Sciencing up the place

I got back late Saturday from the SaSci/SCCR conference in Las Vegas, to be greeted in Detroit by several inches of new-fallen snow … oh joy! Although I hardly had the time or inclination to do any serious gambling while away, I did win modestly at the airport slots due to my flight being delayed for half an hour. My talk was sparsely attended but nonetheless well-received, and it looks like as a result of these discussions, I’ll be presenting next year at the same conference as part of a session on anthropology and numerical cognition (in other words, exactly my field). In general, discussions about methodology in cognitive anthropology have led me to think quite a bit about my upcoming work this summer working with Detroit middle school students and learning about mathematical concept formation. A real challenge in the anthropology of mathematics is that there aren’t very many anthropologists working on mathematics, and because mathematics is a weird sort of domain where referents are often abstract, our methodologies aren’t extremely well developed, as opposed to, say, the study of kinship terms or ethnobotanical knowledge. So I have been spending the past few days thinking a lot more seriously about elicitation tasks and what exactly a mathematics-oriented ethnographic interview ought to look like and how on earth I can/should apply any of the highly theoretical knowledge I have acquired to this very grounded situation. Of course, I won’t really have the slightest clue what I’m doing until I actually start doing it, and possibly not even then.

But more generally, and despite receiving other, unrelated good news while away, it’s hard to be back from this particular conference feeling unmitigatedly positive about my discipline and my particular orientation within it. I’ve always been an oddball (and usually proud of it) in that I refuse to define myself within the usual four-field subdisciplinary taxonomy (physical, archaeological, cultural, and linguistic anthropology) common for the past century. I just don’t see any point, insofar as most of what ought to distinguish archaeologists from cultural anthropologists (e.g.) is methodological rather than conceptual. But then inevitably we get caught up in what is versus what ought to be, and the ways in which methodologies affect all other aspects of our work, and then we end up yellling at one another instead of being productive.

On top of that, you add the division between anthropology-as-humanism and anthropology-as-science, where I lean rather heavily towards the latter perspective even though as a ‘labelled’ linguistic anthropologist most of my attributed subfield leans the other way. The Science Wars had enormous fissioning effects on anthropology, such that some departments actually split administratively between humanistic and scientific wings, but some of that fissioning exists at a subdisciplinary level as well: you would be hard-pressed to find a physical anthropologist who rejects the label ‘scientist’, for instance. The Society for Anthropological Sciences is both a symptom of and a potential solution to these issues: it reflects a profound dissatisfaction with the humanistic bent of most cultural and linguistic anthropology, but at the same time by organizing itself in opposition to those trends, does little to convince any non-scientific anthropologists of the merits of the perspective.

For my part, I’m quite happy to use humanistic approaches when relevant, which is often. A lot of the empirical work underlying my forthcoming book, Numerical Notation: A Comparative History, examines the social, cultural, and political contexts under which particular numerical systems arose, spread, and declined. Lots of the work is essentially epigraphy as applied to numbers, and the scholars I relate to are linguists, historians, classicists, etc. In terms of much of my analysis, historians would surely recognize it as akin to what they do, even if, by the nature of the subject, it tends to underemphasize the individual personalities involved.

But I can’t escape the feeling that all this humanistic analysis acquires greater relevance when embedded in the broader search for patterns, and within anthropology the analysis of social processes and the comparison of social systems. I am thrilled that the structure of the book retains the basic structure of my dissertation, which has two separate analytical chapters, one cognitive, the other social, neither of which stands alone. But ultimately it is a comparative history, one which seeks to transcend the particular and get at something pan-human underlying it all. For an anthropologist today to admit to being a comparativist, outside of a very small number of venues, is like admitting you’re a cannibal, it seems sometimes. I do think I see some glimmers of hope that the field is becoming methodologically and theoretically more inclusive than when I was a grad student. I guess we’ll see, when the book is out, whether the reviewers agree.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

10 thoughts on “Sciencing up the place”

  1. May I say it once more: on this blog a brave new world is opening for me! Step by step I try to understand: your research field, your opinion on linguistics, literacy and writing, … numerals. A horn of plenty.

  2. Extremely interesting work. My own field is psychology but lately I have found myself drawn to what I might call psychological archeology. I am still struggling to define what I mean by that term. I’m trying to understand what the development of symbolic communication (writing, math, etc.) reveals about the development (evolutionary or otherwise) of the human mind. Psychological history is normally taught from the perspective that the mind has stayed a constant throughout human history and it is only our awareness of its function that has developed though various means of analysis. But that of course in an assumption grounded in the very real problem that we cannot evaluate those minds because they are not here to be evaluated. Archeology gets around this problem by making the direct evidence it’s field of study. But such evidence is at best only indirect evidence of psychological states of mind.

