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Thursday 17 August 2023

Anthropology-Psychology interface


Anthropology and Psychology interface:


Anthropology and Psychology interface: 1

Beginnings – Culture-Personality: 1

Concepts developed through the interface. 2

Models for humans: 2

Cultural Models: 2

Embodiment and neurophenomenology: 3

Further reading: 3



Anthropologists who work at the interface of psychology and anthropology have developed a field of Psychological Anthropology. It approaches the comparative study of human experience, behavior, facts, and artifacts from a dual sociocultural and psychological most often psychodynamic perspective. It emerged in the early twentieth century as an attempt to understand our common humanity, led by such figures as Franz Boas and his students Edward Sapir, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Melville Herskovits. Psychological anthropology displays an arc of theoretical approaches ranging from scientific positivism, which embraces objectivity and the scientific method, through various hermeneutic humanisms that emphasize the role of subjectivity in fieldwork and writing (Suárez-Orozco 1994).

The 1970s saw the invention of psychological anthropology, the 1980s brought us cultural sychology, in the 1990s we rediscovered the body and phenomenology, and at the same time witnessed the resurgence of cognitive anthropology which, during the first decade of the twenty-first century would appear to dominate the field, contributing to the development of what is today called cognitive science.

Beginnings – Culture-Personality:

The origin of such approaches in rooted to Culture and Personality school, which was a broad and unorganized movement that brought together anthropologists, psychiatrists, and psychologists who agreed on the mutual relevance of their disciplines but lacked a common theoretical position, an acknowledged leader, and an institutional base. Its founders were Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Edward SAPIR, all students of Franz Boas, whose influential concept of Culture had implied a psychological dimension they attempted to spell out and translate into research. They argued that culture played a role in individual psychological development (Mead) and in the emotional patterns typical of particular cultures (Benedict), and also that individuals of a particular society realized its culture in different ways (Sapir). They criticized psychological theories that posited Universals for the human species without taking into account human variability as revealed by anthropological fieldwork in diverse cultures. At the same time, they were influenced by those psychological and psychiatric theories that emphasized social influences on the individual, such as the neo-Freudian formulations of Karen Horney and the interpersonal psychiatry of Harry Stack Sullivan. Although the movement had no formal organization, its anthropological founders were joined at seminars, conferences, and in publications by sociologists, psychologists, and psychoanalysts   including W. I. Thomas, John Dollard, Erik Erikson, Abram Kardiner, Henry A. Murray   and by a growing circle of anthropologists   Ralph Linton, A. Irving Hallowell, Gregory Bateson, Cora Du Bois, Clyde Kluckhohn, and John W. M. Whiting, to name but a few. The field of culture and personality studies was very active during the 1930s and in the postwar period 1945 50, as a new generation of anthropologists conducted studies among Native American peoples and in the Pacific.         

Concepts developed through the interface

Models for humans:

Fundamentally, its object is to be conceived of at the outset as living and as human, not as an information-processing device. This model starts with human physical actuality: the fact that each one of us is, like other living things, biologically speaking autopoietic – self-creating, self-regulating. A newborn baby, infant or young child requires other humans to look after its primary needs, making its ontogeny a social process. Indeed, as living systems that are human, each and every one of us needs others if we are to maintain our autonomy over the course of our own lives and contribute to the lives of others. There is nothing paradoxical about this: rather, it is given to us as human beings that the particular nature of our autonomy resides precisely in the history of our relations with one another. In the unified model, mind is a function not of the brain, nor of the embodied nervous system, but of the whole human being in intersubjective relations with others in the environing world. Implicit is a view of consciousness as an aspect of human autopoiesis. Here consciousness cannot be a ‘domain’  or a ‘level of psychological functioning’; rather, it is that aspect of mind that posits the existence of the thinker and the conceptual self-evidentiality of world as lived by the thinker. Intersubjectivity is shorthand for: I know that you are another human like me, and so I know that you know that because I am human, I know that you are too. Whether, over coming decades, cognitive anthropology will continue to dominate our understanding of mind will have everything to do with the extent to which anthropology as an intellectual project is able to realize and come to grips with the real political implications of the ahistorical concept of human being that lies at its heart.

