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Personal profile


Greg Downey received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago in 1998. After working at Columbia University and the University of Notre Dame, he moved to Australia in 2006 to take a position at Macquarie University.

Greg’s first book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford University Press, 2005), brought together an experience-centred, phenomenological analysis of the art of capoeira with research in psychology and the neurosciences about the effects of physical education on perception. He has also co-edited volumes, including The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT Press, 2012) with Daniel H. Lende, and Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke University Press, 2006) with Melissa Fisher.

Greg is the editor of Ethos, the journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, and has published work in American Anthropologist, Current Anthropology, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Body & Society, and The Oxford Handbook of Cultural Neuroscience, and is the Editor-in-Chief of Ethos, the journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology.

Greg writes about his research and other anthropological interests on the weblog, PLOS Neuroanthropology (currently inactivated; and its predecessor, An up-to-date list of publications, with many off-prints or pre-print drafts can be found at my Google Scholar site.

Research interests

Greg Downey's research focuses on the effects of skill acquisition and bodily training, especially on motor and sensory learning, from an integrativve biocultural and neuroanthropological perspective. He studies these processes in the context of sensory learning, sports, music, dance, and sensory disability. He also has significant secondary research projects in areas of international education, service-based learning, human rights, the ‘new economy,’ and evolutionary theory.

Greg is currently working with vision impaired individuals who echolocate or use active sonar in their daily lives and with other highly skilled individuals whose abilities require altering how their nervous systems function (such as free divers).

Research in the neurosciences, the psychology of perception, and sports physiology all suggest that highly skilled individuals enculture their bodies and brains at a variety of levels: physiological, neurological, behavioural, and interpretive. Activities like sports are an ideal natural experiment to study the extremes of human potential neuroanthropologically because people do things to their own bodies and brains in the course of developing elite skills that go far beyond what could be attempted in a laboratory.

Understanding the neurological and physiological consequences of training provides a model of what culture does more generally to all of us. This research draws on a wide range of data, theory, and analytical techniques, including qualitative and quantitative methods. Greg argues that it is possible to study cultural variation in cognition, perception, and even brain development from a wide variety of perspectives, and that anthropology is an essential partner for disciplines like cognitive science, cultural neuroscience and cross-cultural psychology that are increasingly recognising that humans vary more than they realisd. Physical disciplines across cultures help us explore the envelope of human self-induced change in cases like capoeira and mixed martial arts, echolocation in the blind, metabolic change in free divers, and cognitive skills in rugby and other sports.

Greg has also conducted a range of research in Learning and Teaching at the tertiary level, especially on ways to promote greater cross-cultural learning in students travelling or studying abroad. This research includes a number of collaborative projects: 'Bringing the learning home: re-entry programmes to enhance study abroad outcomes in Australian universities,' 'EPITOME: Enhancing programmes to integrate tertiary outbound mobility experiences,' and 'Classroom of many cultures: co-creating support curriculum with international community partners and students.' All received funding from Australian national research bodies.


Currently, Greg teaches a range of units in anthropology and socio-cultural theory. He has taught innovative courses, including running a field school in socio-cultural anthropology in Fiji in collaboration with staff from the Unviersity of the South Pacific. He has won awards for his teaching, including most notably the Macquarie University Vice Chancellor's Award for Teaching Excellence in 2013.

Over the course of his career, he has designed and delivered a wide range of classes, including:

  • Research Paradigms (Masters of Research core unit in theory)
  • Psychological Anthropology: Body, Brain, Culture 
  • Culture and Human Rights  
  • Wealth, Poverty and Consumption 
  • Human Evolution and Diversity
  • Culture, Commodities and Consumption
  • Doing Ethnography: Ethnographic Field Methods
  • Human Rights, Aid, and Intervention (postgraduate) 
  • Advanced Seminar: Biocultural approaches to sport  
  • Introduction to Anthropology 
  • Cultural Difference and Social Change 
  • Black Music, World Market  
  • Radical Social Theory 
  • Societies and Cultures of Latin America 
  • The Anthropology of Perception 
  • Contemporary Civilization (Columbia University undergraduate social theory core)
  • Introduction to World Music 

He has also designed and provided a free, open online short course in Open2Study on human evolution, entitled: 'Becoming Human: Anthropology.' That course can be found at this link: 

External positions

Editor-in-Chief, Ethos, Society for Psychological Anthropology

1 Aug 2018 → …


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