The following reflection on the problems of psychology, anthropology, and a science of human beings has been stimulated by recent responses to a couple of recent articles in Nature (Looking for the Roots of Terrorism and Psychologists Seek Roots of Terror), by my very able co-worker (Lydia Wilson) reacting to problems of doing fieldwork in Lebanon that produces something to “show” for the scientific community, and by exchanges with my colleagues at ARTIS research, Baruch Fischhoff and Doug Medin.
The problem with cognitive, social and developmental psychology, and related neuropsychological approaches to cultural issues are not just methodological—although these are pretty massive, like the fact that almost all studies by academic psychologists are of students at the same academic institutions or of children who live within a few miles. The philosophical problem is the belief that “culture” is an independent variable, a presumed cause of other things—pushing someone is a cause of that person moving—in situations where the actual material nature of causality is completely opaque, sloughed off to some nebulous notion of “influence” inferred by statistical regularities.
The search for social universals in psychology is also vitiated by essentialism, the belief that the phenomenon in question has a fixed set of inherent, inalienable traits that make it what it is, much as an element in the periodic table may be necessarily and sufficiently described (at least at some underlying level) by its configuration of protons and electrons. For example, kinship and religion are universal aspects of human societies, or near enough, and there seem to be underlying common traits, like biological maternity and belief in phenomena opaque to logical or empirical confirmation or refutation; however, the further content and boundaries of these phenomena are open and fuzzy. Even biological maternity and belief in the supernatural are not always necessary, as in adoption and certain forms of Buddhism. Human grammars, color perception and folkbiological classification systems may well have innately determined and universally distinguishable traits instantiated in the mind/brains of most individuals, but their sufficient conditions and full phenotypic social expressions defy clear formulation. Evolutionary theory in biology has fruitfully explored “universals” while making efforts to avoid such simplistic and wrongheaded assumptions, but the sophistication and nuance of biological theorizing is rarely part of reflection in psychology (including evolutionary psychology). In evolutionary theory, individual variation is a prime mover, whereas in psychology, individual variation—a prime mover—would be regarded or disregarded as “deviants” or “outliers” (and indeed, the standard statistics used in psychology only contribute to that).
Psychology often strives for simple understandings of complex phenomena, as if Occam’s razor were the only way of paring down reality to manageable proportions. Thus, the distinction between “individualistic” versus “collectivist” societies, which is a mainstay of social psychology, is laughable to most anthropologists (who almost rightly might say that this is really rooted in ad hoc distinction between Western academics versus the rest of the world). Similarly, recent proposals to alleviate poverty by having parents talk more to children because there is supposedly a 30 million word gap between poor and middle class families belies a rather simple-minded, single-cause fix-it approach to multifaceted problems. By contrast, engineers also deal with multifaceted phenomena, from sending people to the moon to supercomputers that think about chess better than people. Although much less complex than the whole of “East Asian” society or poverty, these problems elicit the efforts of various specialty teams, each aware of its own limits and the need for a truly interdisciplinary approach upon which real lives and lots of money depend (to build a bridge, you have to know about climate, metals, traffic patterns and psychology, and much, much more). Of course there are psychologists who fall outside the disciplinary stereotype that I’ve presented here. But ask yourselves: “In the last century or so of academic psychology, what fundamental insights into human mentation and social formation have been made beyond what, say, the Greek philosophers offered?” if you can count them on one hand I’d be surprised (my own candidates: generative grammar, biases that constrain rationality, emergent properties of networks – the last having minor input from psychology)
As for anthropology, ever since the Vietnam War, the two no-no’s have been research on universals and collusion with power, these being conflated by the belief that hidden in the West’s hegemonic designs on the world is a “logocentric” attempt to reduce the rest of the world to manipulatable proportions. There is some truth in all of this. For example, some of the best work in classical British social anthropology came from the British Empire’s attempt to regularize kinship among indigenous peoples in order to more efficiently administer them, thus locking them into a somewhat Procrustean system that did capture important elements of social, psychological and ecological reality, but one also vitiated by unacknowledged colonial interests and largely oblivious to the historical fluidity and capacity for change present before the system was systematized.
Now, however, much of cultural anthropology is so preoccupied with irreducible “diversity” (on down to glorification of some obscure person on a subway ruminating on her “cosita”—seriously) that the science of human beings is being left almost wholly to psychology, which is trying to reinvent the wheel of a systematic classification and causal account of human cultures and their products that anthropology pretty thoroughly examined, modified and ultimately rejected over the entire course of the 20th century. But because much of cultural anthropology, especially in the USA, has left almost nothing communicable with the rest of science, then by default, psychology fills the gap when it comes to human beings (with some input also from history, sociology and political science, which are also being sundered by lumpers versus splitters). And so Oxford University Press, which was the first to regularly publish anthropology as science, has stopped doing so. To be sure, there are still some cultural anthropologists who seek scientific insight, but they are vanishing breed reduced to numbers that may soon preclude having a section to represent them within the American Anthropological Association.
Of course, one of the main reasons for anthropology in the first place was to record and catalogue the cultural groups that the expanding Western powers were confronting and conquering across the word, before these groups died out. And now that the cataloguing is basically over—because those groups are extinct or have been assimilated beyond readily describable distinction into the globalized world—perhaps the very reason for anthropology, and its existence as a separate science, is gone. That could be fine, with anthropology giving way to a more causally sophisticated and temporally inclusive science of humans in much the way natural history has been absorbed into, and dissolved by, biology; only, the current psychology of humans is not, as I intimated above, either causally sophisticated or temporally inclusive. In fact, to understand the causal process that produce culturally identifiable behaviors, both individual variation and long time horizons would be necessary subjects of sustained study, and we would find that the very notion of “culture,” like that of “species,” while commonsensical and useful as a starting point of inquiry, is ultimately a ladder that science has to throw away.
And as for the critique of power, if it means, as it has for some, that all moral systems are relative but that our own is most noxious because it is the most greedy and invasive, then human rights and democracy can have no privileged status over intolerance and political and social slavery. For open democracy and human rights are a product of Western history, with all its warts and violence, and for human rights and open democracy to thrive, or even survive (by no means a sure thing), the powers that be must be engaged and hopefully transformed from within further in the direction of an open society with freedom of expression and equality before the law. Not to engage power is to leave it to its own self-perpetuating devices and so help to perpetuate its abuses (while leaving the most efficient and brutal politics of others practically alone and free to reign).
So where does this leave our sort of inquiry into the political fires spreading across the globe’s middle latitudes? In a muddled way, meant to balance the desire for systematic insight into momentous movements and events that are violently engaging and transforming most everybody’s world in fundamental ways, with some attempt at rigor and replicability. But try asking a civilian or fighter in a war zone to fill out a questionnaire about preferable tradeoffs using Likert scales. It’s usually only if you can all laugh together about it is there a chance in Hell it’ll get done. And then what do the answers actually mean (“I would/wouldn’t adopt/abandon Sharia/Democracy for X amount of money/all the money in the world). And how reliable or even informative is this all when someone actually puts a gun to your head to force a real choice? It’s not like you can readily monitor outcomes or tweak your questionnaire to give to next week’s class. I would love to be able to focus on actually figuring out what a causal science of human beings might actually look like, linking individual cognitions, social networks, local institutions and ecologies in causal, materially identifiable chains (without pseudo-causal notions like “influence” or “infrastructure” or “subsumption” and the like) to at least the commonsense regularities that make sense to politicians and peoples, in order to make the world a less violent place for those I care for. I would also much prefer to do fieldwork in the Caribbean than the Middle East. But now I’m off to Iraq.