Biocultural Anthropology & Linguistic Anthropology: Points of Possible Convergence?

Sonya Pritzker

Sonya Pritzker

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.