ADVERTISEMENT
  About the SA Blog Network













Context and Variation

Context and Variation


Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.
Context and Variation Home

I Can Out-Interdiscipline You: Anthropology and the Biocultural Approach

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Email   PrintPrint



Anthropology is an inherently interdisciplinary field. We draw from evolutionary theory, feminist theory, critical race theory, we compare within and between primates, we even manage to work with the occasional rodent or suid species. There are anthropologists who make models, anthropologists who theorize, anthropologists in the field and the lab, anthropologists who study those long dead, recently dead, living and even those not yet alive. You can find us in anthropology departments, sure, but you can also find us in biology, sociology, psychology, community health and education departments; in businesses, hospitals, museums, zoos, and non-profits, and countless other places I’m forgetting.

So it’s interesting to me that within anthropology we have four fields: biological, cultural, and linguistic anthropology, and archaeology. Then within those four fields we have further subfields: within bio we have human biology, primatology, paleoecology, morphology, genetics to name a few, and even within those are sub-sub-fields. Some of the subfields collaborate, and some never read each other. Part of the reason I was so excited to collaborate with Katie Hinde and Julienne Rutherford on Building Babies was that I would get more of a chance to read the non-human primate literature, something we human biologists are sometimes known to ignore more than is good for us.

Then there’s biocultural anthropology. Biocultural anthropology is not actually that new, and there are some truly excellent practitioners. But more recently there has been a spate of work in anthropology claiming to take a “biocultural approach” that does not appear to be derived from these folks. I had the chance recently to chat with some colleagues about recent work on the biocultural approach, and found I was not the only one stymied, perhaps even frustrated, by this work.

Some work that claims to be biocultural doesn’t really appear to be biological, nor is it cultural, because it is atheoretical and happens to use biological and cultural methods. Some of it leans in some sort of theoretical direction, but then the methods are inscrutable.

How is it that a field that is so good at being interdisciplinary cannot do a good job interdisciplinary-ing itself?

What Does It Mean to Be Interdisciplinary?

A few of these venting sessions with colleagues just happened to be followed by a talk by Dr. Liam Heneghan, co-director of the DePaul Institute for Nature and Culture, environmental science professor, and philosophy PhD student (also, a blogger!). Heneghan’s talk was sponsored by the University of Illinois Institute for Genomic Biology, where some of us are trying to be all interdisciplinary ourselves. The talk was titled: “Interdisciplinarity: is it necessary, possible, or useful – a discussion.” In addition to several interesting books that I am going to have to dig through this summer, Heneghan offered a very hopeful picture for interdisciplinarity. Here are a few of my takeaways, as applied to the problem of the biocultural approach.

Being interdisciplinary isn’t the same as being a little good at everything, consistent with the saying “jack of all trades, master of none.” Heneghan analyzed the footnotes of one of the most popular interdisciplinary works, The Ecological Thought by Timothy Morton, and found it represents typical biodiversity quite well: the strongest influences by a few fields with, as he says, “a trailing edge of rarer species.” At least one model of being interdisciplinary, then, is to be very good in one field, pretty good in a few more, and then conversant across others. Some of the work I’ve been reading never masters that first field. And so there is something less than ideal in how we are training our students.

Students who want to become good biocultural anthropologists must first become experts in biological or cultural anthropology. Scholars need a base from which to reach out to other disciplines. If you are not thoroughly trained as one or the other, you will have a lot of trouble bridging them, or using your critical thinking skills to help ease you into a new field. This also suggests being thoughtful about undergraduate and graduate curriculum: while initial coursework should make someone an expert in their first field, learning a mixed methods approach for research probably wouldn’t hurt.

We also need to identify the essential reading for biocultural anthropology. What is the canon? What do biological anthropologists need to read to become conversant in cultural anthro? What do cultural anthropologists need to read to become conversant in bio anthro? I can probably identify most of the biological readings, but certainly not the cultural, and hope my readers do.

