Anthropological Primatology

Capuchin stealing from humans. From

Today we will focus on primatology within anthropology. Although there are important aspects of methods and objectives for primatology within biology and psychology, I want to leave topic that topic for this week’s e-portfolios.

Riley (2013) addresses several ways in which anthropology informs and aids primatology. She addresses the importance of the interaction between primate field study and the local cultural context. She also explains that primatologists within anthropology benefit from their anthropological training, and that primatology in turn informs and interacts with the other fields and sub-fields of anthropology.

She highlights the importance for reflexivity, which she believes is fostered by broad, four-field anthropological training, and recognition of social or cultural biases. She also addresses how broader anthropology widens our perspectives of what we consider “natural” or “typical.”

What is reflexivity? Why is it fostered within four-field anthropology? How has it influenced primate research? Can reflexivity be fostered by other disciplines? Describe some of the examples she uses regarding gender, dominance, and human cultural values. Are the changing questions, foci, and conclusions within primatology a result of anthropological reflexivity, or due to progression of primate research over time in different species and environments?

Temple macaque. From

Riley (2013) also highlights the importance of the anthropogenic context. As discussed previously, primatologists often sough isolated “natural” environments in order to study “natural” behavior. However, this view conceptualizes human influences as unnatural. Riley draws attention to the interaction between cultural anthropology and primatology, as both study humans and other primates that overlap in habitats. She describes the rapidly expanding area of ethnoprimatology, and its emphasis on ecological sympatry (how multiple species occupy and navigate the same environment). Rather than seeing humans as separate from nature, she emphasizes that they are a part of the environment, and an important selective pressure on primate species.

What is sociological theory, and do humans fit into it? What are human niches and their relation to non-human primate species. What is behavioral plasticity, and how does it relate to human influence? How can cultural anthropologists contribute to primatological research? How can primatologists contribute to cultural anthropology?

From the Monkey Bridge Project, Inc.  Those are my 2008 field course students! So proud of their contributions!

Finally Riley (2013) highlights the relationship between conservation and applied anthropology. Many conservation projects serve to protect or preserve land for endangered primates, but are difficult to put into practice without the cooperation of the humans around them. Riley (2013) reminds us again that we need to recognize humans as a part of nature, and collaborate with cultural anthropologists to achieve sustainable conservation goals that work for both the humans and non-humans.

What is “informed primatology?” How does Riley’s concerns affect other disciplines’ approach to primate research? Compare Riley’s (2013) article to Strier’s in Primate Ethnographies. Are they the same, or are there important differences? How does this relate to anthropological primatological theory?


About Dr. Michelle A. Rodrigues

I am a primatologist/biological anthropologist who studies comparative social behavior and endocrinology. My dissertation research focused on stress and friendship in female spider monkeys. Most of my graduate research was conducted at El Zota Biological Field Station, with a little help from the spider monkeys at Brookfield Zoo, IL. I have also studied howler monkeys, rhesus monkeys, bonobos, and chimpanzees, as well as participated in studies on gorillas, pachyderms, and big cats. Currently, I am a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois, where I am examining how female friendship and social support mediate stressors experienced by teenager girls and female scientists. I've taught courses in introductory biological anthropology, world prehistory, and co-instructed a field course in primate behavior and conservation at El Zota. I love teaching about primates and evolution!
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37 Responses to Anthropological Primatology

  1. Sara Greene says:

    In Riley’s article she discusses the impact of reflexivity on anthropological studies. Reflexivity refers to circular relationships between cause and affect. This concept has led scholars to consider how the sociocultural contexts in which we exist shape our notions of what is typical. Riley shows this through her example of how it was believed that hylobatids could provide insight on the evolution of monogamy in the human species. However, after studies were conducted it revealed that hylobatids exist in variable communities rather than typical pair bonds making scholars rethinking what monogamy really is. I feel that Riley is trying to stress the importance of not letting concepts or ideas that affect the human world and try to mold them into the primate world.

