Toward an Anthropological Theory of Mind (AToM): Selves (Part 2)

Last month a small, international gathering of twenty-seven anthropologists and psychologists took place at the Stanford Humanities Center, organized by Stanford anthropology professor Tanya Luhrmann and Culture and Mind postdoctoral fellows Julia Cassaniti, and Jocelyn Marrow, with financial support from the Robert Lemelson Foundation. (See end of post for full list of participants; a summary of the session on “interiority and boundedness available here.)

The session on “selves” in many ways revisited some classic questions in psychological anthropology: “To what extent are selves culturally constituted? If selves are only partially constituted by culture, what other factors play a part in their makeup? Are those other factors – social, biopsychological, etc. – universal in nature?”

The difference is that the questions Doug Hollan (1992) and others before him asked may not have been answerable then. But new work emerging from anthropology, psychology, and the social cognitive, cultural, and critical neuroscience research programs is beginning to elucidate the different perceptions and mechanisms underlying the self, both stable individual differences as well as the idea of self as a (neuro-)cultural “product and process,” in either case, with the beneficial effect of “markedly expanding the range of the normal” (Markus & Kitayama, 2010).

In the first talk, Stanford social psychologist Hazel Markus whose work often focuses on comparisons of people living in North America and East Asia, discussed cultures and selves. She defined the self as “a person’s ongoing sense of himself or herself. It’s the “me” at the center of experience, and it’s a continually developing sense of awareness and agency that guides action and takes shape as the individual, both brain and body, becomes attuned to the various environments [he or she] inhabits.” She described selves as “implicitly and explicitly at work in all aspects of behavior – perception, cognition, emotion, motivation, relationships, group processes.”

We don’t have “one self,” but multiple selves attuned to different social and cultural contexts (some of which cultural neuroscientists like Daphne Oyserman have found can be easily “primed” or elicited in experimental settings). The one that is “on” operates as the foundational schema, she said, “which organizes more specific schemas.” Since at least Geertz (1974/1984), we’ve known that the particular, western conception of the self as “bounded, unique” is “a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures,” but despite our best efforts, she continued, “I would say that the social sciences as a whole have made virtually no progress” in trying to “animate any other conception of mind” because the current, bounded, interior one, a product of our particular philosophy and history, “is so built into our cultures and science.” Behavioral neuroscience, in particular, has focused on an unrepresentative sample of “WEIRD” (i.e., western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) subjects (Henrich, 2010). The project for psychologists and anthropologists is to minimize our differences, with the understanding that “minds can be and are differently formed, and when they are . . . those different theories . . . matter for everything a person does.”

Hazel also mentioned that neuroscientists across subdisciplines (interested in, e.g., the effects of stress) share the same names for common units of analysis, like the HPA axis, suggesting a similar kind of agreement might help our theorizing about what is a self in socio-cultural contexts. For a start, she described the different theories of agency that come up in different contexts – e.g., the independent vs. interdependent model of self. (This model has been robustly supported by experimental evidence in cultural neuroscience with respect to even basic processes like visual perception; see Goh & Park, 2010.) She suggested focusing on identifying some key dimensions of the non-western models of mind, such as how interior or bounded the self is, which would go hand in hand with the independent vs. interdependent model of agency.

For example, feelings predict physical and mental health in cultures like the US that are organized around an independent model, whereas among the Japanese, who have significantly more negative feelings about themselves than Americans do, feelings are not predictive of health and wellbeing (but, interestingly, “level of relational harmony” is; see Kitayama, Karasawa, Curhan, Ryff, & Markus, 2010). This is not just an East/West dichotomy; Hazel said she’s seen very similar patterns of data – such as more holistic processing – among working-class Americans and more independent patterns among people living in northern Japan.

In the discussion that followed, Allen Tran was reminded of Heather Spector Hallman’s research on Japanese friendship among adolescents, for whom good friends are those who point out one’s faults (Hallman, 2011). The purpose of self and other criticism is to point out ways to improve, Hazel said. Allen asked Hazel to describe the differences in how negative affect is internalized in Japan vs. the West, which led to some interesting questions regarding feelings and health and wellbeing, at some (physiological) level does negative affect appear the same for both American and Japanese populations?

The next talk by Stanford Culture and Mind postdoctoral fellow Jocelyn Marrow, which was based on her 2001–2004 ethnographic research in Varanasi (North India) on emotional and psychiatric distress, discussed “how the specific theory of mind and self changes the appropriateness of emotional expressiveness throughout the life course.” Previous work on hierarchy, self and interpersonal relationships in India has found that, as persons become elder and more socially powerful, they experience themselves as more independent.  Jocelyn was particularly interested in the perceptions of women (and other family members) living with mental disorder regarding their experience of psychosocial interventions at public Indian psychiatric clinics. Patients and family members described the professionals’ psychosocial interventions at the clinic as “being made to understand” or exhorted regarding how to manage difficult family situations. Jocelyn said that “she quickly learned that samjhaana (‘making others understand’) was a cultural trope pertaining to many aspects of life. She said that samjhaana was a lifelong process of “empathy socialization undertaken by persons in positions of authority on behalf of their dependents and subordinates.” Those higher up in family, work, religious, and social hierarchies, who are perceived as embodying the best qualities (more wise, more perfect, closer to God than those below, which according to Indian ethnopsychology can permeate to others via touch, speech, glances, gestures,etc.) have a duty to socialize junior members “to attend to the demands, instructions, inclinations, and desires” of their seniors. (This most often concerns making juniors aware of their own impact on others’ wellbeing.)

Jocelyn then described an interesting asymmetry: “Hierarchical juniors were expected to shoulder the labor of understanding the minds and hearts of their superiors, while seniors had no equivalent responsibility to interpret the minds and hearts of their juniors from the immediate context” of juniors’ words and deeds. The different temporal dimensions were particularly interesting, i.e., although seniors bear “heavy responsibility” for juniors’ wellbeing in a general sense over the latters’ life courses, they privilege their own sense of what is best for juniors, rather than focusing on fulfilling juniors’ expressed wishes.   Ideally, seniors behave benevolently paternalistic towards their charges. Juniors’ transgressions, on the other hand, may be perceived as the fault of their elders.

In response to a question from Joel Robbins (“What happen when the junior has more knowledge or experience than the elder?”) Jocelyn clarified that her model related more to moral behavior than to expertise in certain areas (like driving or computers). Julia Cassaniti wondered what happened if elders gave bad advice. Tanya mentioned the work of Bambi Chapin who suggested that “the seniors failure to understand, failure to respond to the demands of the juniors” may have contributed to the civil war in Sri Lanka. Jocelyn said bad advice might lead to anger that an elder misled them or failed to take care of them. Another participant wondered if family therapy was much more prevalent than individual therapy. Jocelyn said yes, but she also said – and this may not be typical for other parts of India – there was a strong sense among the therapists that certain patients were being mistreated and that the therapists needed to modify things in the family environment. Another common intervention was to bring in an outside senior to make a senior in the family understand what they were doing was wrong.

Tanya asked Jocelyn if the general situation she described represented an asymmetry of mind reading? Jocelyn said, yes, a close mind reading of one’s elders helps juniors become better people. Tanya asked if the asymmetry resonated with any other features of social life. Jocelyn said the psychiatrists in psychosocial interventions “sort of insert themselves as an über-family elder.” The same asymmetry is prevalent in work environments: the boss’s personality comes to pervade the organization. A participant wondered if there were another piece to the dialogue. If a father criticized a son, for example, the son might (appropriately) respond to the father that he hadn’t been guided properly. Joel suggested the son can say or think that, but he would also bear the responsibility of following his father’s guidance. Hazel Markus felt social scientists, who may automatically assume an independent view of self, “haven’t taken seriously how important hierarchy is in organizing so much of the world, in organizing so much of (people’s) thinking, feeling, acting, and perceiving.”  She felt that Jocelyn’s data and observations, showing the positive consequences of hierarchical arrangements, are “really powerful.” (Jocelyn’s talk also reminded me of an interesting, recent face-processing study on the “boss effect” in American and Chinese graduate students by Liew, Ma, Han, & Aziz-Zadeh [2011], which offers some initial evidence for how deeply ingrained our perceptions of social hierarchy and social status are.)

In the final talk of the session, University of Chicago linguistic anthropologist John Lucy discussed his research on the relation between language and thought from a developmental perspective, particularly how individual languages might affect speaking and thinking in distinctive ways (which happens around middle childhood starting around age 8). The language patterns that we see in very young children are in place long before the associated cognitive patterns develop during middle childhood, i.e., overall this is a lengthy process. There are interesting costs and gains in middle childhood, he said. The costs are “that we begin to lock in our accent,” for example, another higher order feature (vis-à-vis the previous discussion) that is “quite durable and resistant to transformation.”  There is also a “deeper . . . engagement with the surrounding reality. It’s as if the language code has had a certain amount of autonomy and now begins to systematically connect to the presuppositions of a culture” as part of a process that is more a reorganization of the system than the incorporation of something new. He said that there are substantial gains at this time: the ability to narrate or to interact discursively in an appropriate manner with other people in the community, for example. He also said that some of the constructs  – language, culture, mind, self – are actually products of middle childhood, that is, “they are formal developments around which some of this reorganization is taking place.” (Thus, ToM means different things at different ages.)

The rest of the talk focused on where some of this reorganization is occurring, which he suggested can be located in the deictic system, which, through the use of pronouns, tense markers, demonstratives this, that, etc., maps the speaker’s utterance onto the external world and which develops over childhood in order to handle a more abstract perspective about oneself in relation to others as well as to cross-link to other contexts. He described four broad types: (1) deictic forms that tell us something about the participants in the interaction; (2) a set that tells us about events, (3) a set that tells us about the speaker’s stance on what’s happening, and (4) a set that tells us about the relation of this event to other events. Referring to a handout of a story about a schoolyard fight narrated by a ten-year-old girl, he pointed out elements in the somewhat chaotic nature of the storytelling that were typical for that age. He then pointed out all the features that don’t occur in younger children’s narratives, including how the narrator was able to embed dialogue in the story, as well as many culturally shaped ideas about social status, rights and privileges, etc. By simply watching how children talk about things in nonexperimental settings, he said, it’s possible to see how narrative skills, interaction skills, and cultural knowledge, and self are built into the apparatus, in one way or another. In view of all this, one final point he made in his position paper is the ease with which we project intentional mental states onto animals or children and, at the same time, the difficulty we have attributing mental states, “or at least good ones, to those from other cultures, who speak other languages [especially those that are structurally quite different, e.g., no overt tense markers], or who suffer from some communicative incapacity.” “[N]otice again,” he wrote, “how essentially social differences are construed psychologically, as deficiencies of self.”

