Biocultural anthropology offers an inherently interdisciplinary, cross-subfield approach to anthropological research. As such, it draws heavily upon various biological, cognitive, and sociocultural theories, among others, to point researchers towards certain methodologies and variables for inclusion in their research design. The outcome of such an approach yields a growing genre of work that articulates the ways in which the human body, at every level, both shapes and is shaped by cultural practices. As one of the four major subfields of the discipline, linguistic anthropology also engages questions regarding bidirectional connections between culture and body. Such work emphasizes the ways in which embodied experience is constantly mediated by interactions that involve words, gestures, and prosodic features such as rhythm and emphasis.
Despite a shared interest in demonstrating links between culture and body, theoretical and methodological approaches within biocultural and linguistic anthropology have only rarely been actively combined. Besides a few outlying studies by, for example, Erica Cartmill, bioculturally oriented research has rarely engaged seriously with language as a multi-modal process shaped by and shaping embodiment. Researchers in linguistic anthropology have likewise, for the most part, chosen not to focus on the biological implications of complex, culturally mediated interactions.
From my current vantage point as a linguistic and psychocultural medical anthropologist working in a department with a strong biocultural program, I am beginning to question what researchers in each area might be missing out on when they choose not to include either linguistic or biocultural perspectives when they design their research. While I fully acknowledge that it is not always possible to do everything in every study, I would like to propose that the two fields are at a point where they could fruitfully be joined together more explicitly and consciously. This is both a methodological and theoretical endeavor.
Methodologically, for example, biocultural work draws upon methods such as cultural domain analysis (including cultural consensus analysis), and inclusion of biological outcomes, in addition to traditional long-term ethnography and interviews. From my perspective, there is ample room in such studies for incorporating additional methods from linguistic anthropology, such as audio and/or video recording and the use of conversation analysis to transcribe and interpret data. For biocultural anthropologists, such an approach can arguably increase the ‘grain’ of research, enabling scholars to track how difficult-to-operationalize concepts, such as “stress” or “belief,” emerge over time in interaction. Likewise, the inclusion of biocultural methods offers linguistic anthropologists an opportunity to study how conversations literally get under the skin.
The incorporation of additional methods alone, however, does not automatically lead to such enhanced results. Research seeking to combine biocultural and linguistic methods must thus be held together, at every level from research question to data analysis, by theory. Here, biocultural theories that recognize bidirectional links between large-scale sociocultural and economic processes and individual human biologies (e.g., Goodman and Leatherman 1998) are a good starting point. Even more relevant, perhaps, for scholars seeking to incorporate a linguistic anthropological perspective is the specific theoretical construct of cultural consonance, described here by Bill Dressler. As Dressler describes, cultural consonance theory pushes past generalized theories of “culture as context” to develop nuanced connections between cultural meanings and individual meanings, further linking such connections to individual biology. Although admittedly I am not yet an expert in this theory, it strikes me as an excellent opportunity to incorporate theories from linguistic anthropology that focus on the emergence of culture as an uneven process that occurs in specific interactions (see, for example, Duranti and Goodwin 1992 or Tedlock and Mannheim 1995). Some specific examples of areas where both the theories and methods of biocultural and linguistic anthropology might be productively combined include, then:
Research on illness and healing: Biocultural anthropologists have made significant contributions in demonstrating the link between cultural processes and health outcomes A lot of work is being done in this realm across anthropology. Some examples from our department include Oths 1999, Lynn 2014, Weaver et al 2015, Dressler et al 2016. At the same time, many linguistic anthropologists, often in collaboration with medical anthropologists, have drawn upon recordings of doctor-patient interactions, and the fine-grained analysis of conversations between suffering individuals and their families to demonstrate the role of micro-interaction in the experience of illness and healing. Future work combining approaches might examine how, for example, conversations with physicians or family members work to mediate stress and other biological outcomes.
Research on child development: Several biocultural anthropologists, including Carol Worthman and Jason DeCaro, have made great strides in demonstrating the ways in which cultural and social circumstances affecting children translate into lasting physiological characteristics. In linguistic anthropology, the field of language socialization observes the role of interaction between caregivers, children, and peers in shaping children as participants in culture, as well as speakers of language. Future research combining approaches offers the possibility of measuring the ways in which different kinds of interactions, over time, form the basis for how children become embodied participants in culture.
Research on emotion: Most subfields of anthropology have considered emotion in some way. Biocultural approaches to the emotions have challenged traditional divides between nature and nurture when it comes to emotional experience. Studies of emotion in linguistic anthropology, on the other hand, have shown that emotion, rather than being a product of individual or a simple reflection of culture upon individual, is a jointly produced phenomenon. Again, future collaborative research might demonstrate how the biology of emotion is similarly mediated by interactions with others.