    • With hylobatids, it was original studies that indicated that they were in male-females pairs with offspring… so that lead the interest in them as models to understand monogamy. The variable group size/composition and EPCs (extra-pair copulations) required years more research and the technology to analyze DNA. So I don’t think that the original classification of monogamy was wrong, but it did generate more interest in studying them (though still are not they still not very well-studied). But , can hylobatid pair bonds and various grouping styles give insight into what “monogamy” is in humans? Does it help us realize the biases we use in looking at our own sociocultural context?

      • Sara Greene says:

        That is a good point by looking at other primates grouping styles maybe it can give us insight into why humans evolved into a monogamous society. We can see the disadvantages and advantages to each grouping style and realize the biases we have in our own sociocultural context. I think that humans see monogamy as just single pair mating but by studying other primates grouping styles it can give us insight into possible human behavior.

      • (in response to Sara’s point below) One problem with humans’ conceptions of monogamy (those is changing with respect with to both understanding human and non-human primate behavior), is that it is considered in held back by the sociocultural conventions of what monogamy should be considered (to death to us part, man and woman, etc), compared to the realities of it. Cultural anthropologists documented humans living in monogamous pair bonds, polygamous groups centering around one man’s pair bond with multiple pair-women, and polyandry, centering around in a woman’s pair bond with multiple men. But, we also know that even societies focused on traditional monogamy, cheating (EPCs), break-up/divorce of pair bonds (serial monogamy), as well as same-sex pair bonds, and more complex social or sexual practices beyond these categories. So why should we be surprised that other primates can have similar diversity (plasticity) in social and sexual bonds?

      • shawmk11 says:

        In response to Dr. Rodrigues’ second comment, I think Riley was trying to demonstrate how instead of going into the field, and coming up with the research topic or question based on observational findings, early scholars were going into the field with very stringent preconceived notions, and were ideally hoping just to find and provide support for how humans live in society today.

        In my mind, it makes more sense for all animals, whether human or not to be non-monogamous, for the sake of species longevity. Although it would be difficult to implement this in today’s society where so much value is placed upon marriage and the status that accompanies it, the idea of monogamy essentially limits the reproductive success of a species. Ideally, males would want to mate with as many females as possible to ensure that their genetic information would be passed along, thereby requiring many different partners.

  2. hermdj11 says:

    Reflexivity allows researchers to consider how their notions are shaped by the sociocultural contexts in which they exist. By recognizing our biases Riley states that we can understand why we ask the questions we ask. I think that this is fostered in four-field anthropology because a majority of the work done in anthropology is theory based. Even in archaeology we can never perfectly reconstruct a past culture so theory has to come into play. The theories we make as researchers are often constructions of our own biases no matter how hard we try to admit it. I believe the changing in foci around primatology is a result of more specific questions being asked but I do consider reflexivity as another factor based on the influx of new people with different sociocultural backgrounds that are doing research in primatology as well.

    • hermdj11 says:

      typo: The theories we make as researchers are often constructions or our own biases not matter how hard we try to DENY it.

      • There has been some interesting comparisons between how American (and other) Western primatologists’ research processes and finding, versus Japanese primatology. Because it was a different cultural context, include less of a philosophical divide between animal/human and focus on group-wide processes rather than individuals, they developed in slightly different ways.

  3. pounmp13 says:

    Riley defines reflexivity as the “constant awareness and consideration of how we as researchers shape the research process, the data we collect, and the conclusions we make”. In simplified terms, reflexivity is being conscious of how we as humans influence the entirety of research. This has influenced primate research because by researching and being around a primate, the primate alters their behavior, thus altering the data we collect. Riley discusses reflexivity in regards to women during the 1970’s and 1980’s when an increase in woman researchers caused an increase into looking into the behavior of women. Riley then discusses how the perspective of dominance in the late 70’s early 80’s altered to reflect “Western” ideas of males having the power and the females fulfilling the domestic roles. In regards to the changing of focus and questions within primatology, I think the changes are a result of both reflexivity and a progression of research. While research methods have progressed and become more refined and exact in recent years, I do not think they are entirely responsible for the changes. I think that changes in social thinking in recent years has also lead to the changes in focus and questions within primatology research.

