In a set of two captivating essays, Harvey Whitehouse and David Sloan Wilson share their views on the role of the field site concept in the study of cultural evolution. They each present a vision for a holistic research paradigm that combines contextual sensitivity with methodological rigor. I salute this view, and I attempt to add to the point by drawing from my own research experience.

As someone who was trained across disciplines and has spent several years in the field as well as in various laboratories, I have come to appreciate the benefits of each research paradigm but also to be wary of their respective limitations. More importantly, I have come to realize that the lab and the field are not antagonistic modes of inquiry but two sides of the same coin. I find the “two cultures” problem raised in Whitehouse’s essay to be the greatest impediment to a holistic understanding of human nature, because it creates a false dichotomy, expressed along numerous dimensions: explanation versus understanding, measurement versus observation, laboratory versus field, and so on. I find such dichotomies counter-productive, and often detached from reality, as they are primarily the product of specific socio-political factors pertaining to academia itself rather than a response to discontinuities found in the natural world.

It is true that methodological specialization is necessary to deal with the complexity of our world. However, one should not mistake a discipline’s limitations for its virtues, or confound what is convenient with what is desirable. Laboratory experiments afford precision and simplicity. But while precision is always desirable, simplicity is a mere methodological tool that helps us increase precision, and it comes at a steep cost: in the human behavioral sciences, the more we simplify the phenomena we examine the more we move away from them, as the complexity we are trying to reduce is an inextricable part of what we want to isolate (Boster, 2011). Inversely, field observation allows social scientists to study precisely the things that matter to them (real-life), but is very difficult to conduct in truly scientific fashion (although, as Wilson points out, not impossible). But to argue, as some cultural anthropologists do, that scientific methods are undesirable rather than simply hard to implement seems like the result of cognitive dissonance.

As a result of this fallacious thinking, we are led to not only methodological but also epistemological and even ontological encapsulation between disciplines. This leaves us with a landscape in the study of human behavior where the vast majority of studies gravitate around one of two main attractors: on the one hand (upper-left in the graph), we have ethnographic field studies, which are high in ecological relevance and validity but low in control and precision; and on the other hand (bottom-right), we have lab studies, which are high in control but low in relevance. What we all want, of course, is the closet possible approximation of that (possibly unattainable in itself) ideal top-right corner. And the best way to reach that space is by building a methodological bridge that connects field and laboratory methods. This bridge can provide a path for cross-disciplinary dialogue and mutual enrichment, as well as the scaffolding for inter-disciplinary approaches that combine the strengths of each type of method.

Naturalistic experiments (typically pseudo-experiments that employ precise quantification in a real-life setting without random assignment) may allow the researcher to assess phenomena that cannot be studied either in controlled experiments or by participant-observation. For example, my colleagues and I have studied the inter-personal alignment of psycho-physiological states during the performance of large-scale, highly arousing collective rituals (Bulbulia et al., 2013; Konvalinka et al., 2011; Fischer et al., 2014). Such studies would have been impossible to conduct in a laboratory setting because, a myriad practical reasons aside, these rituals are heavily laden with meaning that cannot be evoked at will in an artificial context. Neither would we have been able to approach our questions on the basis of ethnography alone, as we were interested in internal states that are often inaccessible to participants (Xygalatas et al., 2013).

Some times, controlled experiments are also possible in the field. For example, when we wanted to study the effects of environmental cues on behavior, instead of using a highly controlled but artificial laboratory environment, we went out to the real world and used temples, restaurants, and libraries, and either randomly assigned participants to different locations or made minor interventions to the environment itself (Krátký et al., 2016; Xygalatas et al., 2016). Thus, by embracing the complexity of the real world while giving up only limited control, these designs too offered cumulative benefits that neither ethnographic observation nor laboratory experiments alone could offer.

Needless to say, some things are better studied in specific ways. If we are interested in the favorite topics of gossip within a community, conversations with trusted informants will reveal more than any quantitative method. But if we are interested in neurological reactions to gossip, the controlled environment of the neuroscience laboratory is ideal. Which brings us to another important reason for building that bridge between the lab and the field.

The systematic, incremental production of scientific knowledge consists of a circle which connects observation, theory, prediction, testing, and re-evaluation. Each time the circle is repeated, we (hopefully) become a little bit wiser. As Wilson points out, laboratory research must be informed by field observation in order to ask the right questions. But as Whitehouse emphasizes, observation and description are not the same as explanation –that requires experimentation and systematic comparison. Any individual study can only tell us so much. To gain a holistic understanding of social evolution, we need to consider cumulative evidence, completing the puzzle one piece at a time. And to do that, we need to move back and forth between field and lab studies, but also, crucially, to understand that neither the former always need to be devoid of control, not the latter must always be detached from real-life settings. The two authors offer compelling arguments on why and how to do this, including the nitty-gritty of establishing, running, maintaining, and connecting field projects. They warn that this is not an easy task: it is expensive, time-consuming, and requires overcoming long-established disciplinary boundaries. I know all of that to be true from personal experience. But I also know the cumulative benefits of combining laboratory and field methods to be greater than the sum of their parts

Literature Cited
Boster, J. (2011). Data, method, and interpretation in cognitive anthropology. In: A Companion to Cognitive Anthropology.

Bulbulia, J., D. Xygalatas, U. Schjødt, S. Fondevila, C. Sibley & I. Konvalinka (2013). Images From a Jointly-Arousing Collective Ritual Reveal Emotional Polarization, Frontiers in Psychology 4, article 960.

Fischer, R., D. Xygalatas, P. Mitkidis, P. Reddish, I. Konvalinka & J. Bulbulia (2014). The fire-walker’s high: Affect and physiological responses in an extreme collective ritual. PLOS ONE 9(2): e88355

Konvalinka, I., D. Xygalatas, J. Bulbulia, U. Schjødt, E. Jegindø, S. Wallot, G. Van Orden & A. Roepstorff (2011). Synchronized arousal between performers and related spectators in a fire-walking ritual, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) 108 (20): 8514-8519

Krátký, J., J. McGraw, D. Xygalatas, P. Mitkidis, & P. Reddish (2016). It depends who is watching you: 3-dimensional agent representations increase generosity in a naturalistic setting, PLOS ONE 11(2): e0148845

Xygalatas, D., U. Schjødt, J. Bulbulia, I. Konvalinka, E. Jegindø, P. Reddish, A. W. Geertz & A. Roepstorff (2013). Autobiographical Memory in a Fire-Walking Ritual. Journal of Cognition and Culture 13(1-2): 1-16

Xygalatas, D., Kundtová Klocová, E., Cigán, J., Kundt, R., Maňo, P., Kotherová, S., Mitkidis, P. , Wallot, S. & Kanovsky, M. (2016). Location, location, location: Effects of cross-religious primes on prosocial behavior, International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 26(4): 304–319

Image via Lawrence Michaels.