Next, identify the core questions that a biocultural approach can tackle better than any other. If a bio or cultural approach would satisfy the question, but you are tacking on the other field because it seems sexy, your grant proposal or manuscript submission is unlikely to make it through. But if you can recognize a problem that only this approach can solve you will be able to better develop the theory.

Finally, be ambitious. When I suggest we should make sure students and junior colleagues develop high competency in one discipline first and then thoroughly read one if not several others, I am not trying to deter people away from a biocultural approach. It’s just that the field will be better served by rigorous, developed, thoughtful research. Be ambitious in your projects, your goals, your research trajectories, and encourage ambition in those you mentor. But the lesson I have learned the hard way over and over is that ambition, excitement yet not thorough training will get you burned. I want my students, and any other budding biocultural anthropologists, to be kicking my ass in five to ten years because they know the literature and methods better than me.

What am I missing? Am I being too hard on the field? What biocultural curricula are you a part of, and what is or isn’t working? This is really just the most preliminary version of my thoughts on this, and so I welcome your comments.

Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





Rights & Permissions

Comments 18 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. archmeg 1:05 am 05/1/2012

    I certainly teach my intro courses from what I call a biocultural approach, though it doesn’t really impact my own research very often. That tends to be due to the types of research questions I’m trying to answer though – biology has minimal impact on them. Maybe you could give some examples of research that you think fits this category, or attempts to and fails? That might help me.

    Link to this
  2. 2. gregdowney 7:59 am 05/1/2012

    Great post, Kate. And a timely question. Why are we here and what is the ‘here’ here? I’ll put up a short response now, and probably have to come back later and add more. Most biocultural anthropologists, in my experience, are biological anthropologists trying to get a grasp on some cultural theory, either because they’re talking about the evolution or emergence of culture or for some other reason. Not a lot of cultural anthropologists get into biological theory, in part, as I’ve argued before, because socio-cultural theory has invented a whole vocabulary that allows us to talk about things that are sort of biological without ever having to dip our toes into biology. We can talk about ‘race’ without ever mentioning genes; ‘cognition,’ ‘signification,’ and a host of other topics without ever mentioning the brain or nervous system; the list could go on. We’ve created a surprisingly Cartesian layer of insulation so that we never have to deal with biology or hard sciences (although we’re happy to criticize Descartes).
    Okay, so how did I get here? Working on embodiment, phenomenology of sport, sensory training, etc. and it started to bother me that, because of cultural training, I kept writing about what people told me without ever questioning whether or not they were RIGHT. That is, athletes were telling me about changed perceptions, and I didn’t know what the evidence was on these claims. So then I lost about four or five years of my life doing exactly what Kate describes: taking a solid foundation in one subfield and reading like crazy in others.
    Archmeg, to me, so many questions in medical anthropology, the anthropology of the senses, studies of ‘practice’ or training and the like are almost inevitably going to rub up against this biocultural area. Since cultural anthropologists are crawling all over this area, it’s surprising more of us aren’t taking the leap into a more unified field. Maybe that’s the resilience of that Cartesian insulation. Everytime someone starts talking about ‘embodiment,’ it feels to me like they’re ducking these crucial questions.

    Link to this
  3. 3. gregdowney 8:08 am 05/1/2012

    So, to speak to Kate’s question, what’s the cannon?

    Tim Ingold has to be there. Perception of the Environment is key, but so too his writings on dynamic systems, the obviation of culture-biology divisions (and others), and a lot of other stuff. His stuff tends to be more critical though than proposing alternative paradigms, but some of his articles are just foundational.

    Also crucial is Susan Oyama and the dynamic systems theory people (I also really dig Esther Thelen and Peter Taylor, but now I’m really far afield from ‘anthropology’ in a strict sense).

    There’s also a really strong batch of stuff coming out of philosophy that’s helpful, some of it owing to the influence of Heidegger (although that might be reading too much into it): Andy Clark, Kim Sterelny.

