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Whitehead, C.

(2000) ‘Anthropological psychologizing and what we need to do about it’

20th Annual Conference of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness: Tucson,
Arizona, 5-9 April

Anthropological psychologizing
and what we need to do about it

Charles Whitehead

15 minute presentation

Affiliations and research:

Department of Anthropology, University College London
Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience, University College London
Harrow School of Computer Science, University of Westminster


Anthropological psychologizing and what we need to do about it

Title = Slide 1.

1. Core problem
For over a hundred years field anthropologists have been confronted with people who do not
seem to think the way we do. Some have inferred that, if other people represent the world
differently, their representational processes must be different. That's a bit like explaining a
photograph of a UFO by arguing there must be something wrong with the camera. In fact, if
you think of all the ways anyone might react to a photograph of a UFO, what you get is a
synchronic metaphor for 150 years of anthropological thought.


Faulty Political Platonic world
Normal Theatrical Denial
Slide 2.

So, we have a suitably unidentifiable object in the middle, lots of people can see it, and there
are no clues to what it might be.

1. Some people will blame the camera.

2. Others will think it's something real - maybe something sinister concealing vested
political interests, or just people fabricating an illusion.
3. Others will say it’s from another world, inaccessible to science; or deny that anyone
can ever explain anything - the terminal Kantian position.

1. `Faulty-camera' theorists, from Boas and Lévy-Bruhl, to J.V. Taylor and Hallpike, variously
describe the non-literate mind as primitive, emotional, childlike, or pre-logical, so dividing
humanity into two ideal types - `primitive' and `modern'.
Well we can't talk like that any more, so we have to assume the camera is normal:
that's the approach taken by the intellectualists in the 19th century; and the structuralists and
cognitive anthropologists in the 20th. The traditional approach in cognitive anthropology has
been to say `Let's ignore the UFO, and explain all the ordinary photographs instead.'
Pascal Boyer tackles the UFO head on. He accuses us all of ad hoc psychologizing.
There have been major advances in the cognitive sciences: it's time we took note of that
instead of continually reinventing psychology ex vacuo just to suit ourselves. But he ends up
arguing that animism is natural precisely because it's not natural. All cameras take photos of
UFOs precisely because they are designed not to.
You cannot explain cultural difference on the grounds that people are all the same,
without reference to real-world experience, history, and so on. And the reason Boyer attempts
the impossible is because the cognitivist paradigm itself ignores real world experience. We
need to export anthropology into cognitive science so they will know what it is we all need to
explain. Simply importing cognitive science into anthropology is not good enough. We need
cross-fertilization between disciplines, not a one-way transfusion.

2. Let's look at real-world explanations. Real-world theorists tell us the UFO is not what it
appears to be – it's false consciousness, society projected onto the sky, or an anti-structural
inversion of society. Marx made an interesting observation when he said: ‘We become
conscious by acting on the world’. But he inferred therefore we create ourselves through

labour. Acting on the world, however, does not begin with labour – it begins with childhood
play. Marxist anthropologists focus on the world of work; the collective-representation/
liminal anti-structure schools focus on play. If you ignore childhood, like the forces-and-
relations-of-production theorists, you ignore everything that makes us human. And if you
ignore competition, like pantomime-and-performance theorists, you ignore everything that
makes us monsters. We are both at the same time, so we need to combine these two

3. Hermeneutic anthropology takes the Otherworld approach - assuming a Platonic world of

self-sufficient closure that can be understood without reference to the real world. They deny
explanation – the ‘world of meaning’ can only be understood by interpretation – and more
recently, they denied psychology as well. Clifford Geertz said: no more a psychological phenomenon...

than the progressive form of the verb (1973: 13).

This is the Saussurian paradigm, and culture as communication, which led to the collapse of
structuralism, and the failure of cognitive anthropology to deal with religious belief.
The denial of psychology is always hypocritical: Geertz goes straight into ad hoc
psychologizing. The Problem of Meaning, he says, is all about human awe, fear, helplessness
and need, in the face of uncontrollable natural forces: the same simplistic psychology that
Malinowski imposed on the Trobrianders.
The denial of explanation is equally false. You cannot observe anything, let alone
describe it, without assumptions of significance – which are covert theories. Secondly, it
leads to absolute relativism, which also rests on self-contradiction. You can't write an emic
account unless there are etic universals that allow you to understand your informants. Gellner
described relativism as a revolving signpost, pointing everywhere and nowhere, except
towards postmodernism. Everything becomes subjective; knowledge is impossible; science is
mythology; it's all too much; let's push that final button labelled `self-destruct'.