I have listed just a few examples here. The list could go on. Whatever the specific research topic, however, it is important to reiterate that the combination of biocultural and linguistic anthropology is both a methodological and theoretical endeavor that has certain practical implications. While it would certainly be possible for individual biocultural researchers, for example, to stretch their work to incorporate video or audio recording and analytic theory from linguistic anthropology, this could easily become unwieldy without the participation of a researcher trained in linguistic anthropology. The reverse is also true. From this vantage point, it becomes incredibly important to think about managing the logistics of creating multidisciplinary research teams working with mixed methods. Tom Weisner has, in fact, written that “the future of our field and the social sciences is far more likely to be characterized by interdisciplinary methodological pluralism.” This blog post is obviously in agreement with this. As a linguistic anthropologist, I would just like to note that, at a practical level, this kind of work demands efforts at understanding one another’s language, and developing communicative strategies that serve the project. From my perspective, such strategies can serve to enrich rapport among colleagues, but also form the basis of an enhanced ability to conduct research that addresses pressing social issues in ways that can have a lasting and beneficial impact on human lives.
The relationship between social networks and health has been established in anthropology since Émile Durkheim identified a link between social isolation and suicide. Medical anthropologists have also long recognized that people with more diverse social ties and greater emotional and economic support are typically healthier, but how this association is intensified by culture remains under-explored. Specifically, how does “embeddedness” in a social network influence health and interact with internalized cultural beliefs?
Sociologist Mark Granovetter coined the term embeddedness to describe how social relations shape economic behavior and institutions. Douglas Massey later applied this idea to migration, pointing out that specific families, groups, and classes of people disproportionately gain access to movement via more diverse network ties and social relations. In other words, embeddedness in a migrant network entails status, prestige, or position, which may influence cultural success and well-being. Cultural success is determined by shared knowledge, such as migration goals and lifestyle expectations, which is cognitively embedded in people who then enact these cultural beliefs to varying degrees, depending on the level of power they derive from their position within a social network.
Chugurpampans Embedded in the Trujillo Migrant Network
I recently concluded two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Peru, amassing social network data for hundreds of people. My research involves a group of internal migrants from the hamlet of Chugurpampa in the north Peruvian Andes (pop. ~600), where my adviser, Kathy Oths, began longitudinal research of sickness and treatment choice over 25 years ago. While serving on a research team she assembled for a 2012 restudy of the village, we discovered that overwhelming economic and political pressures, coupled with effects of climate change on the highland agricultural system, have forced many Chugurpampans to pursue work in the coastal city of Trujillo.
Across Trujillo, Chugurpampans maintain a network of kinship and social ties, including a hometown association in which members develop collective financial and material resources for their hamlet. However, there is a rising middle-class within the group’s leadership, while less integrated Chugurpampans struggle to feed their families. Thus, some migrants are more successful than others in achieving shared migration goals and lifestyle expectations. My research focuses on whether one’s embeddedness within the migrant network influences their individual capacity to implement shared cultural expectations and how this impacts well-being.
The concept of embeddedness for this group is best illustrated during Chugurpampa’s annual harvest festival (‘fiesta patronal’), an agro-religious celebration in which migrants attempt to gain and reinforce their social status by making large material and financial donations. Each year, the hometown association selects an organizer known as a mayordomo, whose challenge is to surpass previous years, usually at no small expense. During interviews, high-status Chugurpampans like the mayordomo and other collaborators were most likely to be identified by respondents as close family or friends, even if these highly-embedded individuals did not always return the sentiment. Individuals with lower prestige desire to associate with those whom they see as successful in achieving shared migration goals and lifestyle expectations, such as having a secure job with stable pay, owning a house, or having vacation time, all of which communicate socioeconomic achievement. Essentially, more embedded Chugurpampans serve as cultural prototypes of success in migration.
Combining Social Network and Cultural Consonance Approaches
My research explores interactions between social structure and cultural models–or the cognitively embedded cultural information—to understand how culture mediates relationships within social networks to influence health and well-being. Cognitive theory, in particular Bill Dressler’s theory of cultural consonance, provides a way to measure how fulfillment of such cultural expectations can influence health.
Dressler found that individuals in Brazil with larger perceived social support networks are generally more consonant with an ideal cultural model of social support. My research takes the next step by evaluating cultural consonance in a whole network. This encompasses the entirety of a community’s social relations shared among individuals and households, rather than the ego-centered perspective of a personal network design. I measured the quality and strength of Chugurpampans’ collective social relations to assess whether embeddedness in the migrant network influences consonance in shared models of migration goals and lifestyle expectations.
Cognitive and network approaches are structuralist in nature, meaning that cultural models and social networks exist as part of lived realities. Each method provides the tools to take a ‘snapshot’ (as Dressler calls it) of sociocultural forces in situ, which can then be tested for associations and used to supplement insights from detailed, ethnographic fieldwork. Chugurpampan migrants are strongly-connected via a social network based on shared community origin, and using social network analysis, the power that individuals derive from respective network positions can be compared to consonance with migration goals, lifestyle expectations, and health outcomes. I predict, judging from previous cultural consonance work, that more highly-embedded Chugurpampans will have the highest cultural consonance and lowest blood pressure, perceived stress, and depressive symptoms.
