ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Science and personhood

Contact Convenor: Kay Milton

School of Anthropological Studies, Queen's University Belfast
Belfast BT7 1NN

Tel. 028 9027 3881 

Co-Convenor: John Knight 

Panel abstract

The objects of scientific research are often 'persons', things which are perceived as having attributes of 'personhood'. While concepts of personhood vary cross-culturally, attributes might be expected to include sentience, self-consciousness, the presence of spirit, soul or power, the capacity to act intentionally, to experience emotions and/or relate to others.

This panel will pose the broad question, how does scientific research affect the 'personhood' of its objects of study? A range of different answers might be expected, depending on the nature of both the objects and the research. Some research, including most social scientific research and studies of human and non-human psychology, focuses specifically on the qualities that make its objects persons. Other research, particularly in medicine or biology and statistically-oriented social science, focuses specifically on the physical or behavioural nature of its objects, ignoring their person-like qualities. In the current climate of deep scepticism over the value of dichotomizing mind and body, we consider it pertinent to ask about the relationship between scientific research and personhood.

The following questions might be explored:

  • Do particular kinds of/approaches to research deprive objects of their personhood, for instance turning human and non-human beings into 'resources' or collections of mechanisms or processes?
  • Does this affect their treatment (for instance, by diminishing respect) in the practice of research and in other contexts?
  • Conversely, is the personhood of particular things enhanced or even created (e.g. 'the selfish gene', artificial life) when they are made objects of scientific study? If so, how is this reflected in their representation, both within and outside scientific discourse?
  • When 'western' scientific practice co-exists alongside non-western concepts of personhood, does it affect those concepts, or vice versa, and if so, in what ways?

We welcome contributions which address these and related questions through social scientific analyses of the practice, theory and discourse of science.

Mind is not like an iceberg: personhood, perception and science in the thinking of Gregory Bateson

Peter Harries-Jones, York University, Toronto

Bateson once opened a discussion with the founder of Person-centred psychotherapy, Carl Rogers, by saying that he, Bateson, might be speaking but was not there. Bateson’s view of mind as both process and interface – or boundary – in feedback circuits (later ecosystem) of relations was profoundly anthropological, set against western science’s constructs of individualism. His concurrent concepts of perception and consciousness followed suit.  A concern with direct perception was invalid, as was the construction of identity through vectors of similarity.  A major mistake in scientific method was to assume that a conscious inspection of phenomena in living organisms explains the ‘underneath’, beyond appearance, through extrapolation from what is ‘on top’. Personhood in the sense of a whole person, or unity of an ecosystem, could never be grasped this way. Instead all living systems are enveloped in fields of communicative interaction, their differences expressed in rule-governed interactions and sign mediated behaviour expressive of their differences in a field of difference. The problem was to construct an epistemology that begins with this understanding and then abduct from different examples of rule-governed interaction at different levels of communication. Examples will be drawn from the experiences and perceptions of the first astronauts on the moon.

Being human in a dualist and not-so-dualist world: exploring Sakai concepts of the person and self

Nathan Porath, University of Leiden

The Sakai are an indigenous people of Sumatra (Indonesia). In this paper, I explore Sakai concepts of the person and the self in relation to the critical interface between Cartesian theory and embodiment theory. In recent years, a number of anthropologists have criticised the Cartesian dualist approach, suggesting that we should do away with the distinction of mind and body, and instead work with a unified concept of embodiment, which collapses the two. Some authors have even suggested that the two approaches are methodologically incompatible. However, most peoples do perceive the world through some form of a dualistic framework. My paper explores Descartes own philosophy of mind and body in relation to Sakai dualism. What I point out is that although Sakai are dualist, we should not confuse their dualism with a mind/body dualism. Sakai dualism is based on a body and spirit distinction, which has developed through the human universal experience of the altered states of consciousness. (Descartes conceptions of the conscious mind was developed through an ordinary state of consciousness).

Sakai do not seem to have a concept of the mind, but what we associate with mind is conceived of as the 'the insides of the body', which harbours thoughts feelings and emotions. The locus of this “inner” is the liver-heart. This aspect of Sakai ideas of the person and self is a theory of embodiment. The question the paper then tries to resolve is what is the relationship between the Sakai dualist experience and embodiment experience – how do they connect? I will also explore Sakai ideas of hypnotic realities and the embodiment of knowledge to induce these realities. Following my ethnographic description, I argue that methodologically, dualism and embodiment theory (monism) are commensurable. The pre-requisite for embodiment is the dualist experience of consciousness, a point that Descartes briefly articulated but disparaged as being a baser form of knowledge, that causes the cultural diversity, uncertainty and confusion that led him to develop his 'methodological doubt' in the first place.

