“Bioculturalism”–An Interview with Jason DeCaro [reposted from Somatosphere]

This article is part of the series: 

“Bioculturalism” resumes this week with the first of three new interviews with self-professed biocultural anthropologists. This series aims to get anthropologists and closely-related others talking seriously, and thinking practically, about how to synergize biological and social scientific approaches to human health and well-being, and to what positive ends. New interviews will be published every other week, followed by a new piece by series organizer Jeffrey G. Snodgrass on Internet gaming, which has progressed in tandem with the series’ publication.

In this interview, Jason DeCaro responds to questions posed by Snodgrass.

How and why might cultural anthropologists and social scientists interested in health benefit from integrating biological variables/biomarkers into their research and analysis?

This is hard to answer in the abstract because it depends so much on the research question, but I will give it a shot. In psychological and medical anthropology, we talk a lot about embodiment. The body is deeply encultured, to the extent that I am completely convinced neurological functioning can’t be understood properly without reference to the shaping of the nervous system through culturally-constructed developmental experiences throughout the lifespan. Perhaps that is more a case for why biologically-oriented anthropologists should attend to culture. But here’s the thing. It seems to me that the reverse is equally compelling. Twenty years ago, who would have thought that inflammation has a role in depression? (It does.) And we’ve known for a while that physical activity does as well. And undernutrition. And so on and so forth.

Another way of looking at this is that biomarkers provide one part—not the whole, just a piece, but an important one—of the picture regarding the subjective impact of daily experience. I emphasize “subjective,” even though we’re talking about a quantifiable bio measure, because brain-body connections are so pervasive that subjectivity influences a wide array of biological parameters. It’s sort of boring, honestly, when the biomarkers just confirm what you already thought based on talking to people. But on the other hand, when the biomarkers tell you something counterintuitive or surprising—like that some group (or even an individual) is biologically responding in a way that you wouldn’t expect based on what you otherwise know about them—it’s illuminating. Such was my reaction, for instance, when I and collaborators recently completed a data analysis (unpublished but presented at AAA 2015) showing that, once food security was controlled for, a biomarker of chronic stress was “worse” in young children from households with greater material assets in an East African community where I work. I won’t give away the end of the story, which would take too much space anyway, but these “huh?” moments lead us to re-examine what we know about people—re-open those interview transcripts and field notes—and ask “what is the body telling us here?”

How would you respond directly to one potential cultural anthropological or social scientific critique of such an integrative “biocultural” approach?

Not going there anymore. I’m no longer investing energy in endless scripted arguments about the purported value or purported dangers of biocultural research as a general class (which are really just a subset of arguments about integrative holism in anthropology, and don’t seem to have changed much since I was a first year graduate student in 1998). Biocultural research isn’t for everyone, nor is it the best approach for every research question, but ideally it complements cultural anthropology nicely, especially in medical anthropology. On the other hand, done poorly, yes indeed it can be dreadfully reductionist and everything else people fear. So my view boils down to this: do it very well, with careful ethnographic contextualization and a thorough understanding of biology… great. Don’t do it at all, great. AAA is a big conference with plenty of room in those cavernous hotels we rent out. I hope we’ll all see each other in some sessions, but if not I’ll certainly give a friendly wave in the hallways.

What is one potential caution you’d have for cultural anthropologists or social scientists considering a biocultural approach?

To do biocultural research well requires a high level of sophistication regarding social/cultural anthropology and human biology at the same time. For one thing, this means that teamwork is incredibly valuable… I work almost entirely in collaborative teams now, because I just can’t be good enough at everything. And the research question (along with any measures that are going to be employed while addressing it) should flow from theory. If the theoretical framework doesn’t naturally call for an integrative biocultural approach, that is a red flag. Theory can and should be stretched of course, but it’s important to ask ourselves: will including a biomarker or a biological interpretation really tell us something substantially more than we could learn without it? Will it address a theoretically interesting question in a new and exciting way that moves the field forward? I ask students these questions all the time, and if they don’t have strong answers, I send them back to the drawing board. If they do, then I’m the biggest cheerleader they could want for their integrative approach.

What is one piece of research (ideally your own) that points to the benefits of such an integrative approach?

I’d like to point to some work that was done by my colleague Lesley Jo Weaver, on which I am honored to have been a co-author:

Weaver LJ, Worthman CM, DeCaro JA, Madhu SV. 2015. The signs of stress: Embodiments of biosocial stress among type 2 diabetic women in New Delhi, IndiaSocial Science & Medicine 131:122-130.