Based on 24 months of fieldwork and preliminary data analysis, it’s clear that combining cognitive and network orientations can improve our understanding of culture’s crucial role in mediating interactions between social networks and health.
The question of what an anthropology degree means, especially in cultural anthropology, has been asked ever since I was an undergraduate (back when I saw Pigpen on keyboards with the Dead). As things change, in the academy as in the world around us, there is a certain renewed urgency in that question, as we prepare students to do: what? (And don’t for a second think that I regard a university degree as vocational training.)
The what will be what anthropologists have always done. Some will continue in the academy, both in traditional faculty roles and in new ways of teaching and doing research. Others will become applied anthropologists in government and non-profits. More will likely forge new roles for themselves in the shifting landscape of the marketplace. How do we help?
“Bringing something to the table” is a hackneyed but nonetheless useful phrase, and that is of course how we must help in educating anthropology students. The student of anthropology must bring something to the table. That mythical table will be set for some in universities, although it seems for more it will be in novel settings, and ones in which the table will be shared (contested?) by those from other social sciences.
The main dish we bring to the table is the concept of culture and the overarching framework that people and what they do are shaped day-to-day by this mysterious miasma of shared knowledge. And they, in turn, modify that shared understanding in response to changing circumstances. Grasping this and all of its implications is what anthropology is all about. This was, of course, Malinowski’s directive—“to see the world as others see it”—and while other social sciences flirt with this perspective, it remains at the core of anthropological thinking.
Malinowski’s directive—“to see the world as others see it”—remains at the core of anthropological thinking.
Bringing this perspective, however, will get you nowhere if you can’t demonstrate its utility, especially in hard-nosed settings like interdisciplinary research groups, applied projects, or in business. This hinges in part on what we mean by demonstrate. An online dictionary defines this term as “clearly show the existence or truth of (something) by giving proof or evidence.”
We are, in part, talking about methods that our students use to demonstrate the utility of their perspective for explaining something. But this will not be an exhortation just for better methods, mixed methods, or more rigorous qualitative methods. These appeals are correct and important and have been voiced for a long time. What I want to argue for, however, is the development of a configuration of methods that can uniquely capture empirically, in a way that can be clearly communicated to others, the singular contribution of an anthropological perspective.
Research methods are often presented in exhaustive compendia, or, continuing the table metaphor, a smorgasbord. The budding researcher is faced with a vast array of research methods, just like a vast buffet of potential consumables, especially in the day and age of mixed methods. We teach methods as being suited to particular problems. You choose the best set of methods for the problem at hand. Yet, alighting on the best set of methods can be a very difficult task, especially when we are trying to pull together traditional tools of ethnography and quantitative techniques.
I’ve come to think lately about this in a somewhat more focused way, and it goes back to that Malinowskian directive, interpreted from a mixed-methods mindset. We want to understand the world as others see it, then what? The mixed-methods orientation says that we then go on to quantify that in some way. It is worth stopping and reflecting on what that means. In strictly emic terms, seeing the world as others see it is to discover the categories and modalities that people use as their taken-for-granted reality. From a measurement standpoint, quantifying that means coming up with a way to order people along a continuum in terms that they themselves have defined. By ordering people along such a continuum, we can in turn relate that variation to variation in any other variable. Such a measurement strategy generates what Kathryn Oths and I have termed high “emic validity,” which in turn can be used in examining anything you care to study, alongside the etic measurements that are staples of other social sciences.
There are a variety of ways of doing this, and for examples I would start with Lance Gravlee’s research on race in Puerto Rico, Lesley Jo Weaver and associates’ studies of mental health, François Dengah’s studies of religion, as well as my work on cultural consonance. These are all empirically successful approaches in capturing that emic perspective in ways that are both theoretically and methodologically satisfying.
This is something special to bring to the table. This approach requires a rigorous and systematic attention to a way of understanding human existence. It requires mastering a specific set of qualitative and quantitative research skills. And it requires staying true to a particular vision of anthropology. Furthermore, it is a unified perspective that can be taught at any level of study in anthropology.
At this point I would be remiss were I not to give a shout out to a few people who have done our field immeasurable good by putting their energies and efforts behind providing the training to students in anthropology to do just this kind of thing. I’m talking about Russ Bernard, Jeff Johnson, and Sue Weller and the NSF-funded Summer Institute in Research Design (SIRD). The SIRD is coming to a close this year, after providing some 340 anthropology students over 20 years with absolutely top-notch education and critique as they embarked on their dissertation research. They, along with the support offered by Stu Plattner and Deb Winslow at NSF, deserve all our thanks for all they’ve done to enhance anthropological research.
In an earlier post, I discussed the role of biology in biocultural research by debunking common misconceptions. Here, I turn to the messier question of what biocultural research needs from biology.
We inhabit an academic universe of disciplines, sub-disciplines, and sub-sub-disciplines guarding their borders. Holism is not dead, but we struggle with what it means.
If biocultural research is to be useful, it needs to be inclusive, flexible, and not defensive. For instance, many researchers in the positivist anthropological sciences rail against or just ignore theory and practice Foucault’s biopower, the de-colonization movement, or critical medical anthropology. Yet one of the compelling features of anthropology is that every foundational assumption can and should be examined.
