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Essay on Neuroanthropology or Simply Anthropology?

Text by Deborah Cohen (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)

© Simina Pătrășcoiu

In their paper, Roepstorff and Frith provide a closing commentary for the special issue on neuroanthropology published by the journal Anthropological Theory. This context is important to note, as it delineates the programmatic style of their statements. Here, I would like to depict their main theses in order to investigate to what extent we as anthropologists can actually realize their instructions and to estimate where this could be potentially fruitful. In addition, I would like to draw attention to those points, where an implementation of the author’s propositions might have a risk of eroding one of the key knowledge sources of anthropology itself, namely the centrality of our informant’s lived experiences and their own meaning-making of these.

Apparently, the seemingly unrelated scientific discipline of anthropology is affected by the advancement of neuroscience. As “the scientific descriptions of what we as humans are” (Roepstorff/Frith 2012: 101) are changing, and thus a discussion of how nature relates to culture, and culture to nature is at stake” (ibid.). Because of “[t]he fact that the discourse engages with epistemology, ontology and ethics” (ibid.: 102), this discussion ought to be held in the mainstream of anthropology (ibid.) (which lets the reader implicitly know that right now it’s peripheral). But to integrate these new and changing descriptions, as the reader will come to know, the anthropologist shouldn’t rush into the content of the findings of contemporary brain research, i.e. she shouldn’t ask, “What is being newly said and seen through neuroscience? What do these findings mean for my research and my own findings?” Rather, she should leave those questions to neuroscientists and ask, “How do these brain scientists come to say what they say? How might I use their research practices (which mainly means “experiments” (ibid.) for my own research?” Before giving anthropologists a threefold possibility to answer the latter two questions, the authors set up an “ontology checklist” (ibid.) based on (the shortcomings of) certain positions (ibid.). The inexperienced reader (like myself) has to guess which schools or branches of science the described positions come from as they are not named explicitly. What becomes clear though, is that there are realms of the conditio humana (experience, biology, culture) which are being studied under specific weightings of these realms and their relations to each other. Strategically dexterous, they forbear from taking sides with any position.

Instead, they simply deduce, “[H]umans have experiences, they have brains, they are embedded in cultural contexts, and somehow, these different factors interact with each other” (ibid.: 102; 103). Their repetition of the statement underlines the author’s aim to overcome the shortcomings of the hitherto existing positions and to focus on what is there and somehow already assessed – this explains their term “ontology checklist” (ibid.).

Let’s assume we’d want to participate in this enterprise and look on how we as anthropologists could go about in adding knowledge to neuroanthropology. Focussing on the question of how to “go experimental”, there are three roads an anthropologist could take. (1) The first and obvious road leads us to an integration of the research method of the natural sciences within neuroanthropological research, i.e. coming up with and conducting brain experiments in order to provide an objective, valid and reliable answer to a neuroanthropological research question. The authors warn the reader from doing so due to the anyway complex problems one faces in “usual” (i.e. natural scientific) settings of experiments, here these would exceed possibilities of control and thus result in an experience of a “double failure”: “On the one hand, one may be selling out on what anthropology is good at but, on the other hand, one is not gaining the rigor and/or style which is required for other experimentalists to take one seriously” (ibid.: 105). However, they do depict a certain value stemming from anthropology in the “help asking novel questions, which take interaction and experience seriously” and that works mainly at an early stage of the research process (ibid.: 104). (2) Let’s get away from this blind alley and draw our attention to the second road:

“Luckily, there are other ways to do experimental anthropology […namely,] as an anthropological study of experiments. […] Our intuition is that ethnographically mapping human experiments, with or without scanners, as particular forms of intersubjective and interobjective practices may show how agency gets redistributed from the individual actors to the script that frames the experiment. In that sense, experiments may remind us of rituals […]” (ibid.: 105).

So, we could help the experimenters in conducting their experiments – let’s say, more thoughtfully, more reflexive, as their aiding right hand on the main path to knowledge (experiments being its cobblestones). Last but not least (3) one could try “’experimental anthropology’ that tries out new ways to work experimentally in an anthropological setting” (ibid.). “It can be an aesthetics of research practice, experimental in the sense of trying out new ways of writing, new ways of being in the field, or novel forms of intervention” (ibid.). This is, from an anthropological view, the road closest to usual anthropological practice, as it operates in the field. Nevertheless, the question remains of how adequate such measures in the field would be, at times surely beneficial, but also potentially disrupting trust-building processes with one’s informants.

Apart from the practice of “going experimental as method (1), as object of study (2), and as research aesthetic (3)” (ibid.: 101), the authors also outline the benefits and pitfalls of a conceptual convergence of the involved disciplines (ibid.: 106). Following Gallagher (2003), they call this “front-loading concepts into experimental designs” (Roepstorff/Frith 2012: 101). What is meant by this, is “that concepts are used as vectors [meaning “carriers” or “transmitters”, author’s note] that move between different levels of investigation, experimentation, and explanation, both in the field and in the lab” (ibid.). After an accentuation that seemingly shared understandings do not guarantee that they mean the same in a respective domain (ibid.), and, in addition, that “frontloading a concept into an experimental design may in itself carry unintended implications” (ibid.: 107), they come to “call out for careful conceptualizations” (ibid.). These challenges force both neuroscientists and anthropologists to revisit their understandings of the object of research of the respective other (ibid.). In the end, the authors conclude rather surprisingly by not suggesting a designation of a new hybrid discipline called “neuroanthropology” (ibid.: 108). Instead, they draw several imperatives for those researchers who wish to participate in a collaboration of neuroscience and anthropology:

“We need novel cases that can examine and illustrate how these factors [i.e. the cultural, the experiential and the neurological, author’s note] 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. […] 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 instead of outlining abstract theories one would attempt the dangerous process of constructing one potential bridge, what would it then look like? Our suggestion is to start out with joint research projects, do things together, and then be sensitive both to the type of facts and the types of contexts produced by going experimental.” (ibid.)