Regarding John’s method of focusing on children’s speech in naturalistic settings (how grammatical and linguistic information is “interpenetrated” with pragmatic conventions related to the perceived needs of a specific listener, or “recipient design”), NYU linguistic anthropologist Bambi Schieffelin suggested also looking at things like clarifications, self repair, other-initiated repair, etc. Strategies for those instances in which something is not making sense to the listener may reveal significant cultural differences. John agreed that somewhere between experiments designed to reveal some feature that’s hidden and metatheories about where mind is located in the body, “there’s this other sphere which is both public and visible on the one hand and yet not necessarily consciously reflective. . . . And I think it would be a useful place to tie the two traditions together. ”

A question about translation turned the focus of the discussion to the more general issue of how minds interact on a nonverbal as well as verbal basis. In general, as one participant observed, very little is known about the mechanisms that mediate social interaction. Hazel Markus related the lack of theorizing about intersubjectivity to our cultural ideas of self and mind (independent, interior, bounded). John Lucy said our (over-psychologized) ToM is a solution to a problem of social coordination that tries to solve it without reference to social coordination. Tanya noted a possible generalization: in some cultures oriented toward an interdependent view of self (like Japan), social coordination is achieved via heightened mind-reading, whereas in other cultures, like that of the Urapmin, coordination is achieved via nonverbal acts like the social exchange of objects. Joel said that what counts as social coordination differs in different places. The Urapmin will put up with all kinds of misfires, even across hierarchies; despite the gift exchange, there is a lot of tolerance for lack of or less coordination without dissecting the underlying intention (the same verb means “to lie” and “to be wrong”). Social coordination includes the different ways in which we physically interact with each other, as Julia pointed out. (People may be less verbally attuned to one another.) Another participant asked Joel whether conversations among the Urapmin ever look chaotic, particularly when – Joel continued the thought – you can’t ask a speaker what she means? Another question, do we (especially “WEIRD” Americans with an independent view of self [Henrich, 2010]) misrepresent in the other direction, by focusing on the capacity for mind-reading? Aparecida Vilaça (Museu Nacional/Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro), with reference to Roy Wagner (1975/1981), observed that it depends on what the culture “creates as innate.” For westerners, “the innate is individualities” and action is focused on what one needs to coordinate or regulate. For other cultures, the “innate” is relationships and action is focused on differentiating, on improvisation.

Turning to John’s suggestion that ToM is a solution to a problem of social coordination, Julia asked what happens if it is not culturally expected that communication should always work, then the definition of the problem should also be different. The theories of mind that develop in different cultures may be solutions to the different ways in which we create sociality. Even our tacit concepts of time and the strength of our attachment to controlling understanding differ, another participant observed, which brings me back to the Markus and Kitayama paper: the mutual constitution of cultures and selves is as much a biological as a social (and psychological) issue. This is particularly evident in the direction of work by Hazel Markus, Shinobu Kitayama, Georg Northoff, Shihui Han, Joan Chiao, and others (see, e.g., Markus & Kitayama, 2010; Northoff, Qin, & Feinbert, 2011; Chiao , 2010, and Han & Northoff, 2008), presaging more collaboration incorporating the critical insights that anthropologists bring to bear on the culture–biology interface in the not-too-distant future


Chiao, J., Harada, T., Komeda, H., Li, Z., Mano, Y. Saito, D., . . . Iidaka, T. (2010). Dynamic cultural influences on neural representations of the self. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22(1), 1–11. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2009.21192

ABSTRACT: People living in multicultural environments often encounter situations which require them to acquire different cultural schemas and to switch between these cultural schemas depending on their immediate sociocultural context. Prior behavioral studies show that priming cultural schemas reliably impacts mental processes and behavior underlying self-concept. However, less well understood is whether or not cultural priming affects neurobiological mechanisms underlying the self. Here we examined whether priming cultural values of individualism and collectivism in bicultural individuals affects neural activity in cortical midline structures underlying self-relevant processes using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Biculturals primed with individualistic values showed increased activation within medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) during general relative to contextual self-judgments, whereas biculturals primed with collectivistic values showed increased response within MPFC and PCC during contextual relative to general self-judgments. Moreover, degree of cultural priming was positively correlated with degree of MPFC and PCC activity during culturally congruent self-judgments. These findings illustrate the dynamic influence of culture on neural representations underlying the self and, more broadly, suggest a neurobiological basis by which people acculturate to novel environments.

Geertz, C. (1984). “From the native’s point of view”: On the nature of anthropological understanding. In R. A. Shweder & R. A. LeVine (Eds.), Culture theory: Essays on mind, self, and emotion (pp. 123–136). New York: Cambridge University Press. Original work published 1974.

Hallman, H. (2011). Lure of the intimate: Power practices in Japanese adolescent friendship (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved October 19, 2011, from Dissertations & Theses @ University of California. (Publication No. AAT 3465785).

Goh, J. O, & Park, D. C. (2009). Culture sculpts the perceptual brain. Progress in Brain Research, 178, 95–111. doi:10.1016/S0079-6123(09)17807-X

ABSTRACT: Cultural differences in the way Westerners and East Asians perceive and attend to visual objects and contexts have now been shown across many behavioral studies. Westerners display more attention to objects and their features, in line with an analytic processing style, whereas East Asians attend more to contextual relationship, reflecting holistic processing. In this article, we review these behavioral differences and relate them to neuroimaging studies that show the impact of cultural differences even on ventral visual processing of objects and contexts. We additionally consider the evidence showing how extended experience within a culture via aging affects ventral visual function. We conclude that the brain findings are in agreement with the analytic/holistic dichotomy of Western and East Asian visual processing styles. Westerners engage greater object-processing activity while East Asians engage more context-processing activity in the ventral visual areas of the brain. Although such cultural imaging studies are still few, they provide important early evidence supporting the importance of cultural experiences in sculpting visual processing at the neural level.

Han, S., & Northoff, G.  (2008). Culture-sensitive neural substrates of human cognition: A transcultural neuroimaging approach. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 646–654.

ABSTRACT: Our brains and minds are shaped by our experiences, which mainly occur in the context of the culture in which we develop and live. Although psychologists have provided abundant evidence for diversity of human cognition and behaviour across cultures, the question of whether the neural correlates of human cognition are also culture-dependent is often not considered by neuroscientists. However, recent transcultural neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that one’s cultural background can influence the neural activity that underlies both high- and low-level cognitive functions. The findings provide a novel approach by which to distinguish culture-sensitive from culture-invariant neural mechanisms of human cognition.

Henrich, J., Heine, S.J., Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2–3), 61–83. doi:10.1017/S0140525X0999152X

ABSTRACT: Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers – often implicitly – assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior – hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re-organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges.

Hollan, D. (1992). Cross-cultural differences in the self. Journal of Anthropological Research, 48(4), 283–300.

Kitayama, S., Karasawa, M., Curhan K. B., Ryff, C. D., & Markus, H. R. (DEC 02, 2010) Independence and interdependence predict health and wellbeing: Divergent patterns in the United States and Japan. Frontiers in Cultural Psychology, 1(163). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00163

ABSTRACT: A cross-cultural survey was used to examine two hypotheses designed to link culture to wellbeing and health. The first hypothesis states that people are motivated toward prevalent cultural mandates of either independence (personal control) in the United States or interdependence (relational harmony) in Japan. As predicted, Americans with compromised personal control and Japanese with strained relationships reported high perceived constraint. The second hypothesis holds that people achieve wellbeing and health through actualizing the respective cultural mandates in their modes of being. As predicted, the strongest predictor of wellbeing and health was personal control in the United States, but the absence of relational strain in Japan. All analyses controlled for age, gender, educational attainment, and personality traits. The overall pattern of findings underscores culturally distinct pathways (independent versus interdependent) in achieving the positive life outcomes.

Liew, S. L., Ma, Y., Han, S., Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2011). Who’s afraid of the boss: Cultural differences in social hierarchies modulate self-face recognition in Chinese and Americans. PLoS ONE, 6, e16901. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016901

ABSTRACT: Human adults typically respond faster to their own face than to the faces of others. However, in Chinese participants, this self-face advantage is lost in the presence of one’s supervisor, and they respond faster to their supervisor’s face than to their own. While this “boss effect” suggests a strong modulation of self-processing in the presence of influential social superiors, the current study examined whether this effect was true across cultures. Given the wealth of literature on cultural differences between collectivist, interdependent versus individualistic, independent self-construals, we hypothesized that the boss effect might be weaker in independent than interdependent cultures. Twenty European American college students were asked to identify orientations of their own face or their supervisors’ face. We found that European Americans, unlike Chinese participants, did not show a “boss effect” and maintained the self-face advantage even in the presence of their supervisor’s face. Interestingly, however, their self-face advantage decreased as their ratings of their boss’s perceived social status increased, suggesting that self-processing in Americans is influenced more by one’s social status than by one’s hierarchical position as a social superior. In addition, when their boss’s face was presented with a labmate’s face, American participants responded faster to the boss’s face, indicating that the boss may represent general social dominance rather than a direct negative threat to oneself, in more independent cultures. Altogether, these results demonstrate a strong cultural modulation of self-processing in social contexts and suggest that the very concept of social positions, such as a boss, may hold markedly different meanings to the self across Western and East Asian cultures.

Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (2010). Cultures and selves: A cycle of mutual constitution. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(4), 420–430. doi:10.1177/1745691610375557

ABSTRACT: The study of culture and self casts psychology’s understanding of the self, identity, or agency as central to the analysis and interpretation of behavior and demonstrates that cultures and selves define and build upon each other in an ongoing cycle of mutual constitution. In a selective review of theoretical and empirical work, we define self and what the self does, define culture and how it constitutes the self (and vice versa), define independence and interdependence and determine how they shape psychological functioning, and examine the continuing challenges and controversies in the study of culture and self. We propose that a self is the “me” at the center of experience—a continually developing sense of awareness and agency that guides actions and takes shape as the individual, both brain and body, becomes attuned to various environments. Selves incorporate the patterning of their various environments and thus confer particular and culture-specific form and function to the psychological processes they organize (e.g., attention, perception, cognition, emotion, motivation, interpersonal relationship, group). In turn, as selves engage with their sociocultural contexts, they reinforce and sometimes change the ideas, practices, and institutions of these environments.

Northoff, G., Qin, P., & Feinbert, T. E. (2011). Brain imaging of the self – Conceptual, anatomical and methodological issues. Consciousness and Cognition, 20(1), 52–63. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2010.09.011

ABSTRACT: In this paper we consider two major issues: conceptual-experimental approaches to the self, and the neuroanatomical substrate of the self. We distinguish content- and processed-based concepts of the self that entail different experimental strategies, and anatomically, we investigate the concept of midline structures in further detail and present a novel view on the anatomy of an integrated subcortical-cortical midline system. Presenting meta-analytic evidence, we show that the anterior paralimbic, e.g. midline, regions do indeed seem to be specific for self-specific stimuli. We conclude that future investigation of the self need to develop novel concepts that are more empirically plausible than those currently in use. Different concepts of self will require novel experimental designs that include, for example, the brain’s resting state activity as an independent variable. Modifications of both conceptual and anatomical dimensions will allow an empirically more plausible account of the relationship between brain and self.