  4. charlottegable says:

    According to Riley, “informed primatology” is primatology that has been shaped and affected by the populations studied as well as shaped by the sociopolitical contexts of the area. Riley does raise concerns about differences in theories and frameworks in primate research, but she ultimately is hopeful that there are enough overlaps and mutual interests among different approaches to lessen the gap between primatology and sociocultural anthropology. Riley hopes that over time, and with self-reflection, primatology can be comfortably situated in both biological anthropology as well as anthropology as a whole.

    I think that both Riley and Strier are similar in that they focus on the importance of conservation, and the overall broadening of what primatology encompasses. They both wish to expand primatology from just focusing on the actual primates to also include the study of the interrelated nature between the primates and humans that live in the same environment. Charles Janson states in Riley’s article that “…all primate behavioral ecologists in the future will have to be conservation activists if they wish to have anything to study at all”, which is also a theme in the Strier readings. Based on these two readings, conservation definitely seems to be an important emerging topic in the field of primatology.

  5. wilkma11 says:

    I think sometimes it can be difficult to see the comparisons between biological and cultural anthropology, and it seems like Riley is trying to close that “abyss” as she calls it. She offers the explanation that primatologists can contribute to cultural anthroplogy because “science always happens in a context” (Riley, 416). Raw biological data that a primatologist collects won’t answer research questions unless it is put into a broader sociocultural context. Riley offers the example of primatology of conservation – there is a shared interest across multiple disciplines and includes cultural anthropology.

    • charlottegable says:

      I agree; I think that Riley is definitely trying to push towards conservation, which will be able to unite primatology to both the local human culture and the effects of that culture on the environment of the primates. I think making these connections between disciplines is an important step in the study and future of primates.

    • hermdj11 says:

      I agree with Alex when she discussed the comparisons between biological and cultural anthropology. Raw biological data are objective observations made in the biology or behavior we can describe. However, if we wish to explain WHY we see the data that we do, we need to offer explanations through more of a theoretical approach. The theories that we offer are a result of our own sociocultural context.

    • How well do you think it closes the abyss? Although Riley addresses some issues that are relevant to all of primatology (recognizing that both humans and non-humans are sympatric species, focus on better conservation efforts), i think that she most focused on the areas of research that include the most interaction and overlap with sociocultural context.

      One thing I am disappointed that she didn’t focus enough on is how sociocultural and primatological anthropologists frequently study social systems and social behavior. Yet I believe the “abyss” is still there, in that the focus on areas of overlap where primates and humans encounter each other, instead of highlighting similarities and differences between these branches. Obviously, methodology is different, and many sociocultural topics are not amenable to study in non-human primates, but I do feel that some sociocultural anthropologists engage in anthropodenial.

  6. Throughout her article, Riley stresses the importance of reflexivity in anthropology. In my opinion, reflexivity is the ability to look back on your work and carefully analyze your methods for any potential flaws. Furthermore, thinking reflexively demands you to review the study as a whole, not just focusing on the results produced. Anthropologists, like historians, writers, and biologists, must practice reflexivity in order to eliminate biases and other unaccounted for influences that would otherwise reduce the legitimacy of their results. For example, in her article, Riley explains how judeo-christian values have been effecting the way we view the relationships of hylobatoids. Personally, I don’t really think reflexivity is drastically influencing the foci and questions of anthropological studies. However, I do think it is having a big impact on the conclusions that are being drawn recently. Since, reflexivity is usually done after a study has been put into motion, I don’t think it would change the initial questions we have.

    • cavakn13 says:

      I like your definition of reflexivity–that it is really about the researcher’s ability to reexamine his/her work and evaluate it for biases and flaws, I think that is the most important part of it rather than the cause/effect definition which is a little bit vague. One of the most interesting points from Riley, in my opinion, is not only about reflexivity being the awareness of how we as researchers can affect the research process through our own biases, but also how it relates to the question of human activity as an evolutionary process. Riley points out “how human niche construction may be altering the selection pressures affecting primates” (Riley 415), and how that raises questions about how human and non-human primates may be “coconstructing their overlapping niches” (Riley 415). Reflexivity is a personal and public– how are you, individually, as a researcher impacting your results, and how you, as humans, are affecting the environments in which the primates live.

      • Oh that’s interesting, I didn’t really think to include the public aspect of reflexivity in my definition. I do absolutely think that researchers are having influencing the habitats of primates. However, I think the evolutionary time-scale is far too massive for researchers to have a substantial impact on the selective pressures affecting primates.