    Take the Southwest Script that lead me here. Next, consider the fact that all major assessments of personality today embrace the distinction between introversion and extroversion popularized by Carl Jung. To what extent can it be said that the society which produced the Southwest Script was either more introverted or more extroverted than America today. And how would one use the techniques of archeology in general and evidence such as the Southwest Script in particular to an that question.

    Anyway, these are the types of question rumbling around in my head. I am interested in reading your book, particularly the cognitive chapter. I am sure it will help me refine my thinking further.

    1. Daniel,

      Thanks for your insights. I definitely agree that there is much to be learned about ancient societies from the analysis of their literate and iconographic traditions, although we also need to be careful when drawing generalizations (like Jungian ones) based on things like script typology. I am very dubious, for instance, that we can draw direct causal inferences from the differences between, e.g. Chinese and Latin scripts, to the personalities of whole societies (insofar as we can even talk about societies having core personality types, which is not certain).

      As a grad student, my supervisor Bruce Trigger introduced me to the work of AFC Wallace, who wrote a much-neglected paper on drawing psychological inferences from Maya iconography (Wallace 1971). More recently Stephen Houston has done a great deal of work on Maya emotion and psychological dispositions as interpreted through iconographic representations.

      Houston, S. D. 2001. Decorous bodies and disordered passions: representations of emotion among the Classic Maya. World Archaeology 33(2): 206-219.
      Wallace, A. F. C. 1971. A possible technique for recognizing psychological characteristics of the ancient Maya from an analysis of their art. IN Art and Aesthetics in Primitive Societies: A Critical Anthology: 11.

  3. I am curious about what you’re trying to get at with the elicitation tasks and mathematics-oriented ethnographic interviews you mention (also trying to figure out what a mathematics-oriented ethnographic interview would be, exactly).

    1. Well, I don’t want to say *too* much before I do the research, particularly since this summer’s work is basically preliminary and oriented towards developing the right instruments, but I’m generally unhappy with the way that social and anthropological work on math ignores the cognitive, and vice versa.

      Some of the questions I’m interested in relate to how the students I’m working with talk about and visually represent concepts like zero, or the sequence of integers (i.e. whether there are ‘number line’ concepts). I’m interested in whether, given a set of numbers and asked to group them into categories, e.g., students group 4 with 2, 8, and 16, or 1/4, 14, and 41. This could then be studied longitudinally (I basically have ongoing access for as long as I maintain a good relationship with the program).

      But beyond that I’m interested in questions relating to the socialization of these students into a really different (in fact, explicitly so) mathematical environment. The program I’ll be working with distinguishes itself very strongly from the public school system and regards itself as teaching a radically different (and better) form of mathematical conceptualization. How this affects students’ perceptions of mathematical concepts, and of themselves as mathematical reasoners, however, no one knows.

      1. Of course, I understand you don’t want to go into detail at this point. Sounds very interesting and I’m looking forward to reading more about it as the project progresses.

  4. “I am very dubious, for instance, that we can draw direct causal inferences from the differences between, e.g. Chinese and Latin scripts, to the personalities of whole societies (insofar as we can even talk about societies having core personality types, which is not certain).”

    Agreed about the causal issue. On the other hand, going back to your comment about seeking something which is pan-human, if there are indeed pan-human psychological structures then we should be able to find evidence that these existed throughout time as well as throughout space. And while this evidence would never amount to proof (in a metamathematical sense), if there was enough meaningful evidence one would at least be able to assert a plausible hypothesis.

    As for “core” personalities of society I don’t like that concept. I think of it statistically. Some personality traits are more common in some cultures than in others, in the same way that elephants are more common in India than they are in Russia. So I think it is better to talk of dominant personality traits with dominance being understood in the sense of numerical superiority only. Whether and how those dominant traits would express themselves in the archaeological record of a distant culture is a question to which I freely admit that I have no clue. And it seems to me a knotty problem as to what extent one would even be able to generalize from specific historical evidence to the culture psychology as a whole. But perhaps these are issues that has been long resolved in archeology.

    I will definitely look into the articles you mentioned. The 1971 article seems exactly the track I am on… Thanks again.

    1. Daniel: One of the real challenges is that no one has come up with anything remotely reliable for associating material culture patterns with personality types. The closest I can think of are things like James Deetz’s ‘Georgian’ mentality in the late colonial US, with its emphasis on order and symmetry. But this could only be identified in relationship to patterns that preceded and succeeded it; i.e., it was not universal or pan-human. If there were pan-human personality structures, I can’t see how we would ever identify them in the archaeological record.

    2. Just wanted to follow up and let you know I read the article by Wallace you mentioned. His method is not the method I would use but it was good to see how someone else approached the problem. And comforting to know that at least one other person took an interest in the topic, even if it was 50 years ago.

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