Conversations with: Professor Fiona Jordan

This week, I am very happy to introduce Professor Fiona Jordan, an evolutionary and linguistic anthropologists from the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Bristol! Fiona’s research primarily seeks to understand the evolution of cultural diversity using data, methods and theory from a variety of disciplines, such as biology, psychology, anthropology, and linguistics. She is the leader of the excd (Evolution of Cross-Cultural Diversity) lab, based at the University of Bristol, which investigates how the staggering, yet not infinite, variety in human culture has evolved. Prior to her professorship, she has also worked at University College London in the Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguists in the Netherlands.

What are your current research interests and particular area of expertise within biological anthropology?
Kinship, stories, and plants. Not quite as random as it sounds! My lab’s name (Evolution of Cross-Cultural Diversity) tells the overarching interest we have in explaining human cultural variation from different angles and in different domains. And I say “we” because all the research I do is highly collaborative. We’re in our last year of a 5-year ERC-funded project ‘VariKin’, using cultural evolutionary, linguistic, and developmental perspectives to understand kinship system diversity. We’ve also been wrapping up a project on the cultural transmission of stories in order to investigate what makes a story memorable: the tale, or the teller? In the last few years I’ve been involved in a number of cross-cultural database initiatives: KinBank for our VariKin project; D-PLACE (the Database of Places, Languages, Cultures & Environments); CHIELD (see below); and NumeralBank.

What originally drew you towards biological anthropology? 

I was a very ‘humanities’ student in high school–lots of art history and English and drama–but I had a seventh form biology teacher who did a great job teaching human evolution and introduced me to the notion of anthropology. I did my undergraduate and masters at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, at a time when Anthropology was very ‘four-field’ and for a while I thought I might be an archaeologist–even took a geology course! But I was also enjoying the psychology in my degree and that was at the time when the ‘evolutionary turn’ in the social sciences was just starting to take off. So biological anthropology seemed like a brilliant crossroads of all the things I was interested in. So much so that instead of being happy with my BA in Anthropology, I also did a BSc in Biology. Always keen…

What is the Varikin project? Where do you hope this project will go in the future?


The project’s full title is “Cultural Evolution of Kinship Diversity: Variation in Language, Cognition and Social Norms Regarding Family.” A bit of a mouthful, but the project is a multi-disciplinary attempt to understand why human societies differ in who they class as family. In particular, to understand why across the world we see a variety of ways of categorising kin, and what patterns this variation. For example, in English we have different words for siblings and cousins. But in many languages (Maori from New Zealand is a nice example), speakers use the same words for cousins and siblings. And some languages–Hindi, for example– distinguish types of cousins by the relatives you’re related through. But the variety isn’t endless. Kinship term patterns have fascinated anthropologists for decades, but cross-cultural studies fell out of favour before we really cracked the puzzles. And now, we have new methods from evolutionary biology, big datasets of natural language use across a range of cultures, and the ability to conduct systematic fieldwork and study how children learn. So we’re taking advantage of these new approaches and data to build a global database of kinship terminology patterns, and to use the methods I mentioned to tackle the questions anew. 

We’ve a number of findings in the publication pipeline, but some of our early results showed that shared ancestry (i.e., what language family or group your language is a member of) is a strong predictor of the kinship pattern, and has more of an effect than social norms like marriage or inheritance rules. Anthropologists have argued for one or both of these explanations for many years but our global analysis quantified the trends. We also tested the claim that the more a word is used, the slower it is to change. This appears to hold for kinship terms–terms for close family members are used more, and they change slowly (actually, super-slowly, compared to other vocabulary. And in work with Datooga children from Tanzania, Alice Mitchell has shown that adults adopt the child’s point of view when using kinship terms. Further work comparing across a range of languages has shown this phenomena (e.g. “Where’s Granny’s bowl?”) to be consistent, so it looks like adults have to help kids figure kinship terms out: they’re difficult to learn.