Wagner, R. (1981).  The invention of culture (Rev. ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

List of Participants

Rita Astuti, Professor, Department of Anthropology, London School of Economics

Lera Boroditsky, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Stanford University

Luke Butler, Graduate student, Psychology, Stanford University

Julia Cassaniti, Culture and Mind Postdoctoral Fellow, Anthropology, Stanford University

Eve Danziger, Associate Professor in Anthropology, University of Virginia

Suzanne Gaskins, Associate Professor of Psychology, Northeastern Illinois University

Dedre Gentner, Alice Gabrielle Twight Professor, Department of Psychology, Northwestern University

Kathyrn Geurts, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Hamline College

Alexa Hagerty, Graduate student, Anthropology, Stanford University

Douglas Hollan, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles

Graham Jones, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Michelle Karnes, Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Stanford University

John Lucy, William Benton Professor Department of Comparative Human Development, Department of Psychology, University of Chicago

Tanya Luhrmann, Watkins University Professor in Anthropology (and Psychology, by courtesy) Stanford University

Ellen Markman, Lewis M. Terman Professor of Psychology, Stanford University

Hazel Markus, Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, Department of Psychology

Giulia Mazza, Graduate student, Anthropology, Stanford University

Jocelyn Marrow, Culture and Mind Postdoctoral Fellow, Anthropology, Stanford University

Joel Robbins, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego

Barbara Rogoff, University of California, Santa Cruz Foundation Distinguished Professor of Psychology

Sonya Pritzker, Assistant Researcher and Clinical Specialist at the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine

Danilyn Rutherford, Associate Professor in Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz

Bambi Schieffelin, Collegiate Professor; Professor of Anthropology, New York University

Rupert Stasch, Associate Professor, University of California, San Diego

Allen Tran, Graduate Student, Anthropology, University of  California, San Diego

Jason Throop, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles

Aparecida Vilaça, Associate Professor in the Postgraduate Program in Social Anthropology, Museu Nacional/Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro

Toward an Anthropological Theory of Mind (AToM) – Stanford Workshop Summary

This is the first in a series of posts covering cross-disciplinary research on theory of mind.

Last weekend a small, international gathering of twenty-seven anthropologists and psychologists took place at the Stanford Humanities Center, organized by Stanford anthropology professor Tanya Luhrmann  and Culture and Mind postdoctoral fellows Julia Cassaniti, and Jocelyn Marrow. The meeting was made possible by a gift from the Robert Lemelson Foundation.

Nestled under the dappled shade of oak trees, the center provided a beautiful setting for a relaxed yet animated discussion on the concept of theory of mind, including the possibility of cross-cultural, comparative research program. (See end of post for full list of participants.

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According to the hypothesis on which the meeting was based “there are cultural variations in the way minds are imagined, and . . . these variations have consequences for mental experience (broadly defined) and the nature of social interaction.” Invited speakers briefly summarized their work (papers were circulated in advance) but most of each session and many lively coffee-break conversations were devoted to exploring related questions and research opportunities.

The workshop opened on Thursday evening with a talk by anthropologist Rita Astuti (London School of Economics) covering the history of ToM and the challenges of cross-cultural, interdisciplinary work. Below is a summary of the Friday morning session on “interiority and boundedness,” featuring talks by anthropologists Joel Robbins (UC San Diego), Julia, and Tanya.

Theory of Mind

Theory of mind (ToM) was coined by primatologists David Premack and Guy Woodruff to refer to the ability of an individual to “impute mental states to himself and to others” (Premack & Woodruff, 1978; Call & Tomasello, 2008). The concept subsequently carried over to developmental psychology and neuroscience. Psychologists were interested in the emergence in young children of a capacity to attribute false beliefs to other persons (Wimmer & Perner, 1983; also referred to as the Sally-Anne test or S-AT). Neuroscientists began to explore some possible neural mechanisms of ToM (which critically “enables us to predict what others are going to do” [U. Frith & C. Frith, 2010] ) like imitation (eventually bolstered by the discovery of mirror neurons in macaques, which fired when observing an object-directed gesture, with the mirror neuron “system” thus appearing to mediate an understanding of others’ actions), as well as “precursor” mechanisms, like face processing, gaze monitoring, or detection of animacy and their dysfunctions (Hurley & Chater, 2005; Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004; Iacoboni & Dapretto, 2006). A particularly influential 1985 paper for both research programs by Simon Baron-Cohen, Alan Leslie, and Uta Frith argued that children with autism lacked a theory of mind based on their difficulties with the false belief test (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985). (Links to research cited available at end of post.)

Currently, the mainstream definition in the psychiatric neuroscience literature  characterizes ToM as the cognitive (or “high level”) capacity to “mind read,” that is, “to attribute mental states like thoughts, beliefs, intentions, and feelings to oneself and others,” (Montag et al., 2011). But, as several attendees noted, some assumptions implicit in this sort of definition – e.g., the extent to which ToM is based on explicit inferences of internally held propositions – presume an understanding of mind which is western.  Anthropologists have long been aware that the western model of mind is not shared by all people. Those at the meeting had assembled to explore what they knew about the consequences of different models of mind for mental experience, developmental process, psychiatric illness, and the adults experience of inferring intentions.

AToM: Interiority and Boundedness

In the first talk of Friday’s session, anthropologist Joel Robbins (UC San Diego) discussed his research on the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea, who, although generally described as sociocentric or relational, have a very strong sense of a core self that is virtually unknowable to others. For the Urapmin, the heart is the seat of thoughts, feelings, and intentions, and it is believed “one cannot know what goes on in the heart of another person.” The Urapmin appear not to use speech as a vehicle for expressing thoughts, feelings, or intentions, so much so that the language lacks verbs like thank, apologize, promise, and lie, and they are distrustful of others’ speech. (Although persons’ mental states are opaque to one another, Joel was quick to distinguish this form of “innate” opacity – a core self doubly wrapped within the heart/body  – from the communicative opacity and non-expressivity cultivated by the Yap that Jason Throop would go on to describe in the afternoon session.) At the same time, according to Joel, the Urapmin regularly say that people “do what they want to do,” or “are driven by their hearts,” and they have a rich vocabulary for different kinds of emotions and thoughts that arise in the heart. This means that in the Urapmin case the belief that people cannot know what others are thinking and feeling does not, as some have predicted, correlate with a general lack of cultural elaboration of ideas about the contents of the mind and their importance in motivating action. Joel also said that in the 1970s all adults in the community converted to charismatic Christianity and consequently face conflicting demands from, on the one hand, a religion that requires sincerity in speech and honesty in the confession of one’s sins to God and, on the other, from a traditional belief in the impossibility of such kinds of communication.

After giving a brief summary, Joel provided two basic claims/research questions: (1) Assuming theories of mind shape the mental experience of those who hold them, how do we test the possibility that people are not reading the minds of others in interpreting what they say or how they act? (2) Just as cultural ideas about language connect to morality, sociality, ideas about selves, etc., we should explore the ways in which cultural theories of mind are connected in important ways to ideas in other domains. Joel felt he was on firmer ground with the second research program in terms of exploring the ramifications of an Urapminian theory of mind. For example, most people in Urapmin assume they are “innately” related to many others, rather than expecting relationships to built out of shared feelings and thoughts, and the unpredictability of speech is moderated by everyday gift exchanges, which “almost have the rhythm of conversations” (a promise, for example, is made via the bestowal of a small gift rather than conveyed verbally.)

After Tanya opened up the session to questions and comments, one of the attendees mentioned Vygotsky’s work on the connection between language development and thought, particularly how inner speech develops from hearing external speech followed by a stage of talking (or thinking) out loud – i.e., a process of internalizing what is heard – which is eventually inhibited. Children and adults continue to hear subvocalizations which are unintelligible to others, however, and which serve as a vehicle for thought. She wondered about the extent to which the Urapmin subvocalize, and “how they are construing subvocalization in inner speech, if it’s not thought.”

Joel was intrigued by the suggestion, but also noted the complexity of an investigation into subvocalization. Interestingly, he mentioned that when people “hear God,” when the Holy Spirit tells them something, they do not “hear a voice,” but rather they experience the Holy Spirit “as a certainty in my heart,” although Joel also said this was common for charismatics generally.

Linguistic anthropologist Bambi Schieffelin (New York University), who conducted research among the Bosavi of Papa New Guinea and said they share many of the same orientations and preferences, commented that when her 4-year-old son talked to himself, the Bosavi found it very peculiar, even “creepy.” She thought there was an interesting cultural possibility that speech among the Bosavi (as part of a particular language ideology) always requires an addressee. Cultural psychologist Hazel Markus (Stanford University) said that in East Asia – Japan Korea and Taiwan, specifically – the idea that speech is appropriate only in certain situations or that the mouth is the source of misfortune (or meaningless prattle in the case of a chatterbox) is very common. In Japan, if something really matters “you won’t say it”; in other words, thoughts and speech are not necessarily always closely aligned. Also, “you have to have another person before the self is “on,” she said. (This isn’t to say there isn’t a very clear sense of an interior “something,” which is important and a source of great, emotionally expressive literature in Japan, she said.)

The second talk by Julia Cassaniti, based on her research in a small community in Thailand, explored how Buddhist ideas are lived in everyday life. She described three key concepts: mindfulness, kwan, and karma. According to her position paper, “the concentration and focus of the mind [mindfulness] is both a goal and a representation of healthy minds and bodies.” When the mind is distracted, the implication is that our “souls” or “ghosts” (kwan) are scattered. Julia likened kwan to our understanding of “wits.” Keeping our minds (or wits) balanced and permeable in the sense of open to experiences and aware of (and wary of ) our own and others’ intentions (“out in the air”) keeps our mind/wits together. Karmic energy (“the energy of intentionality”), which is destabilizing, arises when the mind becomes fixed on particular ideas, desires, or goals that “shoot out from us.” Consequently, people are reluctant to hazard a guess about what another person might be thinking or feeling, because this presumes the other is possessed of a single, bounded, autonomous mind that is wholly separate from one’s own.

