Saturday, 16 April 2016

The gulf between ecological validity and controlled experiments regarding social interaction and cultural activity

Brain to brain coupling
I recently read a piece titled 'Brain-to-brain coupling: a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world' (Hasson,Ghazanfar,Galantucci, Garrod, Keysers, 2012). It was an informative, straightforward read that addressed many of the problems in contemporary psychology. It challenged the focus on the mind of the individual in isolation, except through abstract conceptualisation, as opposed to looking at the mind in situ i.e. in interaction with other people. What struck me as a concern was the repetitive invocation of 'brain-to-brain coupling' (see image below) as the locus of attention that should concern researchers in looking at social interaction. Now of course if one is looking at the brain in particular that this is where the focus must be. For a complete understanding of social interaction, an understanding of the spectrum from the fundamental neural and related physiological processes, to the activity of the interaction itself, it will be necessary to understand the role of the brain in this interaction. However, what worries me is not this but that this focus on the brain, and then the body almost as an afterthought, blinds the researcher to other aspects of the interaction. 

The proposal of this paper begins to look more and more like traditional psychological work on social cognition. There are passages where the environment and the body are mentioned almost as an afterthought and in other cases they are not invoked at all. It proceeds from the individual out into the world rather than the individual being embedded in a social context that enables and constrains particular kinds of activity in the world. This is a problem that continues to separate much of the domains of the social sciences from the cognitive and the hard sciences. Culture has notably been absent from cognitive science and analytical philosophy (Culture and Cognitive Science) Enactivist (De Jaegher & Di Paolo, 2007) and phenomenological approaches (Froese & Fuchs, 2012) to social interaction are attempting to bridge this gap proposing new ways of investigating social interaction.

Pierre Bourdieu, influenced by these works, and the social theories of  Marx and Weber, proposed his sociological theory of habitus (Habitus), which is a system of social structures, which are the historical, cultural context in which people exist. These may often not be visible but are implicit, which must be studied through careful analysis to reveal the power structures which organise activity. He believed that while humans exist in these structures they are not necessarily destined to a pre-determined set of actions. Habitus organises the way in which individuals see the world and act in it by depositing in persons, in the form of lasting dispositions or trained capacities and structured propensities to think, the particular ways of being in that society. His work goes some way towards a reconciliation of the agency and autonomy of the individuals in an interaction with the 'social facts' that Durkheim addresses.  It provides a useful way of framing and discussing social interaction within a society. One limitation is that it is hard to see how it might generate testable scientific hypotheses. This is a problem that social theorisation has continually run into which is more an indication of the difficult and slippery nature of the material rather than the efforts of these theorists. These attempts ultimately failed to achieve the object of their grand aims though they continue to intrigue and inform research.

The problems with brain centric, in contrast to some embodied mind approaches, are not my particular focus today mind. Instead I would like to approach the more significant issue of how to do a science of social interaction? Though psychology is only really now beginning to address this problem it has been the focus of sociology and anthropology for the past 200 years. How can we come at the problem of how two or more people interact successfully, never mind how the totality of these interactions constitute what we might call society and/or societies? Anthropology and sociology have made many attempts, some ambitious, with mixed results, though nevertheless interesting, at proposing overarching theories of how people engage in and constitute societies and cultures. The French in particular have made many striking contributions.
Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss incorporated structuralism (Structuralism) into anthropology. The central idea being that all cultures have within them similar structures which are comparable, equivalent and homologous. Things such as kinship groups, family, community, government, etc., were seen as being present in some form or other in all societies. If this idea were correct then cross-cultural comparisons would be possible. His great works 'The Savage Mind' (Lévi-Strauss, La Pensée Savage, 1962) and 'Mythologiques' (Lévi-Strauss, 1964) attempted to provide a theoretical system for analysing cultures and catalogued a great deal of societal practices from around the world. This approach wasn't without problems. Some argued that it was an ahistorical approach, ignoring the historical processes by which the current state of a society came to be the way it is. Another issue was that it ignored difference and individuality in its focus on shared structures. Jacques Derrida notably savaged this variant of structuralism with a deconstructionist (Deconstructionism, 2008) (Deconstructionsim Yale Lecture, 2012) post-modern take in his book 'Writing and Difference' (Derrida, 1967) which attempted to deconstruct Western metaphysics [To see my reaction against social constructionism, in which deconstructionism is a part, follow this link here (Finnerty, 2016)].
Emile Durkheim, in his strongly realist (Realism, Stanford Encyclopaedia) attempts to construct a science of society i.e. sociology, proposed a functionalist theory where society is a system of interrelated parts where no part can function without the other (Theory of Social Organisation). His theories of society (Durkheim), of ritual, etc were founded on those things external in nature to the individual. They were not concerned with the motivations and desires of the individual (this was the realm of psychology), but with the collective consciousness, values and rules which are critical to a functional society. His functionalism emphasises social equilibrium; if something happens to upset this, then society must adjust to achieve a stable state. It focuses holistically on the whole. This is a welcome remedy to the strong focus on the individual in psychology but it might be said to go too far, not to mention the danger of reifying the social as some ethereal entity which extends beyond the people, that through their interactions with one another, comprise it.

