Conference Panels

BODY, BRAIN, CULTURE: NEW RESEARCH IN PSYCHOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGY

Co-convenor: Greg Downey (contact person), Department of Anthropology, Macquarie University
Email: greg.downey(at)mq.edu.au
Co-convenor: Victoria Burbank, Anthropology and Sociology, The University of Western Australia
Email: victoria.burbank(at)uwa.edu.au
Co-convenor: Katie Glaskin, Anthropology and Sociology, The University of Western Australia
Email: katie.glaskin(at)uwa.edu.au

Anthropological understandings of culture have challenged psychology, as cross-cultural variation undermines many comfortable assertions about universal human nature. Psychologists have responded to these challenges by producing a growing body of cross-cultural research and, more recently, cultural neuroimaging that highlights profound variation in our species’ capacities. But psychological research also poses profound challenges to anthropology. Theories of culture and human sociality in our discipline make implicit assumptions about how perception, cognition, memory, emotion and motivation function. Every theory of culture is also an account of human psychology, even if only implicitly.

The convenors of this panel seek to bring together new research and theory in psychological anthropology, broadly understood. The field of psychological anthropology is itself fragmented, with significant new work emerging in a wide range of areas of anthropology: cross-cultural studies of psychopathology, trauma, and healing; cognition; the senses; phenomenology; language; child development; education; and emotion. Papers are especially invited that engage the conference themes, ‘disentangling dichotomies’ and ‘querying unities’, at the level of the individual psyche, whether this be querying the unity of the subject, of experience, or of culture itself, or disentangling such pervasive psychological dichotomies as mind and body, nature and nurture, and others.

The organizers share an interest in possible connections between new research in the brain sciences and social or cultural anthropology, moving toward a more integrated neuroanthropology. Innovative research on cultural diversity in cognition and neurophysiology forms a potential complement to discussions of the foundations of human potential for culture in evolutionary theory. The conjunction of cultural and psychological studies also promises to substantially deepen the discussions of embodiment and experience in anthropology, pushing these areas of theory to consider new bodies of research from the biological sciences that might foster a greater biocultural holism in our field.

  • SESSION 1     Room: G31 LAW     Wed 6/7/2011     Time: 11.00-12.30     Room Location Map
    • Paper 1: Intersubjectivity and the 'opacity of other minds': Perspectives from Highland New Guinea
      • Alan Rumsey, Australian National University
    • Paper 2: Undecided minds. Human reasoning in cultural situations
      • Thomas Widlok, Radboud University Nijmegen
    • Paper 3: Equilibrium and the vestibular sense: A neuroanthropological perspective on enculturation
      • Greg Downey, Macquarie University
    • Paper 4: Circuits of the Cultural Mind: A Study of Metaphors Prevalent in Philippine Culture
      • Joy Icayan, University of the Philippines
  • SESSION 2     Room: G31 LAW     Wed 6/7/2011     Time: 13.30-15.00     Room Location Map
    • Paper 1: Aboriginal families, culture and intervention: Approaches to parenting and children's development
      • Gary Robinson, Menzies School of Health Research
    • Paper 2: Stones, bones, trees and spirits: Emotion and memory at a former mass killing site in Cambodia
      • Sina Freie Emde, Universitaet Berlin
    • Paper 3: Emotions, humanoid robots, and human-robot interaction
      • Katie Glaskin, University of Western Australia

    SESSION 1

    Chair: Greg Downey

    Paper 1: Intersubjectivity and the 'opacity of other minds': Perspectives from Highland New Guinea

    Alan Rumsey, Australian National University

    Considerable work within psychology has recently gone into the study of intersubjectivity --- our capacity to share and exchange perspectives and intentions with one another. Michael Tomasello and others have argued that this capacity is one of the most distinctive and universal traits of the human species. So far, the evidence for these claims has come mainly from Western settings. Such claims would seem to be contradicted by a widely attested doctrine within many non-Western societies --- e.g. among the Sherpa, the Mopan Maya, and in many Melanesian locales --- that it is impossible to know what someone else is really thinking. Here I will examine the status of this 'mental opacity doctrine' within the Ku Waru region of Highland PNG. I will focus on Ku Waru people's attributions of intentional states to others, in three kinds of discourse: oratory at Ku Waru ceremonial exchange events; a 'traditional' dispute-cum-village-court-hearing concerning an adultery accusation; everyday speech between a Ku Waru mother and her two young children. I will show that in all of these cases there is a good deal of intention-attribution that goes on at an operational level; but that much of the explicit discourse about such attribution runs in other directions which are more in conformity with the 'opacity doctrine'. I will consider why this should be so, how it compares with what one finds elsewhere, and what can be learned from it about the nature and extent of cross-cultural variation in the enactment and understanding of intersubjectivity.

    Paper 2: Undecided minds. Human reasoning in cultural situations

    Thomas Widlok, Radboud University Nijmegen

    This paper is based on an analysis of fresh field research data that was collected with =Akhoe Hai//om of northern Namibia using moral dilemma scenarios. The scenarios were used as an elicitation tool for understanding the logic of moral and everyday reasoning in cross-cultural perspective (see Widlok in "The Anthropology of Moralities" 2009). One of the results of this research is the refusal of participants to accept that moral problems form the inescapable and irresolvable dilemmas as they are commonly depicted by psychological and philosophical theory. This leads to a critique of moral reasoning understood primarily in terms of formal decision-making and "moral sense" as in evolutionary psychology. Moreover, the paper turns the relativist ethnographic critique into a more general argument about the cultural baggage of English terms such as "sense", "experience" and "evidence" (following Wierzbicka 2010). It adopts suggestions from New Phenomenology to deal with the "indecisiveness" of certain phenomena that can account for the ethnographic data while at the same time broadening key notions of logics and avoiding some of the classical antinomies inherent in the theory of logical reasoning. The case study is presented in an attempt to move from the relativistic critique of cultural anthropology towards an integrated anthropological perspective on human reasoning that is informed by new ideas in phenomenology.