      • cavakn13 says:

        That’s a fair point too. I do agree that the evolutionary time scale is too big, but I liked her point. Maybe more importantly is the idea that humans can have an extreme impact, although not necessarily an evolutionary one.

      • Replying to chris below: the macroevolutionary time-scale is massive, but microevolutionary process can happen quite quickly! While it may not be viewable within our lifetimes (because so many other primates have long lifespans), it might be evidence within a few generations. Furthemore, there are anthropogenic influences that cause lead to social changes (for example, Sapolsky’s study about the TB outbreak that killed the garbage raiding monkeys and caused a shift to a less-aggressive gorup–and those survivors will be the ones to pass their genes on to following generations).

    • Good point, I’m glad you pointed to the need of reflexivity in other fields. While anthropologists have training that often makes aware of these issues, it applies to other fields in improving upon methodology and refining analysis and interpretation. I do think reflexivity contributes to new questions, but also believe that many of the growing directions within primatology are based on the expansion of research into more species and habitats, in conjunction with new technologies to study genetics, hormones, parasites, etc.

  7. stewmm0 says:

    Riley uses the term “informed primatology” to emphasize how many factors, human and non-human, can influence every aspect of field work and research. Her article sets out to prove that sociocultural anthropology and primatology are not only related, but are deeply interwoven, and therefore, all sub-fields of anthropology that can be applied to research should be. There simply are no “pristine,” “natural” areas where primates are “untouched” by human behavior and influence. She argues that humans are a critical part of the environment and niche of the primates they study. These primates are constantly being affected by the humans around them and these anthropogenic factors, so human influence and interaction should always be considered part of their study, rather than dismissing the area as less “pristine.” Therefore, the human populations need to be studied in conjunction with the primates and to always be informed of the social and political context in behind any field work is being done.

    By understanding the complex cultural, religious, economic, and political factors that influence local human populations, primatologists and anthropologists can develop a specific conservation plan that caters to the needs of the primates as well as respects the customs of the humans in the area. Many conservation plans fail due to the lack of involvement and cooperation from local populations. This is an issue Riley wishes to address in her article as well.

    Riley also urges students, academics, and primatologists to consider the social and political context whence they come. She encourages researchers to reflect upon their biases, something that any good anthropologist should try to do.

    • berkgc13 says:

      I agree with your points about how human involvement and influence is inevitable, and we are better off recognizing it rather than ignoring it. It is an interesting concept, because on the surface most of us would probably think that our own culture would not influence the way we view primates. I think it would be very interesting to do more research into how religious and political climates have influenced primatological studies in the past.

  8. clifmm13 says:

    Reflexivity is “the constant awareness and consideration of how researchers shape the research process, the data they collect and the conclusions they make.” It is fostered in four-field anthropology because it is easy for researchers to put their own beliefs and biases into what they study and into the data itself. Because Primates are so similar to us, it is even more important to practice reflexivity.Within the article the author talks about reflexivity regarding gender, dominance, and human cultural values. In her example regarding gender there was an increased amount of female researcher in the 1970’s-1980’s. This caused a lot of feminist views to come out and much more work was done on female primates. Through this research we broke the previous ideas that females were merely passive objects of mate competition. We also learned more about the importance of maternal investment. I think that the progression on Primate research is more of a result of research over time rather than reflexivity because as we learn more about ourselves, and go through movements within our own lives, it makes us want to re-evaluate other societies like those of primates.

    • wilkma11 says:

      I like the points that you used to outline the concept of “reflexivity.” It is a really neat concept and I love the idea of a fluid, ever-changing field of study. It enables the researcher to remain active and alert while studying. I had a conversation with Dr. Miller in the Anthro Department about Primatology and she said she likes studying bones and fossils because they “won’t move, and won’t change on her,” but that she understands the appeal of things that do.

      I do like what you said about how it might be more of a “change over time” situation, and perhaps evolution of the field occurs because of (or at least in close proximity with) reflexivity? Reflexivity also helps us to see how primate studies can help us learn more about ourselves, it lets us scope in on what interests us and how it relates to our own behavior.