Biocultural research has the potential to be a transactional phenomenon without a set trajectory. By transactional I mean we converge on understanding human experience that incorporates the subjectivity and physicality of the body in the world and describes exchanges among them. Every element of human state regulation, from gene regulation through neuronal firing patterns and hormone release to complex phenotypes like a disease state or developmental outcome, is shaped by subjective experience, meaning it is shaped by culture.
Yet research design should target specific biocultural transactions. I propose a rough taxonomy of ways biology can be incorporated into biocultural research:
1) Biocultural by theory. Strong research programs are grounded in theory, and biocultural research must include biocultural transactions, as research by our Alabama graduates demonstrates. Tufts U medical student Catherine Buzney and I drew from life history theory, to hypothesize and interpret linkages between childhood stress and pubertal timing. In another study, I used ecocultural theory to interpret child stress response patterns and young adults’ physical activity. Mississippi State U Assistant Professor Toni Copeland examined health outcomes among poor HIV-positive women in Kenya through the lens of structural violence. Rick Brown and East Carolina U Teaching Assistant Professor Blakely Brooks built a cultural epidemiology of Type 2 diabetes and Susto, respectively. Bill Dressler, Kathy Oths, Utah State U Assistant ProfessorFrancois Dengah use cultural consonance theory to bridge cognitive culture theory and stress theory and to examine how cultural meaning shapes arterial blood pressure, depressed affect, and body mass. Within this theoretical pattern, these projects are firmly founded in some well-developed theoretical framework that demands reference to the human body and its workings.
2) Biocultural by outcome. Theory may encourage examination of transactions between subjectivity and physicality of the body, but it’s still necessary to actually study those transactions. In our program, we emphasize testing of hypotheses concerning measurable health outcomes. These can be physiological, such as U of Florida post-doc Sarah Szurek’s findings regarding glycemic control, Bill Dressler’s work on hypertension, or work that Chris Lynn and I have done regarding immune function. The outcomes may be implicitly biological, such as Kathy Oths’ work on bone setting and Debilidad. Because this research benefits from quantification, mixed-methods approaches are essential to biocultural research. Biocultural anthropologists build those statistical models on an ethnographic foundation.
3) Biocultural by marker. I noted previously that biomarkers are neither necessary nor sufficient to a biocultural study. They’re still pretty darn useful, though. As I use the term, a marker is distinct from an outcome in that it is not the target of inquiry but helps to describe or quantify another important but less measurable variable. Cortisol, for instance, is a marker of stress but not stress itself. C-reactive protein is a marker of inflammation. Genotypes, too, are markers of gene expression and variation in biological function. Serotonin receptor polymorphisms are markers of biological sensitivity to adversity.
Depending on study design, sometimes markers can serve as outcomes. Chronic inflammation can be a marker of pathogen exposure or an outcome of interest. Blood pressure can be a stress marker or an outcome measure of hypertension. Research can be biocultural by marker when the biomarker serves as a tool to address a question otherwise inaccessible to study.
4) Biocultural by extension. Research can begin with a biological outcome but lead in a direction that encourages a less direct approach to biology. This is a satisfying upshot of biocultural research because it concerns the development of an entire research program rather than a single study. Current Alabama doctoral student Martina Thomas began her research by examining cultural models concerning body image among African-American adolescents and mothers in a low-income community with high obesity rates. She found that body image, rather than being strictly concerned with shape or size, was bound in a complex model involving social relationships, material possessions, with behaviors including respectfulness, drug use, and gossip. There were hints regarding perceptions of what a person with AIDS looks like from which Thomas built an entirely new study examining HIV/AIDS models and social ecologies of risk. This research is not only biocultural by outcome but also biocultural by extension. It follows a trail of evidence leading into social and behavioral research without direct measurement of biological markers or outcomes, and there is no wall preventing the researcher from following along.
Anthropologists have an advantage as we get outside of the lab and learn about lived experience. We examine questions that no other discipline is equipped to handle, but only if we’re prepared to transgress boundaries. Otherwise, we may as well let the physiologists do it. After all, they have more money and fancier toys.
The phrase “a working definition” is something that is encountered frequently in the literature in the social sciences. As an adjective, “working” is usually used in the following sense that appears in Webster’s: something that is “adequate to permit work to be done.” Note the use of the word “adequate.” There is the connotation of a definition that is rough-and-ready, somewhat unrefined, but that will suffice for the moment. At the risk of being accused of making one of those little academic ironic jokes—and if I am so accused, I will confess immediately that I am guilty—I intend to use the phrase in a different way. What I mean to talk about is a definition of culture that works, that can be used as both a theoretical and a methodological tool in understanding—in short, a definition that really does something.
