Family Matters: We Talk the Talk, but Do We Walk the Walk?

Diversity is Our Business1: We Talk the Talk, but do we Walk the Walk?,2

Plain fear of not being able to support these guys drove me like a plow horse thru grad school. Cute though, aren't they? Lux, Jagger, and Bailey Lynn at NY's AMNH in 2008 (Photo courtesy author).

Plain fear of not being able to support these guys drove me like a plow horse thru grad school. Cute though, aren’t they? Lux, Jagger, and Bailey Lynn at NY’s AMNH in 2008 (Photo courtesy author).

As academic anthropologists, my colleagues and I talk diversity all the time, but it refers to more than heritage, socioeconomic status, or gender. Jo Weaver and I have convened a session at the upcoming AAA conference about “Problems and Priorities in Biocultural Research” (see Jo’s summary in last month’s AN column), but our session is really as much about diversity as it is bringing non-research design-related issues to the fore. What other biases influence who can become an anthropologist? What if I am reliant on medication to stabilize my mood and that medication is poorly understood and my dose-response is sensitive to environmental change? Do I risk going abroad away from my support system to do fieldwork? Do I even bring this issue up with my advisers when I am applying for or in graduate school? Or do I just avoid field-based anthropology or drop out of my program? In another scenario, what if my own experiences of trauma are triggered by the culture shock of going abroad or trauma I witness in the field and I shut down emotionally? Do I fess up to my adviser that I’m in psychological turmoil?3 These may seem like clear-cut examples of issues fairly likely to occur among students of anthropology4, but when are they ever brought up and directly addressed in classes or advisement?

Similarly though perhaps more banal, when is a student ever given to permission to say ‘I love anthropology and I want to go to ___, but I have children and I could not emotionally handle being away from them’? This was an issue I faced. My children are triplets. They’re 12 years old now, but they were 1 when I started graduate school. Balancing children and a career is not easy for anyone, but what if your chosen vocation traditionally involves traveling great distances away for long periods of time? This is a stereotype in anthropology, but I have been surprised by the students and professionals whose expectations reflect this notion.5

Ann Dunham was a role model for me as an anthropologist who took her son with her to conduct fieldwork (Barack Obama with stepdad, mother, and half-sister; US Embassy, Jakarta, CC BY-ND 2.0)

Ann Dunham was a role model for me as an anthropologist who took her son with her to conduct fieldwork (Barack Obama with stepdad, mother, and half-sister; US Embassy, Jakarta, CC BY-ND 2.0)

Let me be clear—no one in my graduate program told me I needed to leave my family behind to become a real anthropologist. I did my fieldwork in, essentially, my own backyard (which comes with difficulties I wrote about for AN in 2008); and I received NSF funding to do it. But my wife and I made ends meet by the skin of our teeth.6 We lived 1 hours 40 minutes away from campus for the first few years so we’d be near family who could help take care of our children while I fulfilled my obligations as a graduate teaching assistant, took classes, and cloistered myself to get work done.7 I recall asking NSF Cultural Anthropology Program Director Deb Winslow and my advisers if could I use my grant money to pay living expenses? The financial and moral support I got for research was great, but my major expense was the cost of buying salivary cortisol kits and sending them out to be assayed. To save money and build up my skill set, I learned to assay them myself from Jason Paris in Cheryl Frye’s Biopsychology Lab at UAlbany instead of paying to send them out, saving around $9,000. Meanwhile, I had three toddlers at home, and taking care of them was a full time job, which left nothing for rent.8 As you can imagine, a graduate teaching assistantship stipend does not really cover expenses for a family of 5.  Answer: We sympathize but, no, NSF funds can’t be used to cover rent unless it is for living somewhere else, where one doesn’t usually live, to do fieldwork at a distance from the usual home. And federal funding can only cover that expense for the researcher.

Not much has changed since I’ve become a tenured professor. I will admit that, although I love anthropology, one of my motivations in pursuing biological anthropology was a mistaken notion that biological know-how would get me paid better.9 But I also looked around at professors with kids and saw the wonderful experience and perspective this life provides to children of anthropologists. One of my advisors, Walter Little, would often take his daughter to Guatemala with him when he conducted fieldwork. I thought, ‘that is the life I want for my children.’ They’ll learn to speak Spanish early enough that it’s not a chore and have an invaluable worldliness (like our President—ahem, raised in a unique family situation by an anthropologist mother). But what I’ve learned is that there is little money out there to support a family while doing fieldwork. We must pay their fares out of pocket if we take them with us. So here my kids are, 12 years old, and they’ve still never left the country. Heck, I think even I had been to Canada by the time I was their age.