A participant wondered what the relationship was between what people tell you in an interview and what they may be doing in everyday life. Julia said her informants seemed to actively practice what they believed, when, say, they were confronted with a predicament like the loss of money. Referring to soul-calling ceremonies, in which a white string bracelet used to “keep one’s kwan together,” is attached to the wrist, Aparecida Vilaça (Museu Nacional/Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro) recalled a similar practice in Amazonia in which an object – a necklace of beads – is considered “outside but also inside.” If the necklace breaks apart, so does one’s identity or personality (the wearer “goes crazy”). Julia said the white-string bracelets weren’t necessarily used to hold something inside; they’re not permanent and when the string wears out, the bracelet is put in a river and floats away. Another participant, who was familiar with a different Buddhist practice, said that in that context the intentions of the practitioners are very strong, but the point is to not get too attached to them or too obsessed with moving in a particular direction. Julia seemed to feel that the idea of having intentions but just not becoming too attached to them might have a deleterious looping effect, but concerns with attachment resonated (she described a festival in which lanterns or little boats are set afloat as a reminder not to become too attached to worries or intentions). Regarding the different perceptions of the mind that can be gleaned from the many varieties of religious practice in Thailand, China, and the US, Hazel Markus noted how, in the West, the mind is perceived as influencing or making things happen in the world. But “effortfully striving for something may not always be the best way to make things happen, in fact it’s often problematic, “ she said, “and that’s what’s so difficult for Westerners to grasp.” Another participant wondered if kwan stays in one piece or disintegrates into separate pieces when it “wanders off.” Julia said it appeared to stay in one piece. But she also said kwan is sometimes referred to in the singular, sometimes in the plural in the literature. The lack of noun/verb inflection in the language makes it difficult to determine. She felt, however, kwan was a concept best understood in the plural.

The theme of the final talk of the session by Tanya Luhrmann was how theory of mind changes mental experience. The talk focused on American experientially oriented evangelical Christians, who live in a world dominated by a “Westernized, Christianized, secularized theory of mind.” Three important features of this model are: (1) a wall between mind and world, which spirits cannot cross; (2) the interior word is important (i.e., “emotions and feelings count for something, they have causal consequences, and can make you sick”; (3) what’s in the mind is not real “in the way that tables and chairs are real.” Evangelical Christians hold a different theory of mind, in which God can cross the boundaries of the mind, and in which what is in the mind is real—but in a different manner than tables and chairs. These Christians must learn to adopt this new theory of mind. They cultivate a personal, interactive relationship with God, who is perceived as a person very much like oneself. The churches essentially teach a theory of mind in which individuals attend to the everyday flow of stream of consciousness and learn to “cherry pick out” particular thoughts, mental images, and feelings. Those that feel different, spontaneous, or “not me,” are identified as potentially emanating from God. Learning to orient to certain kinds of internal sensory information, asking for guidance from God on the most mundane matters of everyday life, and “daydreaming” about God as a continuous, warm, supportive presence (and conversation partner) is a kind of attention training paradigm for learning to respond to life’s bigger questions/challenges according to what God tells you to do. Tanya said a conflict arises in terms of being taught to orient to inner experience and cultivate an everyday relationship with God while, at the same time, not considering what occurs in the mind real. The result, Tanya said, is a kind of oscillating back and forth between the (fictional) mind/(real/fictional) world and the emergence of “a third (ontological) domain of reality” (“real but different”).

Tanya then described an experiment in which she randomized people into different prayer practices; those engaged in an imaginative prayer practice, which included daydreaming about God (vs. a control group engaged in Bible study) improved their mental imagery vividness and salience and their ability to use mental imagery and increased the likeliness of unusual sensory experiences. Many participants in this group also said “God became more real to them.” Based on these results, Tanya said she was interested in the idea of a cross-cultural research program that would look at dimensions of the mind like interiority, boundedness, whether the content of the mind is real, etc., in order to ask the following questions:  What is the significance given to inner thought? What is the inner-voice dialogue? What is the significance given to inner sensory experience, what kinds of experience count, what about unusual sensory experiences? Do dreams matter, if so, how? And what are the consequences of these different emphases on mental experience? Tanya also felt Aparecida’s comment about the idea of objects containing the mind would make an important research query.

In response to a participant’s question about the purpose of appealing to God on mundane matters Tanya said it was a way to make what you imagine God to be real (in terms of a real voice coming from outside your head). Evangelicals have “to get God across the boundary of the mind.” They have to get “God outside and real,” she said. (Tanya also described another set of practices by evangelicals, an effort to map emotional experiences onto God or to map God onto themselves so that they become more able to experience a sense of being loved by God.) Regarding Tanya’s idea for a cross-cultural study, another participant suggested not just asking about effects, in some secondary sense, but exploring the conflict among, e.g., the Urapmin, between their ToM and a Christian God whose intentions are knowable and can be expressed verbally. (“Why do you trust God’s words?”)

Tanya also commented that the American evangelical movement is a representation of God based on a specific representation of the American mind. She said there was a “buyer’s market” in God concepts designed for the secular mind because there is an acute awareness that people don’t necessarily believe in God. Hazel Markus felt an under-explored areas was the role of Protestant Christianity in giving life to an independent self, or form of agency, “that really underlies most of our theorizing.” Hazel thought this model of self wasn’t working for evangelical Christians, who may be seeking a more relational model (“the other was too harsh and too interior”). Tanya agreed, saying the evangelical movement (particularly the emphasis on personal experience) was a direct response to secularism.

Regarding the idea of a “buyer’s market,” Doug Hollan (UCLA) wondered how we can distinguish between a process of self selection (where a person has a certain set of proclivities, like hearing voices, and shops around for accommodating churches) vs. the argument of being socialized into certain practices that focus on “hearing” God. Tanya mentioned previous work using the Tellegen Absorption Scale in which she found a close relationship between a proclivity for absorption (according to the scale) and reporting an unusual sensory experience. Interestingly, referring to the randomized prayer practice trial she described earlier, absorption did not predict whether you experienced God as a person (being assigned to the imaginative prayer practice did) or whether you heard God, although it did predict lifetime report of hearing God. Another participant suggested keeping in mind the significance of individual differences in terms of temperament (or different attentional capacities or differences on the absorption scale).

Several questions emerged during the general discussion. One participant again brought up the question of how to explore what really happens in everyday life (vs. what the interviewee reports) in the sense of trying to understand what kinds of moments in life these cultural philosophies of mind are for (e.g., just those instances in which intentions are thwarted?) How can this be explored more systematically, that is, other than, say, looking at examples of reported speech? Also, in communities that follow different practices, how much of a difference is there in terms of the way an individual thinks, or theorizes, about his/her own and others’ mental states and anticipate others’ actions? Joel suggested that, at least among the Urapmin, their particular ToM operates constantly, it’s not just an explanatory model. Taking the Urapmin as an example, John Lucy suggested looking at ToM in terms of an overall system of social behavior rather than as a localized set of practices. How the culture acknowledges interior states (or doesn’t), would be a component. As the session drew to a close, the conversation continued to flow around these and other intriguing questions.


Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2008). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 121(5), 187–192. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2008.02.010

On the 30th anniversary of Premack and Woodruff’s seminal paper asking whether chimpanzees have a theory of mind, we review recent evidence that suggests in many respects they do, whereas in other respects they might not. Specifically, there is solid evidence from several different experimental paradigms that chimpan- zees understand the goals and intentions of others, as well as the perception and knowledge of others. Never- theless, despite several seemingly valid attempts, there is currently no evidence that chimpanzees understand false beliefs. Our conclusion for the moment is, thus, that chimpanzees understand others in terms of a percep- tion–goal psychology, as opposed to a full-fledged, human-like belief–desire psychology.

Frith, U., & Frith, C. (2010). The social brain: Allowing humans to boldly go where no other species has been. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 365(1537),165–176.

The biological basis of complex human social interaction and communication has been illuminated through a coming together of various methods and disciplines. Among these are comparative studies of other species, studies of disorders of social cognition and developmental psychology. The use of neuroimaging and computational models has given weight to speculations about the evolution of social behaviour and culture in human societies. We highlight some networks of the social brain relevant to two-person interactions and consider the social signals between interacting partners that activate these networks. We make a case for distinguishing between signals that automatically trigger interaction and cooperation and ostensive signals that are used deliberately. We suggest that this ostensive signalling is needed for ‘closing the loop’ in two-person interactions, where the partners each know that they have the intention to communicate. The use of deliberate social signals can serve to increase reputation and trust and facilitates teaching. This is likely to be a critical factor in the steep cultural ascent of mankind.

Hurly, S., & Chater, N. Eds. (2005). Perspectives on imitation. (Vols. 1–2). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Iacoboni, M., & Dapretto, M. (2006). The mirror neuron system and the consequences of its dysfunction. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7, 942–951. doi:10.1038/nrn2024

The discovery of premotor and parietal cells known as mirror neurons in the macaque brain that fire not only when the animal is in action, but also when it observes others carrying out the same actions provides a plausible neurophysiological mechanism for a variety of important social behaviours, from imitation to empathy. Recent data also show that dysfunction of the mirror neuron system in humans might be a core deficit in autism, a socially isolating condition. Here, we review the neurophysiology of the mirror neuron system and its role in social cognition and discuss the clinical implications of mirror neuron dysfunction.

Montag, C., Neuhaus, K., Lehmann, A., Krüger, K., Dziobek, I., Heekeren, J. R., Heinz, A., & Gallinat, J.  (9/2011). Subtle deficits of cognitive theory of mind in unaffected first-degree relatives of schizophrenia patients. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience. Advance online publication. doi 10.1007/s00406-011-0250-2

Alterations of theory of mind (ToM) and empathy were implicated in the formation of psychotic experiences, and deficits in psychosocial functioning of schizophrenia patients. Inspired by concepts of neurocognitive endophenotypes, the existence of a distinct, potentially neurobiologically based social-cognitive vulnerability marker for schizophrenia is a matter of ongoing debate. The fact that previous research on social-cognitive deficits in individuals at risk yielded contradictory results may partly be due to an insufficient differentiation between qualitative aspects of ToM. Thirty-four unaffected first-degree relatives of schizophrenia patients (21 parents, 8 siblings, 5 children; f/m: 30/4; mean age: 48.1 ± 12.7 years) and 34 controls subjects (f/m: 25/9; mean age: 45.9 ± 10.9 years) completed the ‘Movie for the Assessment of Social Cognition’-a video-based ToM test-and an empathy questionnaire (Interpersonal Reactivity Index, IRI). Outcome parameters comprised (1) ‘cognitive’ versus ’emotional’ ToM, (2) error counts representing ‘undermentalizing’ versus ‘overmentalizing’, (3) empathic abilities and (4) non-social neurocognition. MANCOVA showed impairments in cognitive but not emotional ToM in the relatives’ group, when age, gender and neurocognition were controlled for. Relatives showed elevated error counts for ‘undermentalizing’ but not for ‘overmentalizing’. No alterations were detected in self-rated dimensions of empathy. Of all measures of ToM and empathy, only the IRI subscale ‘fantasy’ was associated with measures of psychotic risk, i.e. a history of subclinical delusional ideation. The present study confirmed subtle deficits in cognitive, but not emotional ToM in first-degree relatives of schizophrenia patients, which were not explained by global cognitive deficits. Findings corroborate the assumption of distinct social-cognitive abilities as an intermediate phenotype for schizophrenia.