The reason that I am approaching this essay in this way is because of the occasion: the considerable honor of having been chosen for this year’s Burnum Award.* This award is made on the basis of an overall research career, and hence this lecture is my opportunity to engage in a kind of retrospective examination of that research career. It has been 30 years since I decided, as a junior at Grinnell College, to pursue anthropology as a profession—which sounds like a long time even to me, although it feels like a short time. There are many ways I could think about and talk about those 30 years. My own view of what I’ve been doing really has most to do with the core idea of the field of anthropology: namely, the concept of culture and how to make it work in the research process.
My area of research is the intersection of culture, health and healing. What anthropologists like me do is to go around the world examining how culture shapes both the risk of disease and what it is that people do to recover from disease or illness. Obviously, we are talking about a wide range of questions encompassed by this area. In my own research, I have concentrated on the initial stages, namely, falling ill. How does culture shape that risk of disease?
The first question here is: what evidence is there that culture shapes disease at all? The short answer to that is: the epidemiologic transition.
In Figure 1, we see several countries in the Western hemisphere, comparing mortality rates from all causes of child mortality and from coronary heart disease (CHD). All-cause child mortality can be used as a proxy for various kinds of infectious and parasitic diseases (often summarized in official statistics under the heading diarrheal diseases) that tend to wreak greatest havoc among the most vulnerable in a population. CHD is foremost among the variety of chronic diseases. In some countries, child mortality equals or exceeds chronic disease mortality, while in others child mortality declines dramatically and chronic disease mortality increases equally dramatically.
What accounts for this difference? Some obvious answers come into play. Basic infrastructure like clean water and effective sewage systems, plus immunization programs, make a big difference. Also, in the process of economic development people have tended to become more sedentary with the related risk of obesity, which can contribute to many chronic diseases. The quality of our diets has changed, with much less fiber, more fat and more of other nutrients like sodium. Does the combination of these factors not account for these differences?
Well, actually, no. Certainly all of these factors play a role in the process, but even after their combined effects are removed, there are still societal differences in disease rates that are left unexplained.
Figure 2 shows another brief example of how sociocultural factors shape disease. The increase of blood pressure with age, as shown here for the West Tuscaloosa community, is taken to be “natural.” But if we compare this age distribution to the Zoró Indians of the Amazon basin, we see that the rise is not necessarily “natural,” but in some sense relative to cultural context. Again, a typical approach to unraveling these differences would be to look at issues such as diet and physical activity, and perhaps genetic predisposition.
But I want to take a moment to reflect on the logic that is being employed here. This logic unwittingly employs what has been called the “onion metaphor” of human beings. That is, we can forget about the Zoró’s mixed horticultural and fishing subsistence economy; we can forget about their system for tracing kinship relationships that is more complex than our own; we can forget the way in which they form household and family relationships; we can forget about their origin myths and conceptions of the supernatural. We can, in other words, strip away everything that makes them culturally different, in order to look at their physical activity or their diet to explain their blood pressure. Like stripping away the successive layers of an onion, this metaphor goes, we can strip away cultural difference to get at what is psychologically universal about people; we can strip away belief, value and personality and just look at behavior; we can strip away behavior and look at nutrient transport in the circulatory system; we can strip away physiologic process to look at base-pair coding. We can, ultimately, find our way down to what is fundamentally causative.
Or, can we? Could it be that the onion metaphor is just that, a metaphor that says more about how we look at the world and less about how the world really works? Could it be that we are as thinking, feeling, interacting, and, yes, biological entities, so suspended in a matrix of culture that to think we can strip it away as mere surface appearance so violates the phenomenon that we misunderstand it?
To even entertain this thought demands a way of conceptualizing culture that is subtle and nuanced, and at the same time that is hard-nosed and pragmatic. The concept of culture has to do some work in the research process.
So, what do we mean by culture? A fairly typical view, both in common language and in the way anthropologists have approached their work, sees culture as a shared body of custom, reproduced through time, that makes societies distinctive. Over a century ago, this kind of view of culture emerged in anthropology as an alternative to racialist thinking. Traders, travelers, warriors, missionaries and others had been covering the globe for some time, documenting the astounding variety of human social systems with the myriad ways that people found to resolve basic problems of finding food and shelter, avoiding predation, and reproducing themselves. In part, because people with these different customs also looked very different from the Europeans who visited them, there were appeals to biology to explain custom. People were thought to behave differently because they were biologically a different—and explicitly inferior—sort of creature.
These views were challenged by the anti-racist formulations of Franz Boas and his students. Simply put, they argued forcefully that other people were not biologically different from people of European ancestry, but were different rather because they had a different culture. Culture in this sense was a name put to the total lifeway of a people. From growing food to marrying to having and raising children to governing communities to imagining the supernatural, different peoples did—not just some things—but everything differently. These ways of getting things done were routinized and regularized and learned anew by succeeding generations of a society or community. This totality of the lifeway was called culture, and the learning of it by each generation served as an effective alternative to racial determinism.
The question then became: what was the “stuff” of culture? What was culture made of? How did it get from one generation to another? How do you know it when you see it?