What We Know about Family-Career Balances of Anthropologists

I was loathe to talk to my professors about the stresses of supporting my family while going to graduate school. They didn’t have to hear that from other students, I imagined. But I had to. My very first semester, one of my sons was hospitalized for dehydration because of persistent diarrhea caused by an intestinal bug. Not a month later, during finals week, another bug hit the household and took everyone down. Because I saw it coming, I had outlined my answers to our take-home final. When the virus finally got me, everyone else in my house was down for the count and could not so much as get me a glass of water. But I still had one essay to write that was due the next day. I faded in and out of consciousness through the night transforming each outline fragment into a sentence and adding a few qualifiers. It’s probably the worst essay I’ve ever written and it got me a dreaded B (like a D in grad school), but, under the circumstances, it was good enough. As I recovered slightly, I tried to go back to work only to get a call from my wife that one of the kids was vomiting again. Because there was a bug in the house, neither the mother’s helpers we’d hired nor my wife’s family wanted to come in and help out for fear of catching it. But taking care of three sick toddlers was too much for any one person to handle. It pained me, but I explained my situation to my adviser, Larry Schell, and his response has always stayed with me. He said, “No one ever says on their deathbed that they wish they’d spent more time with at work. It’s always that they wish they’d spent more time with their family.”

Family is hard to manage. School is hard to manage. Work is hard to manage. This is life. No one wants to tell their professor or adviser or boss that work or school is putting a strain on their marriage, but we know that many marriages break up over issues like these (the literature on this is huge—this is in no way unique to anthropologists or people who do fieldwork for a living). Stress, as Gary Evans pointed out in a guest lecture at UAlbany when I was in grad school, is not necessarily about having a life full of stressors—it’s often about not having a buffer when there are stressors one is not expecting or has not planned for. I always refer to a poem by Charles Bukowski called “The Shoelace,” which refers simply to the last straw, when you’re dealing with “…roaches or flies or a broken hook on a screen, or out of gas or too much gas, the sink’s stopped-up, the landlord’s drunk, the president doesn’t care and the governor’s crazy. light switch broken mattress like a porcupine; $105 for a tune-up, carburetor and fuel pump at sears roebuck; and the phone bill’s up and the market’s down and the toilet chain is broken, and the light has burned out – the hall light, the front light, the back light, the inner light; it’s darker than hell and twice as expensive…”10

Table 1. Work-life balance. Males and females appear roughly equal in their work-life balance, whether they have kids or not. But what do we know about the choices made between parenthood and careers in anthropology?

Table 1. Work-life balance. Males and females appear roughly equal in their work-life balance, whether they have kids or not. But what do we know about the choices made between parenthood and careers in anthropology?

So the culture of academia (not just anthropology) makes balancing parenthood and fieldwork difficult, but how is that biocultural? As Jason DeCaro points out in previous posts for our blog (here and here), biological theory is implicit in studies of family and human development. But let me spell it out in a different way, one I alluded to above. There are certain notions about maternal investment in children that give moms a (justifiable) pass when it comes to saying, ‘I can’t do that because I have to think about my kids.’ And we applaud fathers who do the same (e.g., Joe Biden [maybe], sports athletes). But while there are few institutional accommodations for things like maternity leave, there are even fewer for paternity. I am not crying foul. I’m saying, ‘I love my children so much that it hurts me to leave them behind while I do fieldwork, and it is emotionally hard to handle.’ As you can imagine, I’m a big fan of Peter Gray and Kermyt Anderson‘s Fatherhood: Evolution and Human Paternal Patterns and work by Lee Gettler and others on the hormonal physiology of fatherhood. There is a real physiological change when we become fathers. I want us to think about this diversity more, talk about it more, and support diverse family models and needs more.

