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2018 SPA LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARDEE: Thomas S. Weisner

Psychological Anthropology is an incredibly rich discipline, and I have been very fortunate to have been a part of our field as my intellectual and personal home, shared with so many wonderful colleagues and students. My graduate experience at Harvard in Social Relations and Anthropology, training by John and Beatrice Whiting, fieldwork in Kenya on the effects of rural-urban migration on children (and the importance of sibling care), participation in the Children of Different Worlds project (Whiting & Edwards, 1988), the methods and interdisciplinary training I enjoyed, and the convoy of fellow students and collaborators I came to know, provided a fortunate start. Then, just as fortunate, I joined a terrific program at UCLA in the Anthropology and Psychiatry Departments with a large, interdisciplinary group in psychological and medical anthropology. Robert Edgerton led the Psychiatry program for many years, and the SPA itself, and Ethos, began in the late 1970’s while I was an assistant professor.

Our field includes most of the big conceptual continents in the social sciences: Culture and context; the mind; our evolved brain and body; both qualitative and quantitative mixed methods; and understanding well-being and outcomes that matter for persons, communities, and institutions. For those of us who study human development, cognition, education or related fields, we can add learning and the acquisition of cultural knowledge.  How is cultural information learned in childhood and throughout life:  how is it acquired, internalized, transformed, shared, integrated, remembered, used and transmitted? In other words, what’s not to like about Psychological Anthropology as an intellectual project!?

Our ethnographic, comparative studies of children, parents, and families around the world is a magnificent achievement accomplished by so many in Psychological Anthropology as well as allied fields, and is an enduring contribution to anthropology and the social sciences. The importance of international, comparative and cultural research on child development is clearly increasing in many fields today.

A number of topics long taken as universal and unquestioned in child development are being critiqued and re-examined, including the presumption of exclusive maternal-child dyadic care in a conjugal family (rather, the importance of socially distributed multiple care of children, including sibling caretaking, in diverse families), autonomous individualism as the primary goal for development; the standard attachment paradigm, dyadic joint attention, the “30 million word gap”, exclusive emphasis on children’s individual needs and stimulation (in addition, the importance of children’s contributions to shared family goals), parent-child play, and many others. Many of us in Psychological Anthropology are deeply involved and often at the forefront of this new, critical research.

We are well-positioned to contribute to this revitalization. The WEIRD critique (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies dominate research samples and concepts, making claims of generalizability or universality inappropriate and unlikely) (Henrich, Heine, & Norenazyan, 2010) is widely circulating. We have the ethnographic research and the mixed methods traditions to lead the way to take advantage of this critique, which of course always has been central to Psychological Anthropology.

Psychological Anthropology also takes on many of the central questions of the social sciences more generally – questions that cross into psychology, philosophy, clinical, health and medical topics, and other fields. These include, for example, the origins and sustaining of commitment to a particular way of life in families, communities, and cultural groups, as well as resistance and conflict to it. We focus on the self and self-construal, and social identities. The mind, self and experience are embedded in the social networks, communities and institutions around us; where are the boundaries/gateways? Well-being is a deeply cultural contextual experience and outcome – how best to measure it?

Thanks very much to the SPA for honoring me with the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award. One of the rewards includes our recent tradition that the awardees (Bradd Shore, our 2019 awardee, and I) enjoy a breakfast with SPA members at the biennial meeting, and the members get to ask us questions. They are interesting questions; here are some from this year’s meeting in New Mexico. “How have our ethnographically grounded theories and findings led to broader interdisciplinary conversations (and how did you do manage to do it – it’s not easy!)”. “Are team and collaborative training and research good, or better to do individual fieldwork and scholarship?” (Bradd Shore appreciates the values of individual fieldwork; I’ve enjoyed team collaborations). “Why don’t other disciplines (as well as much of sociocultural anthropology itself) appreciate and use Psychological Anthropology and culturally-informed ethnographic research more, like education [or fill in your favorite other discipline here]?” “What about the role of psychoanalysis in Psychological Anthropology today?“ “Why is funding so damn hard to get in our field using our methods?” And quite a few more; it was fun, and to be continued for many decades to come.

Henrich, J., Heine, S., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 61 – 135.

Whiting, B. and C. P. Edwards (1988). Children of Different Worlds: The Formation of Social Behavior. Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press.