Jo Setchell

Professor Jo Setchell is fascinated by all areas of evolutionary anthropology, but her key interests are centred around primatology. Jo teaches evolutionary anthropology at Durham University but also still conducts research on primates such as Mandrills in Gabon.  Her book, Studying Primates: How to Design, Conduct and Report Primatological Research has just been published this year.

PM – Firstly I’m interested in knowing a bit about your work. What you’ve been doing and what you teach at Durham. 

JS – I have just got back from the European Federation for Primatology meeting and before that I was at the African meeting. 

PM –   Do you get to travel a lot on with your work? 

JS – Yes, if you work on primates you have to travel, as there are no wild primates in the UK. And then conferences are often International too. 

PM – What exactly do you teach at Durham?

JS – I teach mainly primatology but also other aspects of evolutionary anthropology. 

PM – I haven’t learnt a lot about evolutionary anthropology. Could you sum it up for me to let me know what it is exactly? 

JS – It’s an evolutionary approach to anthropology as we are primates, and humans evolved, like all other animals. So, studying primates and other animals can tell us a lot about human evolution. 

PM – How did you get into that?

JS – I studied biology initially. I was always interested in mammals and I got particularly interested in primates and animal behaviour and then if you study primates, that’s relevant to evolutionary anthropology because we’re also primates.

PM – Could you tell me a bit about the research that you’ve been doing? When I was looking at your work online, I was really interested in how you can conduct ethnographic research with primates.

JS – Basically we don’t do ethnographic research with primates but with humans. With primates we take a more quantitative approach and use natural science methods, so we study their behaviour like you would study the behaviour of any other animal with quantitative methods. Part of that is just a cultural difference between the social and the natural scientist and part of it is because we can’t converse with primates. 

PM – What’s your favourite primate and why?

JS – I have lots of favourite primates but probably mandrills because they’re the species I’ve studied for a long time. They’re fascinating in lots of different ways. They live in the deep forest, so they’re difficult to see. They live in enormous groups which is unusual. Some of the largest groups that you get in primates. They’re spectacularly coloured. The males and females have red noses and blue cheeks. And they’re fun and great to spend time with. Also, it’s often the last primate that I saw. Maybe some of the ones that are under studied like Tarsiers. 

PM – What’s the most interesting research or field work that you’ve taken part in?

JS – I suppose my fieldwork in Gabon because I’m most familiar with Gabon as I lived there for many years. I got to know the place over time, and I have a good relationship with my collaborators there and I know the animals really well. So probably my work with mandrills. 

PM – In your journal, you were saying about humans and primates living alongside each other, could you tell me a bit about that because that sounds interesting and I presume challenging.

JS – I think it really depends on the situation. There’s quite a lot of problems with humans living alongside animals anywhere, in this country too. You have people who are perfectly prepared to live alongside nature and other animals and then people who are not. The future almost entirely depends on the humans because the primates do what they’ve always done. If they share their landscape with humans, then the humans have the power to destroy or to maintain the habitat and the animals. Those are the main risks, I think. 

PM – What’s your favourite book on primates? 

JS – It’s difficult as I have a lot of books about primates. Probably Alison Jolly’s final book Thank you Madagascar. It is about primates but also about people and about Madagascar. I really enjoyed that. 

PM – Do you have any book recommendations on environmental or evolutionary anthropology?

JS – I’m not really an environmental anthropologist but at the moment I’m reading Rambunctious Garden by Emma Marris which is fun. I think there’s still space for a good book on evolutionary anthropology. The book How humans Evolved by Robert Boyd and Joan B. Silk, is probably the best general textbook on evolutionary anthropology. 

PM – Have you got any books or research coming up? 

JS – I have just published a book, Studying Primates and I have several research projects running the moment.  I just had a paper published on mandrills.

PM – Have you changed your bookshelf before this interview? 

JS – No it’s how it always is. 

PM- How do you organise your books or is it just organised chaos?

JS – A bit of both. The ones that are on the bookshelf are divided into areas. There’s primatology and then there’s more general on field guides and stuff on mammals. There’s anthropology books and journals separately and because the primatology ones are the most numerous, they’re in alphabetical order by author. 

PM – Where do your books come from and how do they leave? If they ever leave the office…

JS – They come either from publishers, because once you’re published academic you can get books from publishers more cheaply than you can buy otherwise. I get a lot from Amazon and other online sellers and from conferences or colleagues. I very rarely get rid of books but if I have duplicates, I might give them to students. And they leave when I loan them to someone that doesn’t give them back! 

PM – The classic! What was your first anthropological book? 

JS – I think for anthropology, it was lent it to me by one of my colleagues, Bob Layton, who wrote a short introduction to anthropology or social anthropology. For primatology I think I just bought everything they had on primatology. But definitely Primate Societies by Barbara B Smuts and Dorothy L. Cheney. Oh, and maybe the first social anthropology, I don’t think it even is social anthropology but Donna Haraway – Primate Visions

PM – What was inspiring about it?