Rizzolatti, G., &  Craighero, L.  (2004). The mirror-neuron system. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 27, 169–192. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144230.PMID 15217330

A category of stimuli of great importance for primates, humans in particular, is that formed by actions done by other individuals. If we want to survive, we must understand the actions of others. Furthermore, without action understanding, social organization is impossible. In the case of humans, there is another faculty that depends on the observation of others’ actions: imitation learning. Unlike most species, we are able to learn by imitation, and this faculty is at the basis of human culture. In this review we present data on a neurophysiological mechanism—the mirror-neuron mechanism—that appears to play a fundamental role in both action understanding and imitation. We describe first the functional properties of mirror neurons in monkeys. We review next the characteristics of the mirror-neuron system in humans. We stress, in particular, those properties specific to the human mirror-neuron system that might explain the human capacity to learn by imitation. We conclude by discussing the relationship between the mirror-neuron system and language.

Premack, D. G., &  Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1, 515–526.

An individual has a theory of mind if he imputes mental states to himself and others. A system of inferences of this kind is properly viewed as a theory because such states are not directly observable, and the system can be used to make predictions about the behavior of others. As to the mental states the chimpanzee may infer, consider those inferred by our own species, for example, purpose or intention, as well as knowledge, belief, thinking, doubt, guessing, pretending, liking, and so forth. To determine whether or not the chimpanzee infers states of this kind, we showed an adult chimpanzee a series of videotaped scenes of a human actor struggling with a variety of problems. Some problems were simple, involving inaccessible food bananas vertically or horizontally out of reach, behind a box, and so forth as in the original Kohler problems; others were more complex, involving an actor unable to extricate himself from a locked cage, shivering because of a malfunctioning heater, or unable to play a phonograph because it was unplugged. With each videotape the chimpanzee was given several photographs, one a solution to the problem, such as a stick for the inaccessible bananas, a key for the locked up actor, a lit wick for the malfunctioning heater. The chimpanzee’s consistent choice of the correct photographs can be understood by assuming that the animal recognized the videotape as representing a problem, understood the actor’s purpose, and chose alternatives compatible with that purpose.

Wimmer, H. & Perner, J. (1983). Beliefs about beliefs: Representation and constraining function of wrong beliefs in young children’s understanding of deception. Cognition, 13, 41–68.

Understanding of another person’s wrong belief requires explicit representation of the wrongness of this person’s belief in relation to one’s own knowledge. Three to nine year old children’s understanding of two sketches was tested. In each sketch subjects observed how a protagonist put an object into a location x and then witnessed that in the absence of the protagonist the object was transferred from x to location y. Since this transfer came as a surprise they had to assume that the protagonist still believed that the object was in x. Subjects had to indicate where the protagonist will look for the object at his return. None of the 3–4-year old, 57% of 4–6-year old, and 86% of 6–9-year old children pointed correctly to location x in both sketches. Of the many cases where 4–6-year olds made an error they failed in only about 20% to remember the initial location correctly. As a test of the stability of children’s representation of the protagonist’s wrong belief the sketches continued with a statement about the protagonist’s intention to either deceive an antagonist or truthfully inform a friend about the object’s location. Independent of age, of those children who correctly thought that the protagonist would search in x, 85% of the time they also correctly thought that he would direct his antagonist to location y and his friend to location x. This shows that once children can represent a person’s beliefs they can constrain their interpretation of this person’s stated intentions to the person’s beliefs. In a more story-like situation another group of children had to infer a deceptive plan from the depiction of a goal conflict between two story characters and one character’s expedient utterance. At the age of 4–5 years children correctly judged this utterance as a lie only 28% of the time while 5–6-year olds did so 94% of the time. These results suggest that around the ages of 4 to 6 years the ability to represent the relationship between two or more person’s epistemic states emerges and becomes firmly established.

List of Participants

Rita Astuti, Professor, Department of Anthropology, London School of Economics

Lera Boroditsky, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Stanford University

Luke Butler, Graduate student, Psychology, Stanford University

Julia Cassaniti, Culture and Mind Postdoctoral Fellow, Anthropology, Stanford University

Eve Danzinger, Associate Professor in Anthropology, University of Virginia

Suzanne Gaskins, Associate Professor of Psychology, Northeastern Illinois University

Dedre Gentner, Alice Gabrielle Twight Professor, Department of Psychology, Northwestern University

Kathyrn Geurts, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Hamline College

Alexa Hagerty, Graduate student, Anthropology, Stanford University

Douglas Hollan, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles

Graham Jones, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Michelle Karnes, Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Stanford University

John Lucy, William Benton Professor Department of Comparative Human Development, Department of Psychology, University of Chicago

Tanya Luhrmann, Watkins University Professor in Anthropology (and Psychology, by courtesy) Stanford University

Ellen Markman, Lewis M. Terman Professor of Psychology, Stanford University

Hazel Markus, Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, Department of Psychology

Giulia Mazza, Graduate student, Anthropology, Stanford University

Jocelyn Marrow, Culture and Mind Postdoctoral Fellow, Anthropology, Stanford University

Joel Robbins, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego

Barbara Rogoff, University of California, Santa Cruz Foundation Distinguished Professor of Psychology

Sonya Pritzker, Assistant Researcher and Clinical Specialist at the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine

Danilyn Rutherford, Associate Professor in Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz

Bambi Schieffelin, Collegiate Professor; Professor of Anthropology, New York University

Rupert Stasch, Associate Professor, University of California, San Diego

Allen Tran, Graduate Student, Anthropology, University of  California, San Diego

Jason Throop, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles

Aparecida Vilaça, Associate Professor in the Postgraduate Program in Social Anthropology, Museu Nacional/Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro

Counterplay: FPR Interviews Anthropologist Robert Desjarlais

Science writer Karen A. Frenkel interviews anthropologist Robert R. Desjarlais for the FPR.

Robert R. Desjarlais is Professor of Anthropology, and recently held the Alice Stone Ilchman Chair in Comparative and International Studies, at Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, NY. His interests include the cultural construction of experience, subjectivity and intersubjectivity, death and mourning, and the political economy of illness and healing. He has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the Nepal Himalayas, with the residents of a homeless shelter in Boston, and among competitive chess players. He is the author of Body and Emotion: The Aesthetics of Illness and Healing in the Nepal Himalayas (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992); Shelter Blues: Sanity and Selfhood Among the Homeless (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997); Sensory Biographies: Lives and Deaths Among Nepal’s Yolmo Buddhists (University of California Press, 2003); and Counterplay: an Anthropologist at the Chessboard (University of California Press, 2011). He is currently writing his fifth book, titled Subject to Death: Yolmo Buddhist Engagements with Life, Loss, and Mourning.

KAF: You get into the heads of your sources in a very intimate way and write sensitively about them. Let’s talk about your interviewing and observation methods and how you developed them.

RD: The main conceptual framework I have in mind when I’m doing research is to see how peoples’ lives are put together, and to understand how they experience their lives and the worlds they live in. The fancy word for that in phenomenology is the “lifeworld.” What is the lifeworld of a person or a group of people I’m trying to understand? My methods are geared toward that kind of interpretative work – to delve into their lifeworlds, and to ask what are the different dimensions that contribute to them, from cultural dynamics to history to language to psychological processes to biology. My aim is to tap into a lifeworld, and when it comes to writing, to consider how to convey that to readers in interesting and accurate and fair ways.

KAF: Whatever works in the moment, depending on the temperament of your interlocutor, right?

RD: Exactly. I’m trying to attend to what their concerns are, as well as  the practical aspects of the interview. I much prefer to do interviews face-to-face and make people comfortable with our work together. If they have a certain energy, it’s good for me to have a sense about that. Often I come in with a template of questions to draw from and see where the conversation goes. Often I’ll go back to these same people, to talk some more, and fill in the blanks. Then, through working with different people, I’ll get a sense of the different perspectives that are involved here. I also spend a lot of time hanging out with people, living alongside them, and participating in what they’re involved with.

The term in anthropology for this is “participant observation,” where you participate in peoples’ lives, but you are observing all along, taking notes, mental or written, about what’s going on. Right now, I’m working on a section of a new book on death and funeral rites in Nepal called Subject to Death. For this section I’m drawing on my understanding of these rituals, based on ones I attended myself, dating back to the late 1980s. I’ve done a lot of research talking with people, and I’ve been considering how Buddhist perspectives tie into all this, so that I have a good sense of  the logic and history behind the rites.

KAF: Is there an anthropologist whose work and methodology you particularly admire?

RD: When I was in graduate school, the key one was Clifford Geertz. He taught at the University of Chicago and then Princeton University’s Institute of Advanced Studies. He did what he came to call “interpretive anthropology” – where one tries to understand cultures on their own terms, through interpretive methods. Geertz argued that an anthropologist should work to comprehend cultures in much the same way that a literary critic does in trying  to analyze and understand a literary  text. That was the guiding framework for me as I developed as a cultural anthropologist. People have moved beyond that because they’ve concluded that cultures are not like texts; they’re much more fluid, much more politically charged, to the point where the concept of distinct and bounded “culture” has come into question. Also, Geertz’s writing style was rich, humanistic, and he had a literary sensibility in trying to explain how these worlds work. That has shaped my work as well. More recently, I’ve been interested in the writings of the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, as well as other contemporary anthropologists, including Michael D. Jackson, who has been advocating what he calls existential anthropology, wherein one tries to ascertain the existential imperatives and challenges that human beings often face in their lives. I have also been influenced by a lot of novelists.

Right now, I’m reading Moby Dick and love it. In effect, it’s an ethnography of the whaling industry and what it’s like to be on the ship. It’s quite inspiring to see how Melville laid it out. It’s a portrait of the lifeworld on the Pequod and a character analysis of Captain Ahab and other personalities.

KAF: In your most recent work, Counterplay, your approach is different from the Buddhists of Nepal in Sensory Biographies, in that you are playing games with your sources or interlocutors. It’s a very personal work, about your journey and about wanting to get away from thinking about death. Do you think that in being in the chess world, which is a world unto itself, and playing with your interlocutors, that you were doing anthropology in a different way?

RJ: Yes. At first I didn’t think of doing anthropology. I was just playing chess. I felt I had moved away from anthropology after I finished Sensory Biographies. Chess was so much more interesting to me at the time. I had in back of my mind that perhaps I could write about it, and I would tell my anthropology colleagues that I might do so. But for a couple of years I was just playing chess. It seems that this was a good way to do fieldwork because I was observing a world while actively engaged within  it. But my main priority was to get better at chess and enjoy playing with other people. Then slowly I realized I could start writing about it. It was then that I started to  put my thoughts on paper. But it was a different kind of engagement, both in terms of topic and the activities involved. When I was in Nepal, I was clearly doing research to gather information. When I was at the chessboard, I was trying to figure our how I could get better at the game.

