to describe those laws. We don’t know, for example, whether our memories for individual words inhere in individual neurons or in sets of neurons, or in what way sets of neurons might underwrite our memories for words, if in fact they do.

Cristof Koch & Gary Marcus, Cracking the Brain’s Codes
Sitting Elephant and Boy
Christof Koch, chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and Gary Marcus wrote the piece Cracking the Brain’s Codes in MIT Technology Review. It goes into greater depth on why a methods driven approach – computation and imaging ramped up – is not likely to answer many of the important questions society has about our brains. It’s rather like trying to train an elephant, a cute trick for a kid. But those sad eyes? And all just so it could sit for our entertainment?

I provide a short excerpt from the beginning, but this piece itself goes into greater depth with strong examples.

At stake is virtually every radical advance in neuroscience that we might be able to imagine—brain implants that enhance our memories or treat mental disorders like schizophrenia and depression, for example, and neuroprosthetics that allow paralyzed patients to move their limbs. Because everything that you think, remember, and feel is encoded in your brain in some way, deciphering the activity of the brain will be a giant step toward the future of neuroengineering.

Someday, electronics implanted directly into the brain will enable patients with spinal-cord injury to bypass the affected nerves and control robots with their thoughts. Future biofeedback systems may even be able to anticipate signs of mental disorder and head them off. Where people in the present use keyboards and touch screens, our descendants a hundred years hence may use direct brain-machine interfaces.

But to do that—to build software that can communicate directly with the brain—we need to crack its codes. We must learn how to look at sets of neurons, measure how they are firing, and reverse-engineer their message.

A Chaos of Codes

Already we’re beginning to discover clues about how the brain’s coding works. Perhaps the most fundamental: except in some of the tiniest creatures, such as the roundworm C. elegans, the basic unit of neuronal communication and coding is the spike (or action potential), an electrical impulse of about a tenth of a volt that lasts for a bit less than a millisecond. In the visual system, for example, rays of light entering the retina are promptly translated into spikes sent out on the optic nerve, the bundle of about one million output wires, called axons, that run from the eye to the rest of the brain. Literally everything that you see is based on these spikes, each retinal neuron firing at a different rate, depending on the nature of the stimulus, to yield several megabytes of visual information per second. The brain as a whole, throughout our waking lives, is a veritable symphony of neural spikes—perhaps one trillion per second. To a large degree, to decipher the brain is to infer the meaning of its spikes.

But the challenge is that spikes mean different things in different contexts. It is already clear that neuroscientists are unlikely to be as lucky as molecular biologists. Whereas the code converting nucleotides to amino acids is nearly universal, used in essentially the same way throughout the body and throughout the natural world, the spike-to-information code is likely to be a hodgepodge: not just one code but many, differing not only to some degree between different species but even between different parts of the brain. The brain has many functions, from controlling our muscles and voice to interpreting the sights, sounds, and smells that surround us, and each kind of problem necessitates its own kinds of codes.

Terrence Sejnowski, Suspicious Coincidences in the Brain

To finish up, the Terry Sejnowski lecture from 2012. Here’s where I got that great line about the brain as alien technology.

Brain Phone BoothIn this 2012 talk, Sejnowski, Francis Crick Professor at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, addresses the brain’s complexity. He opens (about the 6:40 mark) by speaking about trying to reverse engineer the brain as a way to understand it, much like we do trying to figure out how a new product from Apple or Samsung or Sony work. Engineers can do that today with products that other people have made. But the same route doesn’t apply to the organ of our lives.

The problem with taking that approach to the brain is that we don’t know [enough]. It’s basically an alien technology. We don’t really know the basic principles. And if you don’t know the basic principles behind something and you try to copy it, it’s basically a cargo cult.

We hastily arrange something on our altar of technology, and think that will give us the riches that come from our brain. We try to build something that looks like a plane, hoping that will get us into the sky. But we remain grounded, because we don’t understand the engine or the aeronautics or anything much else.

Just being able to see, for example. To recognize where we are, the scene and the people in the scene and the details and remember the context and also just to be able to walk around and do things in a complex world under uncertain conditions is a miracle. We can’t build robots that do that, but somehow nature managed to do it, and that’s really the question.

Category: Announcements | 10 Comments

Bringing Scholarly Book Review into the Digital Age: The American Anthropological Association Initiative

American Anthropological AssociationBetter, faster, stronger. Whether Superman or Daft Punk, the motto works. But until now, these words didn’t apply to how academic books got reviewed. The American Anthropological Association (AAA), with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and prominent university presses, looks to change that. The AAA is launching a digital book review platform to make reviews more accessible, appear more quickly, and have greater impact.

The press release, American Anthropological Association Pioneers Digital Book Review Process, highlights the benefits:

Using the current print-centric process, only a small fraction of books mailed out by presses results in a published book review. And even among these published reviews, they often appear at least one year – and sometimes up to four years – after a book’s publication. By using a completely digital workflow, the AAA will provide book authors with a wider audience and an opportunity for social engagement, as well as reducing costs for scholarly presses and the journals featuring reviews.