    Paper 3: Equilibrium and the vestibular sense: A neuroanthropological perspective on enculturation

    Greg Downey, Macquarie University

    Arguably, our current models of culture in socio-cultural anthropology are overly 'cortical,' focusing primarily on conscious and associative forms of enculturation in the brain and not recognizing other neurological forms of cultural difference. Even discussions of 'embodiment' tend not to explore the more profound organic ways in which behavioural, developmental and social dynamics can shape deeper, less conscious parts of the nervous system, including regions associated with sense perception, motor control, emotion, self-regulation and basic bodily functioning. In order to really understand the depth of enculturation, anthropologists need to consider diverse ways in which differences between groups can shape developmental dynamics in the human nervous system. This presentation focuses specifically on the biocultural consequences of the human equilibrium system's variability, the way that the vestibular sense and balance more broadly can be trained to deal with a wide range of culturally-generated challenges, such as sports, occupational activities, and dimensions of the built environment. In particular, the paper draws on sports - and dance-related fieldwork in Brazil and research on disruptions to the sense of equilibrium to better understand how the vestibular sense is both a biological and cultural accomplishment. Because equilibrium so strongly underwrites the non-conscious bodily sense of self, the implications of variation in the vestibular sense for cultural diversity in subjectivity and phenomenology of self are subtle but profound.

    Paper 4: Circuits of the Cultural Mind: A Study of Metaphors Prevalent in Philippine Culture

    Joy Icayan, University of the Philippines

    Using the embodied mind theory (Lakoff and Johnson 1999), which proposes that metaphors are inherently embodied, the paper discusses culture-specific metaphors pervasive in the Philippine culture and how these reflect the physical and perceptual relationships of the members within the culture and outside of it. The group is seen as a fluid and functioning body constantly using culturally specific metaphors to represent abstract thoughts and beliefs, and discarding those that are no longer of use. The paper looks at the neuropsychological research done on metaphors, and its possible implications on learning about the nuances of cultural versus universal metaphors. Lastly, the paper reviews how the embodied mind theory can be used to understand different cultures through a deeper understanding of cultural metaphors.

    SESSION 2

    Chair: Greg Downey

    Paper 1: Aboriginal families, culture and intervention: Approaches to parenting and children's development

    Gary Robinson, Menzies School of Health Research

    The Aboriginal child is increasingly central to policies to ameliorate Aboriginal disadvantage. There is a growing readiness to adopt international models of evidence-based early childhood intervention, but with little clarity about what would constitute evidence of the effectiveness and appropriateness of such interventions. This is not simply a deficiency of policy, but also of the sciences of early childhood development as applied to Aboriginal peoples. Despite increasing interest in culture and a focus on the origins of intersubjectivity and relatedness in infancy, developmental psychology and psychiatry struggle to do justice to aspects of child development that, for an anthropological perspective would seem critical: the complexities of involvement of multiple caregivers in childrearing and the investment of the social group in early mother-child interaction. On the other side, anthropological conceptions of relatedness have not been grounded in processes of childrearing and development, without which the reproduction of relatedness hardly makes sense. Tronick's (1992) observations among Efe foragers of Zaire led him to criticise aspects of attachment theory and its conceptualization of the mother-infant dyad. This paper considers such criticisms in light of observations developed within a supportive program for Aboriginal families and children. It presents audio-visual material in order to distinguish culturally specific patterns from individual problems in parent-child interaction. It considers how anthropologically informed understanding of early attachment processes might contribute to an understanding of child development among former hunter-gatherers and to culturally competent clinical support for Aboriginal families.

    Paper 2: Stones, bones, trees and spirits: Emotion and memory at a former mass killing site in Cambodia

    Sina Freie Emde, Universitaet Berlin

    This paper discusses a current research project on memory, emotion and violence at a former mass killing site in Cambodia. The aim of this paper is to question longstanding dichotomies not only between individual and collective memory, but between concepts that separate personal cognition and emotion from social, historical and political processes. Looking at the various ways people try to come to terms with a violent past at a former mass killing site, I argue that the place and the people produce various ways of 'emotional remembering' (White 2000). These cross cut the boundaries of individual and collective memory and psychology and culture, as the processes of emotional remembering can neither be seen detached from the contexts in which they arise, nor can individual and collective processes be seen as detached from each other.

    Paper 3: Emotions, humanoid robots, and human-robot interaction

    Katie Glaskin, University of Western Australia

    Lutz and White have argued that the burgeoning interest in the emotions in the 1970s, in both anthropology and psychology, could be understood as a 'dissatisfaction with the dominant cognitive view of humans as "information processors" [and a]& renewed concern with understanding sociocultural experience from the perspective of persons who live it' (1986:405). This paper takes its starting point from what may be at the other end of this statement s spectrum: the 'burgeoning interest' in inculcating emotions into machines that indisputably are 'information processors': humanoid robots. These attempts are inspired by some roboticists' desires to create humanoid robots that are 'fully human', and from an understanding of emotions as biological responses to external stimuli, that thus can be replicated in machines. These attempts also stem from a perspective that robots need to display emotion-like responses to elicit empathy from the person to enable social interaction. If, as many have argued, emotions involve 'both meaning and feeling, mind and body, both culture and biology' (Leavitt 1996: 515), what then are the cultural dimensions of a humanoid robot's emotional responses? I argue that these cultural dimensions lie in the embodied experiences of those who create them. But what of the robot's embodiment in all of this, and to what extent can these responses be understood as involving mind?

    Discussant: Alan Rumsey, ANU