      • charlottegable says:

        I also like the idea that reflexivity isn’t the only factor to the progression in primatology. I definitely think that anthropology in general has gone through significant changes and has changed since its inception by becoming far less anthropocentric and more towards the emic perspective. I think the overall positive changes that anthropology has shown as a whole can also be seen in primatology as we become more aware of the interconnectedness of each of the four subfields, and think more about these connections.

      • Many of the students in my PhD program studied osteological questions, and completed research in a shorter amount of time…we would joke about it was much easier on them becomes bones don’t run away! It is also very difficult to maintain a distance to your study subjects (literally and figuratively) as you both start to recognize personalities, and in some settings, the primates seek social bonds and other ways interact with researchers (I use a category of observer-directed behavior in my behavioral catalogue to record the amount and type in my data). This is something that can be difficult to get around, especially as we often get as attached to the primates as they do to us.

    • stewmm0 says:

      I think you have a point in saying that researchers are heavily influenced by the theory that is popular at the time. Having taken anthropological theory, we learned that throughout history, every movement forward into a new, different theoretical standpoint tended to seem like the best theory at the time…until a newer, “better” theory was proposed. Even in our class, everyone seemed to agree with each new theory we learned as we got closer and closer to modern times, rejecting the last theory for the new one we were learning, until we moved on to a newer and “better” theory. How strange it was that each theory seemed to be better than the last! I think that shows how easily swayed we are and how all of our ideas, values, philosophies, and motivations can be transformed rather quickly. So I also think that we are largely a product of our time, and that the theoretical framework in which we operate (the popular theory of the time, the theory we connect to most personally, the theory we have learned the most about or that our mentors and teachers have particularly focused on, etc…) largely dictates and biases how we conduct our research, which specific research questions and goals we maintain, and the conclusions we draw from our observations and studies.

      • charlottegable says:

        Theory is definitely a significant factor in the development of bias. I think it is important to recognize that the changes in the field of primatology as well as other fields could be due to the progression of these theories over time. Hopefully my theory class this semester will aid more in these types of analyses.

  9. Riley makes an effort to explore the ways in which Primatology intersects with the different fields of anthropology and does so using the idea of reflexivity. Reflexivity deals with the researchers awareness and consideration of how they, themselves, shape the research process, data collection and the conclusions they draw. In doing this, it allows for primatologists to do better research. Specific to primatology, many primatologists have come to recognize how their thought process and prior biases effect their research. For example Riley talks about the researchers use of self- reflection and developments of that time in their research. One of these developments was growing feminist perspectives and the idea of male dominance. Looking at the importance of gender roles primatologists zeroed in on these roles to look further into dominance and aggression, specifically male aggression and the “naturalness” of the behavior. I feel as though looking at male dominance and feminism is a direct sign of the changing times and shows how reflexivity is prevalent in primatology.

    • shawmk11 says:

      I definitely believe that an individual’s background and experiences have a significant impact on their thought processes and how they interpret information. A recent study in Psychological Science showed how simply using a non-native foreign language allows individuals to think more analytically about a topic. I first read about this study here : . This definitely branches into our next E-Portfolio topic a bit, but I think this is why it is so important to involve individuals of all backgrounds in the study of primate behavior and biology. Because of this, combining multiple different thought processes and backgrounds, new and insightful ideas can be devised that would not have been thought of by one individual alone.

  10. johndf11 says:

    Reflexivity is the ability to transcend one’s own immediate surroundings and thought in an effort to analyze and reflect on the process of study. Reflexivity provides the primatologist, or any data-gathering individual, to critique the way in which they collect and even interpret data to be sure it is in the most efficient and accurate way possible. Riley talks about the “blurring of boundaries,” (412) and how branching out across the fields of anthropology is of the utmost importance. To be able to recognize “points of intersection and spaces for collaboration,” (412) is a main goal of her article. This is very apparent when Riley talks about baboon aggression and dominance based on gender. She highlights DeVore’s initial model and how it was widely criticized but instead of being disregarded entirely, the focus was instead shifted and critiqued. I believe this is evidence of the power of reflexivity within the realm of anthropology. Without the ability to reflect, there would be no critiquing or alteration of the way research is conducted. This may be a very “chicken or the egg” argument but in my opinion reflexivity allowed anthropologists to challenge these modes and work to refine and improve them. It is possible, however, that the progression of primate research over time proved theories to be inaccurate and thus created an air of fallacy, requiring one to question the validity of previous and future hypotheses and theories.

