Primatology is an interdisciplinary field: it lies at the intersection of biology, psychology, and anthropology. In the US, most primatologists are within anthropology departments. But this is not the case in Europe, where primatologists are frequently based in psychology or ethology/zoology/biology programs. Although primatologists rely on information and techniques from all three disciplines, there are some differences in approaches and ultimate research goals.
Strier (PBE) explains that the original goal of early primatologists was driven by anthropocentric approaches–they studied primates to learn more about human behavior, anatomy, and evolution. This is still one of the major goals of anthropological primatology. However, early studies often used certain species as analogues for early human or hominid behavior (referential models). This led to a focus on baboons (due to their savanna environment) and chimpanzees (because they were our closest relatives). In the 1980s, in conjunction with behavioral ecology approaches, there was a shift to studying how evolutionary pressures, particularly ecological factors, influence behaviors (discussed in detail in Tooby and DeVore, 1987).
There has also been a switch from an “ethnographic” approach (detailed recordings of behavioral observation) to systematic approaches (largely due to Altmann 1974, in which Jean Altmann outlined different sampling methods to observe behavior while reducing bias). These approaches allow us to quantitatively analyze results. You will be trying out several of these methods in your midterm project.
However, Strier (in PBE and PE) also brings up a number of complications to studying primates. Early studies focused on studying primates in “pristine” environments, such as undisturbed rainforest. However, there has been a shift to recognize that such environments do not exist, and the level of anthropogenic (human-influenced) disturbance an important variable in studying primate behavior. Primates can be studied in several different study and conditions sites (I’ve expanded on some of the categories Strier addressed):
2) Field studies on habituation primates without provisioning
3) Field studies with on primates habituated through provisioning
4) Free-ranging provisioned, managed groups (such as Cayo Santiago)
5) Captive studies in social groups with minimal interventions (such as at zoos)
6) Captive studies with frequent interventions (such as in lab studies that focus on experimental approaches).
There is grey area between each of these categories, and they often grade into each other. For example, primates that are not intentionally provisioned may raid crops, garbages, or tourist sites (where they can frequently either steal or beg for handouts). Similar, zoos alter group positions for breeding purposes, use operational training to monitor health and welfare, and may approve experiments or interventions that may be enriching.
How might these different study environments effect primate behavior? What are the pros and cons of each? Is one approach better than the others? Is there any way to truly study primates without potentially affecting their behavior?
Another issue is how we deal address anthropomorphism, which is the tendency to project human emotions or motivations on non-humans. On one extreme, this includes anthropomorphic characters (for example, Goofy is heavily anthromorphized, while Pluto is given more dog-like behaviors), and treating inanimate objects as you would humans (such as yelling at your computer and telling it to behave). But the other extreme is applying them to primates and other animals. However, there is also the concern of anthropodenial, in which humans deny the similarities between themselves and animals. If primatologists try to reduce all anthropomorphism (in an attempt to be objective and not project human-like motivations on the primates), they may fail to recognize some of cognitive and social traits we share. Primatologists walk a thin line between anthropomorphism and anthropodenial . Sometime we use phrasing to distance our behaviors from our study subjects (such as saying monkeys “huddle” and “embrace” when the same behaviors are “cuddle” and “hug” if we were describing human behavior). Other times there are problems with attributing human terms to primate behavior (such as calling one-male groups, multi-female groups “harems” or saying that subordinate male orangutans “rape” females).
Can we say that a chimp attacked another chimp because “he wanted revenge” because of receiving an attack the previous day? Is it really anthropomorphic to attribute similar emotions and motivations to anthropoid primates? How much can we infer about their thoughts, motivations, and feelings? How do we prevent ourselves from inaccurately interpreting their internal states by projecting our own internal states on our study subjects?
In the first chapter of Primate Ethnographies, Strier introduces some of the themes that will run throughout the book. Her objective is to address the how field primatology is enmeshed within a greater sociocultural context. This requires that field researchers consider and address how anthropogenic influence shape primate behavior, ecology, and demography. All of these factors are intertwined with conservation.
How does Strier believe an anthropological grounding benefits primate research? How can field primatologists integrate their intellectual objectives with their conservation objectives? How can local human populations influence, contribute, or impede primate field research? How can primatologists work with people to ensure that their research and conservation objections do not conflict with local humans’ cultural traditions and livelihoods?
There are many questions raised here, and you do not to address all of them at once. Address a few related questions, and we will let the discussion flow from there.