Cultural Models:

The processes through which we know the peopled world, like the neurological processes of which they are an aspect, are likewise autopoietic, characterized by continuing differentiation through functioning. Once we understand this, it becomes obvious that information-processing (or representational) models of mind cannot capture its inherent dynamics. The idea of continuity-in-transformation is interesting, one can think about onself – the whole person, including the ideas about the world – as a dynamic system of transformations; ageing, for example, is one aspect of the workings of this dynamic system, and so is digestion, and so is reading a book, or having a conversation. One remains autonomously oneself even though, from moment to moment and year to year, the continuity through time is that of a dynamically transforming system. The representational model of mind that mirrors objectively given properties of the world which do not go away with the development in the 1990s of cultural psychology. Shweder, however, did his best to move anthropologists away from what he characterized as the ‘Platonic impulse’ that presumed mind to be a fixed and universal property of the psyche. He argued for a cultural psychology that presumes instead that the life of the psyche is the life of intentional persons, responding to, and directing their action at, their own mental objects or representations and undergoing transformation through participation in an evolving intentional world that is the product of the mental representations that make it up (Shweder 1991: 97).

Embodiment and neurophenomenology:

Anthropologists took encouragement from neurophenomenology … [whose] aim is to incorporate phenomenological investigations of experience into neuroscientific research on consciousness. Neurophenomenology focuses especially on the temporal dynamics of conscious experience and brain activity …. (Thompson 2007: 312) Ethnographic studies of how children make sense of the conditions in the world created for them by adults can contribute to the dynamic systems perspective on human development over time as an autopoietic and historical process – one that grounds the entire spectrum of individual difference (within and across regions of the world) in the way that our biology provides for sociality, specifically for empathy and intersubjectivity, as the bedrock condition of human being. Furthermore, the details of ethnographic studies of ontogeny as an historical process feed directly into the argument that the development of the neural processes that characterize human conceptual development is an emergent aspect of the functioning of an embodied nervous system for which intersubjectivity is a necessary condition.

Further reading:

Toren, Christina. (2012). Anthropology and Psychology. In Richard Fardon et al. ed. The SAGE Handbook of

Social Anthropology, (pp.27 – 41). Thousand oaks: Sage


D’Andrade, Roy. 1995. The Development of Cognitive Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University


Schwartz, Theodore, Geoffrey M. White, and Catherine A. Lutz. 1992. New Directions in Psychological

Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Read also the entry on Psychological anthropology here: http://sumananthromaterials.blogspot.com/2013/11/psychological-anthropology-suman-nath.html


also on the Branches of Social-cultural anthropology here: http://sumananthromaterials.blogspot.com/2014/11/branches-of-social-cultural-anthropology.html

Ethnography and Ethnology


Ethnography and Ethnology


Ethnography and Ethnology. 1

Origins: 1

Usage: 1

Key dimensions: 2

Approaches: 3

Ethnography before Malinowski 3

Malinowskian era and immersion: 3

Writing culture and post-Malinowskian era: 4



Ethnology is the attempt to develop rigorous and scientifically grounded explanations of cultural phenomena by comparing and contrasting many human cultures. By contrast, ethnography is the systematic description of a single contemporary culture, often through ethnographic field. The two concepts are often combined in anthropological writings and they have a close and complex historical relationship.


The words "ethnography" and "ethnology" appear to have been introduced in the late eighteenth century. Hans Vermeulen (1995) cited the German historian and linguist August Ludwig Schlözer's Allgemeine nordische Geschichte (1771) as probably the first use of the term "Ethnographie," which Schlözer seemed to employ interchangeably with the term "Völkerkunde" to designate the descriptive and historical study of peoples and nations. Vermeulen noted Schlözer's involvement with the Imperial Russian Academy of Sciences and his residency in St. Petersburg in the 1760s, where he ed with G. F. Müller, J. E. Fischer, and other German scholars recruited by the Russian government to report on the peoples of the newly explored eastern territories.


There is a duality in the idea of ethnography. On one hand, the word designates observations, ranging from isolated remarks to extended studies of nations, tribes, or peoples, by anyone who has recorded what he has seen or heard. On the other hand, ethnography also designated the aspiration to collect systematically, and according to rigorous procedures, facts about human languages, customs, arts, and achievements. Ethnography in this sense included the culling of material from documents and interviews with visitors returning from foreign lands and the redaction of this material into learned treatises. The scientific ethnographer was someone who staked a fairly large claim on erudition, breadth of learning, and capacious memory; thus ethnography gained a certain reputation as a field for pedants.              

Ethnology and ethnography developed, of course, dialectically. As the antiquity of man became established in the mid-nineteenth century and anthropological inquiry began to focus on evolutionary questions, the need for better data became clear. In 1843, Prichard and two of his colleagues drew up a schedule of questions to guide observations of native peoples (Penniman 1935: 53). Lewis Henry Morgan began sending his first kinship terminology questionnaires to missionaries and commercial agents in January 1859 (Trautmann 1987: 103). In 1874, the British Association for the Advancement of Science published its first edition of Notes and queries on anthropology, for the use of travellers and residents in uncivilized lands. These attempts to guide inquiry sometimes had richer returns than their authors anticipated, as recipients began to engage the larger problem of putting the answers into local context. The outstanding example is the ethnographic  of Lorimer Fison and A. W. Howitt in Australia, culminating in Kamilaroi and Kurnai (Fison 1880), which grew out of the missionary Fison's original correspondence with Morgan (see Stocking 1995: 17 34). By the last decades of the nineteenth century, there were several examples of a new kind of ethnographic book in which the hypothetical pronouncements of armchair theorists were tested against the author's own observations. Robert Henry Codrington's The Melanesians (1891) and Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen's The native tribes of central Australia (1899) exemplify this new, theoretically informed style of extended firsthand observation. Also during this period, the Bureau of American Ethnology began its publication of ethnographic monographs based on systematic field.