So, I've been unforgivably negative, and presented a range of anthropological views as a
series of denials:

1. There are camera-based theories, which are reductionist, ignore real-world experience, and
explain difference in terms of sameness because they have:

• a disembodied view of culture as communication

• a disembodied Saussurian linguistic metaphor
• a disembodied cognitivist paradigm

3. At the opposite pole we have anti-reductionists who deny psychology, deny explanation, and

• a disembodied Platonic view of meaning

But meanings are always grounded in real world experience. A baby is learning what wet and
dry mean every time it has its nappy changed. It doesn't need to read Mythologiques to
understand binary oppositions. We don't invent symbols then look around for something to
attach them to. Meanings are there first, rooted in experiences which are real because they
cause pleasure and pain.
We need to ground human meaning in embodied experience; we need to know the
universal substrates of symbolic behaviour, biological and psychological, as an antidote to
relativism - a universal basis for etic accounts of cultural difference.

2. In the middle we have real-world theories which do acknowledge embodied experience, and
allow both reductionist and expansionist accounts to coexist. What Marxist anthropology
lacks is an account of childhood, of how we become conscious through childhood play. What
`performance' theorists need is an operational account of liminality, which is the same thing,
because childhood is the major liminal stage in human development.

So all these denials reflect a common problem and require a common solution: we need to
know the universal cognitive and biological underpinnings of enculturated behaviour.

2. What needs to be explained

What cognitive science can tell us right now is that three-year-old children, in all societies
studied to date, have ontological intuitions, such as the difference between appearance and
reality, make-believe and reality, or dreams and reality, which appear to be innate or
universal in our species.
Ethnographic data suggests that human adults reify representations, which means that,
somehow, the real-world intuitions of childhood have been turned on their heads. Somewhere
between childhood and adulthood we are manufacturing a blindness to reality: our
representations become so powerful that they blot out the world.
Children are realists, and adults are representationalists. What we need cognitive
science to explain is the power of collective representations to turn make-believe into make-
belief, and the place to begin is with social mirror theory.

3. Where we need to start

Social mirror theory, deriving from Dilthey, Baldwin, Cooley, and Mead, says: Without
mirrors in society, there cannot be mirrors in the mind. Performative behaviours such as song,
dance, and role-play, are signs of an explosive proliferation of social mirroring behaviours in
our species.

Communication Play Performance

Implicit Gesture calls Embodied Song-and-dance

Mimetic Iconic signals Role-play Ritual

Conventional Approval and Games with Economic

disapproval rules exchange

Slide 3.Social mirrors

The table above is an attempt to sort human social-mirroring abilities in a heuristically useful
way. I have only put one example in each box. The point I want to make is that, if we begin
with real-world social mirroring behaviours, we can develop a scheme which:

1. avoids creating an artificial discontinuity between nature and culture – which is

itself a reified representation

2. avoids fabricating Platonic or Saussurian worlds of disembodied meanings and


Social mirrors make us conscious. It is ironic that collective representations, which exploit
social mirroring behaviour, should turn us into representationalists, more or less blinded to
the real-world orientation of our childhood.

4. Mapping role-play in the brain

I propose a collaborative approach between anthropology and cognitive science, which aims
to investigate and understand human social mirroring abilities and social adaptations of the
My own programme has begun with a brain-mapping study of role-play, with Robert
Turner at the Wellcome Department of Cognitive Neurology* in London. The main findings

1. Switching from role-play to a non-role task involved significant areas of brain

activity, indicated in this slide [Slide 4].
2. Maintaining the non-role state also involved significant activity in contrast to role-
play states [Slide 5].
3. Role-play itself, however, and switching role-play on, did not show robust activations
relative to controls [Slide 6].

*Now the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience


Slide 4: Switching off role-play

Slide 5: Maintaining the non-role state


Slide 6:Role-play minus control

The two areas you see here [this refers to Slide 4: in the side view of the brain I am indicating
the dark oblong area at the front (i.e. on the right), and the triangular area at the back (top
left)] are areas you would expect to be involved in role-play. But our study did not reveal
that. Instead we find increased activity here only when role-play is being `switched off'. How
do we explain these `wrong way round' findings? One possible interpretation might be that
role-play is a default state for the human mind. Cognitive effort is needed to suppress or
ignore social imagination when we are engaged in non-social tasks. `Theatre of mind'
continues through the control tasks, but unconsciously, and we only see one brief flash at the
moment of dissociation.
I will be presenting a fuller account of this study at next week's conference, `Towards
a Science of Consciousness', on Tuesday 11th April at 4.30 pm.

Summary and conclusion (Slide 7)

1. Cognitive research has a role to play in anthropology

2. Cognitive science is not yet sufficient to help answer
core anthropological questions
3. Social-mirror theory offers a useful basis for
theoretical development and research.

Research into the social brain seems likely to provide insights with theoretical relevance in

Charles Whitehead, Department of Anthropology, UCL