  11. macleangray says:

    Reflexivity is very important in primatology, it exists as a way for researchers to simultaneously research going forward while at the same time reflect on their prior work. Reflexivity has become a process of how to analyze research that includes a thoughtful consideration of past research. This approach to research can be used across all 4 fields of anthropology, not just primatology. And reflexivity will be used by other disciplines in the future: as paradigms evolve and boundaries between them become less solidified reflexivity will be important for comparing these paradigms. Reflexivity has changed notions of gender dominance in primates by including more females in the research process over time. These women helped reveal to the biased male researchers that female primates have central importance in primate societies and aren’t merely mates. Ideas about dominance shifted from thinking of primates with hierarchal males to understanding that some males gain dominance through social constructs of friendship and other interactions. Reflexivity has also helped primatologists to understand some problems with monogamy when viewing them through the lens of the gibbons monkey which it turns out isn’t always so monogamous. I would say that changing questions and updated information on primates comes partly from continued research, and partly from reflexivity based on existing and current research. In some cases reflexivity may lead the researcher astray and skew information in a poor way, but it seems much more advantageous to include this research mode than not.

    • I agree with the point made that reflexivity can lead to skewed information. It seems as though the recognition of a researchers biases can lead them to one direction and keep them stuck there. It makes me wonder, what happens when one becomes so intrigued by the “naturalness” that seems to be male dominance and they begin to lose sight of the idea of observation? Do they find themselves only questioning certain behaviors? Does their focus on one area take them away from other important actions taking place within the group?

      • I think there’s two separate issues here: the ideas about what is “natural,” and changes in the research process as well. When primatology was dominated by a focus on male dominance, it was informed by researcher’s projections/assumptions regarding male dominance in humans. However, methodology was very different then, because the free-form “ethnographic”/free observation methods allowed them to focus on what they found more interesting. The shifts to systematic, quantitative data collection was a HUGE step in studying primates in a less biased manner–and shortly after that shift, we begin to see female primatologists studying female behavior, This methodological improvements made great studies in primate research (and those methods are now used in animal behavioral studies in other taxa now). However, because of the accumulation of so much knowledge, studies now focus on very specific questions, rather than general group-level processes (unless that is a focus of some research, and some new data analysis methods are making it possible learn more from the data collected). But particularly with focal animal sampling, you can only focus at one individual and their activity/interactions at the time, and often miss what may be going on with some other individuals. Scan sampling allows for monitoring a group as a whole, but it can be a lot more challenging, and has limitations on what kind of data it yields (it’s great for some projects, but not others).

    • gibbons are apes, not monkeys! but otherwise, good points!

  12. berkgc13 says:

    Reflexivity involves paying attention to and considering how researchers themselves influence the research process, including the evidence collected and what conclusions are decided upon. It requires the researchers to recognize that they are involved in the research, and consider the extent and impact of this involvement, rather than treating themselves as separate from the results. Reflexivity is important in all areas of anthropology because any time research is conducted the presence and impact of bias should be heeded. For example, in cultural anthropology, current human culture might influence the way researchers present other cultural practices because they are being compared to the researchers’ own culture in current times.
    It has influenced primate research in many ways, but a main example in the article is how a large amount of time was devoted to studying gibbons and siamangs because they were shown to practice monogamy like humans. The value of monogamy in Judaism and Christianity was likely a major influence for this desire to find other species practicing it as well. The research eventually showed, however, that monogamy was merely a mating pattern; this exhibits how humans were trying to fit their own social structures onto non-human primates when that really was not the case.
    I believe that the changing questions, foci, and conclusions within primatology are a result of both anthropological reflexivity and a progression of primate research over time. I think that those two go hand in hand, because as more research is done, more reflexivity can take place. As mentioned with the gibbons and siamang research, sometimes it takes many field studies to reveal to researchers their own negative influence on the research process.

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