Context and Variation

Context and Variation

Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.

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


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.

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

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Email this Article