Social Evolution Forum
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Addressing the Field Site Concept: A Cognitive Anthropologist’s View

In the essays presented by Whitehouse and Wilson, both authors present an account on developing field sites for studying cultural evolution. The target essays are presented from the viewpoints of an evolutionary biologist (David Sloan Wilson) and an anthropologist (Harvey Whitehouse). While I am generally supportive of their proposition, there are also logistical concerns with maintaining field sites that should be discussed. This commentary is presented from the viewpoint of a cognitive anthropologist and a recent doctoral graduate who, despite a relatively short career, has conducted her own research at multiple field sites.

There is a particular point, stressed by Whitehouse, which I believe should be a focus of future research projects. Namely, evolutionary approaches should be the theoretical foundation for the investigations at field sites such as those described by Whitehouse and Wilson. Whitehouse has noted that the differences between Psychology (EP) and Evolutionary Theories of Culture (ETC) may not be that great. This is not a new stance, as he has argued for it before (Whitehouse, 2004). Synthesizing the different evolutionary approaches to culture should be a target for projects such as those outlined in the target articles. This is because finding a theoretical framework that is appropriate for investigating the wide variety of cultures targeted by projects such as AnthroLab must walk a fine line between generalizability and contextual sensitivity. However, as outlined here and elsewhere, it has been noted that both EP and ETC have their merits in helping to develop new hypotheses for research. Although many question the utility of ETC as anything more than an analogy to biological evolution (Knudt, 2015), the general focus of cultural evolution on information that is socially learned provides a focus to what it is about human social groups that make them unique. This focus on unique socially learned behaviours can be combined with evolutionary psychology, which posits that human minds evolved in order to process such social information. By assuming that all naturally developed human minds share a suite of cognitive mechanisms which evolved to process different information—including socially transmitted information (a point stressed in earlier writing on evolutionary psychology, e.g. Tooby & Cosmides, 1992, p. 24)—we can use evolutionary theory as a foundation for the study of culture.

I find the proposition of synthesizing EP and ETC quite persuasive, as I have embraced it in my own research. During my most recent fieldwork, I studied how the development of executive function and the ability to delay gratification in children can be manipulated by adopting a ritual stance or instrumental stance (Rybanska, McKay, Jong, & Whitehouse, in press). Briefly, individuals adopt an instrumental stance towards learning instrumental skills, assuming that the modelled actions are performed in the service of a specific concrete goal in accordance with normal expectations about physical causation (e.g. washing hands). On the other hand, individuals adopt a ritual stance towards learning conventional, ritualised behaviours, i.e. actions are executed in a certain way simply because it is demanded by a convention, with no clear links between actions and goals (e.g. ritual washing). These different ways of approaching actions (as instrumental or ritual) should have effects on our cognitive mechanisms. More specifically, because a ritual stance demands close attention to actions and the necessity to perform these actions correctly, it puts greater demands on executive function. This generated the hypothesis that performing actions that promoted the adoption of a ritual stance—as opposed to an instrumental stance—should have positive effects on executive function. I took this hypothesis to not one, but two field sites: Slovakia and Vanuatu. What I found was that adopting a ritual stance increased executive function and the ability to delay gratification in both field sites, and there were no significant differences between the two (Rybanska, et al., in press). In this way, one can argue that the cognitive underpinnings of executive function, the ability to delay gratification, and even those that govern the adoption of ritual or instrumental stances are likely evolved psychological mechanisms that recur cross-culturally and develop at similar points in childhood.

However, it does not take a keen eye to see that there are vast differences in the rituals performed in Vanuatu and Slovakia. While most rituals in Slovakia would be familiar to anyone with basic knowledge of Central European cultures, rituals in Vanuatu can sometimes involve rare, dangerous rituals, such as land diving, where men jump from a wooden tower with only vines tied around their ankles. At the same time, some communities in Vanuatu have been exposed to European missionary efforts, and have adopted many of their ritual practices. The historical contexts that outline the shifts from one form of ritual to another can be interpreted through the lens of cultural evolution, as noted by both Whitehouse and Wilson.

Although as a cognitive anthropologist I greatly appreciate both Wilson and Whitehouse stressing the importance of fieldwork, as a researcher  who operated in multiple field locations in both Europe and the South Pacific I would like to stress a logistical issue that cannot be overlooked; namely, the  issue of funding. While Wilson suggests that funding is not of utmost importance, the idea that this sort of research can be sustained at a university without funding is unrealistic. Students, particularly graduate students—who are producing much of the work in the field—cannot sustain themselves, pay the fees requested by universities, and sustain a field site without additional funding; even paying undergraduates “very affordable wages” is an additional cost not afforded to most researchers out of tenure track. Although Wilson appears to recognize that tenured faculty have certain liberties to pursue such research because they are permanently salaried, such positions are increasingly rare (The American Federation of Teachers, 2003) and currently some universities are employing as many as 70% of their employees on temporary contracts (Chakrabortty & Weale, 2016). Such a system is not conducive to setting up and sustaining field sites in and around universities. Furthermore, setting up and sustaining field sites in multiple remote locations entail additional costs of travel and lodging which are not feasible given the economic circumstances of many researchers who are not beneficiaries of research grants. As such, the sustenance of the field sites may be subject to fits and spurts of research as they fall between cracks in funding cycles.

Whitehouse acknowledges that “one of the most obvious barriers to progress is funding”. However, one could add that it is not just securing funding, but the efficient and appropriate allocation of funds to sustain a project as ambitious as that outlined by Whitehouse, which involve costs such as research assistance, travel, lodging, equipment costs, and other research expenses. It is true that some research expenses can be cut down. Using my own research project as an example, I studied the vernacular language of Vanuatu (Bislama) which enabled me to not only conduct all of my research in the field without a translator and thus eliminating significant costs, but also, as an anthropologist I was able to create greater rapport with the local communities. Although this is an imperative for establishing a field site, it is being neglected by many researchers, creating distance and lost meanings between researchers and communities. From an anthropological perspective, creating bonds with the local communities is of high importance, although this is not always the case as some researchers treat local communities as merely their own personal participant pool.

Logistical concerns notwithstanding, it is admirable that both Whitehouse and Wilson are emphasizing the importance of fieldwork for the study of culture. It is true that this has been underrated and neglected and many researchers have felt that field work can be replaced by lab experiments with college students. Wilson and Whitehouse are right that in order for us to understand culture, it is in relation to our environments, both biological—as stressed by evolutionary psychology—and social—as stressed by cultural evolution—and that a well validated theoretical perspective can generate insights and explanations that lab experiments alone cannot provide.

Chakrabortty, A., & Weale, S. (2016, November 16). Universities accused of ’ importing Sports Direct model ’ for lecturers ’ pay. The Guardian, p. 2. London. Retrieved from

Kundt, R. (2015). Contemporary evolutionary theories of culture and the study of religion. London New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Rybanska, V., Mckay, R., Jong, J., & Whitehouse, H. (in press). Rituals improve children’s ability to delay gratification. Child Development.

The American Federation of Teachers. (2003). The Growth of Full-time Faculty Challenges for the Union (No. 36–0700). Washington, D.C. Retrieved from

Tooby, J & Cosmides, L. (1992). The Psychological Foundations of Culture. In Barkow, J., Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (eds.) The Adapted mind : evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Whitehouse, H. (2004). Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Images copyrighted by Veronika Rybanska. All rights reserved. 


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