I also wanted to write a book that was less scholarly and more accessible for a general audience. That shaped how I wrote it, too.

KAF: How does playing with your chess interlocutors inform the way you’re going about writing your new book?

RD: There are several dimensions. Something about chess and the elements of play came to the fore for me. Play is a very fascinating concept, in part because there are so many dimensions to it. Whether it’s simulation, fantasy, engagement with other people, or any creative activity and production – these all have elements of play. Play has a lot of affinities with ritual too, and that has added to my understanding of how these things work. At the same time, what I learned a lot from writing Counterplay  is how to write about peoples’ lives from a narrative, non-fiction approach – creating portraits of people and telling stories.

That’s in Sensory Biographies as well, but Counterplay suggests  a different way of going about it.

I like the ludic element in Counterplay, ludic in the sense of “play,” something playful. But the word ludic is  also associated etymologically with illusion and creating, with playful fantasy. Writing often embodies that. We see the ludic element in Moby Dick where Melville plays with the reader and these forms that he’s writing about. He’s playing with language and the way the characters  speak. We can sense the influence of Shakespeare there. A Buddhist world is very sympathetic to that because it very much understands the world as one of play, that themes are constantly coming and going, that what you see is not fully real, in the way that you see it. Things are ever shifting. If you think about it, the physics of a chessboard is similar to the physics of a Buddhist world. There are force fields of energy coming into play and out of play in different ways.

KAF: Would you please give an example?

RD: With any chess position you have arrangements of forces – the Queen, the King, the Bishops, rooks, the pawns. They’re all really bundles of energy moving in time and space. When advanced players look at a chess position, they will not see the material objects on the board so much as they will forces of energy in relation to one another. A Buddhist monk would probably say their take on the world is similar to that. From a Buddhist perspective, a person  is not  a stable, permanent self, or a concrete materiality, but a forcefield of energy.

KAF: Is there much chess playing among the Yolmo?

RD: Not really. I played games now and then in Kathmandu but it’s not a main tradition. A Buddhist practitioner once told me that chess is very Buddhist in spirit. I would agree with that.

KAF: You write about the effects of globalization on chess in cyberspace. Could you comment on the effects of cyberspace? It seems to me that a lot of what goes on in chess in cyberspace happens in cyberspace in general. Do you agree?

RD: Yes. Much of what is happening in the world of chess just now, with the advent of computer technologies – faster games, an endless and ever-growing mass of information and databases, computational analyses, remote, anonymous interactions between people – is taking form in our lives more generally.

KAF: I wonder what you think about the influence of cyberspace on the peoples of the world and their cultures. Will cyberspace make cultures more similar, or are cultures going to express themselves differently in cyberspace? Are we heading towards a world culture?

RD: Probably a little of both. We’re heading into a cyberculture where information is being constantly exchanged – there’s a fluid, fast-paced exchange of images and information shaping our lives. This will take on different manifestations in different parts of the world, given what’s already there culturally, and how people understand information and simulation.  For instance, I can imagine that simulation and virtual realities in a Tibetan Buddhist world would be perceived differently than they would  in a Christian fundamentalist society – the nature of truth, the nature of imagery, would be known and perceived differently.

I do see the nature of communication as different than it was just a few years before. Last night, for example, I was trying to learn more about digital photography and wanted to know what kind of tripod to get for my camera. So I asked questions through Google like, “What’s the best tripod?” and immediately got some decent answers. Fifteen years ago that was unthinkable. And I see this with my students. The use of text messaging and social networking sites are shaping, in a fundamental way, the nature of self and how they represent themselves to others. It’s shaping the nature of communication, the nature of time, how information and relations work through time. One of my students wrote a nice paper about anxiety in the age of text messaging and how, if you don’t hear back from someone within a few hours after sending them a text, that can be anxiety-provoking. All of this is playing into the nature of selfhood and relationships.

I see similar forces involved with the people I work with in Nepal. Yolmo people are setting up websites to represent their culture. I may be contributing to that this summer, as I’m thinking of taking photographs of people in the Yolmo region, the villages they live in, and the material aspects of their lives, and then create an on-line archive of sorts with these images. I’ll talk with people and see what they think. The website could be a collaborative effort with the people of Nepal.

It would be good to create some kind of documentation of Yolmo culture, because it’s changing quickly. Generations are changing as well. But there are cultural concerns about whether people want their pictures on the Internet. If I photograph a farmer, does he have an understanding of what’s going to happen with that image? Does he understand what the Internet is, and how his image will circulate? There’s also the consideration of when people die, you’re not supposed to say the name of the deceased, in part because the dead don’t have need for names, and invoking the name of a deceased person can bring up bad memories, so I have to think through what is involved in creating lasting visual representations of people on the Internet.

KAF: You comment that chess grandmasters are arrogant and less-than-whole persons. Some are two-dimensional and only come alive through chess. You also describe the danger and addiction to chess. The obsession that can envelope a person. Do you think cyberchess is making that worse?

RD: Yes, at least to an extent. For some people it is. Some are getting so caught up with the informational possibilities of the game. I saw that with myself. I often found myself thinking that I needed to know everything about a particular variation of a chess opening, and I would devote hours to learning about it .This has happened with my friends, too – this informational obsession. The cyberworld contributes to that. And there are online chess servers where people can play for hours on end, and that, too, can quickly become a compulsion.  It’s different from a few years ago when people just came to play chess at a chess club one evening a week, and it was a rather social experience, with people chatting in a back room.

KAF: Have you learned anything from chess that’s applicable to mental illness?

RD: Yes, this theme of obsession. I didn’t think of it that way, but these themes get played out in society as a whole. Obsession. Paranoia. Suspicion. Anxiety. These themes get played out in chess in terms of peoples’ lives when it comes to questions of mental illness or madness. If you look at any domain in life, you would see themes of madness, how things can go mad or wrong, in intensive ways So in Moby Dick you see how Ahab becomes obsessed with vanquishing a certain whale and how it has lasting reverberations with other people.

KAF: Are there obsessions like that in Nepal?

RD: That’s a good question. One key thing there is how much to withdraw from the world, because there is a very strong focus on detachment from loved ones at the end of life. The intensity there is not really obsession, but obsession is a kind of intensity. How much to remove oneself from the world is a kind of intensity – an  amplification, a sensibility, a certain desire. Then there is the sadness and nervousness that people  have at the end of life, and concerns about what will happen when they die and leave others, as well. In Nepal, a key theme is connection with other people and so the inverse dimension of that is disconnection with others.

KAF: I’m puzzled. I would think they would be more at peace with dying because they know it’s temporary, but I guess they’re not because of the 49-day transition.

RD: Most do understand that it’s temporary and that they’ll move on to another life. But once you die, you will never see the people you’ve been living with your whole life. You will never see them again, and you don’t know where you’ll be going. There is also the question of where you will get reborn and in what kind of lifeform. Karma is a determinant of that, but one cannot be sure how it will take form. Along with all that, the 49-day transitional period between one life and the next is very bewildering. You enter this dream-like, in-between state, where a lot of phantasmagoric images come at you. It can be very discombobulating to know that’s coming. In a larger sense there is reassurance that there is continuity, but things end at the same time, too.

KAF: You write, “words and gestures often converge with utterances sounding in time with the assertive placement of pieces and the pounding of chess clocks.” And then you quote anthropologist Thierry Wendling, who writes, “the gesture, the blow on the chessboard, or on the clock, dramatizes the expressivity of speech; the body serves as a technique of language.” What resonated for you in that?

RD: People often see chess as just a mental phenomenon – that chess is very disembodied. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Chess is very interactive. You can hear your opponent’s breath, and you can sense his gasp if you make a move that surprises him or takes him off guard. You sense your opponent’s bodily presence. You hear the ticking of the clock.

So one of the things I wanted to convey is that chess is multi-dimensional. There is so much going on at any moment – from interactions between people to biology, to the brain, and cultural history. All these factors weigh in.

KAF: And you lose all that with cyberchess.

RJ: Yes, that’s one of the disconcerting things. Some people say they don’t like playing chess online because they like the tactile feel of chess pieces and the face-to-face presence of someone sitting across from them. I was surprised that they put it so tangibly. I tend to play a couple of games online each day. It’s a weird feeling, because when you’re playing against these random, anonymous human opponents, there is very little  social interaction to speak of, no language or looks exchanged. People are anonymous. You play a game and then disconnect. It’s almost like a phantom social interaction. It’s sort of like Chat Roulette. You have a similarly brief interaction. It’s also close to Internet dating. If you meet someone at a party and make plans to get together at some point later on, there’s usually some accountability; people keep to their word. But if you make plans on the Internet with someone, that person might not show up, and not give it a second thought. The sense of morality is different online.

KAF: Is there an analogy in the real world?

RD: There’s something about the lack of face-to-face interaction on the Internet that is like driving on the highway and giving someone the finger.

KAF: You discuss the concept of counterempathy on p. 69 of Counterplay:

These days, players often adopt “counterempathy” measures by mixing up their opening strategies and chess-playing styles so that their prospective rivals cannot pin down their inclinations. Some players are concerned about their opponents “reading their minds” while playing, and they try not to let on too much about what they’re thinking. One grandmaster from Russia told me he advises his students that if they discover an effective sequence of moves, they shouldn’t think too hard or long on it, as their opponents might be able to intuit that sequence themselves. These concerns are in line with what anthropologists have gathered through their cross-cultural studies: instead of empathic alignment always being a welcome phenomenon in human societies, it’s often the case that “too accurate an understanding of the inner states of another may actually be experienced as an impingement or violation,” as anthropologist Kevin Groark puts it. Empathic insight can be a dangerous weapon.

The counterempathy guards tend to come down once a game is over. Opponents often meet up after a contest and go over the game just completed, in a collaborative fashion. They do so in part to gain a better sense of what their counterparts were thinking during the game, as well as to share their own thoughts, prompting moments of mutual understanding.

While these efforts at agonic and mutual empathy are an integral part of chess culture, it’s also understood that if a player has too much caring concern for an opponent, to the point of feeling sorry for him if he loses, that feeling can get in the way of being a strong player.

What do you think about this tension between playing someone and they’re an opponent, but then afterwards you have this chance to team up and understand what happened in the game and share your mutual love for the game. But that might weaken you somehow.