Science, knowledge and personhood

Paul Yates, University of Sussex

This paper explores the discourses of science in relation to the formation of personhood within the social processes of schooling understood as the publicly organised construction of knowledge. The study is based on recent consultancy work in schools on the nature of learner identity and a subsequent interview-based study of students’ conceptions of their experience of knowledge, learning and agency. There are three sections: science as public culture, the epistemologies of schooling, and science and personhood.

Within the positivist empiricist culture of schooling, issues of ontology and personhood are largely suppressed. The knowledgeable agent is recognised only in individuated cognitive performances. The late modern person is merely a series of absences. The knower is disembodied and emptied of emotion. Psychological individualism articulates knowledge of the self and measures self worth. What is required is a recovery of the life worlds of students, where issues of personhood and agency are seen as valid sources of knowledge. A key absence here is a social and co-operative understanding of the formation of personhood within the context of differentiated and relative global knowledges. Thus, becoming a person arguably requires challenging the scientific sequestration of the real world.

The anthropological study of the new bioethics: biobanks, anthropology and geneticisation of personhood

Klaus Hoeyer, University of Copenhagen

Recent developments in biotechnology have turned many medical collections of human tissue, so-called biobanks, into major scientific and economic assets. The Nordic welfare states are known for hosting large-scale biobanks, which can be combined with accurate healthcare records and other statistics. Among the different attempts to commercialize these assets, one has been internationally acclaimed as particularly ethical, namely UmanGenomics in northern Sweden. This paper discusses the ethical policy of this particular company based on anthropological fieldwork and qualitative interviews.

Some critical social scientists seem to view commercial genetic research as inevitably embedded in a reductive ‘genetificization’ of personhood that deflates public morality. Despite the relevance of such studies, this paper argues that the implications of companies like UmanGenomics are more multifaceted. The informants’ notions of personhood are in no way homogeneous, and the social scientists’ critique may reflect their personal perceptions of personhood more than those of the informants. The ethics policy of UmanGenomics does seem to enhance certain perceptions of personhood and neglect others, but the processes through which this happens, as well as the implications, are studied better without predefined definitions of ‘the ethical’ and ‘proper personhood’.

The ‘encounter’ between western derived conservation policies and Batak concepts of personhood on Palawan Island (Philippines)

Dario Novellino, University of Kent at Canterbury

Anthropologists, in their critique of environmentalism, have pointed out that a wide divergence of interests exists between the desires and needs of the native communities and environmentalists’ objectives to protect biodiversity. In comparison, less attention has been paid to the impact of ‘western’ scientific practices on indigenous notions of ‘personhood’. This paper examines the extent to which Batak conceptions of ‘personhood’ co-exist alongside, or are modified by, western derived options for environmental conservation.

In Palawan (Philippines), indigenous worldviews establish that rice is ‘taw’ (person/human). The ‘anthropomorphization’ of the swidden field, and the attribution of ‘personhood’ to rice, are focal points of Batak practices and beliefs.  On the other hand, government and non-government organizations tend to view the environment in objective terms, and share the assumption that ‘ecological sustainability’ can be attained through restricted/controlled use, by introducing stable forms of agriculture and prohibiting swidden cultivation. In respect to this, two major questions become of concern: 1) How do Batak perceive their conception of ‘personhood’ vis-à-vis ‘western ontologies’ and conservation-development discourse? 2) How do people bridge the gap between their notion of Batakness/personhood and those imposed upon them by outsiders?

Imagining personhood: science, third persons and non-human persons

Andreas Roepstorff, Aarhus University

In much scientific practice, a notion of personhood appears quite unhandy, even impractical. The reasons are apparently manifold; from ‘the inside’ they are usually considered to be methodological, but from ‘the outside’ they appear to be cosmological, in that they configure a highly particular model of the object under study. This double aspect becomes apparent in cases in which scientific descriptions are being challenged by other styles of knowing.

Based on fieldwork in cognitive science laboratories and in Greenland, this paper will outline two such situations. The first case describes a conflict between scientists and philosophers as to whether the mental processes of experimental subjects should be described from a first-person or a third-person perspective. In the second case, discussions between biologists and fishers over stock estimates embody a debate about whether animals should be analyzed as objects or as non-human persons. Contrasting the two cases allows us to ask whether there is a particular anthropological contribution to the systematic description of personhood?

