Social Evolution Forum
FIND sef:
Developing the Field Site Concept for the Study of Cultural Evolution: The Promise and the Perils

D.S. Wilson & Harvey Whitehouse’s essays offer a timely call for a reappraisal of the role of ‘field sites’ when attempting to explore processes of cultural evolution. Since one of us is a cognitive anthropologist and both of us have collected data ‘in the field’ at ritual events in Japan, we fully recognise the value of cultural evolution researchers entering ‘the field’ and conducting studies amongst actual communities. And whether this involves learning new methods to translate research protocols for the field or collaborating with those who already have such expertise is immaterial. The important point is that the central role of field research is acknowledged.

In this response, however we do not seek to offer just cheerleading approval. Indeed, as individuals who have worked closely with Harvey Whitehouse on ritual research projects we can hardly be considered unbiased commentators. Consequently, we do not provide an in-depth critical review of the target articles but instead offer, first, a complementary recommendation and, second, an important note of caution concerning ‘field site’ research.

In Wilson’s article, he raises an argument that he has stated repeatedly: that evolution can serve as a general framework to unify research in the social sciences, including that conducted in the ‘field’. We agree with this and note that there are several researchers who have already demonstrated how productive such a perspective can prove. However, we also wish to emphasise that rather than being just an effort to recommend in the future it is equally important for previous social science research that was not necessarily collected within an evolutionary framework to be reappraised.

Alex Mesoudi’s (2008) research, for example, incorporates a selection of theoretical models from social psychology, including work addressing the conditions for imitation and social learning (e.g. Asch, 1951; Festinger, 1954; Bandura; 1977), but explores their implications from an explicitly evolutionary perspective. Moreover, we also have numerous examples of how adopting an evolutionary perspective can help to dissolve interdisciplinary boundaries, enabling biologists and social scientists to work together (e.g. Conradt & List, 2009; List, Elsholtz & Seeley, 2009; Kameda, Wisdom, Toyokawa, & Inukai, 2012). Pre-Darwinian theoretical models in political science from as early as the 18th century (Condorcet Jury Theorem; cf. List, 2004) are also being used productively as one of the basic models of collective intelligence that can be used to model collective competence in biology (Sumpter & Pratt, 2009; Wolf et al., 2013). These are just a few examples which demonstrate that taking account of evolutionary theory does not automatically require that the extensive existing social science findings be discarded. Instead, a critical reappraisal is necessary, to avoid wasting time ‘reinventing the wheel’.

A clear parallel can be drawn here from the immensurable benefits extracted in post-Darwinian biological research from the diverse body of observational data collected prior to the development of the theory. Social science research, including material from the arts and humanities, could prove equally important to researchers of cultural evolution in the 21st Century. There are already examples of how productive such efforts can prove, including research based on phylogenetic analyses which rely on pre-existing data from linguistics (Grey & Atkinson; 2003), anthropology (Atkinson & Whitehouse, 2011; Wats, Sheehan, Atkinson, Bulbulia & Grey, 2016) and archaeology (O’Brien, Darwent & Lyman, 2001). The field of cultural psychology also represents a vast and still developing repository of information that researchers of cultural evolution should be advised to consult regularly. This is not to endorse the methods or the robustness of all the various cross-cultural theories, but to emphasise that much work has already been done in identifying cultural landscapes with relation to geo-political or ecological factors (e.g. Gelfand et al., 2011, Talhlem et al., 2014).

Clearly there is still much work to be done and a vast quantity of existing second hand material that should be consulted and analysed. Yet, it is also the case that first-hand experience with field research is hard to overestimate. Both Wilson and Whitehouse, despite long productive careers, clearly regard their own early experiences in the field as being formative and of immense value for their later research. Based on our own experiences, we would fully echo this sentiment.

However, the note of caution we wish to raise arises precisely due to the romantic allure of the field and the extra credibility that (often) accompanies ‘field site’ data. Although the unpredictable nature of field research can leave those trained in traditional tightly controlled laboratory studies feeling very uncomfortable, it is paradoxically the case that field research which is cross-cultural, and includes non-WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialised Rich & Developed) samples is accorded a certain level of prestige and attention. At the time of writing, google scholar records 2247 citations for Henrich et al.’s paradigmatic 2001 paper in this mould and 1062 citations for a 2006 follow up on costly punishment. Admittedly these were ground-breaking papers, but the point we wish to emphasis is that while there remains steadfast opposition to field site studies in certain quarters, in many respects the battle for the need for field-based research is a battle which has already been won. And the interest in Henrich et al.’s papers reflect that.

But the increasing prestige for studies with diverse field site research also brings with it potential risks. The first is a point raised by traditional social and cultural anthropologists, that empirically-minded researchers occasionally seek to extract data from a field site a) without being willing to put the necessary time into understanding the local context and b) with little thought of ‘giving back’ to the community, except maybe through acknowledgements in papers that most of their participants will never read. The unofficial term for this is “helicopter research” because it involves parachuting in and then quickly departing from a research site (see Flicker et al. 2007). This is a serious issue and is one of the reasons that attempting to develop genuine collaborations with anthropologists and other experts who engage in long-term research is essential for those who may be new to ‘field site’ based research and do not have contacts with a targeted community/area. Opportunistic short-term collaborations are sometimes appropriate, but we argue that the standard procedure should be to develop long term relationships and a deeper personal familiarity with any field site that is the subject of research.