    As Archmeg suggests, pushing particular case studies is key. We’ve got to point to the ‘hard problems,’ the ones that can’t get solved without doing something new and integrative. We’ve got to put the data and examples on the table that demonstrate the necessity of integrative thinking. For that purpose, there’s a great list: Anne Fausto-Sterling, Lance Gravlee, Carol Worthman, Rachel Seligman, Tanya Luhrmann’s new work, … I’m revealing my bias toward neuroanthropology, but I’m just thinking with my fingertips…

    Link to this
  4. 4. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 1:30 pm 05/1/2012

    Hi archmeg! Most of what I’m observing these days is a biocultural approach that is underdeveloped, and I’m seeing it at the stage where I’m hesitant to call anyone out because I want them to eventually succeed and they don’t need me harping on them :) . I think the issue really is that they aren’t becoming experts in one field first, knowing the literature backwards and forwards, before trying to integrate a secondary field.

    What I can do is talk about the people who do biocultural anthro well (I’m not sure if they all identify this way, but I put at least some of their work in here in my own brain): Greg Downey, Daniel Lende, Lance Gravlee, Carol Worthman, Lynette Leidy Sievert, Thom McDade, Patrick Clarkin, Claudia Valeggia – really, everyone Greg mentions in his own comment of who to read, plus a few bio anthros who I think do good interdisciplinary and/or mixed methods work. I think this is why I’m arguing for some sort of canon –a canon for cultural anthropologists to have a sense of where to get their feet wet in bio anthro, and one for biological anthropologists first dipping into cultural. AND, some sort of canon, list, whatever, of who the biocultural anthropologists are out there, because I don’t know that students are reading them and identifying what they are doing well. I want to teach an upper level biocultural course for grad students, and I want to spend time picking apart good biocultural work. Yes, it’s all different, but of what works, why is it working?

    Link to this
  5. 5. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 1:36 pm 05/1/2012

    Greg, one of the really cool, budding collaborations I’m a part of on my campus is a bunch of different scholars trying to figure out what “interdisciplinary” means, and how we can use our very different kinds of expertise to answer interesting questions in human biology. One colleague in the humanities took a year off to take science courses. Once she took these courses, she was appalled at what the humanities say about the human body that is patently false because none of them are trained in biology. To me, she is a huge inspiration. One, it would be great for more humanities and social sciences folks who do not use language that indirectly refers to cognition, etc, but what the heck am I missing with my sparse cultural anthro background? What misinformed things am I saying about stress biology, for instance, because I don’t understand class as well as I think I do? So it seems like our thinking is aligned here, if I understand that this layer of insulation you’re discussing is one you are working your way through (maybe we’ll meet in the middle?).

    Anyway, this is all so great. I’m glad I threw this post up because I hope it will lead to some more sophisticated thinking on my part about all of this! (edited to fix a few typos)

    Link to this
  6. 6. Patrick Clarkin 1:52 pm 05/1/2012

    Hi Kate, thanks for raising these questions. It is difficult to find a consensus on what a biocultural approach is because it seems to lie in the nebulous middle, where bio and cultural anthropologists overlap.

    In my opinion, one book that would have to be included would be Goodman and Leatherman’s “Building a New Biocultural Synthesis.”

    Link to this
  7. 7. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 2:13 pm 05/1/2012

    See, I didn’t even *know* about this book. Argh. More summer reading I suppose! And yes, it does seem like that we reach that biocultural “middle” in very different places, with different approaches. I would still love to see us figure out what it means when some of this stuff works, and what it means when it goes down in flames.

    Link to this
  8. 8. gregdowney 4:43 pm 05/1/2012

    I was JUST having the same conversation you had Kate with a colleague yesterday. She was surveying courses across campus that touched on human diversity and on sustainability across campus. I was a bit appalled about some of the things that were being said about human diversity by instructors who hadn’t done their homework. The example you gave of people in humanities saying things about the human body with too little knowledge, but also colleagues from biology plowing into very old and simplistic versions of human sexuality, ‘race’, and related topics.