I agree with the authors that a collaboration of both of the mentioned fields can be potentially fruitful. What remains to be examined, is the question from a nascent anthropologist: At what price? In the following, I intend to approach this question with the (due to lack of space: awfully abbreviated) notion of anthropology as a science operating by a mainly qualitative gaining of data through field research. The person of the anthropologist is highly relevant for the outcome of the research course and its findings which let “subjectivities” enter the research where this seems adequate and legitimate. Hence, its ability to provide generalised, objective data is limited. These qualities set anthropology as a science somehow apart from the mainstream with its “more successful” sciences, e.g. physics, which provide valid, reliable and objective findings, useful for economic, (and therefore, in some eyes, societal) progress.

The authors painted an image of anthropology that shows its ability to travel across disciplinary lines of demarcation inside its ample realm of research. This makes anthropological data very attractive to those sciences studying “the human”. As seen in the “ontological checklist” described above, experiences and cultural contexts are essential parts of “the human” and have to be integrated to provide its accurate and holistic understanding. For this purpose, only studying brain functioning is not enough. In anthropology, the main research tool is the anthropologist him- or herself. No need for mathematical models, no need for experiments in artificial settings, no need for expensive machinery to study “culture” – it being too complex to grasp it with anything other than human experience (at least for the time being). This being stated (rather poignantly, I admit), the authors nevertheless claim: “[N]euroimaging can provide a useful tool for the anthropologist” (ibid.: 103). To be fair, there is a certain enchantment in the possibility to not only look at (outside) experiences but also at what is going on simultaneously on the inside world of human interaction with others and/or with the environment. But, as I was reading the text, it didn’t appear to me that under an anthropological view this was necessary. On the contrary, I felt that the term above should be reformulated into “anthropology can provide a useful tool for the neuroscientist.” The authors state that the most difficult issue in the study of the brain is to include culture, experience, and behavior (ibid.). But the frame they put this in suggests a necessary subordination of the anthropologist to the paradigm of using experiments – may it be under the three already mentioned research roads or in a conceptual fashion. Or, to be more accurate: Two roads remain, as the anthropologist should leave the first road of actually conducting experiments to those who know better. What also becomes prominent is the impossibility to use the original, qualitative anthropological data during such a collaboration for their own sake. Again, the authors do state the “importance of lived experiences”, but also the “challenge […] how to translate this into a ‘classic’ experimental setting” (ibid.: 104). The main problem, which remains implicit, is not how to integrate anthropological data at eye level with brain imaging data (or, as the authors put it: “do things together” (ibid.: 108)). Rather, it’s the question of how to make qualitative (and often complex) anthropological data commensurable with quantitative neuroscientific data. Seen under this view, there is a risk in “doing things together” where the anthropologist and his/her contribution becomes devoured in mechanistic descriptions eliminating subjective experience and the very existence of the materialities involved, which themselves form essential topics in anthropological research. Therefore: Where the anthropologist becomes a mere deliverer of experiential data in order to help neuroscientists to enhance their quantitative models with better numbers and where there is no room left for subjectivities, materialities, and meaning-making, I would abstain from such a “collaboration”. Imagine the following example: A subject’s brain waves are being measured during an experiment and thereafter, you as an anthropologist question the person on his/her experience. The brain waves would suggest some form of activity in the auditory cortex, while the person reports nothing of auditory perceptions. What do you do? Or put differently: Whom do you trust: human or machine? Where a collaboration with a group of neuroscientists would lead to dismissing the person’s account, I’d probably leave the group or at least fight for the importance of taking the personal account seriously and its necessary integration into the on-going research – even under the danger of “messing up existing data”. Where there is not only room for an equal weighting of interpretations or explanations, but these are highly appreciated and sought for, together with the group I would very gladly look at the conflicting findings and try to find common ground.

In the end, as this essay itself is somehow undecided on how exactly to go about, I would like to conclude not by pointing out the impossibility of a collaboration. Looked at from the eyes of scientific mainstream, anthropology has exceptional and multifaceted assumptions on how to do research and to what exactly to do it on (one shall be reminded that culture ≠ culture…), but this shouldn’t imply its limitation. On the contrary, I suggest looking at anthropology as a high potential candidate to set the natural scientific gaze on subjects, at times all too mechanistic, at times all too reductionist, back to a gaze on persons. Where such a re-vision is welcome, I think a reciprocal convergence through collaboration can contribute to a view on “the human” not as a mere compilation of parts that somehow interact with each other. Rather, I’d like to conjointly come to a viewing of “the human” as an assemblage point which transcends the sum of its parts.


Roepstorff, Andreas, and Chris Frith. “Neuroanthropology or simply anthropology? Going experimental as method, as object of study, and as research aesthetic.” Anthropological Theory 12(1) (2012): 101 – 111.

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