There also needs to be efforts made to offer meaningful benefits to the communities studied, where this is possible. Compensating participants for their time is a basic requirement, but there are many other less-direct ways to provide something valuable to communities without compromising research ethics. For example, when collecting responses for an online survey on ritualised promotional experiences amongst Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) practitioners, we also collected more general information about training experiences and then presented the information as infographics on a freely accessible website ( This was warmly received by the wider BJJ community and entailed no substantial financial cost. This is not a call to adopt the advocacy model widely found in social and cultural anthropology, which brings with it the potential for a host of conflicts of interest, rather it is to advocate that as a field we should seek to early on establish good standards of practice.

Another general risk of field site research relates to the eventual presentation of research and the potential increase in researcher degrees of freedom that uncontrolled field environments provide. Consider, for example, the image below:

This is an isolated booth we built in the corner of Daishoin, a Shingon Buddhist temple in Japan to enable participants to take part in a simple economic task designed to measure trust. Upon completing our survey, participants were escorted to the booth to collect a small monetary reward for taking part. Before entering, they were instructed to select one of two envelopes: the first had included a set amount of money (300 Yen) and the second an amount divided by another attendee at the festival which could range from (0-1000 Yen). The rationale for the task is that if the participant trusts that the other festival attendee was fair then they should expect them to have split the 1000 Yen award evenly, meaning that there should be 500 Yen in the envelope (the other attendee took the remainder for themselves) and that it is therefore the more attractive choice. Alternatively, if the participant suspects that the other attendee would have been greedy and took more than 700 Yen for themselves, then they should select the other guaranteed amount envelope which they know contains 300 Yen.

The image above could easily be presented in an article as evidence that we built a semi-controlled, private, and somewhat sterile environment during a busy firewalking festival. But that would be misleading. For a start, it would ignore that directly facing the boxes was the following image:

Not exactly a neutral environment, especially with the claims made about eye-spots and prosociality. However, that’s not all. Here’s another shot of the outside of the ‘booth’, which you might note contains a rather prominent picture of the Dalai Lama, a figure prominently associated with moral behaviour.

These are the kind of environmental details which are very difficult to avoid when collecting data in a Buddhist temple, but they could easily be omitted from a journal article. What could also be omitted is that it became clear during data collection, based on what many respondents said when inside/leaving the booth, that they were trying to select the envelope with the lowest amount to be more generous or not appear greedy. Following the logic of the trust task, such a response technically indicates the participant has less trust in other festival attendees, but this was clearly not the motivating factor for these participants. And this is a serious problem because the trust task protocol only works if it is reasonable to expect that people are profit maximising, but this did not appear to be a valid expectation within the surrounding religious context.

In addition to the issue of motivation, there was also a significant problem with comprehension. We had designed and piloted a trust task that we thought would be very simple to understand and we were collecting data in Japan, where there is a high standard of education amongst the general population. However, even with detailed written and verbal instructions, the task proved to be very confusing, with several participants exiting the booth to ask the experimenter which envelope to choose or inviting friends to join them in the private area. The point here is not to denigrate our participants, but to emphasise that even in a country with a literate, highly educated population, a simple economic behavioural task can prove very challenging to implement. For researchers working with isolated tribal communities that lack experience with currency, who rely on local translators, such issues are likely to be magnified greatly. See, for instance, the dismay of the economist Andreas Ortmann (2005) about the various ‘idiosyncrasies’ in framing, participant recruitment, and experiment instruction reported in Henrich et al. (2001).

Ultimately, we did not make use of the trust task data because of the myriad of methodological issues. However, this decision itself also represents the exercise of a potentially problematic researcher degree of freedom. The non-reporting of outcomes and selection of only ‘successful’ results can be a serious problem and result in inaccurate biases seeping into the research literature. Selective reporting appears to be a significant factor in what has come to be known as the ‘replication crisis’ in psychology and other disciplines. The solution here lies both in field site researchers being honest about limitations (we intend to report the failure of the task in the final paper) and in adopting more contemporary research standards, including: the pre-registering of studies and outcomes and providing open access to data for other researchers to explore.

While the above might sound negative, we would like to end our response by reiterating that we are in full agreement with both Wilson and Whitehouse’ arguments in favour of the importance of field site research and that an evolutionary perspective can serve to unite future research efforts. We believe that such an approach, if conducted with appropriate care can provide a wealth of new insights and even potentially serve as a bridge to bring together disparate disciplines. But to achieve this it will be essential to both reappraise existing social science research- regardless of its evolutionary underpinnings, and take due consideration of the methodological and ethical issues we raise above.

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