The Language of Anti-Reductivism

Red Root and Running Cold — two sculptures from Nancy Bowen. Each is made of glass and metal, and loosely mimics a human body (or maybe the nervous system). See more of her work at http://nancybowenstudio.com/.

One of my ongoing projects is to develop a language of anti-reductivism. It’s a project that I share with a number of social scientists and humanities scholars, and has been motivated by the turn to molecular and neurologic explanations in the hard and clinical sciences. Biological reductionism circulates in popular media too — from narratives about the hereditary nature of certain kinds of behavior to science reporting on the discovery of “the gene” or part of the brain that causes a particular disease or set of behaviors. Biological reductionism is alluring — it promises an easy explanation for a complex problem. But anyone paying attention to the influences of society on individual behavior — including the development of research questions and the interpretation of the data produced through scientific practice — would be able to see that context is a powerful factor to consider. Reducing a complex set of behaviors to a gene or part of the brain obscures more than it reveals and serves to pathologize individuals rather than motivate changing social norms and institutions.

Wherever biological reductivism is used, individuals are pitted against dominant institutions and widespread expectations of “normal” behavior and development. One of the points I make in The Slumbering Masses (and I reiterate it all the time) is that certain arrangements of sleep are a problem, not because of their physiological effects or origins, but due to the organizations of work, school, family life, and recreation that make certain schedules (i.e. the 9-to-5 workday) the normative basis to understand human biology. In effect, an individual is made to be at fault, when it is actually the organization of society that preferentially treats some ways of sleeping as “normal” and others as pathological. The same can be said for much more than sleeping behaviors and the temporal organization of society; and re-conceptualizing bioethics might be one avenue for developing new ways to organize institutions and — just maybe — society more generally.

You can following my development of a language of anti-reductivism through a set of pieces in which I develop a couple of interrelated terms, “multibiologism” and the “biology of everyday life.” Multibiologism is my attempt to conceptualize a way to work against normative assumptions about biology, based in no small part upon a history of medicine that takes able-bodied white men as its foundation against which other kinds of bodies are compared (and pathologized). Such an approach brings together thinkers like Georges Canguilhem, Keith Wailoo, Dorothy Roberts, and Lennard Davis, drawing together the philosophy and history of medicine, critical race studies, feminist theory, and disability studies. Multibiologism accepts human physiological plasticity as based in the material reality of the world that we live in, but argues that “biology” is a discursive field that is produced through everyday action (including science & medicine). It’s this everyday action that helps to comprise the “biology of everyday life,” where toxins, diet, exercise, work, and other exposures and practices shape the body and expectations of normalcy. Which is all to say that human biology isn’t a stable or predictable thing, and that it changes over the course of a lifetime, is different between societies, and is not the same as what it was for our ancestors. Making that argument has built upon insights from a century of anthropological research (drawing on Margaret Lock and Patricia Kaufert’s work on “local biologies” and Mary Douglas’ work on disgust, especially, and extends a way of thinking that Marcel Mauss started working on in his “Notion of Body Techniques” lectures) and pairs it with the history of changing attitudes to the body (following Norbert Elias, specifically).

It was my ethnographic experiences in the sleep clinic I spent the most time in during the fieldwork for The Slumbering Masses that led me to thinking about multibiologism. I often described the clinicians I worked with there are “sociological,” in no small part due to their willingness to seek social remedies for sleep disorders (rather than resort to pharmaceuticals or surgeries). It was only when I started spending time in other sleep clinics that I began to realize how sociological they were. That they were more likely to talk to parents and educators about rearranging school expectations than they were to prescribe a sleep drug was motivated by their interests in finding long term solutions to the problems that their patients faced. It also recognized that many of their patients were “normal” in their variation from norms of consolidated nightly sleep, and that reorganizing expectations was a better — and more sustainable — solution than prescribing a drug. But it seemed to me that there needed to be language to do the kind of work they sought to do — and language that provided an ethical framework that was based on the lived realities of scientists, physicians, and patients.

(If you’re keen on following the breadcrumbs, the argument starts in the final chapter of The Slumbering Masses, moves on in ‘“Human Nature”and the Biology of Everyday Life,’ reaches its bioethical point in ‘Neurological Disorders, Affective Bioethics, and the Nervous System,’ and lays the basis for Unraveling.)

When I was finishing The Slumbering Masses — and was articulating these ideas for myself before incorporating them into the book — I began to think about what the next project would be. What I wanted to do was develop a research agenda that focused on an expression of human physiology that explicitly challenged how humans are thought about as humans. That led me to consider communication, and linguistic capacity more specifically, which neuroscientists, social scientists, and philosophers (and probably others too) still identify as the defining feature of humans (i.e. only humans have language). What about humans that didn’t speak (or at least didn’t speak in ways that were recognized as normative communication)? That led me first to thinking about the then-newish discourse of “neurodiversity,” which developed, in time, into a project that focused on families wherein a family member communicates in a non-normative way. That project eventually became Unraveling, which develops a set of terms — connectivity, facilitation, animation, and modularity — that seek to provide ways for thinking about individuals, families, communities, and institutions that strike against biologically reductive ways of conceptualizing brains and behavior.