In brief, Jo found that congruence with gender roles among women with diabetes in India protected against the adverse effects of diabetes on mental health and inflammation, even when biomarkers showed the diabetes to be poorly controlled. Trade-offs among biological, social, and cultural dimensions of well-being that can only be identified within an integrative framework that joins ethnography and biomarkers with clinical outcomes. Good stuff.

What are some other references to help cultural anthropologists or social scientists interested in such an approach get started?

DeCaro JA. 2015. What’s biological about biocultural research? (Part 1)Anthropology News 56(3):e1-e2.

DeCaro JA. 2015. What’s biological about biocultural research? (Part 2)Anthropology News 56(6):e1-e2.

Jason DeCaro, PhD, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alabama, is a biocultural medical and psychological anthropologist and human biologist. His research concerns interactions among the social and cultural architecture of everyday life, cognitive processes, and physiologic systems in human development and the production of differential well-being across the lifespan. His primary international research site is Mwanza, Tanzania, where he has conducted research on child care practices, household adversity, caregiver mental health, and young child growth and development. He also is active in the Southeast U.S., where he has investigated emotion regulation and the biological stress response during the transition into grade school. He directs the Developmental Ecology and Human Biology Lab, which supports the analysis of blood and saliva biomarkers related to immune function, stress physiology, metabolism, and nutrition.

Bioculturalism” aims to get anthropologists and closely-related others talking seriously, and thinking practically, about how to synergize biological and social scientific approaches to human health and well-being, and to what positive ends. It is edited by Jeffrey G. Snodgrass.

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.”

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

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.

The influence and passion of George Armelagos

This morning a giant of our field passed away.

George Armelagos was a pioneer of biocultural anthropology from a political economic perspective, and one of the earliest, strongest, and most consistent voices against scientific racism among the old guard of physical anthropology. He was one of those people whose personality and intellect could fill a room even when he spoke at little more than a quiet rumble. His bioarchaeological contributions fundamentally altered our understanding of human adaptation and of population health. And his students are everywhere carrying on his work in the classroom, in the laboratory and the field, and in public advocacy.

I just don’t know how to state this more strongly except to say there are only a tiny handful of scholars as influential as this within our discipline in a whole generation.

Soon I’ll write a full length piece reflecting on his importance in laying the intellectual foundation for a program like ours. In the meantime, rest in peace, my friend, and thank you for all you have done for our discipline and for the world.

What is biological about biocultural research? (Part 2)

In an earlier post, I began a discussion about the role of biology in a well-developed biocultural research program by debunking some common misconceptions (at least as I see them). I have argued that biomarkers are neither necessary nor sufficient to define a research program as biocultural, and that the same can be said of genetics/genomics and evolutionary hypotheses.

In this second part of the essay, I turn to the messier question of what a biocultural research program needs from biology.

If the point of biocultural research is to create a new subdiscipline with carefully defined boundaries tended by insiders, then the whole enterprise bores me and I want no part of it. We inhabit an academic universe filled with disciplines and subdisciplines and sub-subdisciplines that guard their borders, and despite moves toward interdisciplinarity (such as at Arizona State University, where they no longer have a conventional anthropology department, but instead a School of Human Evolution and Social Change), anthropology’s recent track record is not spectacular. Holism is not dead, but we collectively struggle with what it means in the 21st century, and worry about whether we are gripping an outdated sacred bundle, some artifact of the early 20th century institutional politics.

If biocultural research is to be a useful force in the future development of our discipline, it needs to be inclusive, flexible, and most importantly not defensive. Many (although not all!) researchers in the positivist anthropological sciences tire of, rail against, or just ignore theory and practice founded in Foucault’s biopower, the de-colonization movement, or critical medical anthropology, for instance. For my part, I find poststructuralist perspectives an essential check on the reductionist tendencies of biological research. One of the most compelling features of anthropology is that every foundational assumption is subject to examination. I don’t want to be satisfied with my work. I hear critiques, and I reconsider my approach. Then I continue my work, hopefully with some improvement. Open mindedness does not require nihilism.

But if biocultural research is a transactional phenomenon without a set trajectory or endpoint, built upon breaching carefully tended boundaries, then it’s an exciting enterprise indeed. For a health researcher with this perspective, each project presents an opportunity to throw out assumptions about causality and rebuild them. At its best, biocultural research can be disruptive, sometimes even a little threatening.