RD: Yes, it’s very double-edged – what you know and what you want to share with the other person. It’s woven into how people interact. Once I came across that, it surprised me because we tend to think of empathy as a social good, it’s good to have empathy and be involved with people who are empathically attuned. But sometimes too much empathy  into another person can be dangerous, or perceived as such in certain circumstances. You want to know what’s going on in the other person’s world, but you don’t want them to know too much about your own. So chess players can be rather cagey. I remember once a friend and I were studying variations of a chess position one afternoon. The next Monday night at a chess club I played one of those variations against another person, in a casual, friendly game. My friend got annoyed with me, and said, “Don’t show what we’ve been studying to other people. We have to keep it secret.” So it’s sorcery in a way. You don’t want to spread around what you know because it can come back to haunt you.

KAF: Your three books seem to me to be quite different. Do you agree?

RD: The running theme is that I’m mostly interested in understanding distinct lifeworlds. Some anthropologists are more interested in developing theory on various topics. I’m mostly interested, more like a novelist would be, in portraying a particular world, in much the same way Jane Austen and Fyodor Dostoyevsky did. That’s what I’m most interested in, and the conceptual frameworks at hand get woven in to that. Each book is an exploration of a world, the world of the homeless shelter, of chess players, the world of dying and death. After I finish the book I’m writing now, I might write a book about friendship.

KAF: How long was Sensory Biographies in the works, from conception to field work to publishing? Because I wonder if you were decompressing from it.

RD: I think that’s right. I started research in 1997, and I made several trips to Nepal – in the summer of ’97, spring ’98, the summer and fall of 2000 and the fall of 2001. The book was published in 2003. I finished writing it in the spring of 2002, so it was a five-year project. Most of my books are like that. They take several years to complete, especially while I’m busy with teaching, as well. To complete a decent draft of a book manuscript, one has to write for a good full year – about a chapter a month.

KAF: You couldn’t do your work with the same kind of continuity as with chess, right? Because you could be immersed in that world.

RD: With my work in Nepal, there’s always a sense of toing and froing, going to Nepal and getting a sense of what I’m trying to understand, and then returning home and writing it up for months and even years at a time. Then going back and trying it out my ideas and understandings on people. There’s very much that sense of back and forth, of being close and far away. But in the chess world it was a complete immersion for several years. The other major difference is that the chess world comes out of my culture. I grew up playing chess, too. It was very much an auto-ethnography – writing about my own world. And Nepal is always different, always other, and I never feel I have a fully-realized, intuitive feel for the culture. It evolves from understandings that develop through time, and it can be jolting when I’m writing. There’s always a sense of newness and otherness. I never really feel I know that world completely.

KAF: How did you develop your focus on attitudes towards death in Nepal? Why did you focus on that?

RD: I’m asking myself that these days. When I was doing the life histories for Sensory Biographies, I decided to work with elderly people. They, themselves, spoke about their time of dying. The two people I worked with most  were both in their mid-80s, and they would talk about how they had only a few more years to live, which turned out to be the case. So they talked about what it was to be at the end of their life and what they could anticipate after they died. I picked up on those concerns and they were comfortable talking about them. I also became further intrigued with these very interesting ritual processes that kick in after a person dies – from the cremation rites to the funeral rites – they’re very interesting not just because of the seriousness of the subject matter, but what they say about the nature of consciousness, culture, and transformation in rituals, and life and death. It held my interest and I felt there was a story to be told there. Even when I during the chess book I would dream about these themes. I wasn’t sure, when I was writing the book on chess, if I would come back to this material. But I had written half of Subject to Death already – and I had put so much into it that I felt I should come back and finish it.

KAF: And in the end of your “Prelude to Subject to Death” you say that the book is really about life.

RD: Yes. I’m realizing that it’s really about the vitality and continuity of life. When I first started, I saw termination everywhere. Now I see vast swirls of continuity. For several years now, I’ve taught a course called “Engagements with Death and Mourning.” But this fall I’m teaching a new course called “The Anthropology of Life Itself.” That might lead to work on this topic down the road.

KAF: Do you feel that anthropology, more than any other discipline, gives a sense of complexity of culture and its influences on individuals?

RD: I think so, but I’m biased. There is a multi-dimensional perspective inherent in anthropology that is very important. There are so many factors weighing into a situation. An anthropological sensibility trains one to see the world in that way. I see that in teaching my students, for they soon become aware of all the factors that need to be taken into account to make sense of how peoples’ lives are put together.

KAF: There is a concern that when you embed yourself in another culture and observe and take photos, maybe you impinge on that culture, in an analog to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, where you affect what you’re studying. How do you get around that?

RD: It’s  tricky. I’m not sure you can completely get around it. I often think an anthropologist’s presence is not as influential as people feel, especially these days. I think I’ve had a small impact on peoples’ lives, compared to the effects of globalization, migration, and the advent of technologies. An image I once thought of is that I’m on a surfboard on top of a wave of change. But I’m not the one generating the wave. People I talk with would agree, I think

One has to keep a lot in mind when doing fieldwork. The best way for me is to develop a collaborative approach. I write books and there’s an agreement with the people about what I should be writing about, that a kind of support and a good can come out of that. The people I work with are very concerned with promoting their ethnic identity. It’s important for them to solidify and to publicize who they are within the Nepali world and  beyond. So they see my work as helping to do that. It can also help to create a record of who they are both now and who they were in the past. I see it as mutually beneficial rather than exploitative. Some feel anthropology is inherently associated with colonialism, but I don’t agree. There is something to the  idea that Westerners are going to other places and studying and observing and defining them in a certain way. But anthropology doesn’t have to be exploitative.

KAF: What do you think of the relatively new field of cultural neuroscience? Do you think brain anatomy differs across cultures and is shaped by it?

RD: That’s a good question. I can’t say I’m up-to-date on current research. There is also the question of what is anatomy as opposed to processing. I see things in terms of complex interactions of forces and factors. The brain is clearly an important dimension of it. It’s great to develop a field like cultural neurology, but the danger is to make things too brain-centered – to see it as the locus and driver or the “house” where everything is happening. Neuroprocessing is just one component of a very complex system of interactions. You have language, material objects, consciousness, relationships between bodies, cultural histories – and all of that weighs in together. So if we look at these funeral rites that I’m attempting to understand, for instance, the brain is clearly a part of that – how the rituals are interacting with the brain – but there is so much more going on. There are relationships between people, associations between memories, material objects, dreams, imagination. The brain is of course woven into that, but it’s only one element of a larger system of interactions.

KAF: What can anthropologists learn from cultural neuroscientists, if anything? Given their different approaches, can they collaborate?

RD: Definitely. What anthropologists can learn is a greater understanding of how the brain works, how it perceives information, and the subtleties of neural processing, thinking, imagining, sensing, and remembering. That’s a kind of black box in anthropology now. We’re writing about consciousness, emotions, and empathy, but we don’t have a fine-tuned understanding of how the brain is working with these things. So what one needs is a unified theory, in much the same way that people are looking for that in physics. That would interest anthropologists, too – looking at a phenomenon and knowing all that’s going into it. So for instance, I’m learning about digital photography. I was reading about how light works and how the brain perceives light and color that kind of perception is very different from a camera recognizes light and color. This is important to know, and the knowledge from this can be highly generative of insight and understanding. I would similarly be interested in how the brain perceives music and ritual practices and how these practices  have an effect on the brain. These are all fertile questions to explore, but anthropologists are cautioning against getting too reductionistic about it – just saying the brain is doing everything and that it all comes back to the brain.

KAF: Professor Desjarlais, thank you so much for your time.


Interview, Israeli Public Radio

“Homo Ludens,” Jonathan Rowson, New in Chess

“For Love of the Game,” Chronicle of Higher Education

Foreword Reviews, March/April 2011

“Counterplay: An Interview with Robert Desjarlais,” ChessLife Online, United States Chess Federation

What does an “engaged” psychological anthropology look like?

This is a summary of the final panel of the biennial meeting of the Society for Psychological Anthropology (“Subjects and Their Milieux in Late Modernity: The Relevance of Psychological Anthropology to Contemporary Problems and Issues”) , which took place in Santa Monica, CA, on March 31–April 3, 2011. 

Psychological anthropology is the subdiscipline best positioned intellectually and empirically to detail both how large social forces influence individuals and how subjective experience and interpersonal dynamics can transform social institutions. We will focus especially on the relevance of psychological anthropology to problems and issues in the contemporary world – from changing families, workplaces and local communities to religious groups, professions, and transnational institutions like consumer capitalism, world religions, and NGOs.

The final panel, which was organized by Douglas Hollan (UCLA) and Rebecca Lester (Washington University), focused on the challenges and prospects of “engaged psychological anthropology,” from a fieldwork as well as an applied perspective. Both Doug and Rebecca have longstanding professional as well as personal interests in this area. In addition to being anthropologists, Doug is a psychoanalyst and Rebecca is a licensed clinical social worker.

In his opening remarks, Doug said the theme of the conference (as well as the final panel) reflected the growing interest of students and colleagues in anthropology’s relevance or contribution to addressing human problems in the contemporary societies in which many anthropologists live and work. In her opening remarks, Rebecca said she was struck by how “the theme of morality is all over this program,” and that this at least partly reflected attempts to “figure out where our place should be, how we should engage with the questions we ask, what we should or shouldn’t do.”

The panelists included medical and psychological anthropologist Byron Good (Harvard University), cultural psychiatrist Laurence Kirmayer (McGill University), medical and psychological anthropologist Jill Korbin (Case Western Reserve University), and psychological anthropologist Daniel Linger (UCSC, emeritus).

The term “engaged” anthropology covers several different meanings: sharing and support, teaching and public education, social critique, collaboration, advocacy, and activism (Low & Merry, 2010). The panel focused on engagement at various levels with respect to mental illness, including its interrelationship with situational predicaments – natural or man-made disasters, political conflicts, poverty, violence, and other major life stressors.

Rebecca Lester began the discussion by describing the “nuts and bolts” of her professional life as a tenured professor of anthropology and a practicing clinical social worker specializing in trauma, self-harm, eating disorders, and personality disorders. (For example, she sees clients in her academic office. Her current chair, she said, “is very supportive.” As far as he is concerned, the sessions are “extended interviews.”) In an effort to formalize the integration of academic and clinical roles in a wholly transparent manner, she also founded the nonprofit Foundation for Applied Psychiatric Anthropology, which “has a clinical piece, a research piece, and a policy piece.” She said the “main idea was to network people across all these domains.” The nonprofit also allows her to charge lower fees for clinical services.

She said it is important to be utterly transparent in terms of integrating clinical activity with overall research trajectory. In terms of challenges, she said that gender has been an important component; she mentioned that there was “a degree of suspicion” regarding her level of commitment to academia. But overall, she recommended engagement. Psychological anthropology has a unique perspective to bring to a lot of these questions because “we bridge so many different levels of engagement and analysis, from intrapsychic to very broad, structural issues, and we’re interested in how all these things work together,” to a degree not found in other disciplines.