So much of bioethical thinking reinforces reductive ways of conceptualizing the individual. But what the families at the heart of Unraveling show is that disorders of communication — and neurological disorders more generally — are disorders not strictly because of some physiological difference on the part of the individual, but because of the ordering of American society and the expectations that shape what it means to be a “normal” speaker and “neurotypical.” That might be a fairly easy point to convince most social scientists of — and maybe even many physicians — but beyond this diagnostic contribution, I wanted to provide tools for reconfiguring how we talk about what the aims of bioethical intervention are, and how we might achieve them.

It has long been apparent to me that any systemic change in the way that we conceptualize medical disorders requires alliances between social scientists and clinical practitioners. Social scientists — and anthropologists especially — often make recourse to the language of complication (“it’s complicated!” or “it’s complex!”) without having the precise analytic language to describe what those complexities are comprised of and how they make lives livable. What Unraveling seeks to do is provide that language, drawing from the histories of psychiatry and neuroscience as well as the lived experiences of individuals with “neurological disorders.” Over the next few months, in the lead up to Unraveling being released, I’ll profile some of the ideas integral to the text — connectivity, facilitation, animation, and modularity — and how they undergird a cybernetic theory of subjectivity and affective bioethics.

Biological reductivism ultimately lets those in power off the hook. Being able to target individuals through pathologization (which supports the logic of medical intervention and undergirds expectations of “compliance”) enables institutional actors — physicians, educators, parents, administrators, managers, law enforcement agents, judges, etc. — to ignore the social contexts in which particular behaviors or ways of being in the world are accepted as disorderly. As disability studies scholars and anthropologists have been arguing for decades, changing social orders can many more lives livable. A robust language of anti-reductivism is one step in the direction of reordering society and social expectations, but there is work to be done in building supple institutions and relations to support the diverse ways that human inhabit the world.

Diversifying the Network

In one of the first meetings I had with my dissertation adviser, Karen-Sue Taussig, she recommended that I read Catherine Lutz’s “The Gender of Theory” and “The Erasure of Women’s Writing in Sociocultural Anthropology.” (If you haven’t read them, go read them right now.) Lutz makes two interrelated points: despite the number of women working in sociocultural anthropology, they tend to get cited less frequently than men, and when they are cited, they’re cited as providing empirical evidence that supports an argument rather than theory that can be tested or employed. (And if you think that was a problem of the 1980s and 1990s, you can read the follow-up, “The Problem of Gender and Citations Re-raised in New Research Study” [although the link doesn’t seem to be working…] and then mull over what’s really going on in pieces like this.) At the age of 25, and a few years into my graduate studies, I might have been in just the right frame of mind for such an intervention. It resulted, immediately, in a hyperawareness of my citational practices — and shaped the kinds of questions and projects I wanted to pursue.

One of those projects has been steadily diversifying the network, both personally and professionally. In 2017, I was asked to comment on an early version of Nick Kawa, José A. Clavijo Michelangeli, Jessica L. Clark, Daniel Ginsberg, and Christopher McCarty’s “The Social Network of US Academic Anthropology and Its Inequalities,” and reading its final version was a stark reminder of just how much work is to be done. If you ever wanted evidence of that, here’s Kawa et al.’s data rendered in one handy image:

kawa social network us anthro.png
A network analysis of Ph.D. placements of tenure-track faculty based on where their degree originates and where they were hired. See more here.

Here are some practices to consider if you want to disrupt the reproductive tendencies of the discipline at every level. My guiding principle is that power is meant to be subverted, and whatever meagre institutional and reputational power I have should be used to make more inclusive social and institutional networks.

Every year when I’m pulled back to the American Anthropological Association meetings, I make sure that I participate in two panels. One has to include a majority of people who I’ve never been on a panel with before; and one has to include at least 50% recent Ph.D.s (or in-progress ones) and contingent faculty or “independent scholars.” Sometimes both of the panels meet both of the criteria. I’m not sure that I have much draw on my own, but whatever draw I have should be shared with less secure or established scholars than myself. Beyond that, I want to be exposed to ideas and research that I wouldn’t otherwise encounter. I can read my friends’ work any time, but curating a panel with strangers on a topic of my choice lets me engage with new content and publicizes it for others. It also means that my network grows in these AAA-related spurts, and I’ve watched my network permanently diversify over the years through this practice.