    The point is probably not that everyone has to be interdisciplinary, but that good interdisciplinary work in this area is 1) really important, and 2) needs some sort of high visibility channels to crack through into fields where people aren’t paying attention. Maybe we should all be trying to write good interdisciplinary articles that review a bit of what is happening for our home disciplines, putting them in places (journals, reference works) where they will get noticed.

    Link to this
  9. 9. craighadley 9:52 am 05/2/2012

    Great set of questions, Kate. I think Bill Dressler’s work is a great example of one version of biocultural work. He takes culture quite seriously. While some might argue with his approach, it is transparent and reproducible and grounded in theory.

    Link to this
  10. 10. dlende 8:34 am 05/3/2012

    Kate,

    Great post, and a provocative one. I see you asking three different questions (at least!), and I want to try to tease them apart some because I think they have different answers:

    1) How do you train students in biocultural/interdisciplinary approaches?
    2) What is the relevant literature, both in biocultural approaches and on the cultural side?
    3) How should we do interdisciplinary/biocultural research?

    So before I get into that, a bit of background. I did my graduate work at Emory, which was an explicitly biocultural program at that point. I’ve gotten away from calling myself a “biocultural anthropologist” because (a) no one is really sure what that means (as your post highlights), and (b) there weren’t a lot of jobs out there labeled “biocultural anthropologist,” but certainly there were in “medical anthropology.” In medical anthropology, interdisciplinary approaches to health are accepted but less questions/divisions arise about whether you are really doing medical anthropology or not. And inevitably, the question of whether you are really doing “biocultural” work comes up if you claim that mantle…

    So, onto your questions:

    Training – I largely agree with you, that getting a good foundation in one side of anthropology is important, and getting strong training in both the other side and also in the interdisciplinary/specific area work around the research problems that interest you (neuroscience and addiction, in my case). I think the one main key is the idea of “multiple exposures” – you’ll get this automatically on your main side of anthro, but will often assume that one course, a one-and-done, on the other side will get you most of the way there. It won’t. I think the best thing about the Emory program was the multiple exposures that were first built into the program, and also that I explicitly sought out (for example, by sitting in on the main cultural anthro theory course after taking it once).

    However, there is one really big BUT to the “being good in one field first” approach. In training, each field works to actively discipline their students, to shape them into a particular mode and to encourage certain types of foundational knowledge and methods as more valued than others. This process happens implicitly and explicitly. In other words, students get a value system along with a knowledge system, and for the most part, that value system works against interdisciplinary work. So from the bio anthro side, the importance of evolutionary theory, the need to look at biological mechanisms, the necessity of quantitative methods – if this is what you are supposed to do, then it becomes more difficult to actually end up doing what you should really do, which is the interdisciplinary work.

    The Canon – I won’t add much here, as I am actually working on just that thing this month. Oxford Bibliographies wants me to do an entry on “Biocultural Anthropology” and so hopefully that will come out sometime this summer. (I’d really appreciate any suggestions here for things to include, so comment away or email me!) For people looking for biocultural work related to medical anthropology, I put my lengthy syllabus/list of readings for my grad class on “Biocultural Medical Anthropology” up as a post:

    http://neuroanthropology.net/2010/08/30/get-the-syllabus-biocultural-medical-anthropology/

    More broadly in terms of biocultural work, I see at least five strands: (1) human biology, so people like Carol Worthman and Thom McDade; (2) political economy, so people like Alan Goodman and Thomas Leatherman; (3) cultural evolution, Boyd & Richerson, Joe Henrich; (4) biosocial folks, who really come more from cultural anthropology, the premier person being Paul Farmer; and (5) new interdisciplinary work in Europe, particularly Britain, so Tim Ingold but also the book Holistic Anthropology: Emergence and Convergence.

    There might be more, and I’m really interested in seeing if people perceive those same strands, or some other combination!