Or in the more succinct words of Oona Schmid, director of publishing for the American Anthropological Association: “The new platform will reduce editorial turn-around time and expense, increase readership, and introduce dynamic content.”

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has provided a 12 month, $80,000 grant to underwrite the creation of the digital book review platform. Josh Greenberg, Director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Scholarly Communication program, says the Foundation is honored to support this AAA initiative. “Using digital information technology to improve the book review process is a potential game changer for academic publishing. It’s better for authors. It’s better for reviewers. It’s better for publishers. And most of all, it’s better for science, because it encourages and supports the debate, discussion, and evaluation that is the cornerstone of good scholarship.”

The AAA book review platform will utilize Open Journal Systems software, created by the multi-university Public Knowledge Project initiative. Open Journal Systems provides open-source management and publishing to effectively manage both workflow and dissemination. Using the platform, publishers can provide both digital versions of the book and upload metadata about the new title. Journal editors can then identify reviewers, who will access the e-book and any accompanying material through the AAA-managed system. When reviews are done, the reviewer uploads it, where editors can then do any additional overview. The book review will then get published online through the Anthropology News website.

Oona Schmid is excited about how the AAA is working with Open Journal Systems. “I am especially pleased that we could work with OJS, which provide a system that any journal could use. Their website indicates 24,000 journals have installed OJS. For many social sciences and humanities, books are still an incredibly important part of scholarly information. This system could conceivably help any journal that has book reviews.”

As of today, eleven presses have already signed up. The University of Chicago Press, University of Nebraska Press, University of New Mexico Press, University Press of Colorado and the University Press of Florida committed early to support the platform when it launches as a prototype later this year. Another six scholarly presses will also join the AAA initiative: Columbia University Press, Duke University Press, Rowman & Littlefield, Rutgers University Press, the University of California Press, and the University of Toronto Press. More are invited to join.

Darrin Pratt, Director at the University Press of Colorado, is ready to embrace this “radically new workflow for scholarly book reviews.” Pratt says that “the slow turnaround for book reviews in academic journal is maddening for university presses.”

In the Chronicle of Higher Education piece on the AAA book review platform, Pratt highlights that the platform will be compatible with ONIX, the bibliographic and metadata standard used in the book industry, permitting publishers to provide more than just the electronic text to reviewers. He then goes further:

Mr. Pratt calls the association’s experiment important. About a quarter of the books Colorado publishes fall into the broad categories of anthropology and archaeology; it’s typical for them to be reviewed about two years after they come out. Where that lag time “really has an impact in the scholarly ecosystem is on the movement of the whole tenure/promotion/credentialing process,” Mr. Pratt says. “For authors it’s very important to get reviews and to get them quickly,” and that impact carries over to the press.

Ed Liebow, the AAA’s Executive Director, highlights significant benefits for both presses and reviewers from this new process. “The presses will feed the titles (and accompanying meta-data) into the open source editorial workflow, and mail out the published book as a thank-you to the reviewers who actually complete the review. This increases the chances that a well-crafted review will be ready at or close to the time the book itself appears in print.”

Hopefully that will lead to increased purchases for scholarly presses. Liebow says, “Our university press counterparts tell us that an extra couple of dozen sales often make all the difference about whether a title covers its editorial and production costs. Getting the word out sooner about good books is a genuine service to these smaller presses, whose sustainability is in everyone’s interest.”

Together, Schmid and Liebow emphasize the feedback effect that this can have on anthropologists and their work. “The healthier the sales in the anthropology lists at university presses, the easier it will be for our members to get books signed. So we think it is important to emphasize that not only is this an improvement to a system that is out of date, it’s about supporting our members and the discipline.”

AAA Book Review Platform: “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!”

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

There is also a harder part to the new book review process, to echo the complete lyrics of Daft Punk’s song. While the digital infrastructure will solve many problems in terms of access, management, and publication, the reviews still need to be written, edited, and disseminated.

Michael Chibnik is editor of The American Anthropologist, the AAAs leading journal, and supports the AAA book review initiative. Based on his experiences getting book reviews published, he knows that there are issues that will need to be solved as the platform moves ahead. “Expediting the process on the front end is important, but some of the major reasons for delays in book reviews are at the back end — deciding which books to review, finding reviewers, giving reviewers time to read the book and write the review, prodding late reviewers (some who never turn in the review), and editing the review once it is turned in.”

Schmid also notes that there have been questions raised about whether scholars will review works that are in electronic versions, compared to hard copies, and whether review of early electronic versions (such as uncorrected proofs) will mean that errors caught in the proofing process become part of the review content. The AAA hopes that building the prototype offers the chance to work out the wrinkles. “We will assess next year to see how it’s going and whether there are improvements that can be made.”

The AAA has a total of eighteen journals that publish book reviews. That’s a lot of cooks. Managing different editors, and streamlining the whole process, will require not just a digital platform but also managerial guidance. The AAA has handled that with another digital initiative, the collaboration with the Huffington Post to publish timely content from many different anthropologists. A similar approach is in place for the review platform: collaboration with a strong digital partner, work done by many individuals to produce and publish content, and guidance and support from the association.

