by Larry Monocello
Upon the arrival of every new conceptual/scientific framework, criticism by the discipline’s veterans inevitably follows. In this article, Roepstorff and Frith take on the burgeoning field of neuroanthropology, arguing that a new discipline called “neuroanthropology” is unnecessary, that what the proposed field of “neuroanthropology” really is, is just “anthropology.” They further argue that the proposed mechanism of neuroanthropology, “experimental” in analogy to laboratory work, is too unwieldy, rejects Anthropology’s strength as a phenomenological science, and attempts research designs at which cultural anthropology is decidedly weak. Instead, they say, “experimental” anthropology is best practiced as (a) “an anthropological study of experiments” or (b) “an aesthetics of research practice” (105). Finally, they acknowledge and attempt to fit into their own framework previous work done in neuroanthropology on cognitive processes, neurological effects of ritual, and cultural notions of identity and selfhood. Roepstorff and Frith make some good points in their assessment of the previous work done, but their assertion that neuroanthropology be better left as anthropology is ultimately unconvincing.
Roepstorff and Frith rightly point out that the strengths of (cultural) anthropology do not include experimental laboratory work. It is a broad context- and meaning-based science that does not easily lend itself to the stringent, narrow, and necessarily highly controlled conditions of laboratory experiments. Even lab work done by biological anthropologists, although controlled as well as possible, is not done without difficulty (in terms of biomarker collection) and concerns about validity (in terms of the representativeness of the sample). Further, Roepstorff and Frith bring up the danger of over-interpreting brain scans and inadvertently racializing found cultural differences by reifying them as biological entities. However, this can be (relatively) easily to overcome by recognizing and addressing these weaknesses, and by further utilizing interdisciplinarity in conducting research.
That said, what valid concerns they have are either addressed by Downey and Lende (2012), or do not invalidate “neuroanthropology” as a framework. Their main argument is that what neuroanthropology is purportedly set to accomplish is not so much a new epistemological framework as it is an extension of “experimental anthropology,” defined as (a) method (i.e., lab work), (b) object of study (i.e., an “anthropology of experiments”), and (c) research aesthetic (i.e., trying out novel ways of doing anthropology). Personally, I found this to be nonsensical, and my immediate reaction to the idea of “experimental anthropology” was “so what?” It seemed like a double standard, because the way I understand neuroanthropology from my readings so far in The Encultured Brain is an anthropology of the nervous system/neurological phenomena in the same way that medical anthropology is the broad study of how humans engage with health or that psychological anthropology can range from studies of ethnopsychology to cross-cultural manifestations of psychological phenomena. This is decidedly greater in scope than an “anthropology of experiments,” but not necessarily un-doable. Further, what is “experimental anthropology” but another loosely defined theoretical framework that is ultimately “just” Anthropology? The same argument made against “neuroanthropology” can be made against “experimental anthropology.”
While Roepstorff and Frith argue that a narrowed field of neuroanthropology is unwarranted, they don’t fully engage the “so what?” that their argument begs. They say that it is best left as “anthropology,” or considered an extension of “experimental anthropology,” but the evidence for their argument was unconvincing. What good points they did make are recognized and addressed by those who support the field. Ultimately, their argument seemed more like a petty disagreement about semantics than a valid criticism about conceptual framework, and belied a lack of understanding of what neuroanthropology does and can represent. Or, maybe, it was a subconscious extension of the lumper-splitter dilemma entrenched in physical anthropology by paleoanthropologists. Either way, their points are made and well-taken, but not enough to stymie the growth of this new and exciting field.
Roepstorff, A., & Frith, C. (2012). Neuroanthropology or simply anthropology? Going experimental as method, as object of study, and as research aesthetic. Anthropological Theory, 12(1), 101-111.