Key dimensions:

The underlying contrast between the interview and ordinary (some might say naturalistic) conversation remains at the core of scholarly  on ethnographic interviewing. Most generally, discussions of the ways ethnographic interviewing differs from other kinds of interviewing have tended to emphasise how ethnographic interviewing aims to be more like ordinary conversation. scholars typically focus mainly on two key dimensions of the ethnographic interview process that I have called embeddedness and openness.


The ethnographic interview is distinguished from other kinds of qualitative interview in its striving for a high level of embeddedness. The term embeddedness may be used in two senses: to describe the degree to which the interview is taking place within the social world one is studying, rather than in isolation from it; and to describe the degree to which the interview is conducted from within a field of knowledge about the social, cultural and material world of the interviewee. This embeddedness can result in deeper understanding of the ‘other’ and produce ‘thicker’ description about their life as they live (Geertz 1973).

Second criterion for embeddedness refers to the degree to which the interview unfolds within the interviewee’s everyday social milieu. The most embedded interviews in this sense take place within the context of long-term participant observation, after researchers have made efforts to establish a place within the nets of social relations of the people they will be interviewing. By speaking the local language or local dialect, and by being attentive to social norms, ideally they will have established rapport with their interviewees, and earned their trust. This stands in contrast to interviews that take place in isolated settings in which the interviewee knows the interviewer only as a researcher, and not as neighbour, friend, co-er, or perhaps, (fictive) kin. In much psychological interviewing, there is in fact an effort to minimize the effects of the setting and to make sure the social identity and opinions of the interviewer are obscured, so as to encourage responses that are as little affected by external conditions as possible. In ethnographic interviews, by contrast, interviewers deliberately seek to approach their interviewees with an understanding of the complex social relationships involved. Through a deep appreciation of the context of these relationships, they expect to develop a richer and more layered understanding of the social worlds they are studying.


In addition to embeddedness, the ethnographic  can be distinguished from other kinds of qualitative interview by its degree of openness. It is informal because there are no lists of questions, the ethnographer is not taking on the role of an interrogator, and it happens in the course of everyday social interactions (Agar 1980: 90). In ideal typical terms, structured interviewing, by contrast, involves asking respondents a pre-established list of questions, sometimes using an interview schedule that customizes the direction of the interview based on responses to previous questions. In structured interviewing, the interviewer must be ‘directive and impersonal’, and ideally, ‘nothing is left to chance’ (Fontana and Frey 2000: 650). Between these two extremes are unstructured (or openended) interviewing and semi-structured interviewing.


Ethnographic fieldwork tradition has a long history and it is rooted from the 19th century enlightenment philosophy. Roughly the ethnographic approaches can be divided into the following traditions.

Ethnography before Malinowski

While anthropology was developed with enlightenment philosophy and British territorial expansionism, it is commonly believed that ethnographic fieldwork which tends to dominate much of the practices of anthropology started with Malinowski. Before Malinowski, there were surveys and before that there was anthropology from distance popularly known as the ‘armed chair anthropology’.  A recent edited volume Ethnographers before Malinowski: Pioneers of Anthropological Fieldwork, 1870-1922 by Frederico Delgado Rosa, and Han F. Vermeulen (2022) show that there was serious ethnographic fieldwork being carried out by scholars before Malinowski. Women practitioners and indigenous experts have been documenting society and culture quite like an ethnographer during the era when 19th century evolutionism was the dominant paradigm. For example, it was Franz Boas’ prescription to adapt to ‘their’ customs in order to become a fieldworker hinting towards immersion based work.