Answers to these questions were generated in the historical context of early ethnographic research, or the documentation of cultural patterns in different societies. In doing cross-cultural research, ethnographers looked for regularities in learned behavior that could in turn be used to make inferences about the larger systematic design for living called culture. Your job was primarily to decode and describe that design, and not to worry too much about how some people may or may not deviate slightly from the pattern. The differences within a society, especially individual differences, were just noise in the system. And it’s important to remember just how difficult it was to decode that pattern, as you were far from home, working in a second language, and trying to understand remarkably different ways of life. The more simplifying assumptions, the better.
In a sense, you could see the people in the picture as merely the space-and-time bound carriers of a cultural tradition. They happened to be there at the moment, but at another moment those particular people would be gone and you would have another set, but still carrying on that same cultural tradition. Your job was to understand the tradition, not the particular people who carried it on at the moment.
When we talk about, for example, “British culture,” we don’t really suppose it is there only because the Brits who happen to be alive right now believe and act in the ways they do. British culture was an entity in 1902 and is one in 2002 and probably will be one in 2102, regardless of the people. This gives culture a sense of “externality,” something first articulated by Herbert Spenser in the 19th century. It really does feel as though culture exists “out there.” We seem as individuals to be casting about within the confines of our own cultures. And this is something that continues to surprise students of culture in the 21st century. So, a working concept of culture must be able to account for this really quite peculiar, property of culture.
But, having said that, I’m not advocating a kind of “swamp-gas” theory of culture. It’s not out there floating around with us breathing it in (or choking on it, as the case may be). Where culture resides can only be in individual human beings. Furthermore, if we are interested in the biological impact of culture, we have to be able to trace it from “out there” to “in here.” But, we have to somehow reconcile this external quality of culture with its locus in the individual.
One way of getting at this is to stop and think about what is really important in culture and cultural differences. Is the fact that I’m wearing this suit today really important as far as my culture is concerned? Well, sort of, because I am wearing this suit, as opposed to a grass skirt or a Brazilian carnaval costume or even nothing at all. But what is probably more important than my wearing this suit is that I knew, I understood that wearing this suit was what you expected of me. We shared the knowledge that this was the right thing for the occasion. Imagine if I had showed up here to present my Burnum lecture wearing old sneakers, cut-off jeans, and a baseball cap that said Auburn Tigers on it. Probably I would not have gotten tossed out—although the Auburn part might have done me in. More likely than not, you all would have looked at me, shifted uncomfortably in your chairs, and thought something like: “what is this world coming to when they give the Burnum to the likes of this joker?” I would, in other words, have failed to live up to our shared understanding of the world in my behavior.
Now, as basic a sketch as this is, there are a couple of useful ideas implicit in this example. First, there is the shared knowledge or shared expectation. Social life—all of human life—only works because we share various understandings of the world. Everything we do we can do because of these shared expectations. One way of referring to these expectations and understandings is as “shared cultural models.” Second, I’ve just suggested how we can distinguish between culture and behavior, which actually will turn out to be quite important in the story I’m building here. As I said, we may have shared expectations regarding behavior and social interaction, but for various reasons, some people may not fulfill those shared expectations in their own behavior.
This is a very brief sketch of a theory of culture on which I have been working, in one way or another, for quite some time. But, is it good for anything? That is, does it “work?” To examine this issue, let me turn briefly to some of my empirical work. As I said, a basic observation on which all this work is founded is illustrated in Figure 3, showing how average blood pressure levels vary across different kinds of societies. Here the societies are categorized along a continuum of sociocultural complexity, ranging from the simplest foraging societies, to the most complex industrial states.
But we can break the pattern apart in more precise ways. Figure 4 shows an example of blood pressure differences among communities in Samoa, in the South Pacific, arrayed along a continuum of modernization. The term “modernization” here is just a shorthand descriptor for a variety of differences among the communities. These differences include subsistence technologies (in the traditional community, people grow yams and herd pigs for their own consumption, while in the modern community people work in factories); patterns of social interaction (in the traditional community, people are much more embedded in their extended family systems, while in the modern community people focus more on independent nuclear households); education and literacy (people in the traditional community receive relatively little formal schooling, while people in the modern community receive more); and, belief systems (people in traditional communities are embedded in a system of supernatural beliefs derived locally, while people in the modern community tend to be pulled into one of the globally institutionalized belief systems, like Christianity).
Why do people in the more modernized communities have higher blood pressures? Well, as I noted at the outset, the obvious answer to that question involves things like diet and physical activity, but taking those factors into account actually fails to explain all of the differences, although these factors clearly explain a part of those differences.
For years, one explanation for these findings has loomed large: the stress of culture change. Somehow, all of these changes in peoples’ lives are stressful, and the resulting stresses are associated with higher blood pressure. Now, this explanation is terrifically compelling, especially when linked with all of the careful laboratory studies showing how psychologically threatening events or circumstances can influence physiology. The problem, however, has been sorting out, in a conceptually precise way, just what this phrase—“the stress of culture change”—really means.
