Department of Anthropology
Academic Staff - Greg Downey
|Postal Address:||Department of Anthropology
Faculty of Arts
When I first fell in love with anthropology at the University of Virginia, I did so out of an odd nexus: I took a class on social deviance with Richard Handler, worked as a door-to-door salesman one summer in the Four Corners region of New Mexico, and became fascinated by the intersection of economics and culture, something I could not learn about in my economics units. When I tried to explain to one of my economics professors why I was switching my concentration to anthropology, he said: 'You want to study "taste".' He was right; it was the only way that economists could talk about the wide variation in values and priorities found in different cultures. Anthropology was the one discipline that seemed to me to take seriously the profound variety in the way people lived that I was coming to discover, whether in the classroom or going door-to-door with a case of books to sell.
Although my route to the subject was circuitous and too long to describe, for more than a decade I have been conducting research on the perceptual, phenomenological, and physiological effects of long-term physical training, especially sports and dance. I first turned to these topics to better understand the socialization of boys for manhood and the variety in masculinity across cultures, especially their intangible, unspoken, and corporeal dimensions. While doing my masters and doctoral degrees in anthropology at the University of Chicago, my research in sports, dance, and ethnomusicology, and my apprenticeship in the Afro-Brazilian martial art, capoeira, led to several years of field research in Brazil. I've returned repeatedly both for this project and to investigate the on-going battle between large landholders and the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (the Movimento do Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra or MST).
After completing my PhD in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 1998 and working briefly as a design consultant in Chicago, I first joined Columbia University's Society of Fellows in the Humanities, where I taught in that university's core curriculum, reading texts from Plato and the Qu'ran to Hayek and Foucault. In 2000, I accepted a position at the University of Notre Dame, where I taught until the end of 2005, convening units on research methods, anthropological theory, Latin America, applied anthropology, and music of the African Diaspora.
Although I arrived at Macquarie in 2006, my first year here has been spent on leave from teaching with support of a writing grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Inc. I look forward to returning to my teaching duties and will be convening the department's units on human rights and culture, ethnographic research methods, and economic anthropology. I also hope to institute a new unit for undergraduates on human evolution and diversity that will allow students to learn from new discoveries about human origins, genetic variation, ethnicity, sex, child development, primitive technology, and our species' early social organization.
In my teaching, I strive very hard to help students to develop anthropological skills in research, analysis and writing so that they might be applied in a wide range of settings. Through my research and other activities, I have been persistently involved in human rights work, principally in Brazil, but also through my involvement with Amnesty International. This area of specialty includes a special focus both on research ethics and on applied anthropology in advocacy work. I serve as the anthropology department's representative on the university ethics committee that reviews proposal for human research and am available for consultation by graduate and honours students interested in research design and ethics compliance.
After researching economic development on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and New Mexico for my bachelor's degree and the reception of African popular music in the United States for my master's thesis, I turned my attention to Brazil in 1992. I became fascinated with the Afro-Brazilian dance and martial art, capoeira, in which I became an apprentice and off-and-on instructor. This research resulted in my doctoral thesis and my first book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art ( Oxford, 2005), as well as several articles.
Throughout the project, I grappled with capoeira practitioners' claims that the art changed their perceptions, bodies, and dispositions toward the world. The more closely I looked at recent research in the neurosciences, the psychology of perception, sports physiology, and dynamic systems theory, the more interested I became in how cultural patterns of training and behaviour might affect the body's and brain's development through concrete physiological processes. More simply, I became interested in how culture affected biology in measurable, practical ways. This trajectory arose especially from good working relations with colleagues in biological anthropology (such as Agustín Fuentes, James McKenna, and Susan Sheridan) and a year working with cell biologist and feminist critic of science, Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling, while a Fellow at the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women of Brown University. Dr. Fausto-Sterling coordinated an inspiring year-long seminar on Embodiment that brought together biologists, neuroscientists, and psychologists with scholars from the social sciences and humanities.
My research broadened to include other forms of physical training, especially other martial arts, no-holds-barred fighting, aquatic sports and foraging, gymnastics and circus, and, most recently, extreme endurance sports, such as ultra-marathons and Native American running races that stretched over days. This research led to a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Inc., to complete a book in 2006-2007, currently entitled, The Athletic Animal: Sports, Evolution, and the Human Body's Potential. This book uses elite athletes to demonstrate how humans modify their own bodies, nervous systems, and senses. Far from being the "brainy geeks" of the animal kingdom, I argue, humans are among the most physically versatile because of the plasticity of our nervous system and our ability to guide the development of our own (and each other's) bodies. Ironically, the subject has led me to a type of holistic anthropology I was not trained to do, one that brings social and cultural research and theory together with attention to psychology, the brain sciences, physiology, and ecology.
My other research includes a fascination with how culture affects economic life, especially where human rights are in the balance of economic questions. I have worked with the Landless Movement in Brazil, but this interest is increasingly leading me to look more broadly at conflicts between corporate and human rights, between extractive industries (logging and mining) and small-scale farmers, and between cultural forms of masculinity and attempts to curb domestic violence.
2005. Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art. New York: Oxford University Press.
2006. Co-edited with Melissa Fisher. Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Peer Reviewed Articles
Forthcoming (2007). "Producing Pain: Techniques and Technologies in No-Holds-Barred Fighting." Social Studies of Science.>
2005. "Educating the Eyes: Biocultural Anthropology and Physical Education." Anthropology in Action: Journal for Applied Anthropology in Policy and Practice 12 (2): 56-71.
2005. "The contribution of cross-cultural study to dynamic systems modeling of emotion." Commentary on Marc D. Lewis, "Bridging emotion theory and neurobiology through dynamic systems modeling." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28 (2): 201-202.
2002. "Domesticating an Urban Menace: Efforts to Reform Capoeira as a Brazilian National Sport." International Journal of the History of Sport 19(2): 1-32.
2002. "Listening to Capoeira: Phenomenology, Embodiment, and the Materiality of Music." Ethnomusicology 46 (3): 487-509.
Forthcoming (2007). "Seeing without Knowing, Learning with the Eyes: Visuomotor 'Knowing' and the Plasticity of Perception." In Ways of Knowing, edited by Mark Harris. Berghahn Books.
2006. With Melissa S. Fisher. "The Anthropology of Capital and the Frontiers of Ethnography." In Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Perspectives on the New Economy. M. S. Fisher and G. Downey, eds. Pp. 1-30. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
2006. "The Information Economy in No-Holds-Barred Fighting." In Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Perspectives on the New Economy. Melissa S. Fisher and Greg Downey, eds. Pp. 108-132. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Currently working on:
Book manuscript for The Athletic Animal: Sports, Evolution, and the Human Body's Potential. (With support from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Inc.)
Edited volume, Senses of Difference: New Perspectives in Sensory Anthropology, in the series, Sensory Formations, edited by Dr. David Howes, in development for Berg Press.
And articles on imitation in cultural theory and the mirror neuron system, the 'aesthetic of violence' in no-holds-barred fighting, and the leveraging of property rights for social change in Brazil.