Study: Family and the Field

To wrap up and tease you for our November talk and future conferences and papers, these experiences inspired a study I started with my friend and UNCW assistant anthropology professor Michaela Howells this past summer called “Family and the Field.” I was primarily interested in the experiences of fathers and wondered if attitudes, experiences, and paternal investment by anthropologists has changed over the years. However, Michaela pointed out that the whole paradigm of parenting and family is interesting and understudied among anthropologists (but not by anthropologists). We don’t know the answers to questions like, if you want to have a bunch of kids and don’t want to leave them behind to do fieldwork, do you just choose another discipline? Or, do you forego having children for a period of time to complete graduate work and any major field studies? There’s not a lot of data on this within our discipline that we’ve been able to find (but encourage readers to send us sources if we’re wrong).

Our study is preliminary, using an internet paradigm, and hope to follow up in the near future by being able to conduct more intensive interviews. (Perhaps we will be cornering you, dear reader, at next year’s AAA!) So far, as Table 1 shows, we’ve collected data from over 350 anthropologists, nearly 85 of whom are males, and 31 of whom are fathers (mean age = 43.3, SD = 9.33). Of these fathers, 18 self-report their life-work balance as poor or acceptable, while 13 report it as good or excellent. Average perceived stress among these fathers is 33.6 (SD = 1.38), which is consistent with the full sample (33.1, SD = 2.51) (This study is still recruiting professionals and graduate students trained in anthropology, so please consider participating).

In sum, do we structurally bias our training system to undermine some types of diversity in our field? And, what do we really know about diversity, if indeed it is our business. Join us in Denver for “Hidden motivations and glossed justifications” Problems and priorities in biocultural field research” on Thursday, November 19, 4-5:45 PM to explore these questions.


NOTES

1. Anthropologist Ulf Hannerz (2010) writes convincingly about the identity problem anthropology has, that we need PR help in cultivating what is essentially “brand identity,” and that identity should be diversity—“diversity is our business.” See Greg Downey’s Neuroanthropology piece for further discussion of this (and where I learned about Hannerz’ article). Incidentally, another piece by Hannerz that addresses the identity we as individual anthropologists create for ourselves also appeals to me. “Confessions of a Hoosier Anthropologist” (2014) outlines how Hannerz works, though he is Swedish and has spent his career at Stockholm University, was marked by the year he spent as a Master’s student at Indiana University. Folks from Indiana and who go to IU are known as “Hoosiers.” Just among the Biocultural Medical faculty here at UA, Jo Weaver and I are both Hoosiers by birth and upbringing, and Keith Jacobi and I are Hoosiers by education. Funny. Ha ha.

2. “You talk the talk. Do you walk the walk?” is a quote by Animal Mother from the classic 1987 Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket.

3. These will be among the topics to some extent addressedat our November 2015 AAA session by, respectively, Eileen Anderson-Fye, Rebecca Lester, and others.

4. In 2011, the CDC reported that 1 in 10 people in the U.S. age 12 and over (11%) surveyed from 2005-08 were taking antidepressant medication. The youngest among those are college-age now. I don’t have a citation handy, but we have estimated that as many as half of our undergraduates in anthropology at any given moment are taking anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication.

5. The criteria that render one a ‘Real Anthropologist’ would be a great blog topic, but I will save that for another time.

6. Actually, it was the skin of creditors’ teeth, and we have massive student loan debt as a consequence.

7. I rose at 5 AM most days to make the drive and would be so sleepy, I’d lay down in the shower to get a few minutes more rest and ensure I didn’t fall back to sleep. I was such a regular at the New Baltimore rest stop Starbuck’s on NYS I-87 that they began giving me the “Trucker Discount,” which later became free coffee. I’d hear employees whisper, “he gets a free coffee” as I walked up, so that by the time I finished grad school, the manager who had started this gratuitous gesture was gone and current staff had no idea who I was, just that I merited free coffee for some reason.

8. Either my wife or I needed to stay home or whatever money she earned working covered the cost of childcare [barely] and that’s it.

9. I am the first generation in my family to finish college, let alone go to grad school, let alone become a college professor. So what did I know? Nothing. That’s what I knew. Similarly, another mistaken notion was that my kids would get free tuition wherever I worked.

10. One of my sons was taking lots of photos during one of these periods for me and caught me in a moment when I was working as a GTA at Albany, teaching a course as instructor of record at Marist College, finishing data collection for my dissertation, writing my dissertation, and interviewing for jobs all at the same time. It seems like a lot, right? It was, but that was OK because I accepted those stressors knowingly. It was after getting t-boned in my Prius by a tractor-trailer that I broke down. I wasn’t injured, the truck driver took full responsibility, and my car was fully fixed by insurance; but that extra thing was more than I could handle at that moment.

