Dr. Barbara Smuts, professor of Biopsychology at the University of Michigan, knows she isn’t a rock, which is actually very useful information when studying animals. Similarly, for example, baboons are also aware that the scientist sitting nearby is not an inanimate lump. As Smuts discovered, once this mutual acknowledgement has happened, a whole world of possibilities begins to unfold: Suddenly greetings and etiquette and the potential of understanding social relations from a closer, less detached position emerges.
In this interview, Smuts introduces us to her embodied and embedded approach to research. Such an orientation includes paying attention to research results that are often dismissed as mere “noise.” Through highly detailed and rigorous methods, such as frame by frame analysis of dogs’ play behavior, Smuts discovers worlds of emotional, psychological, and social richness too often denied to exist within animal societies. As she explains, her work draws on “evolutionary theory, studies of complex systems, and developmental research to examine the dynamics and functions of long-term social relationships.”
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