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Defining and Implementing Field Sites in Cultural Evolution Science


Harvey Whitehouse and David Sloan Wilson write two important commentaries on the role of field sites in the study of cultural evolution. Their contribution is especially timely considering the recent formation of the Cultural Evolution Society (CES). We have had the pleasure of working with Wilson and Whitehouse as part of the society’s steering committee and in this commentary we offer a psychological perspective on their vision of field sites in cultural evolution science. First, we seek to clarify what exactly a “field site” is in the context of research on human behavior. Next, we offer some recommendations for the types of field sites that may best serve cultural evolution as the field gathers momentum.

Briefly Considering Definitions
Consider whether the following data-collection centers should qualify as “field sites”:

Center A: A zoo-based research laboratory, where non-human animals are raised and studied in captivity.

 Center B: A study of fraternities and sororities at a large public university.

Center C: A study of online gaming communities which offer small amounts of money for participants to fill out online research surveys.

Center D: A small village in Papua New Guinea where a team of scientists are collecting behavioral data from local inhabitants.

Based on their commentaries, it is fairly clear that Wilson and Whitehouse do not consider Center A to qualify as a field site. Both authors point out that field sites take place at specific geographical locations where organisms can be observed in their natural habitat. These sorts of investigations can yield insights that experiments on captive animal populations could never offer. Wilson cites birds’ migratory patterns—which could never be observed in captive populations—as an example of such insights.

However, it is less clear whether under the authors’ definitions, Centers B-D would qualify. Whitehouse appears to disparage university campus research, noting that “restricting the study of cultural evolution to university campuses would arguably be equivalent to trying to study biological evolution exclusively in a zoo or aquarium,” yet human subjects in a university laboratory actually have far more in common with Peter and Rosmary Grant’s finches than any animal in captivity; both laboratory undergraduates and wild finches are living in a rich naturalistic environment—such as the above case of living in fraternities and sororities—that is informing their responses to experimental conditions and stimuli.

Similarly, in a study of online communities, participants may be taking a survey on a computer, but well-designed surveys of the dynamics of such communities approximate real life experiences in meaningful ways. In this sense, a high quality computer survey could rival any in which researchers fly to far-flung areas of the world to personally run experiments using non-WEIRD samples (“Center D”). In both cases, experimenters are testing valid theories of cultural evolution using targeted populations.

This exercise suggests that we need to be wary of using a narrow definition of “field sites” in the study of human behavior. Are they data collection centers where scientists study a specific population’s interaction with their environment? If so, many centers (virtual or face-to-face) where people collect data from human subjects could qualify as a field site. Or are they data collection centers where researchers study a small sample over time? If so, then hardly any mode of human subject data collection qualifies as a field site; indeed, this latter definition seems prohibitively narrow to serve as the paradigmatic foundation for a field as broad as cultural evolution.

Moving Beyond Definitions
The previous section’s semantic puzzle suggests that we should be doing more than simply recommending that researchers use field sites. Instead, we should be offering guidelines for how researchers should be employing their field sites broadly construed (i.e. centers of data collection on human behavior) to best serve cultural evolution theory. To this end, we offer three simple methodological recommendations—based on our own research experience—for how field sites should best be employed in cultural evolution scholarship.

  1. Field Sites Should Be Cross-Cultural. Each human society operates within unique ecological constraints, and cross-cultural research is ideal for mapping the influence of ecological variance on cultural evolution. For example, in our research, we have found that levels of ecological threat facilitate the development of stronger cultural norms (cultural tightness). This relationship occurs because cultures under threat face increased pressure to coordinate their behavior to sufficiently compete with other cultural groups, and we would never have observed it had we not been able to collect survey and archival data from 33 countries alongside dozens of international collaborators. We define “cross-cultural” very broadly—it could include but is not limited to variation across national, state, community, religious, class, and ethnic groups.
  1. Field Sites Should Be Multi-Method. Research on human behavior should operate at multiple levels of analysis using multiple methods to test for theoretical convergence. Human behavior varies from society to society, from state to state, from situation to situation, and from person to person. A strong cultural evolution theory should make predictions at each of these levels of analysis, and doing so requires methodological breadth. In our research on culture and norms, a combination of big data analysis, experimental designs, survey data, computational models, and neuroimaging have revealed that tightness-looseness has a fractal nature—no matter what the context, threat facilitates the development of stronger norms, which results in a range of downstream effects on attitudes and behavior which we refer to as the tight-loose trade-off for nations, states, groups, and individuals. Tight groups, for example, have greater order and self-regulation but greater ethnocentrism; loose groups have much more disorder and self-regulation challenges, but are more open and creative. By investigating this trade-off across levels and with multiple methods, we can begin to build general principles for the field of cultural evolution. 
  1. Field Sites Should Be Interdisciplinary. One exciting feature of cultural evolution research is its post-disciplinary nature. The CES membership already involves dozens of fields, and research in cultural evolution often involves interdepartmental collaboration. This approach to science minimizes the risk of theoretical redundancy, and helps researchers learn from one another, rather than talking past each other. Field sites should be no different, and we have tried to capitalize on interdisciplinarity in our research on tightness-looseness. At the moment, we are collaborating with anthropologists, computer scientists, political scientists, sociologists, management scholars, neuroscientists, and biologists in an effort to better understand the relationship between ecology and the strength of social norms. These collaborations have expanded the questions we ask, the way we can test them, the samples on which we test them, and have helped us broaden the implications of our findings.

We derive these insights from our own research, but see no reason why they shouldn’t apply to cultural evolution methodology in general. Indeed, given that field sites connote very different meanings across human and animal behavior, we believe that simply recommending them may not be enough to paradigmatically guide cultural evolution scholarship. If field sites are cross-cultural, multi-method, and collaborative across disciplines, however, they can improve the quality of our field, and help us make major steps toward understanding the evolution of human behavior.


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