Figuring personhood in sciences of the artificial

Lucy Suchman, Lancaster University

This paper explores the question of just what images of personhood are figured in technoscientific projects dedicated to the design of human-like machines. More specifically, I consider three elements taken to be necessary for personhood in these projects; namely, embodiment, sociality and emotion. With some exemplary cases in view, I offer a critical consideration of the way in which these aspects of the person are conceptualized in the computing and cognitive sciences, and are realized in associated technological projects. This includes initiatives in robotics and artificial intelligence aimed at the replication of capabilities of mobility or navigation, of social interaction, and of so called ‘affective computing’. Drawing on recent discussions within science and technology studies and feminist theory, I highlight the reductionist and fetishized figuring of the person in these projects, and offer some reflections on the implications of those figurings for both scientific and popular imaginaries. With that critique in mind, I turn to the question of how we might differently conceptualize relations between humans and machines, as irreducibly contingent encounters of specifically situated persons with equally particular, dynamic, and culturally inflected things.

Managing primate personhood: problems in behavioural research

Amanda Rees, University of York

The disparate origins of many primatologists (drawn from both the natural and the social sciences), and their institutional placement within universities (within departments of biology or anthropology) has led to a situation in which the methods of the natural and the social sciences can occasionally conflict, especially with regard to the problem of anthropomorphism and the anthropic gaze. Natural science methodologies have appeared to become increasingly dominant in recent years. However, their ascendancy is by no means assured, as the recent flare-up of the controversy surrounding primate infanticide indicates.

This paper will examine the development of field methodologies for studying primates, and analyse the ways in which the perceived personhood of non-human primates has influenced the conduct and reporting of research into their behaviour and ecology. It will examine the role of anthropomorphism and consider the methodological and literary strategies developed to contain the anthropomorphic ‘danger’ in the light of the recognition of a continuity of biological experience between human and non-human primates. In order to do so, it will draw on popular and professional accounts of primatological research, and will show how the acknowledgement of personhood is managed within the literature concerned with the infanticide controversy in primatology.

Japanese primatology and the personhood of macaques

John Knight, Queen's University Belfast

This paper focuses on Japanese primatology with respect to the issue of the personhood of macaques in Japan. Japanese primatology has long been criticized for its methodological and theoretical anthropomorphism. However, Japanese primatologists have also been criticized for their objectivizing disposition to macaques, in relation both to laboratory experimentation and to population control in mountain areas. This paper considers the tension between these two dispositions in Japanese primatology by considering a recent controversy in Japan. Since the 1980s there have been reports of feral populations of Formosan rock macaques (Macaca cyclopis) – known in Japanese as Taiwanzaru or ‘Taiwan monkeys’ – in various other parts of Japan, including in Wakayama Prefecture where I have carried out long term fieldwork. The foreign macaques are deemed to pose a serious threat to the indigenous Japanese macaque population through ‘gene pollution’. Through their professional association, Japanese primatologists have lent their support to plans to ‘control’ the Taiwanese macaques as a means of protecting Japanese macaques.

Science and personhood on the farm

Kay Milton, Queen's University Belfast

In this paper I examine the relationship between science and personhood in the context of farming in the UK, and specifically in relation to the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The development of food production since the Second World War has militated against the recognition of farm animals as ‘persons’ – as thinking, feeling beings with inner lives. Intensive farming treats animals, literally, as ‘live-stock’, to be turned into dead stock on supermarket shelves. Their personhood is antithetical to this process, and so is systematically denied. At the same time, there are countless examples in Britain of non-human animals being treated as individual persons; not only pets and working animals, but farm animals, too, in children’s stories and real-life events, are granted a degree of personhood. During the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, the contrast between these attitudes to farm animals was thrown into sharp relief. In this paper, I examine how science, as the acknowledged arbiter of truth, was used to support a policy which denied the personhood of animals. I raise the question of whether science is necessarily bound to play this role, or whether it might be recruited to support the case for non-human subjectivity.

Whales, personhood and the changing role of science

Amanda Moore, University of California, Irvine

Canadian scientists developed a non-lethal tracking system for the movements of individual whales in the early 1970s, that dramatically changed the ethical discourse about these animals. The technology involves photographing the dorsal fins of every animal sighted, examining the fin photos for unique shape and colour patterns, and then creating individual dossiers to make a profile of the whale’s behaviour, social associations with other whales, and movements. The type of data produced by this method created dramatic new spaces for the ‘personhood’ of these animals to be expanded. Biologists reached into the language of classical anthropology to describe the whales as ‘matriarchal families’ living in ‘clans’ and having ‘cultures’, maybe even ‘languages’.

The whale’s personhood is circumscribed by the underlying desire to relate every ‘cultural’ characteristic to a functional biological explanation,  which produced a culturally charged model of personhood that rapidly entered into the public imagination of the Seattle/Vancouver area. At the same time, scientists saw their public role changing from a ‘nation state and resources’ model to being something more like a wild animal police force that crossed national boundaries.