Dolls used by Alice Mitchell in 2018 in Tanzania to elicit kinship terms from children during their natural play

What other projects are the excd lab currently working on?
Our Transmission project, investigating storytelling from a cultural transmission perspective, has just come to a close. We’ve a big paper in submission showing how we compared different kinds of social learning biases in the telling of a creation story. We designed a novel experimental paradigm that drew on the fact that as listeners we have “accent prejudice”. We used this as a way to establish social status or “prestige” as one of the biases. And right now I’m working with other researchers to set up a new project to investigate these social biases in stories cross-culturally. Another project, led by Dr Sean Roberts now at Cardiff, is CHIELD – an exciting database that brings together hundreds of hypotheses about language evolution. Sean marshalled together an extensive team of contributors (some number of excd.lab members, including our undergrad researchers) to systematise causal hypotheses about how language evolves. Future work will continue my interests in natural resource management. I’m combining my personal love (plants and gardens) with research questions about the cultural uses of plants–what is often called ethnobotany. With colleagues at Reading and Norway, I have new projects that use phylogenetic methods to understand traditional medicinal uses of plants in Oceania and in the Viking world.

For you, what are the benefits and challenges of working in an interdisciplinary team? 
To be honest, I wouldn’t know any other way to work! I’ve never been satisfied with single explanatory frameworks for human behaviour, and while everything I do is rooted in the reality of evolutionary principles, I think dogmatism about disciplines constrains our ability to answer the big questions about culture. It’s a personal benefit because there’s always an interesting new perspective to take on a question: can we think about some cultural phenomena from different angles? And it helps alleviate the ego issues of being “wrong”. I’m always wrong, because there’s always some other part of the puzzle that another discipline can bring, but I’ve learned not to take that personally. It can be challenging to work with people across disciplines and to be patient while everyone learns each other’s dialects, but there’s also a real joy in being a translator for other people in that respect. The most challenging thing is never feeling that deep level of expertise in any one subject. I’m always learning (or struggling to catch up) on new methodological developments across biology, statistics, and linguistics, and keeping on top of the subject literature as well.

Fiona (front) and the excd (Evolution of Cross-Cultural Diversity) lab from the University of Bristol demonstrating the benefits of multidisciplinary teamwork to get out of an escape room!

You have worked and studied in a variety of countries across the world. Have you found that the research environment has differed and if so, how?

The different countries were all at different phases of my career: undergrad and masters, PhD, postdoc, and faculty, so sometimes it’s hard to disentangle differences from career experience. I worked in a Max Planck Institute in the Netherlands that was purely research-focused, and while it was amazing to have fantastic resources and research as my only responsibility, the pressure is intense, not all of it healthy. Universities are more balanced and allow people to use all of their skills in different ways at different stages, but that diversity of demands can also be challenging. One interesting reflection on national differences is that I think my New Zealand undergraduate experience was exceptionally high quality. I had amazing world-class lecturers (though I didn’t realise it at the time, of course!). It combined the rigour and depth of UK subject-focused programmes with the flexibility of North American-style teaching, and allowed me to pursue a number of independent study projects. Funding for pure social science research is tricky in New Zealand, though: there’s a small population base and a focus on applied research. 

How has academia changed since you did your PhD?

It’s vastly more competitive, both due to the ever-increasing high standards and the sheer number of people with PhDs. But also a lot less tolerant of prejudice and status games, which is a good thing. It feels easier to speak out about cronyism, and bad behaviour. There’s a way to go on all fronts, especially race and class privilege, but those conversations happen in a way that just didn’t 20 years ago.

What is your best advice to an anthropology PhD student embarking on a career in academia?

In terms of a “career in academia”: don’t listen to people like me who got their jobs 10-20 years ago! We’re the product of survivorship bias. The numbers are against you from the start, even if you’re brilliant, even if you have all the passion in the world, even if your supervisor thinks “you’ll be fine”. Have a Plan A: Academia is Plan B. To keep things in perspective, think of your PhD as training to be a researcher and an expert. Society needs incisive anthropologists in so many walks of life, so grasp all the opportunities to broaden your skills and horizons. It’s the delight of learning new things that leads you to even contemplate the weird, strange life of a PhD – holding on to that is key. Finally: be a good colleague. Be kind and generous, be interested, and be interesting. 

Fiona (festively) working on computational aspects of her research at her desk

Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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