JS- That’s a tough one. It’s quite a big book. She writes like a revisionist of history in primatology, like a feminist history of primatology, but it’s outsiders’ perspective and she’s not a primatologist but it taught me a lot of about the history of primatology and also, I like a feminist approach because I’m a feminist. The approach appeals to me. 

PM – Do you feel that book was the most influential on your work? Or the one that pushed you into a direction of where you want your work to go to. 

JS – I found it useful but it didn’t make me a historian of science. It was just inspiring.

PM – Which is your least favourite book and why?

JS – I thought about this when I saw your list of questions. I don’t want to single out one but there are some…I don’t want to pick out books, but some primatology books get some of the theory wrong and I find that frustrating particularly if they’re textbooks as they are the books that students turn to. So, if they’re making relatively easily corrected mistakes, then they’re passing along those mistakes to the next generation. 

PM – Do you take books when you go to do research and fieldwork?

JS – I do if I have enough luggage space. Partly it’s whatever I’m reading. Or I would take a field guide to the primates to wherever I’m going. That’s probably about it as most primatology is published in journals and articles online. Often, I have more anthropology books with me to read. Or I’ll take lots of textbooks with me to prepare my teaching when I’m away. 

PM – Do you find with the internet has made it easier to access information that you need?  

JS – Having electronic access to a library makes a huge difference. 

PM – Do you have the books and articles that you’ve written on your shelves?

JS – At the moment I have them everywhere as my book is just out and I got all the copies yesterday so I’m busy sending them to people. They are all about primates and I keep one hard and one soft copy and then give the others away. 

PM – Are you excited to have it out? 

JS – Yes very.  Good to see the words in print. 

PM – Congratulations! Do you have other things as well as books on your shelves?

JS – Yes, I have lots. Mainly cards from students and postcards of primates. A little bust of Darwin, two skulls of mandrills, toy monkeys and other primates. 

PM – What do you think is reflected about you on your bookshelf?

JS – I think my passion for primatology and primates. 

PM – What do you think is the difference between your bookshelves and other anthropologists? 

JS – It depends. Some primatologists at least have toys monkeys and primates. I have more books than quite a lot of the evolutionary anthropologists do and probably fewer books than the social anthropologists do. 

PM – How do you compare your office bookshelf to your home bookshelf. 

JS – It’s difficult because I’m interested in primates, my home and work office overlap. I try to keep workbooks in the office with the exception of ones that I’m working with at the moment.  I tend to read and write at home because my office at home is nicer and my cat is there. 

PM – Are there any books that have a special meaning for you? 

JS – Lots. Probably ones that people have given me. A couple of colleagues retired recently, and they had copies of books that I’d never managed to obtain, that they knew I wanted and gave them to me. So, they are probably the ones that matter most. Lots are out of print books and difficult to get hold of. But they are still very important. 

PM – Do you have any that you can think of to mind?

JS – ‘Primate Radiation’ which is about the guenons of Africa. Another called ‘Old World Monkeys’ that my friend wrote in for me. We worked together on old world monkeys so that’s nice. 

PM – Do you have a book that you recommend everyone to read or mainly your students?

JS – Well I’d like them to read my book because that would make life a lot easier. But otherwise I would recommend books dependant on what they’re studying. There’s one called ‘The Evolution of Primate Societies’ which is pretty good.

PM –  Are there any books you recommend to your students, but wouldn’t necessarily read yourself?

JS – There’s nothing I would recommend that I haven’t read. Maybe with postgraduate students, I might ask them to read something I haven’t had the time to read and see what they think of it. The ironic thing about when you get promoted as an academic is that one of the ranks you attain is reader, and it was when I was promoted to reader that I stopped having time to read. When I got a new book, I would just read it.  And now I have a little table here and they live on there for a while and then get put on the shelf.

PM – Is there a book that you would never lend out, that would never leave your office? 

JS – Yes at home rather than here. I have copies of ‘The Origin of Species’ and ‘The Descent of Man’ which I would never lend out. And a very old primate book which is basically a picture book about primates.

PM- Are these early editions? 

JS- Fairly early. They’re not the early editions of The Origins as they’re worth a huge amount of money. The subsequent editions are more interesting as Darwin revised what he had to say. 

PM – Do you have sentimental attachment to physical books? I know I do, I’ve got my piles of books everywhere and there’s something magical and nice about holding a book. Do you have the same feeling? 

JS – Yes, I definitely do. I have a Kindle that I use when I travel, but not very much at home. I would much rather read a physical book. It’s not that I like to refer to them, but I like to be surrounded by books. My mentor had this beautiful office full of books, and I just thought one day I want to have an office full of books.

Professor Jo Setchell was interview by Phoebe Mckenzie

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