About forty years ago, there was a remarkable burst of activity in thinking about this issue at UNC-Chapel Hill, involving the epidemiologist John Cassel, the psychologist Dave Jenkins and the anthropologist Ralph Patrick. They were particularly interested in what happened to migrants from rural areas to urban areas, although the same reasoning can be applied to culture change occurring within any community. They offered the following hypothesis: the migrant to a novel setting carries with her a particular understanding of how the world works, in every sense (i.e., what it means to work, how marriages are constituted, how families treat themselves and their neighbors, how to worship—everything). She is confronted, however, with a system for which her understanding may not work. The novel and dominant culture of the new setting must be learned for everyone else’s behavior to be understood and, indeed, for her to behave in ways that are understandable to others. She must, in other words, adapt to the new setting. Even if she is successful, such adaptation can be costly. Indeed, this is precisely what Hans Selye meant by the General Adaptation Syndrome when he gave the concept of stress its first scientific respectability in the 1930’s. Adaptation is costly, and the cost of adaptation is written on the body in terms of what we call health. So, Cassel, Patrick and Jenkins argued that the less successfully the migrant culturally adapts to the new setting, the higher her blood pressure.
Unfortunately, Cassel and his colleagues had neither the conceptual nor the methodological tools to really carry this project forward—or, to continue my theme, their definition of culture didn’t “work.” But what I have introduced here—namely the idea of culture as these shared cultural models, plus the idea of a person’s relative ability to really live in accordance with those models—gives us a way of attacking the problem. Simply put, realizing shared cultural expectations in individual behavior—or what I will refer to as “cultural consonance”—is in part a measure of how well individuals are able to adapt to their social milieu. And I would take Cassel’s model much further. We don’t need to limit our thinking to situations of migration, or modernization, or culture change because each of us, in our own way, every day, is engaged in the process of sorting out, in our own behaviors, these shared expectations. We are engaged in a daily endeavor to better adapt, and one way of thinking about that process is in terms of our success at meeting those shared expectations, or cultural consonance. I hypothesize that the higher a person’s cultural consonance, the better his or her health status.
I’ve been able to examine these processes in a variety of settings over the years, including, prominently, in Alabama. I arrived here in 1978 after doing my dissertation research around these topics in the West Indies. This conventional “modernization” view of things described well what had been going on in the West Indies for some 25 years. There modernization had been driven by a single economic innovation occurring in the early 1950’s: the introduction of the banana as a large-scale cash crop. And this is typically the case in the so-called Third World. Economic change drives societal modernization.
In Alabama in 1978, I began to explore the possibility of doing research on blood pressure in the African American community, and I tended to think about the community, and its experiences in the latter half of the 20th century, in terms analogous to the modernization paradigm. Black Americans in the South were denied participation in the modern world by the American version of apartheid that we called “segregation.” But a single political innovation— Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954, and the civil rights movement spawned by that decision—changed everything. Like an economic innovation in the developing world, this political innovation changed not just some things, but everything, for the black community. Or, like the migrants to a novel setting described by Cassel, black Americans now had a whole new world opened to them. Let me hasten to add that this is a long, drawn-out process with which we are still dealing. But, in broad outline, this is a useful way of thinking about what occurred.
What I mean literally here is that the cultural models for everyday life ceased to be primarily autochthonous creations from within the African American community, and became instead creations more of the intersection of those models with general middle class American cultural models. Not that local meanings and understanding are irrelevant, but rather that black Americans have had a whole new set of circumstances, including a whole new way of understanding the world and its opportunities and its limitations, to which to adapt. What has the effect of all this been on their health?
We know the rate of high blood pressure among black Americans is 50% higher than among European Americans (Figure 5). In my work in the community here in Tuscaloosa (and, as I will briefly mention, in Brazil), I’ve tried to examine how these cultural stresses are implicated in the process. This is how I have gone about it. On the one hand, there are the cultural models, the shared ideas about how life is to be lived. On the other hand, there is the relative success with which people can approximate those cultural models in their behaviors. The link of model and behavior is cultural consonance. Assessing and measuring a representative sample of peoples’ behaviors is what social survey work is all about. The trick has been to get at the cultural models in a rigorous and systematic way; in a way that is faithful to theory; and in a way that we can directly connect to peoples’ behaviors as assessed in the survey.
Fortunately, in the mid-1980’s, Kim Romney and Sue Weller came up with a statistical model for doing just that that they call “the cultural consensus model.” I won’t go into the details here, but the consensus model can be used to determine the degree to which people share knowledge or ideas about some phenomenon. Remember that no sharing = no culture. And, if there is sharing, we can determine the content of what is shared. Having determined what that shared content is, we can then measure the degree to which peoples’ reported behaviors actually reflect that content and see if any disparity there is associated with health status.
OK, what are the important cultural models that people must live up in order to achieve better health status? Well, obviously this is a big question, and one on which I am currently working hard. But for purposes of illustration let me pick one. There is probably no aspect of American middle class culture more highly valued than our lifestyles, by which I literally mean the kinds of material circumstances of life we can achieve, and the kinds of leisure time activities that go along with that. Thorstein Veblen placed lifestyles at the center of human motivation a century ago in his “Theory of the Leisure Class.” Now, Veblen is well-remembered for his phrase “conspicuous consumption” to describe a rather vulgar pursuit of that lifestyle among the noveau riche. He is, however, less well-remembered for this observation: “[for most people, achieving a particular lifestyle ]…is a desire to live up to the conventional standard of decency…[in the community].”