The final piece is publication through Anthropology News. Inclusion of book reviews represents a significant expansion of what AnthroNews does, with accompanying questions of site management and the handling of dissemination. These considerations go beyond the creation of a new digital work platform. Gathering the reviews in one place is just the start to improving how book reviews can help create greater interest in book-length scholarship.

AAA Book Review Platform Logistics: “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”

AAA Book Review Platform – Some Thoughts

Personally I am excited to see this AAA book review initiative. I called for something quite similar two years ago when writing about the AAA, open access, and digital publishing.

I propose we combine all book reviews done across the AAA journals into one digital platform – AAA Book Reviews. That has a nice ring to it.

There are many advantages to this move to one consolidated platform for book reviews:

-AAA Book Review will increase interaction across the discipline and across sections by having all book reviews accessible in one spot.
-At present book reviews are wasted space in expensive print journals. They barely count for tenure and promotion; the extra space could be dedicated to getting more research into our journals and/or simply eliminated, to cut costs.
-There is already a precedent. Ethos, the journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, only publishes its book reviews online.
-The AAA Book Review will greatly increase the accessibility of these book reviews, since they won’t be behind a pay wall and search engines like Google will now include the reviews in their results.
-There is the potential for revenue from such an arrangement, for example, by having a deal with Amazon where a percentages of purchases that come through the site are given back to the organization or including some modest advertising as part of the overall website.
-They will increase sales of our books. Who goes from a printed book review directly to a purchase? Online, such sales will only be a click away.
-The steady stream of content – 411 reviews in 2010 – present a good model for online platforms, where frequent updates generate greater traffic (and thus greater weight from search engines) while the entire site is easily archived and is accessible through a variety of means, from category and word searches to month-by-month review.

AAA Book Reviews will bring a vibrant new platform to the Association, and permit the Association and relevant editors and reviewers to gain experience with what building and running a platform is like. It will also foster experimentation with an open access model that could become the basis for more ambitious undertakings, such as moving an entire journal to open access. Finally, it will get us to read each other’s work more, and let the public have access to these wonderful books and all our ideas about them.

This proposal came out of my earlier call to recognize the importance of digital platforms for scholarship. It is particularly exciting to me to see the AAA embrace this approach. Crucially, they are taking care of one of the hardest parts – doing the serious work to cover the technical details and necessary collaborations to create such a platform. It is a project that will benefit so many anthropologists, and bodes well for future initiatives related to AAA publishing.

I want to stress one point in closing. Peer-reviewed articles and journals have created a rich digital ecosystem. They have powerful dissemination systems, from for-profit publishers to Google Scholar and PubMed. They provide important metrics to gauge the impact of research. Together, university libraries and open-access publishers provide a tremendous amount of access to research.

Scholarly books still have some way to go in comparison. Creating greater access to the incredible scholarship locked up in books and to the scholars who write them is vital. Digital platforms like the AAA’s new book review initiative are an important step in that direction. But it’s not a full ecosystem. Platforms and collaborations do provide the foundation. Optimizing material for search, utilizing multiple forms of media, creating access to particular chapters as well as the whole work, addressing issues of cost, and working on publicizing alongside publishing will all be parts of creating a richer ecosystem for the scholarship embedded in books.

So some thoughts along those lines. The journal Cultural Anthropology has driven forward innovation on the peer-reviewed journal side of the discipline, including becoming fully open-access recently. The journal took an early lead in providing additional content and media alongside text-based articles, and made that material accessible online. This same approach should yield benefits for books.

For example, including internet links and multimedia in the book production, review, and dissemination process is one way to match what journals are already doing. On the author side, I could see links to websites and supporting scholarship, as well as interviews, images and videos related to research. On the editorial side, editor picks and interviews with authors are often used to highlight important material. And on the review and dissemination side, I could see a discussion of the book’s content between reviewer and author, whether sparks or praise, as a potential vehicle.

For examples, two sites engaged in scholarly book review online are Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews and the Brain Science Podcast. They do different things, but both add something to the review process. In the end, for me one key thing will be to develop ways for authors and reviewers to add something to the overall process. That will help in generating a more robust ecosystem.

Finally, I wonder how book reviews might get further disseminated. Reviews of prominent books could get featured on the Huffington Post page, on university press websites, on Amazon, and elsewhere. Once the material is created, repurposing can extend its reach online. I also wonder whether Anthropology News will become Anthropology News and Reviews, a site that reports news and provides reviews of all sorts.

In any case, the American Anthropological Association has done good with getting this latest initiative started, and I look forward to how anthropologists, scholarly presses, and the AAA bring the digital book review platform to full fruition.

Further Reading

American Anthropological Association Press Release – American Anthropological Association Pioneers Digital Book Review Process

The Chronicle of Higher Education, Anthropology Group Will Test a Faster, Digital Approach to Book Reviews

Category: Announcements | 3 Comments