    As for who to read on the cultural side, I’d say it really depends – if you’re looking for the broad-based familiarity, then people like Clifford Geertz, Eric Wolf, Pierre Bourdieu. These are canonical figures. But for cultural anthro people who play nice with bio anthro, that’s a more difficult arena. Like Greg, I do think most of the biocultural stuff has come from bio anthro folks, and they’ve approached biocultural work as a disciplinary effort – so evolution, bio mechanisms, quantitative methods – which really doesn’t do justice to what cultural anthro offers.

    I was struck in reading over your piece, and Greg’s comments as well, about the need for people like Greg and myself to give a re-reading of some of the cultural canon, and to give useful takes of people like Geertz, covering his strengths and weaknesses from the point of view of trying to build a more holistic anthropology.

    How to Do it – I won’t say a lot here. As has already been mentioned, I’d advocate mixed methods as well. Getting the data to play with, and then figuring out how things work, that’s one of the best teachers just on its own. So interdisciplinary methods are a real need here. If you have the data, you’re likely to do some interesting things with it.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Adam Van Arsdale 11:11 am 05/3/2012

    This is a wonderful discussion and I am very thankful Kate got it started. If I could just add a few comments.

    I think John Hawks critique that multi-disciplinary workers run into unavoidable knowledge barriers is a good one, and is also a view that I think is common throughout different field and one of the primary criticisms of interdisciplinary work. But I do think that there are some areas covered by interdisciplinary work that are essentially novel questions or novel approaches to questions which are basically under or unexplored areas. These are areas that are ripe to be exploited by either individual or collaborative efforts.

    I also think that Anthropology as a discipline is somewhat uniquely positioned to take advantage of these holes in our knowledge structure given the openness to different kinds of knowledge and approaches that is part of, at least some, anthropological training. The challenge comes in that being open to different kinds of knowledge is not enough. I was trained as an undergraduate at Emory (a “biocultural” department, I think I overlapped briefly with Daniel above) and in graduate school at Michigan (self-anointed bastian of four-field Anthropology). That combination has given me a great respect for the diversity of Anthropology, but I have to say that I don’t think I was ever explicitly trained in truly biocultural work in any meaningful way. I was taught to value it, but not how to actually do it. The challenge in doing is finding ways to integrate different kinds of knowledge. This is both a practical challenge, such as methods that mix qualitative and quantitative data, and a theoretical one, how do different knowledge structures integrate and what does their intersection produce? This issue, to me, is the real difficulty.

    Link to this
  12. 12. kclancy 1:23 pm 05/3/2012

    Daniel, what a thoughtful comment, and I want to also plug your great blog post response: http://blogs.plos.org/neuroanthropology/2012/05/03/on-biocultural-anthropology/

    I love the idea of you and Greg and those of you more versed in cultural theory writing posts breaking down some of this theory for those of us just dipping our toes into interdisciplinarity. What I also find interesting is that the issue that you describe as a potential weakness — becoming an expert in one discipline first, and how that may mean you privilege those methods or ways of thinking above secondary fields you learn — to me is a potential strength. I think it gives the scholar a foundation from which they pose questions. I would *like* to think anyone going interdisciplinary or biocultural who starts, say, from a bio perspective is doing that because they find something questionable or essentialist in only applying that way of knowing to how we understand humans. So knowing that material backwards and forwards is essential. But I could also be speaking from my hegemonic, privileged, scientific background perspective ;) .

    In any case, I’m glad that this is continuing to foster some great perspective and writing from those of you with more experience in the field. I wrote this post as a bit of an outsider trying to make sense of it, and was intentionally provocative (and I’ve learned I have ruffled some feathers of some other folks, oops!). And I’m glad for the responses because I’m learning a lot more thanks to you.

    Link to this
  13. 13. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 2:08 pm 05/3/2012

    Adam, thanks for your comment and your great blog post, which I still need to respond to.

    I agree with you about the big theoretical issue and to me, this is where I’m seeing students struggle the most. If people doing this research can do a better job articulating their big questions and their theoretical framework, then designing a great project or writing a great paper is a bit easier. It’s not too hard to train someone in mixed methods. What’s hard is training someone, as you’ve said, to integrate mixed theoretical perspectives and knowledge structures. Maybe this is something that can happen by the time someone graduates with a BA, maybe it grows out of a dissertation, maybe it’s something that can’t come until after tenure (I hope not!).