In other words, to be left behind with respect to the middle-class lifestyle in American society is to be seen to be, somehow, “indecent” as a person.
In one of our recent studies, carried out here in the African American community in West Tuscaloosa, we asked a small sample of persons to list and rate the importance of material goods and related behaviors as indicative of having had a successful life. The consensus model showed us that they agreed strongly on what that meant. Basically, it meant having a modest and comfortable, but not ostentatious, lifestyle, including such things as owning a home, a car, having nice furnishings, keeping up on current events, and, significantly, participating in one’s church. I think the inclusion of that last item speaks volumes about the sensitivity of this technique to local meanings in the black community.
We also conducted an epidemiological survey of households in the community in which we collected data on blood pressures and a variety of factors, including individual self-reports of their ownership of lifestyle items and their adoption of related behaviors. Cultural consonance in lifestyle was measured as the degree to which an individual’s reported lifestyle matched the lifestyle described in the cultural model (Figure 6).
Figure 7 shows the relationship of systolic blood pressure, which has been adjusted to take out the effects of age, sex, body mass, income and various dietary variables, and cultural consonance in lifestyle. I think the relationship is pretty clear. The closer that a person can truly approximate in his or her own behavior the shared cultural model of lifestyle in the community, the lower his/her blood pressure. Furthermore, the more distal one becomes from the model, the stronger the effect, hence the curvilinear relationship. These results suggest that low cultural consonance may be a profound and chronically stressful circumstance that, in the long run, results in poor health status.
I assume that many of you are now playing the “my favorite variable” game. This is the game in which, after presenting data, someone jumps up and asks: “But did you control for __________ (fill in your favorite variable)?” I may be especially sensitive to this game, because I have spent a good bit of time presenting these ideas to psychologists, epidemiologists, nutrition researchers, and, yes, even internists. Well, I’ve been at this business for a long time, and I’ve managed to cram most of the variables that get mentioned in the research literature into studies, and so far, controlling for these other factors fails to dislodge the importance of cultural consonance.
What creates this state of affairs, in which people do not live in consonance with shared cultural models? Well, in the African American community, cultural construction collides with structural constraint. In the best of times, unemployment rates in the black community are twice that of the white community. More than a third of households live in poverty. Median household incomes are only about 60% of white household incomes. Hence, the likelihood that an individual can achieve even the modest lifestyle goals encoded by cultural models is diminished. The tragic part of this process is that these structural constraints are a result of institutional racism and racial stratification. Over a lifetime, for a large segment of the community, people see their shared hopes and their shared aspirations, modest as they might be in a material sense, denied to them. And that denial is written on their bodies in the form of poorer health status and risk of premature death.
These ideas have pretty good legs. I’ve been working in Brazil for nearly 20 years, and have examined many of the same processes there. Figure 8 shows how, for black Brazilians, low cultural consonance leads to blood pressures higher than their white counterparts, but higher cultural consonance leads to blood pressures lower than whites.
In a sense, we have come full circle here. Remember that early in this lecture I talked about how the concept of culture emerged in anthropology as a challenge to racialist explanations of others. My work has, in a way, continued that. Now, I don’t think that many people in medicine take seriously the old idea that African Americans are at risk of high blood pressure due to a racial-genetic trait, although that idea continued to be prominent well into the 1980’s. Rather, as Tom LaVeist pointed out, there is a tendency in the medical literature to document black-white health differences without comment; however, black folks are almost always coming out worse in terms of health status: more high blood pressure, more low birthweight babies, higher stroke rates, and worse cancer outcomes. Left uninterpreted, there is a kind of unspoken inference that somehow these black-white differences are a result of racial differences. Without grappling directly with the question of how so-called “race” may actually result in poor health through sociocultural pathways, we end up reinforcing the idea that the biologically bankrupt concept of race actually has some biological validity.
But, as I have argued, if we look closely enough, we find something else going on. With blood pressure, it’s not biology in some racial-genetic sense, but rather a complex set of social structural and biocultural processes that result in the appearance that somehow race matters as a biological factor, when it doesn’t. What I hope I have shown here is that continuing the anthropological project of the 19th century—that is, using the concept of culture to debunk racialist and other kinds of wrong-headed ideas—is still an important thing to do.
To do it right, however, we need a concept of culture that works. We need a concept of culture to help us to deconstruct the surface appearances of life. As the Dutch psychologist Ap Appel noted: “The final discovery a fish can make is that of water. It does not know what it means to live in water until it is lying on the counter of a fish shop. Similarly, people do not realize to what extent their behavior…is rooted in the culture in which they live.”
By explicating those links of culture and behavior, we can, I hope, both improve our theoretical understanding of the world, and maybe make it a better place to live.
*This essay was prepared as a lecture on the occasion of receiving the Burnum Distinguished Faculty Award.