Talking about Race with “White Person Bias”

Author Jo Weaver juggling fieldwork and family in Brazil. Photo courtesy David Meek

Author Jo Weaver juggling fieldwork and family in Brazil. Photo courtesy David Meek

Fieldwork. We all do it, yet it seems to be something that’s particularly hard to teach and talk about, especially when so much of the success of fieldwork in any anthropological sub-discipline hinges on a researcher’s ability to form genuine social relationships. I’ve heard people say, “You just can’t teach that” about this keystone of success. Well, Russ Bernard has shown us that many elements of the focused attention required for fieldwork can be taught (see his section on participant-observation from Research Methods in Anthropology, AltaMira, 2011), while books like Tales of the Field (Van Maanen),Disasters in Field Research (Ice, DuFour, and Stevens), and I’ve Been Gone Far Too Long (Borgerhoff-Mulder and Logsdon) speak to the need in the social sciences to share and learn from fieldwork mistakes and misadventures.

I continue to be fascinated by the exigencies of fieldwork, perhaps in part because they are so universal yet typically not prioritized in discussion—so familiar, yet so strange, to quote the theme of the upcoming AAA Annual Meeting in Denver.

Chris Lynn and I have organized a session for the meeting titled, “Hidden Motivations and Glossed Justifications: Problems and Priorities in Biocultural Field Research,” which we designed as a forum for an updated discussion of the practicalities of field research. Our inspiration came in part from Clancy and colleagues’ recent PLoS One study on sexual harassment in the field, which received a lot of press last year (a shocking 70% of the over 500 women they interviewed reported experiencing sexual harassment at some point in their field research careers, while 25% reported actual assault). Robin Nelson, one of the study’s authors, will serve as our session discussant.

I am especially excited about this session because, although the presenters are all professors, the topics address challenges common at all stages of research and training.Rebecca Lester’s and Eileen Anderson-Fye’s presentations, for instance, will explore how fieldworkers manage and respond to trauma, both theirs and others’, in field research. My presentation will use data from a small study of fieldworkers at various stages of their research careers to explore how they grapple with racial differences between themselves and their informants. Chris Lynn’s and Michaela Howells‘, meanwhile, will discuss fieldwork and family—a favorite topic of mine and one relevant for graduate students and faculty members. There are important lessons to be learned here for students, mentors, and fieldworkers at all stages.

My desire to talk about race and racially charged encounters in fieldwork stems in part from my employment in a largely white department (as most anthropology departments are) in the deep south. Our department’s faculty are particularly concerned with social inequity in health outcomes, which means that our research and teaching often put us in contact with disenfranchised people in the greater Alabama area, many of whom identify with minority racial groups. The ongoing racial tensions in our community, which are more blatant though probably no stronger than anywhere else in the U.S. right now, undoubtedly shape our research and teaching—especially when it comes to understanding and reflecting on how we are perceived by the people with whom we work.

Early anthropologists were often missionaries or colonial representatives working among peoples in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania who were assumed to be inferior because of their non-Europeanness…It is a mistake to willfully overlook those racial under- (and over-) tones because what we do today still very closely resembles what we did in the past.

 

Last year, when I received a student review that claimed my teaching suffered from “white person bias,” I took the comment very seriously because I regularly teach about social inequality and social justice in the south. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to engage racial difference in an overarching cultural context of racial tension meaningfully, respectfully, and in a way that is useful to all parties involved. Although I thought I was doing this pretty well, my student’s comment reminds me that I have a long way to go. So, my motivation for doing a study of fieldworkers’ engagement with race is partially selfish.

 

This issue is also important from a historic perspective in anthropology. We all know that early anthropologists were often missionaries or colonial representatives working among peoples in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania who were assumed to be inferior because of their non-Europeanness. Typically, when anthropologists read these materials today, we do so with an understanding that we must overlook the racism embedded in these authors’ works if we want to extract their insights. We say that we can’t get caught up in their racism because that’s just how things were back then.