    My undergraduate advisor once said that qualifying exams were about figuring out where the bubble of a student’s knowledge is. You bump into the edges of that bubble very quickly in an undergrad qualifying exam, it takes a little longer for a grad student. I think post-PhD researchers still have a bubble, it’s just bigger, but also we have more awareness of that edge, and more critical thinking skills that allow us to know or understand at least a FEW things that might be outside our bubble.

    Link to this
  14. 14. agyoung 3:48 pm 05/3/2012

    Kate, as usual this is an excellent and thought-provoking piece. As someone trained as a biocultural human biologist, I would echo what Daniel, has said–it’s important to highlight that there is a wide range that could be incorporated into a baseline of readings depending on the approach taken. There are a range of approaches to bringing biology and culture together in meaningful ways. Some approaches, like Bill Dressler’s work lend themselves more readily to something like a human biology based biocultural approach because it speaks the same empirical language. Other work, such as Bourdieu may not seem to mesh as easily, but are equally important to understanding human experience. That is where I think your points about becoming an expert in biological or cultural anthropology and learning the appropriate way to use methods that can answer those questions becomes incredibly important.

    I would also encourage students to learn how to speak across sub-disciplines and be open-minded when they are developing their interests. Just because a particular sub-disciplinary approach may seem exotic (thinking of the faces in my evolutionary medicine classes when I bring up Foucault), don’t rule it out. Those unique combinations also create hybrid zones where some really interesting biocultural work can emerge. This work can only emerge however when a scholar is well-versed in both approaches and is willing to foster the dialog.

    Link to this
  15. 15. ChrisLynn 11:41 pm 05/3/2012

    Great discussion & comments. I might add what I of late have found to be most important to either calling oneself “biocultural” or promoting the approach in students is simply a philosophical bent. Working as part of a graduate track that is expressly “biocultural medical” suggests to students, I think, that everything we teach them (or lead them to potentially learn) is part of a body of knowledge toward a biocultural approach. I have been calling myself biocultural since I was an undergraduate majoring in cultural anthropology & kept asking, “why?”, which led me to evolutionary anthro & a bioanthro program as a grad student (& a fondness for Tinbergen’s “4 whys”). But along the way I had two very different advisers who called themselves biocultural who had very different approaches, leaving me puzzled. I recall reading a nice section on this very question of what is biocultural about biocultural (or interdisciplinary or whatever) in Townsend & McElroy’s text on medical anthropology, which suggested, as Kate cites & others have, that many folks who call themselves biocultural are essentially cultural anthropologists who tack on a bio measure, or biological anthropologists who do rapid assessment ethnography to paint a background, but that true biocultural work involved rigorous ethnography & fully integrated biological methods. And I remember gulping & recognizing myself as the bio person with the quick & dirty ethnographic approach. But then a quick reprieve came in 2005 with the publication of an “Ethos” issue co-edited by Daniel Lende, Dan Hrushka, & Carol Worthman (http://ethos.anthro.illinois.edu/BldgBioCultural.htm), that offered a variety of perspectives on the issue, including some I could relate to & felt were do-able at that stage. That gave me a reprieve but a determination, as Kate & Greg have aptly stated, to dedicate myself to many years of summer reading to catch up on the courses I didn’t take. Sadly, that idyllic summer has yet to arrive, but a week taking the Text Analysis course with Lance Gravlee & Amber Wutich thru the NSF SCRM program was one of the more informative (& geekily fun) weeks I’ve ever spent in a summer toward bolstering my cultural chops.