Other anthropologists and sociologists have rejected these grand attempts, believing a science of society and culture can never be achieved due to the inherent complexity of the activity. They have thrown off the mantle of appearing scientific, in the objective sense, and instead propose anthropology to be an interpretive discipline concerned with producing highly informative, but ultimately vigorously contextualised monographs, that occasionally are guilty of overemphasising the uniqueness of some culture or another. Clifford Geertz, in a somewhat anti-realist vein, though committed to the idea of anthropology as a type of science, proposes 'Thick Description' (Geertz, Thick Description) as a means by which to study culture. This approach mandates an admission of the subjectivity of the researcher, that complete objective disconnected observation is not possible as "Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun" which makes the project inherently difficult. It takes into account the behaviour and the context so that the activity becomes meaningful to an outsider. He calls for a different take on ethnography that marks a departure from the participant-observation of Bronislaw Malinowski (Malinowski BBC Documentary):
“What the ethnographer is in fact faced with—except when (as, of course, he must do) he is pursuing the more automatized routines of data collection—is a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit, and which he must contrive somehow first to grasp and then to render. And this is true at the most down-to-earth, jungle field work levels of his activity; interviewing informants, observing rituals, eliciting kin terms, tracing property lines, censusing households … writing his journal. Doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of “construct a reading of”) a manuscript—foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries, but written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of shaped behavior.” (Geertz)

This complexity, for Geertz, merits his 'thick description' approach, which would not permit a science of society or culture in the way touted by Lévi-Strauss or Durkheim. Some go further than Geertz suggesting that the particularity of cultures leads to incommensurability, that undistorted translation is impossible (Povinelli, Radical Worlds, 2001). Testable hypotheses concerning social interaction or theories of society and culture are unachievable on these grounds.
The tension between universality and particularity is at the core of anthropological inquiry and is part of the reason for its heterogenous constitution. How can overcome this? The high priests of Big Data suggest that it is just a question of computing power. If we have enough data (the problem here is that is the data being gathered representative of the breadth of human activity) then it will just be a matter of crunching the numbers. Perhaps there is something to this, but until we are all wearing devices that record our every activity and analyse the patterns that emerge from our individual and collective activity it is hard to imagine how it will be possible. I believe there will continue to be a demand for the high quality contextualised data that social and cultural anthropology can produce. There is also the problem of how to theorise about this data. Without the right frame for interpreting the data how will we make sense of this data?
At present there seems to be a real problem in producing testable hypotheses that also reflect activity in the world. Today I have only pointed the problems with current approaches. Perhaps a new frame is needed with which. My next blog will consider Jakob von Uexküll's Umwelt theory and the work of Tim Ingold on a new concept of biology as including culture as possible ways in which to reframe the debate. Enactivist approaches will also be considered as they promote novel ways of approaching social cognition and social interaction.

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