 

But I think it is a mistake to willfully overlook those racial under- (and over-) tones because what we do today still very closely resembles what we did in the past. No matter our intentions, we are still an overwhelmingly white discipline that works with people all over the world who do not identify as white. We are still an overwhelmingly white set of authority figures, and our classrooms reflect much greater racial and ethnic diversity than our anthropology faculties and departments do. We need to talk about these things.

 

So, come to our AAA session and help me figure out how to be a better anthropologist. You might learn something, too.

“Hidden Motivations and Glossed Justifications: Problems and Priorities in Biocultural Field Research”
Invited Session sponsored by the Biological Anthropology Section and the General Anthropology Division
Thursday, November 19 4:00 pm- 5:45 PM

Lesley Jo Weaver (PhD/MPH, Emory) is an Assistant Professor in the Biocultural Medical program and an affiliated faculty member in UA’s Asian Studies program. She studies health and illness in India and rural northern Brazil.

Biocultural Systematics is written by members of the University of Alabama Biocultural Medical Anthropology program.


This post originally appeared in Anthropology News‘ October 2015 “Knowledge Exchange.”

Anthropologists at the Table

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.

This post originally appeared in Anthropology News‘ August 2015 Knowledge Exchange.

An Epidemiologic Anthropology: Considerations when Employing Mixed Methods

Anthropology versus Epidemiology

Author, Kathryn Oths
Author, Kathryn Oths

Anthropologists and epidemiologists have contributed vital knowledge to understanding public health problems such as low birth weight, reemerging disease, mental health, and more. Lively and enduring dialogue on the potential for collaboration between the disciplines was sparked in the ‘80s by Janes et al.’s (1986) Anthropology and Epidemiology and True’s (1990) chapter “Epidemiology and medical anthropology.”  The discourse continues to the present, well-summarized in the works of Dein and Bhui (2013), Hersch-Martínez (2013), Inhorn (1995), and Trostle (2005).

In contrast to early literature, later writing—from both camps—implies that what anthropology most offers epidemiology is its qualitative sensibility (e.g., Ragone and Willis 2000; Scammell 2010). While clearly one of anthropology’s great strengths, sensitivity to qualitative dimensions is not all we have to offer. Rigorous, contextualized mixed-methodology is more likely to be persuasive to other disciplines than mere entrained awareness (Prussing 2014). In fact, by incorporating epi techniques into anthropological designs, we can employ a holistic paradigm on our own—what Inhorn calls synthetic or wearing both hats. (The reverse, training health professionals in anthropology, has also been suggested [O’Mara et al. 2015]).

Kathy's epi anth model
Kathryn’s Epi Anth Model

Anthropological orientations in health research might be glossed as follows: Anthropologists of Suffering record the pain and distress of a people, striving to understand meaning surrounding health problems. Anthropologists of Sickness, in addition to searching for meaning, use structured surveys emerging from ethnographic observation to systematically ferret out factors contributing to dis-ease and illness. The first approach interrogates the meaning of critical life events, while the second investigates how socially and culturally constructed meanings themselves shape risk of morbidity and mortality. As Trostle and Sommerfeld (1996) state, “data can be used to create emotional responses in the reader, or to explain relationships.” Both approaches are vital and mutually enhancing, but less has been written about the latter.

For example, most anthropologists of reproduction interpret the clinical interactions that oppress and mystify women’s knowledge and autonomy, as well as women’s resistance to these controlling forces. They study the technologizing of natural processes and the hegemony of biomedical over self-knowledge. This research is an important corrective to years of neglect of reproductive work (Rapp 2001). The focus of others, including myself, has been more outcome-driven, a systematic explanatory study of the conditions not of clinical but rather daily lifelike workplace organization and intimate relationshipsthat shape women and babies’ health (Oths et al. 2001; Dunn & Oths 2004).

A Word on Publishing

While epidemiology and anthropology share the common goal of improving human health, each field has its own prerogatives. Those who blend qualitative and quantitative methods in the pursuit of an Epidemiological Anthropology of Sickness may face problems getting published in the public health literature. I’ll make three points regarding disciplinary differences of opinion on the accurate specification of analytic models:

   1. Anthropological methods are not self-explanatory. 

Anthropological methods essential to getting results are detailed, iterative, and not necessarily self-explanatory. However, there is no space to discuss these vital tools in standard public health journal articles. Be forewarned: Public health expects very brief methods sections!