The next panelist, Byron Good, described how he and Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good became deeply involved in psychosocial or mental health intervention programs in Indonesia following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed nearly 160,000 people in Aceh province (located on the northernmost tip of the island of Sumatra), and a subsequent peace agreement between the Indonesian government and a separatist group (the Free Aceh Movement) that brought decades-long conflict in the region to an end. He said that his work in Aceh has had a “profound influence on how I think about what I do.”

Byron then read excerpts from his Marett Memorial Lecture, which he presented at Oxford University last April, to give the audience a sense of why he finds the work so engaging. He described some of the stories related to him by survivors of a number of terrifying military offensives against the Acehnese, in the context of a one-time visit by a mobile mental health team to a village in which his team was conducting an intensive psychosocial survey.

For us, this was the start of a long and deep involvement, in which we took this spontaneous “trauma clinic” as a model for the development of mental health outreach teams, organized by the IOM [the International Organization for Migration], staffed by young Acehnese doctors and nurses, and funded by diverse donors, particularly the World Bank. These teams treated over 2,000 persons in 75 villages. We fought to have IOM and the donors support these teams; we worked closely with them, carried out formal evaluations and wrote reports, met with patients to hear stories of recovery, and have continued to advocate for this model of care, even as donor funds for Aceh have largely disappeared.

Theoretical critiques of PTSD as the medicalization of human suffering have fallen away in the course of his and Mary-Jo’s involvement in intervention programs and mental health care advocacy. Byron said he no longer aspires to the single, unified theory of the subject or subjectivity that he outlined twenty years ago in Medicine, Rationality and Experience (Good, 1990, 1991). He now feels that intervention is one of many positions – or valid modes of inquiry – into subjectivity, which remains a major research interest (see, e.g., Biel, Good, & Kleinman, 2007; and Good, Hyde, Pinto, & Good, 2008).

In closing, Byron disagreed strongly with Joel Robbins’s characterization of the lives of persons encountered in the field and this mode of inquiry as belonging to the “suffering slot” in Joel’s plenary lecture on Friday (“Beyond the Suffering Slot: Toward an Anthropology of the Good”). Citing work presented at this conference and elsewhere by Angela Garcia, Terry O’Nell, Tanya Luhrmann, Janis Jenkins, Cheryl Mattingly, and others, he said:

Suggesting that this is a passing phase for anthropology and that we should sort of get over it and move on to the “anthropology of the good” . . . profoundly misrepresents some of the most important work, not of the last twenty years, but of the last fifty or sixty or seventy years that anthropologists have been engaged in.

The concept of “bearing witness” as “giving voice” to others, he said, is sometimes very useful. He pointed out a second meaning of “witnessing,” as in “witnessing a crime,” noting that in this sense witnessing also makes you – and your colleagues from the society in which you are working – complicit in events or predicaments that we cannot not act upon, in some cases placing our colleagues at great risk. Finally, he said that “in my own work, getting deeply involved in trying to change something . . . has dramatically changed how I think about that phenomenon and about my role as an anthropologist.”

The next panelist, medical and psychological anthropologist Jill Korbin, began by noting that psychological anthropology has always been, in one way or another, an “engaged field” but she also described it as an “issue with tensions.” Within psychological anthropology, “the kinds of topics and populations that we choose often force us to be clear, to make lines, to think about what our roles are and how we best use the work that we do and the position that we’re in of being able to learn about other people, their life views and how we best convey that.”

Research, and in particular the great care anthropologists give to elaborating the specific contexts or configurations of people and groups in which various issues play out, is one of the most important things we have to offer, she said. And thus, academic research in her perspective is itself a form of advocacy because it conveys a kind of knowledge that other disciplines may not have access to, with a certain claim to authority and in a manner that is perceived as trustworthy and unbiased. Her question then becomes, how do put forth the best knowledge in trying to solve the problems that press upon us?

Engagement is not easy, she said, speaking from her perspective as the director of a child research center whose mission is to bridge research practice and policy. “You cannot just push research out. You have to engage communities, doing many of the things that we as anthropologists take for granted.”

Some tensions arise because of anthropology’s longstanding interest in the cultural diversity of childhood experiences and pathways. That is, the topics that we engage in – and try to contextualize – surround children in very difficult circumstances – famine, poverty, disease, societal-level issues, children who are treated differentially, who are abused, or gender discrimination, as well as children who have roles that we don’t generally ascribe to the concept of “childhood” in the West, including child soldiers, laborers, commercial sex workers, and so on. The anthropological project on childhood has been to try and contextualize and think about this. Advocacy in the form of research, in the form of understanding the context, she continued, is one way to both understand and address the very real problems children have. But one of the tensions she encounters is that child advocacy groups often push us the other way.  They take the diversity that we’re interested in and push back with a single standard, often based in Western norms but that may have quite a bit of appeal to policy makers looking for single solutions.

Jill Korbin and her colleague Eileen Anderson-Fye and are in the final stages of preparing a special issue of the SPA journal Ethos (tentatively scheduled to come out at the end of this year) based on their 2008 Lemelson/SPA Conference “New Directions in Policy-Relevant Research on Adolescence: Perspectives from Psychological Anthropology” that addresses many of the issues discussed at this session.

Cultural psychiatrist Laurence Kirmayer, who followed Jill, approached the topic from a different direction. Clinicians tend to have “the opposite problem, that is, you’re stuck in the thick of things and you look to something like anthropology to give you a little bit of breathing room, and a little bit of critical perspective on a practice that you are deeply embedded in,” one that instills a strong set of biases, including a strong assumption that existing psychological models are a priori universally applicable. He felt his profession lacked the vocabulary with which to articulate and consider other things that were happening. For Laurence, this has played out in a variety of contexts over the past few decades.

Initially, as a psychiatrist in the late seventies and eighties doing consultation-liaison work in a general hospital (starting at UC Davis and then at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal), he worked with persons experiencing medically unexplained symptoms. The presumption that this represented a form of psychopathology, or “primitive” mode of expression was problematic (to Laurence) because there was no discussion of context. Instead, the problem was simply situated inside some kind of psychodynamic process. Thus, “the whole idea that we could put context back in, and that that would give us psychological insights as well as social and political insights was a very powerful, liberatory idea.” He became convinced that research on context was part of the “absolutely central, intellectual substance of mental health practice” (see, e.g., Kirmayer, 1984 on culture, affect, and somatization; and Kirmayer, 1988 on mind and body as metaphors).

In the late eighties, as a psychiatric consultant for the Inuit in northern Quebec, he said he was struck by the inadequacy of individual-centered accounts for understanding the high prevalence of suicide attempts among young persons. Once again, he felt the need for a language with which to articulate the significance of these events as a social phenomenon, which was having a huge psychological impact, one that would take into consideration the conceptual frames or moral lenses that we use for understanding mental health problems. This work also led to his participation in a number of policy initiatives, to which he contributes an empirical perspective. In the late nineties, he also established a cultural consultation service that augments existing mental health services with a case-oriented approach to look at the social, cultural, contextual dimensions of mental health care.

Finally, Laurence described his more recent involvement in “critical neuroscience,” with a group of scholars and researchers led by Suparna Choudhury of the Max Planck Institute and Jan Slaby of Philipps University Marburg, who share an interest in understanding how neuroscience constructs its objects of study (see, e.g., Choudhury & Slaby, 2011). Critical neuroscience “gets right to the core of where psychiatry tries to locate its power and its claims for truth,” by pointing out how psychiatry is culturally framed not only at the level of diverse human groups but even through the constructs and metaphors that we use to think about the brain. (See previous posts by Somatosphere and Neuroanthropology on critical neuroscience and anthropological engagement.)

For Laurence, as an “engaged” clinician, psychological anthropology provides him with the possibility to disengage, that is, to think critically about his profession and then to try to reintroduce context into psychiatric thinking, or to support the efforts of other people in this regard. Such an approach can be destabilizing for the practitioner, however, and it also “creates a lot of political complexity,” he said. He described the transcultural psychiatry program at McGill as “marginal” in the larger context of the university and psychiatry more generally, but, as Rebecca pointed out earlier, interdisciplinary networks across domains are still in their infancy.

The final panelist, Dan Linger, provided an alternative perspective. He described himself as a “metamoral minimalist,” by which he meant he does not hold people strictly to task for obeying their own moral standards, much less his. (He later added that “it all boils down to a complaint over hypermoralizing one’s own or other’s work, or insisting that all anthropological work must have a moral aim, or being too quick to accuse people of hypocrisy.”)

In his experience, engaged anthropologists who are trying to “give a voice” to groups they study run into difficulties when, for example, the publicly announced goals or motivations of groups do not accord with members’ underlying concerns or motivations. The anthropologist, who is entrusted with all kinds of information, faces a conflict in terms of what to reveal. In response to a student who had run into this difficulty, Dan said she could be a “propagandist” or a “truth teller,” or some combination of both, but it’s not likely that both aims will fully mesh at the same time.

He described another situation, in which he had an uneasy response to a colleague’s paper, which discussed her work with an Islamic women’s group in the US, who were attempting to counter negative stereotypes. The colleague’s efforts to counter “the other” with a straightforward, or unmediated, presentation of what the women were saying elicited in Dan an uneasy response, which he described as “part admiration” and part “wet blanket realism.” On the one hand, he understood the motivations of the women and the author; on the other, he felt that the work might have downplayed some of the women’s doubts, internal conflicts, or questions. “Humanizing stigmatized people doesn’t require sanitizing them, it just means rendering them as complex and recognizable, warts and all,” he said.

His final point was that ethnographic work and representation is, like most human enterprises, a compromise formation between different kinds of aims and perspectives, including (1) the desire to advance a moral agenda; (2) the desire to present a reasonably comprehensive and responsible empirical account (whatever our preconceptions or wishes); (2) the desire to learn something about the world; (4) the desire to enter into a conversation with others; (5) unconscious perspectives and values. Rarely can all these aims and perspectives be reconciled into a single work, especially truth telling and propaganda. But, he said, if the truth-telling aim is compromised – which he considered the most important element in ethnographic accounts – then the other aims, especially advocacy, become vulnerable, with the possibility of compromising the credibility of the profession as a whole.

In the end, the view the panelists put forth – in many cases based on deeply personal stories – stressed the moral need, at times, to respond pragmatically and constructively to the dire human problems encountered in the field without sacrificing commitment to “truth telling.” From a more theoretical perspective, what both Jill and Laurence seemed to value most was anthropology’s elucidation of the contexts in which these predicaments occur, which in itself is a form of engaged practice. But the panel also provided room for some fertile arguments, the subtext of which may be that psychological anthropology since Sapir is at heart more of a dialogue than a soliloquy.


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