If you keep having the same conversation with the same people, something is wrong. Even if those people are diverse, if the network stabilizes, it’s not being as inclusive as it could be. It can be hard to exclude old friends from conferences, workshops, special issues of journals, whatever, but if the collective project is to diversify the network, they should be doing the same thing to you. And this leaves you open to be included in other people’s efforts. Stale networks are pretty obvious, both from the inside and the outside. My guiding rules are a place to start to disrupt reproductive tendencies, and I’m sure that employing them will help refine a system that works for other people.

If someone asks me to do something and I can’t, I suggest a junior scholar or someone at a non-elite institution (or both). If I can’t do something — a talk, peer review, a conference panel, whatever — I always try and make sure that I provide at least three names of people who might fit the role. My preference is always for younger people than me, although I’m very sensitive to my ability to say “no” and the obligations younger scholars fell toward saying “yes.” That said, I will commit to doing something even as over-commitment if I know that the next person to be asked is someone who isn’t as diversity-focused as I am. Better a white person with an eye towards diversification than one who isn’t diversity focused (or at least that’s how I console myself).

I don’t just count citations; I also consider how a citation is being used. This is true for syllabuses and publications. I tend to start syllabuses by piling up books and articles that I’m sure I want to include in a class, and at that point make sure that the foundation of the class is diverse (i.e. at least 50% books by women, with attention to minority status ensuring that 50% of the books are also from authors from underrepresented backgrounds). After I put the rest of the syllabus together, I go through it and make sure that it’s diverse throughout. In cases where I have to include a dead, white, male writer, I make sure that the texts around that person are by other kinds of writers. I tend to make sure that 60% of a syllabus is comprised of non-white male contributors. I also try and make sure that theory and evidence are supplied equally by all of the contributors to the syllabus. (If you think that teaching the canon means only teaching dead white guys [or living ones], just remember that it’s not in the canon if it hasn’t reached the point that non-white, non-male scholars are discussing it!)

In terms of publications, I tend to make a first pass through the manuscript citing as few people as I possibly can. Part of that is pragmatic — I don’t want to get hung up on inserting citations, and if there’s a lot of new stuff I’m planning to cite, I prefer to do all of the data entry and management during the revision process. But the other part is that I learned in the past that I over-cite. I would tend to cite too many things and then have to remove them to reach the word limit I was shooting for. I found that having to remove citations was harder than having to put them in afterwards, and that working this way helped to see who I really needed to cite. Moreover, it meant that when I was inserting citations, I could be more deliberative about who I was citing for what. Like with my syllabuses, when I do have to cite a dead white guy, I try to ensure that the citations around him are more diverse. And when I have to engage with a lot of white guys, it’s usually because I’m doing some critique…

All of these citational practices are aspirational, and I’m sure that not all of my publications meet the criteria I’ve set for myself over the years. That might be hypocrisy, but it’s also due to requests from peer reviewers and editors to cite certain work and the stark reality that working in some corners of academia means there are limited sets of scholars to engage with. The solution to the latter is to develop frames for one’s work that are capacious and bring in perspectives from feminism, critical race studies, disability studies, class-focused research (not just Marxism), and postcolonial studies. The solution for the former — sometimes — is to just not cite those people, despite requests (which gets easier to do with seniority).

When serving on hiring committees, one of the implications of Kawa et al.’s research is the need to make sure that the committee is institutionally diverse. One sure way to at least contest the dominance of particular departments in the placement of Ph.D. holders into tenure track jobs is to have people who aren’t from those institutions serving on hiring committees. If your department lacks people that fit this criteria, have a faculty member from another department serve in a non-voting, consultative role. I served on a committee like this years ago, and it was helpful because the person from outside of Anthropology couldn’t have cared less about the institutions that people were coming from since his discipline had different elite institutions; he helped to focus other committee members’ attention beyond institutional backgrounds. If that sounds uncomfortable, you could have someone go through all of the applications and redact institutions, people’s names, and acknowledgement sections. (If there isn’t an Adobe macro for this, there should be…)

I’m convinced that underlying a lot of the resistance to change in the academy is a fear of being displaced in the present and the future, especially in the context of fears about the end of the tenure system and job scarcity. Wholesale displacement is unlikely, but some marginalization is inevitable. But that’s in relation to a century and a half of dominance in the university by white, male voices, so it’s relative to total dominance. Incrementalism can get a bad rap, but when the allies in power are faced with their own potential obsolescence, a gradual approach can make important headway while ensuring that the threats to individuals are mitigated. Changing institutions is a long game, and keeping the end point in mind while addressing the concerns of the present is one way to ensure that change will come, however gradual it might be.

These practices are a start towards diversification. If you have other suggestions, post them in the comments or provide links.