    But when is it really important to actually know what it means to be “biocultural”? When I was on the job market I answered one of the few ads out there looking specifically for a “biocultural anthropologist,” & in one of the interviews I was asked what cultural theorists, as a biocultural anthropologist, I drew on. And I had another hard gulp as I thought of…nothing. Then I just started grasping for any old cultural theory I’d ever learned…Foucault & Bourdieu & Gramsci & Turner & other staples I didn’t really use but had superficially read in the few cultural theory courses I’d felt I should take (more than most bio people in my program took, mind you, but still, I felt at a loss to “talk the talk”). I think I babbled about Bourdieu, I should have mentioned Rosaldo but really simply blanked out. In reality, I was trained to think in terms of operationalizing a question & the relevance of integrating ethnography but hadn’t a firm grasp on what it meant to be a theoretician or a methodologist (recently, someone asked me which I considered myself & again I was stumped, as I realized I wasn’t really sure). I even had a theory section for my NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant proposal, but I had not separated any of the theoreticians in my mind as strictly cultural or strictly biological. I don’t think I even paid much attention to whether they were anthropologists, as I thought I should simply draw on what was useful & relevant. And the punchline is that, dumbfounded though I might have been, I got the job anyway.

    What I have since discovered or simply become somewhat comfortable with is, it’s not really exactly how you do anthropology, because different questions beg different approaches, & just because you call yourself a biocultural anthropologist doesn’t mean you have to force the issue at every turn. Though I do find it instructive to force grad students to articulate how what they propose to do is anthropological, something I was in fact never forced to do (maybe that explains a lot of what I’ve written here). And it’s not exactly what you read, though our program offer a course in Theory & Methods in Biocultural Medical Anthropology, because you read whatever you need to read to understand whatever it is you need to understand, which, as several here have stated, is an ongoing process. It’s about philosophy. And what’s really going to make the difference for students, I think, is a unified front. I am biased of course, as I landed in a department that IS unified to believing in the value of promoting a biocultural approach & happily so–& I think it works (& I think our “numbers”, er, successfully employed graduates attest to that–whether the person’s training is specifically in cultural anthro (we have three of those), bio (there’s three of us, though two of us were basically trained bioculturally), or linguistics (we have one of those). That front includes teaching about the biological & cultural (& linguistic & archaeological & psychological & sociological…) aspects of topics. It includes forcing grad students to include members from at least 3 subdisciplines on their thesis & dissertation committees & actually striving to integrate each other’s perspectives for the student rather than compete for representation on the student’s project. And it includes being exacting & explicit in hiring colleagues that share this philosophy. In fact, that’s probably the most important piece, because the rest of it just naturally seems to fall into place.

    But when & why it is important to declare to them, “you guys should appreciate that you’re getting something special, you’re not just getting anthropology, you’re getting biocultural anthrology”? Hell, I think students, especially undergrads but even grad students & even us doctoralized people, are sometimes hard-pressed to clearly define anthropology (see several awesome recent posts by Greg Downey, Daniel Lende, John Hawks, & others on this topic–is it group hug time yet?), let alone “biocultural anthropology.” At that level, I don’t see that it does matter. I like the bubble metaphor referenced above. It doesn’t matter to them for a while, but I think it will (it’s important to seed those moments they can think back on when they blog, “my adviser once said to me, biocultural anthro blah blah blah”). I guess it matters when we need to define ourselves. I find myself more concerned about this as I strive to talk to you people specifically, people within my own sub-sub-side-discipline, because I want to be part of this club & I want it to be clear that I know what team I’m on & that I am a team player when I go up for tenure & recommend they call on one of you as an outside reviewer. And it’s not just a means to an end but part of the importance of building a “brand,” as Greg has stated (I’d hyperlink the hell out of this comment rather than just name-drop people, but I don’t think I can) & the numerous ensuing benefits of product identity & identifying with a product. Stuff like that. Otherwise, I am happy talking to psychologists, biologists, philosophers, geologists, theologians, etc. in my effort to find the expertise I need & talk to people who are actually interested in the same things I am…
    Thanks for letting me share! ;)

    Link to this
  16. 16. rbrow11 7:08 am 05/4/2012

    Great post and thread. I too was trained in the Emory biocultural schoolhouse, so happy to see this. I would just add that “mixed methods” is an entirely different thing than drawing upon different fields for your theoretical inspiration or interpretive frame. In (current) common parlance, this refers to unique methods of analysis that make qualitative and quantitative data speak to each other in novel ways. This usually becomes an interdisciplinary enterprise because the analytic process and product doesn’t have the usual markers of a particular field.