By transactional I mean that we converge on (if never quite reach) an understanding of 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 a developmental outcome – is shaped by subjective experience. And that means it is shaped by culture. Through culture we collectively build the niches within which the human organism thrives, or fails to thrive. We do it on a day-to-day basis as we interact with one another, and on a global scale as we alter the composition of life on earth and the carbon content of our atmosphere.

This is all very airy, though. At some point, one has to design an actual study that examines specific biocultural transactions. Then most of this complexity flies out the window because it’s unmanageable to conceptualize – let alone actively study – more than a small slice of human experience at any one time. So in the interest of making broad principles concrete, I propose a rough taxonomy of ways our faculty and students have incorporated biology into biocultural research. This is not all-inclusive, and these categories overlap. Since one major purpose of this post is to explore what biocultural medical anthropology can mean at UA, I rely preferentially on local examples (with apologies to those who, in the interest of not writing a novel, I will omit; I respect your work too!) Some readers may be prospective graduate students. If so, perhaps you can join us and help expand the list.

1)   Biocultural by theory. In part 1, I suggested it is not necessary to pursue evolutionary hypotheses to sustain the “bio” in biocultural research. However, strong research programs are grounded in theory, and biocultural research must be grounded in theory with provisions for biocultural transactions. Evolutionary theory continues to be one important way to achieve this. Hence, Catherine Buzney drew from life history theory, a specialty within evolutionary theory concerned with development across the lifespan, to hypothesize and interpret linkages between childhood stress and pubertal timing. Chris Lynn’s Human Behavioral Ecology Research Group (HBERG) pursues several lines of psychobiological and behavioral research driven by evolutionary hypotheses. One strand of my research used two evolutionary constructs (selection and energetic tradeoffs) to interpret sex-differentiated growth outcomes and immune system functioning in children. But there are other theoretical approaches amenable to biocultural integration. I have used ecocultural theory to interpret child stress response patterns and young adults’ physical activity. Toni Copeland has examined health outcomes among poor HIV-positive women in Kenya through the lens of structural violence. Rick Brown and Blakely Brooks built a cultural epidemiology of Type 2 diabetes and Susto, respectively. Bill Dressler, Kathy Oths, Francois Dengah, and several others have used cultural consonance theory as a bridge between a cognitive theory of culture and stress theory, to examine how cultural meaning per se shapes outcomes as diverse as arterial blood pressure, depressed affect, and body mass index. While this represents considerable theoretical pluralism, all these projects are firmly founded in some well-developed theoretical framework that not only permits but encourages reference to the body and its workings. Hence, our work is biocultural by theory.

2)   Biocultural by outcome. Theory may encourage a careful look at transactions among the subjectivity and physicality of the body, but it’s still necessary to design a study that locates those transactions and makes them amenable to analysis. In our program, we have emphasized the design and testing of hypotheses concerning measureable health or health-related outcomes. These outcomes can be explicitly physiological, such as 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 bonesetting and Debilidad, Meredith Jackson-de Graffenried’s and Erica Gibson’s work on pregnancy and birth outcomes, the work of both Sarah Szurek and Katy Groves regarding food models, Jenelle Doucet’s research concerning ADHD, or Mary Campbell’s work on access to healthcare. Hence, our work is biocultural by outcome. Because these outcomes often benefit from quantification, we generally pursue mixed-methods approaches to our research questions. But where we use statistics, we have built our statistical models on an ethnographic foundation and interpreted our findings in an ethnographic light.

3)   Biocultural by marker. I noted in my earlier post that the incorporation of biomarkers is neither necessary nor sufficient to a biocultural study. They’re still pretty darn useful, though. As I will use the term here, a marker is distinct from an outcome insofar as it is not directly the target of inquiry, but helps in the description or quantification of another variable important to the study hypothesis while being less amenable to direct measurement. Cortisol, then, is a marker of stress, not stress itself. HbA1c is a convenient marker of glycemic control. C-reactive protein is a one-molecule marker of inflammation. Taking this one step further, genotypes too are markers – markers of gene expression (and consequent variation in biological function). So, serotonin receptor polymorphisms are markers of biological sensitivity to adversity. Depending on study design, sometimes variables can serve as markers or outcomes. Chronic elevated inflammation, for example, can be a marker of pathogen exposure, or may itself be the health outcome of interest. Blood pressure can be a stress marker or a measure of hypertension, a medical condition. My lab, the Developmental Ecology and Human Biology Lab, is deeply concerned with the measurement of biomarkers. Our research can be biocultural by marker when the biomarker serves as a useful tool to address a question that might otherwise be inaccessible to study.