   2. What’s reliable to others may not be valid to us.

Other fields are more strict than ours in insisting that survey items be tested for reliability before use. Reliability, or insuring that an instrument gives the same results with repeated use, is a good thing. However, a scale, once published, should not be changed. (A survey instrument you construct yourself? Even more suspect.) Yet without local contextualization, an instrument’s validityactually measuring what said instrument claims to measure—may be compromised. This is a constant issue when we employ scales that have been normed to populations other than the one we will survey. For epidemiologists, patterns of association are of greater concern than measurement issues. Categories they work with are believed to be fixed in nature, race being a prime example. For us, they are anything but fixed. Anthropologists insist on emic construct validity of categories—categories should make sense in the cultures we’re measuring them in. Rule of thumb: Take care of validity, and reliability will follow.

Rule of thumb: Take care of the validity, and reliability will follow.

   3. We lack authority to critique normative methods.

Some journals, such as American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), recommend use of specific statistics, such as logistic rather than ordinary least squares regression. They insist every dependent outcome variable be broken into two discrete categories instead of having the generally continuous, tough-to-define, but more precise character of real life. However, they don’t insist on power analyses, which determine if a given study’s sample size is sufficient to make a statistical test valid.  An example from my birth weight study illustrates this: None of six previous studies using a model developed by Karasek found a direct association between job strain and birth outcomes. Four had low power for their logistic regression, which may have resulted in undetected effects. And instead of using the full range of values—500 to 4500 grams for birth weight—logistic regression uses only ‘low’ or ‘normal’ as outcomes, which results in a loss of variability and, thus, information. We would’ve needed twice the sample size in our study to achieve sufficient power using logistic regression. When my colleagues and I demonstrated that least squares regression detects an effect while logistic regression does not, the editor of AJPH was not impressed.

Why the one model fits all assumption regardless of whether it’s the best one? It fits with naturalized categories, like disease and race, which are seen as binary oppositions: yes/no, black/white.  This implicit model of the world is simply too rigid for anthropological sensibilities (Dressler, Oths, and Gravlee 2005). Newsflash: The world isn’t always best modeled by dichotomies.

In summary, when we strive to measure more accurately, we may meet with resistance from the gatekeepers of public health journals. Perhaps my outline of some common pitfalls of writing for an interdisciplinary audience will help reduce the frustration of others who attempt the same.

This was originally posted in Anthropology News‘ August 2015 “Knowledge Exchange.”

Cheap Thrills and Elementary Anthropology

For the lay person, such as myself, the main evidence of a problem is the simple fact that ethnographic writing tends to be surprisingly boring. How, one asks constantly, could such interesting people doing such interesting things produce such dull books?”

I came to anthropology through journalism but wanted to do the research and be one of the popularizers. Yet, I soon realized many popularizations are not written by anthropologists, whose work is too jargon-filled for public consumption. I have heard from colleagues opposed to such public anthropology that the complexity of culture is poorly represented through public renderings, but sometimes a sufficiently complex representation is too complex to be easily understood.

I suggest a two-pronged means of dealing with this seemingly de facto problem with anthropology. We can and need to start teaching children anthropology earlier so they can developmentally build their understanding of human cultural complexity, and we should help them build up their understanding by making real anthropology experience accessible and interesting.

Anthropology is Elementary (and Primary)
What will undergraduate education be like when our students show up having had anthropology since they were in 3rd grade? How sophisticated will public understandings be? Will otherwise intelligent people make quips that we write boring books once they understand them as a matter of course because they are simply better educated in anthropology? Yes, I see the glass half-full sometimes, but I have also heard a 4th grade child explain developmental origins of adult disease theory better than some graduate students.The Department of Anthropology at the University of Alabama is teaching children anthropology earlier through a course called “Anthropology is Elementary.” This course, taught by graduate students, trains our upper-level undergraduates to teach anthropology in partnership with local elementary and middle schools. We have developed this approach over several years and been humbled by the capacity of children as young as 8-years-old to learn what we had thought too complex for them. We began with a general four-field course one semester per year and have expanded to “Anthropology of Costa Rica” in the fall and “Anthropology of Madagascar” in the spring. Each course covers garbology, museum interpretation, symbolic communication, cultural relativism and diffusion, primatology, human evolution, Mendelian genetics and race, and forensics. Additionally, undergraduate instructors develop new lessons and activities each semester.