    Thus, it is not just “lingo” or substantive claims that bear the sacred mark of disciplinary pedigree, but also analytic methods. I would argue that in much of the “junk” social theory work, lingo and analytic methods amount to more or less the same thing; there is no serious attempt at taking data seriously. In much of the “junk” quantitative social science, analytic methods and substantive claims amount to the same thing; there is no serious attempt at real-world grounding.

    Ryan Brown

    Link to this
  17. 17. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 9:44 am 05/4/2012

    Hi Ryan, I completely agree, even if maybe my post/comments don’t seem to reflect it in your view. Theoretical and methodological approaches are in some ways independent issues, and both need to be resolved when seeking interdisciplinarity.

    Link to this
  18. 18. cacummings 2:18 pm 05/4/2012

    The interdisciplinary FPR-UCLA Culture, Brain, and Development program just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Graduate students and postdocs are trained in mixed methods. I’ve written a summary at the fpr blog on wordpress, but I thought the “lessons learned” might be of interest to you and your readers:

    The group reconvened Saturday morning for a panel on interdisciplinary research and professional development. CBD and UCLA have led the way in terms of institutionalizing a method of doing interdisciplinary research compared to other universities, according to David Frederick and other CBD alums. The program has the advantage of teaching students mixed methods, a skill set that Tom Weisner predicted will be in much demand during the next decade. It also gives trainees a “bird’s eye view” of a particular research topic or theme. CBD additionally offers trainees the possibility of interacting with a wide mix of students and faculty and creating projects they otherwise could not have undertaken. Another advantage Steve Lopez pointed out is that the novel insights which emerge from this kind of experimentally rigorous, interdisciplinary research frequently serve to advance knowledge or otherwise benefit the “home discipline,” in which case disciplinary–interdisciplinary research may be best viewed as a continuum, he added. And in fact some of the most compelling work we heard about the day before illustrated how different factors that emerge at different levels of analysis interrelate.

    But the group also discussed some common predicaments that seem to revolve around the fact that quite frequently different disciplines (or subdisciplines) aren’t mutually intelligible. (But as, Tom Weisner wrote in a recent post for Anthropology News, the lingua franca is understanding each other’s methods and research designs – rigorous training at the graduate level in mixed methods can achieve fluency.) Many agreed that while it is possible to publish interdisciplinary studies in mainstream journals (as long as you “understand the concerns of a particular discipline and position your paper accordingly”) it is much harder to get funding, particularly from the government and particularly given the difficulty of operationalizing culture for grant submissions. (Tom Weisner suggested coming up with “two, three, or four features that should be included in any attempt to invoke culture as part of a mental health study” rather than one all-purpose definition.)

    Overall, the consensus appeared to be that trainees should be able to leave CBD and related programs with (1) a well honed set of skills (as Dr. Dapretto observed, it’s important to make interdisciplinarity a “glaring strength” on CVs); (2) a good knowledge of or even relationship with other centers doing cross-cultural research (making this even more of a collective process); (3) a good understanding of where this research can be published, including developing relationships with journal editors, colleagues who serve on editorial boards, and colleagues to suggest as reviewers. (As DonFavareau noted, “until interdisciplinarity gets a foothold in publishing, young researchers in particular will be at a disadvantage by pursuing it.” On the other hand, as Tom Weisner noted, editors in particular are under pressure to increase impact factors, and frequently the most downloaded papers are those that have a “broader constituency”); and finally (4) a solid funding strategy (again, this requires ongoing efforts to “educate” funding agencies about the benefits of interdisciplinary research).

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Scientific American Dinosaurs

Get Total Access to our Digital Anthology

1,200 Articles

Order Now - Just $39! >

X

Email this Article

X