Interdisciplinary Primatology

The interdisciplinary approach to primatology is essential;  if primatology divorced from any one of the the three disciplines, it would be hold back the progression of research. The three major disciplines are anthropology, psychology, and biology. Within anthropology, we study primates within the subfield of biological anthropology (which already is two of these disciplines combined). Within psychology, primatological research can be under within  cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, biological psychology, comparative psychology, evolutionary psychology, or neuroscience. Within biology, it can be in zoology, ethology, ecology, evolutionary biology, intergrative biology, organismal biology, and whatever combinations of Es and B’s departments can up come with (I will refer to them as EEB for simplicity).

My point is that primatology incorporates methods and theory from many different sources, and there is no clear line dividing academic disciplines. Primatologists usually try to incorporate multiple disciplines into their coursework and literature reviews, which makes them a good fit for several different departments. For example, when I chose between PhD programs, it came down to  two choices: 1) an interdisciplinary EEB program to work with an advisor with a PhD in anthropology or 2) an anthropology program with an advisor who receiver her PhD in EEB, did her post-doc in psychology, and then had a tenure-track position in anthropology.

Watching Leila at El Zota. Can you find her?

Watching Leila at El Zota.
Can you find her?

So, that’s the frustrating thing. But nonetheless, it is that messy interdisciplinary situation that makes us stronger scientists. The motivations and typical research methods for each are slight different in each discipline. In anthropology, the main motivation is to get insight into the selective pressures that shaped or own species, and there is an emphasis on long-term field studies (comparable to length and locations of ethnographic work in cultural anthropology). In psychology, the main motivation is to understand cognition, and there is an emphasis on controlled lab experiments. In biology, the motivation is to understand the evolutionary pressures that shaped primate taxonomy, and situate that within the context of the mammalian class. They too generally focus on field work, where the “natural” environment allows for the study of how the primates fit into greater community ecology.

These lines are starting to blur, however. Now those three separate lines of inquiry intersect, and primatologists often switch between different types of research and topics. For example, I like to switch between field work, captive work, and lab (endocrinology) work (though I have not had as much lab time as I would like). I like each of these different types of work, and I believe that combining them results in greater insights. A friend and colleague,  Ellen Furlong, is based in psychology, and her cognitive research has spanned great apes, children, adult humans, monkeys, and dogs (check out her lab page)!  Additionally, some zoos have research programs that incorporate captive research, field research, and conservation, such as Lincoln Park Zoo’s Great Ape Conservation project.

Infant Nayembi at Lincoln Park Zoo. From


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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