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Social brain, distributed mind

September 26, 2008

Yesterday I went down to London to attend the first day of the British Academy Centenary Research Project Symposium Social Brain, Distributed Mind. This ambitious interdisciplinary project aims at furthering our present understanding of human cultural and biological evolution “From Lucy to language”. The symposium is one among many events related to the project.

The purpose of this meeting is to bring together two powerful approaches that deal, respectively, with explaining the evolution of human brains (the social brain hypothesis) and understanding cognition as a distributed system (the concept of the distributed mind). Our objective is to compare interdisciplinary perspectives on these key issues across a range of disciplines (Archaeology, Psychology, Philosophy, Sociology, Geography, Anthropology and the Cognitive and Evolutionary Sciences) that span the Academy’s remit and extend beyond to the biological and earth sciences.

Before attending I saw this trip as a good opportunity to do some catching up with some areas of anthropological and cognitive science that have long interested me but I seldom have time for these days. I also saw it as a refreshing break from my concentration in recent times on digital media studies, social morphology (networks, fields, action-sets, etc.) and related matters.

The last thing I expected to encounter, therefore, was a discussion of mobile phones and personal networks, but this was precisely what the penultimate speaker (Sam Roberts, Oxford) delivered. This talk, entitled “Constraints and communication in social networks”, was based on Roberts’ recent study of young people and mobile phones in the UK. More significantly, the notion of network and tools of social network analysis appeared across a number of presentations and in the subsequent discussions, especially in the context of the comparative study of the social organisation of humans, other primates and monkeys. I was left wondering – for I didn’t have time to take this up with the presenters – about this unacknowledged primacy of network thinking in the interdisciplinary project. Does this notion afford people coming from very different fields a common point of reference? Does it arise from the nature of the problems being studied or from the present epistemic zeitgeist, or both? What are the pros and cons of its centrality?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jane Peterson permalink
    April 1, 2012 11:28 pm

    My dissertation work was to study how the conceptual metaphors (as in Lakoff & Johnson, 1999) technology researchers choose influence what they make. Your question about the centrality of networks in this research makes me wonder what this conceptual metaphor both affords and restricts in terms of the theories that the participants in this conference developed.

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