Anthropologists call for interdisciplinary engagement with the neurosciences in an editorial recently published in Medical Anthropology. The authors, John Gardner, Narelle Warren, and Paul Mason from Monash University in Australia, and Juan Dominquez from Australian Catholic University, argue that a relationship is necessary between the neurosciences (brain-based materialist explanations) and anthropology and the social sciences (sociocultural explanations).
“The blurring of the conventional division between biology and culture represents an opportunity for meaningful collaboration between anthropology and disciplines such as neuroscience and psychology,” the authors write.
Gardner and colleagues acknowledge the influence and power of the neurosciences in modern contexts and recognize that the science of the brain is often looked to for explanations about “what makes us human.” Neurological studies and brain images are perceived as the most credible sources for answering such questions within the popular culture.
“What these scholars see in some domains of neuroscience, and what they find so energizing, is the possibility of a brain that is not determined and determining, but rather dynamic, and to an important extent, responsive to context,” the authors write. “Neuroanthropology, in particular, is predicated on the epistemological opportunities that emerge when biological material is no longer dismissed as the inert substrate of encultured subjects.”
The authors critically analyze a “neuroculture” perspective of “brainhood,” as it has been characterized by the scholar Fernando Vidal. Vidal perceives the human as a “cerebral subject”, and suggests that brainhood is “the contemporary manifestation of coherent evolution in western philosophical thought: Descartes equated the soul with the mind, Locke equated personal identity with self-awareness, and other thinkers subsequently located the mind firmly in the brain.”
Gardner et al. refer to Vidal’s account of brainhood as a representation of “anxiety common to social science commentaries” that sociocultural domains of the human experience are being reduced to “impoverished neurobiological terms.” However, the authors recognize the opportunity, instead, for “productive engagement between the neurosciences and social sciences.”
Along with Vidal’s take on brainhood, Gardner et al. incorporate “Science and Technology Studies (STS), feminist studies, and sociology, on the relationship between neuroscience, self, and society.” They praise Elizabeth Wilson, professor of Women’s Studies, and her approach of integrating psychoanalysis, psychology, neuroscience, and feminist theory, as she seeks to “genuinely attribute agency to neurological matter and to refrain from asserting the ontological primacy of culture.”
The authors suggest that interdisciplinary research should seek to “find common ground by teasing-out and pursuing interesting neurological potentials, and illustrate – with detailed anthropological inquiry – how potentials become culturally relevant.”
While there are several debates on the best way to engage anthropology and the neurosciences, the authors offer what they found as essential to the relationship between the disciplines:
- Anthropologists and related subjects should critically analyze mainstream discourses that privilege neuroscience and neurotechnologies and interrogate the ethical and political repercussions.
- Anthropologists should engage locally in tracing the intersection of biology and culture in individuals suffering with neurological illnesses. They write, “An important part of this is, of course, bringing to the fore the socio-cultural dimensions of neurological illness and its treatment,” and ideally in a way that “aligns with the values of patients, families, and publics.”
Gardner, J., Warren, N., Mason, P. H., & Dominguez D., J. F. (2018). Neurosocialities: Anthropological Engagements with the Neurosciences. Medical Anthropology. https://doi.org/10.1080/01459740.2018.1439488 (Link)
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