Malinowskian era and immersion:

As Malinowski did his seminal work in Trobriand Island and published his principal work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), which established him as one of Europe's most important anthropologists he successfully influenced a generation of anthropologist with his rather unique of method of participant observation.[i]  He took posts as a lecturer and later as chair in anthropology at the London School of Economics, attracting large numbers of students and exerting great influence on the development of British social anthropology. Over the years, he guest-lectured at several American universities; when World War II broke out, he remained in the United States, taking an appointment at Yale University. During this entire period of his career he has been successful to influence social anthropologists all over the world to embrace participant observation because, being there is seen as resulting in production of much superior information and that has an advantage over the survey methods because there is a difference between what people say they do and what they actually do. Even today, the stereotypical ethnographer is seen as doing participant observation, but researchers also perform quantitative, survey, textual, demographic, and other types of analysis, depending on local conditions and the nature of the research project. Until recently the optimal choice was to seek out as exotic a locale for research as possible; choosing sites closer to home and writing library dissertations were viewed as inferior alternatives. Researchers carrying out traditional fieldwork are supposed to immerse themselves, taking in large amounts of vastly different kinds of data. This range and abundance of "raw" experience and observation helps put the more formally acquired information, gathered through structured interviews, for instance, into context. Supporters of traditional fieldwork also argue that a great deal of learning about people and CULTURE needs to occur through direct experience, as opposed to the distancing and objectivity of the scientific method. Learning through senses other than seeing and hearing   by smelling or imitating habitual body postures, for instance   should occur (Stoller 1989). Through using their senses anthropologists serve as data-gathering instruments and alterations in themselves become a way of knowing; or, as Susan Harding states, "the only certain evidence of the reality that preoccupies ethnographers, of shared unconscious knowledge, is experiential" (1987: 180).

Writing culture and post-Malinowskian era:

The tradition of fieldwork set by Malinowski and later anthropologists continued to embrace immersion and continue to produce an authoritative accounts on the natives until it was late 1980s and especially before the James Clifford and George Marcus’ Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Writing Culture movement in the 1990s was by the “writing against culture” movement, which expressed misgivings about a common form of anthropological thought that imposed excessive and disadvantaging “otherness” on the cultures and peoples studied. This movement implicitly reasserted the humanist universalism of anthropology and pointed up how other cultures were described in terms that distanced and dehumanized them. This was a very direct and forceful challenge to customary descriptive and categorizing practices, and it provoked strong debate in the discipline. Fundamentally they brought out a few uncomfortable truths:

a)      How far an ethnographer’s account of a people is accurate, especially in an era of post-structuralism when it is well known that writing is fashioning and when you write you tend to objectify reality.

b)      If there is a ‘mispresentation’ of reality in ethnographic writings wheather the finished ethnography is poetically written to appease its readers, or political written to appease their masters.

c)       What about the individual biases that might result in (un)intentional creation of fiction about a group of people.

d)      Where lies the truth, is it in the diary that Malinowski wrote (A diary in the strict sense of the term) or in the ethnographic account?

These questions opened up new possibilities for ethnographic work and some of the new directions include:

a)      Experience near ethnography – ethnographies which are being conducted by an ethnographer on his/her own culture

b)      Self reflexivity – when an ethnographer speaks openly about his/her own position in the ethnography and more generally.

c)       Multi-site ethnography – when an ethnographer is no longer documenting everything under the sun but working on a particular research question at multiple sites.

[i] Participant-Observation is long-term, intense interaction with members of a community during which the researcher plunges into their activities as completely as possible, for example, by attending rituals, "hanging out," or washing clothes at the river with other women. It is considered to be the hallmark of traditional anthropological field research. Advantages of participant-observation are numerous. (1) It is virtually the only way to conduct ethnographic research with people who do not speak a written language. (2) The researcher is "there" all the time, and consequently sees what happens when people are preparing for events or mopping up afterwards, behaving according to the rules or breaking them. (3) Immersion in community life results in the fieldworker becoming less intrusive, less of a stranger, and thus in increased trust and tolerance on the part of members of the community. (4) Being on their turf, the researcher can more easily discern the peoples' customary, unexamined habits and perspectives than if they were in a setting less familiar to them. (5) Behavior is observed first hand rather than elicited from peoples' accounts of what happened. (6) Being there and speaking the language vastly increases the chances of comprehending the meaning of what is happening from the peoples' point of view.      

The disadvantages of participant-observation include: (1) the investment of a huge amount of time, some of which is not spent very efficiently. (2) People may resent what they see as snoopy, sneaky behavior by inquisitive anthropologists. (3) Participant-observation is sometimes difficult to explain to people (and university committees interested in informed-consent guidelines). (4) The presence of the anthropologist, at times strongly felt, affects the behavior being investigated. (5) It is virtually impossible to adequately demonstrate to readers of ethnographic reports why one's conclusions, if based on participant-observation, should be accepted beyond the assertion that "since I was there, my perceptions are accurate." This is why participant-observation is not, properly speaking, a methodology (although some speak of it as such: see Spradley 1980) and why researchers always utilize additional structured or semistructured techniques such as censuses, genealogies, projective tests, or structured interviews with a carefully drawn sample.