ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Plenary panel two

Only the echoes of my mind. Invoked spirits and/or evoked potentials: is convergence desirable or even possible?

Convenor: Ronnie Frankenberg

Panel abstract

Victor and Edith Turner, in common with many other anthropologists, sought to understand how people in the categories they studied, themselves sought to understand and control the division between conscious self-controlled experience of their own bodily actions and emotions and experience which appeared to be imposed on them from outside their bodies which, in the Turners’ original researches, the people themselves nevertheless identified as spirits acting from within their bodies. The Turners did this, following Gluckman (1940) in an archetypically anthropological manner by examining the social relationships engendered within specific (in place and time) examples of performance related to these contrasted experiences. The implications of this analysis for the operation of whole supposedly bounded groups of people characterised as societies or cultures and to theories of religion, consciousness etc. were not (nor could be) directly observed but arose as secondary and hypothetical derivations from the study of particular performances. Paradoxically the patterns, which emerged from their original very specific studies of so called spirit possession, allowed interpretations based either on total dissociation or equally total identification with existing social relations, or even, anathema to the functionalist rationalism of the time, both at once. Instead of denying this possibility, the Turners, ahead of their time, theorised this by developing and re-launching a literally central concept of liminality, a turning (set of) point(s) or moment (s) of subjunctivity which might lead either to a total or partial change in the social status of individual or to a return (at least in external appearance) to the pre-performance state. The Turners themselves applied this kind of analysis to the prolonged succession of rituals combined into a Christian Pilgrimage and Victor Turner (inter alia) analysed Icelandic Sagas and theatrical performances with methods derived from it. Towards the end of his life Victor suggested that the time might come when it seemed feasible to examine liminality not merely as a social state characteristic of many phenomena roughly grouped as those of enhanced (or merely changed?) awareness of the lived body (leib) but also as a state of consciousness detectable in the individual as a (set of) probable physiological state(s) within the body and more specifically the brain.

This plenary symposium organised and chaired by Ronnie Frankenberg most recently of Brunel University is based on the feeling that this particular set of moments is approaching. One of two main speakers is Robert Turner who has both an intimate knowledge of his parents’ work and was in fact, as a child, a co-field worker (!) and is also now Professor of the Technology of Brain Imaging at UCL. The other main speaker is Joe Dumit, a founding figure in the anthropological contribution to STS who teaches at MIT and Harvard and who has conducted a series of studies of Brain Imaging. Two formal discussants are Simon Cohn from Goldsmith’s College in the University of London and Christopher Davis who teaches Medical Anthropology at SOAS and is interested in music.

The social brain: nature, culture and imaging neuroscience

Robert Turner, Wellcome department of Imaging Neuroscience, University College London

The human brain is clearly the 'elementary particle' of culture and social interaction. Scientific understanding of the brain is now rapidly advancing, largely due to new non-invasive techniques. Thus the relationship between anthropology and brain science raises fascinating and topical questions. What can brain science do for anthropology, and what can anthropology do for brain science? What are the limitations of brain science? Can the creation of new disciplines such as evolutionary psychology or social-cognitive neuroscience be justified? By what criteria should we consider an explanation of a finding to be adequate?

In addressing these questions, the lecture will introduce the new methods of human brain functional imaging, and describe some experimental findings relevant to anthropology. The concepts of perceptual, social and cultural brain, and a model relating them, will be outlined.

Liminality, ritual, and the brain image: pharmaceutical reflections

Joseph Dumit, Anthropology and science studies, MIT

From 'Your Brain on Drugs' to 'Your Brain on Prozac', the brain image has become a key symbol in our turn-of-the-century experiences of drugs - legal, illegal, and pharmaceutical. Images of brains are offered as mirrors of self, other, health, illness, and danger. They are objects of social consensus and potent political-scientific accusations. Drawing on the innovative work of the Turners, I will examine brain images in the U.S. through their liminality - as experienced by patients - and in their ritual, processural role as mediators of new, old and forbidden states of consciousness.