Author Chris Lynn, doctoral student Max Stein, and Tuscaloosa Magnet School Elementary students demonstrate tongue-rolling, a Mendelian trait. Photo courtesy Virgil Roy Beasley III

Author Chris Lynn, doctoral student Max Stein, and Tuscaloosa Magnet School Elementary students demonstrate tongue-rolling, a Mendelian trait. Photo courtesy Virgil Roy Beasley III

What will undergraduate education be like when our students show up having had anthropology since they were in 3rd grade? I want to be able to go deeper than the gloss of nature versus nurture before they get to college while keeping anthropology interesting to the general public.

Another means to overcome the so-called dull barrier is simply to keep anthropology accessible. While local archaeology field schools are common, it’s important to develop biocultural research opportunities that are available to students by which to reinforce the early training I mentioned in the last section. It is doubly important to validate that this research is real. Several of our faculty and students have conducted local projects that create opportunities to integrate undergraduates and collaborative publishing. A few decades ago, Bill Dresslerconducted one of the seminal studies in the cultural consonance approach, studying the influence of discrimination stress and structural violence on depression of African-Americans in Tuscaloosa, a study doctoral student Lessye DeMoss is planning to update for her dissertation work. More recently, Kathy Oths studied the local farmers’ markets in conjunction with student researchers, investigating the intersection between the culture of the green movement and the nutritional impacts of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Students Ashley Daugherty, Caitlin Baggett, and Linnea Moran conduct an assessment at Head Start. Photo courtesy Sarah Elizabeth Morrow

Students Ashley Daugherty, Caitlin Baggett, and Linnea Moran conduct an assessment at Head Start. Photo courtesy Sarah Elizabeth Morrow

Jason DeCaro and collaborators received a grant last year to assess the efficacy of Head Start in Tuscaloosa County. This biocultural study integrates student researchers from across our university. In the fall 2014 semester alone, according to graduate coordinator Sarah Morrow, they involved over 100 undergraduate researchers in the project.

I train undergraduates in neuroanthropology by involving them simultaneously in multiple projects coordinated by graduate students, some of which focus on ethnographic methods while others are more social psychological in nature. The goal of this approach is to provide students breadth of exposure through projects that are catchy. For instance, master’s student Johnna Dominguez recently defended a biocultural thesis on the social and immunological impacts of tattooing among southern women. Graduate student April Boatwright is collecting qualitative data about fireside behavior to complement physiological data we have assembled over the past several years. Juliann Friel is assisting in studying the influence of evolution education on emotional physiology. Andrew Bishop, now a Ph.D. student at Arizona State, assisted me in a social study of religious-commitment signaling in churches. Jonathan Belanich, currently at Mississippi State, has been helping with a study of self-deception and mating success. Perhaps most attention-grabbing, Erica Schumann integrated training in animal behavior and human sexuality to test a hypothesis about cunnilingus by watching bonobos at the Fort Worth Zoo.

Involving undergraduates in research is certainly not unique, but many of these experiences would be lost to posterity if there were not publishing opportunities. The quality of undergraduate training experiences are significantly enhanced through them submitting work to journals like JOSHUA: The Journal of Science and Health at the University of Alabama, EvoS Journal, andNEXUS: The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology. These peer-reviewed, undergraduate journals provide invaluable services to the discipline by enabling students to hone their skill sets and take greater pride in their work.

This emphasis on pre-undergraduate and undergraduate development will enhance the anthropological perspective of the general public and make the complexity of culture more comprehensible.

This post originally appeared in Anthropology News‘ June 2015 “Knowledge Exchange.”

What’s Biological about Biocultural Research? (Part 2)

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.

5)   Biocultural by interpretation. Finally, research may be interpreted in light of human biology without measuring it. Francois Dengah and Chris Lynn did work concerning dissociative states evoked in Pentecostal rituals. They don’t measure the neurobiology of dissociation, but they know about it, interpreting their findings in light of neurobiology (and stress biology, which Lynn measured and Dengah inferred). A hallmark of neuroanthropology is the interpretation of cultural and social experiences (from cancer survivorship to drug use and sport) in terms of neurobiology.

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.

This post was previously published in Anthropology News’ June 2015 “Knowledge Exchange.”