What’s Biological about Biocultural Research? (Part 1)

Jason DeCaro

Reposted from Anthropology News February 2015 column.

Jason DeCaro
Jason DeCaro

Our January column from Bill Dressler harkened to 2005 when, concerned about the absence of an explicit theory of culture in much biocultural research, Bill had written a piece in Ethos entitled “What’s Cultural about Biocultural Research?” While not all of us follow Bill’s approach to the letter, his perspective has been influential in our Biocultural Medical Anthropology PhD program.

One could ask a parallel question: What’s biological about biocultural research? I attend theHuman Biology Association (HBA) meetings on a near-annual basis and encounter more researchers there who consider themselves biocultural than at the American Anthropological Association (as a percentage and a raw number, despite the fact that HBA is much smaller). Nearly all human biologists consider their work biocultural whether or not it hews to Bill’s definition, because human evolution is irreducibly biocultural, and human biologists are interested in that. And, being human biologists, they rarely feel the need to prove that they’re biological enough.

Yet the Biocultural Medical Anthropology program at UA historically has followed a different pathway. If one were to put my doctoral students to date into a box, for instance, it would be labeled psychocultural in caps, with biological in lowercase. Transacting across such boundaries creates a wonderful environment in which someone like me, whose scholarly roots are in biocultural human biology, can advise great students whose topics include HIV-related cultural models in adolescents, Our Lady of Guadalupe and the stress of migration, and how food security is reinforced or mitigated through social networks. This has been a positive experience for all of us, frequently sans biomarkers or explicitly evolutionary hypotheses. (Our program’s very strong tradition of group mentorship and co-advising has a lot to do with this too.)
The inclusion of biomarkers does not by itself make a study biocultural any more than the inclusion of a question about someone’s ancestry or “traditional foods and dress” makes it biocultural.

In short, as I see our students develop, a question that I continually turn over in my mind is: what does it mean to refer to biology here? First, let’s do some debunking.

  • Biocultural research is not necessarily about biomarkers. I have seen biomarkers thrown into studies for their own sake with no significant development of biocultural theory. I have seen them thrown into studies because it was fashionable. I have seem them thrown into studies because they are falsely understood as a shortcut that circumvents all the challenges of assessing stress or some other nebulous concept, by observing and talking to people. The inclusion of biomarkers does not by itself make a study biocultural any more than the inclusion of a question about someone’s ancestry or traditional foods and dress makes it biocultural.

    The inclusion of biomarkers does not by itself make a study biocultural any more than the inclusion of a question about someone’s ancestry or “traditional foods and dress” makes it bioculturalBiomarkers are a method, a tool. They are only as useful as the study design and underlying theory make them. If they don’t make sense in a given study design and are not called for by theory, they should be omitted. They’re neither a sufficient element to constitute a project as biocultural, nor are they necessary. Consider Daniel Lende’s (USF) work in substance use in Colombia or most of the other recent work in neuroanthropology. Not a biomarker to be found in many cases—but careful is paid attention to underlying neurological mechanisms that influence and are shaped by subjective experience.

    Our Lady of Guadalupe can be a focus of biocultural research (Altar in a market of Mexico City by ProtoplasmaKid. CC BY-SA 4.0).
    Our Lady of Guadalupe can be a focus of biocultural research (Altar in a market of Mexico City by ProtoplasmaKid. CC BY-SA 4.0).
  • Biocultural research is not necessarily about genetics (or genomics). This is an extension of an older false equivalence: biology = genes. Biological phenotypes are complexly determined through multi-level interactions among genes, developmental systems, physical and social/cultural environments. The “biology = genes” fallacy is common in discussions with a “nature vs. nurture” tone. Such discussions often take the form of “Is X trait/phenotype biological or cultural,” where “biological” = “genetic” and “cultural” = “anything remotely social or experiential.” In such discussions, the developmental systems that actually produce the phenotype are ignored. Genotypes can be quite helpful in biocultural research, depending on the question, but they also are neither necessary nor sufficient.
  • Biocultural research is not limited to work drawing from evolutionary theory. This one is perhaps more controversial among researchers in my circles, most of whom approach their work from the standpoint of evolutionary theory and hypotheses drawn from it. Much of my work does as well.  Yet it is not necessary to chart the evolutionary history of a physiological system to usefully study it. Again, sometimes developmental theory is more helpful. Sometimes stress theory. Sometimes eco-cultural theory. Denying the importance of the evolution of these systems to their current variation and functioning is a non-starter, but it’s sometimes useful to study the current endpoint of a long process of evolutionary change without explicit reference to how and why we got there. Conversely, there’s danger of evolutionary tokenism. Mentioning Paleolithic diets does not a biocultural study make (even when it’s not blatant misrepresentation or over-interpretation of the Paleo-human data).

So far, I’ve outlined negatives but no positives. If the biological in biocultural research is not per se about biomarkers, genetics, or evolution, then what is the biology?

In our next post, I’ll explore this question in more detail, making the argument that biocultural research is about integrative transactions across theoretical frameworks combined with methodological opportunism. Those methods are chosen from an interdisciplinary toolkit to fit specific hypotheses and research questions rather than a pre-set, unchanging, conventional inventory. I’ll argue that how we operationalize human biology is less important than how we understand it to work. I’ll outline the value of developmental perspectives, without claiming all biocultural research must lean on human development, and the importance of measurable outcomes with biological implications, even when biology is not directly measured to achieve this.

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