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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

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