4)   Biocultural by extension. Sometimes research that begins with an explicitly biological outcome leads 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. As in Part 1, I shall for a moment pick on one of my own current students to illustrate this point, because I know the history of the project fairly well. Martina Thomas began her studies with a thesis project examining cultural models concerning body image among African American adolescents and their mothers in a low-income community with exceptionally high obesity rates. During her work, she found that body image, rather than being strictly concerned with shape or size, was bound up in a complex model also involving social relationships, material possessions, a variety of behaviors including respectfulness, drug use, and gossip; and, hidden in the mix, there were some interesting hints regarding perceptions (sometimes misconceptions) of what a person with AIDS “looks like.” On this foundation she built an entirely new study that examines HIV/AIDS models and social ecologies of risk. This research is not only biocultural by (implicit) outcome – HIV risk – but also biocultural by extension. It follows a trail of evidence, and when that trail leads into social and behavioral research without direct measurement of biological markers or outcomes, there is no wall that prevents 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 have both done work concerning dissociative states evoked in the context of Pentecostal rituals. They are not measuring the neurobiology of dissociation – but they know about it, and can interpret their findings in light of neurobiology (and stress biology, which Chris measured and Francois inferred). My work on physical activity patterns among older adults who have osteoarthritis (with Pat Parmelee and Dylan Smith) and among young adults who do not is interpreted in light of the physiological significance of body movement, but we connect nothing to the body except an accelerometer (like a pedometer, but a little fancier). Beyond this department, a hallmark of neuroanthropology is the interpretation of a vast array of cultural and social experiences (from cancer survivorship to drug use and sport) in terms of neurobiology.

Anthropologists have a tremendous advantage insofar as we get outside of the lab and learn about people’s experiences as they live their lives. Yet that makes us by necessity versatile opportunists when it comes to methodology. When Greg Downey (not one of ours, alas, but an outstanding biocultural anthropologist at Macquarie University) studies Brazilian Capoeira, he can’t stick these martial artists into an fMRI magnet. But he can use the wonderful techniques of participant observation, combined with a healthy respect for the experimental neuroscience literature, to approximate an understanding of what’s happening on a biological level. We can examine questions that no other discipline is equally 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 far better toys.

[Updated and added links 10/23/2013]

What is biological about biocultural research? (Part 1)

In 2005, concerned about the absence in much biocultural research of an explicit theory of culture, Bill Dressler wrote a landmark piece in Ethos entitled “What’s Cultural about Biocultural Research?” While not all of us follow Bill’s approach to the letter, the perspective this article represents has been a major driving force as we’ve developed our Biocultural Medical Anthropology PhD program.

One could ask a parallel question: what’s Biological about Biocultural research? In many of the circles where I spend my conference time, the biological component of the research is easily assumed. I attend the Human Biology Association on an annual basis, and probably see more researchers there who consider themselves “biocultural” than at either of the other anthropological conferences I frequently attend – the American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology. (Not just as a percentage, but as a raw number, despite the fact that HBA is so 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 our program historically has followed a different pathway. In the early years of the PhD program, every one of our doctoral students was advised either by Bill Dressler or Kathy Oths. (These days students are spread much more evenly among the faculty.) Bill and Kathy tended to attract students who were bright and sophisticated, fully capable of engaging with biological dimensions of their work, but with a primary foothold in cultural anthropology. To an extent this has persisted even as Chris Lynn and I have taken on doctoral students. If one were to put my doc students to date into a box, it would have CULTURAL written in caps, with biological in lower case. It’s a wonderful feature of this program that both the faculty and students are so comfortable transacting across boundaries that a biocultural human biologist like me can advise a great student like Martina Thomas, whose NSF-funded research concerns HIV-related cultural models in adolescents. And have that be a positive experience for both of us, sans either biomarkers or evolutionary hypotheses. (Our very strong tradition of group mentorship and either formal or informal co-advising has a lot to do with this too – a post on this soon, I think.)

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

1)   Biocultural research is not 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. Biomarkers 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 they’re not called for by theory, they should be omitted. So, then, they’re not a sufficient condition, but they’re also not necessary. Consider Daniel Lende’s work in substance use in Colombia, or much of the recent work developing the nascent field of Neuroanthropology. Not a biomarker to be found in many cases – but we do see careful attention to underlying neurological mechanisms that influence and are shaped by subjective experience.

2)   Biocultural research is not about genetics (or even genomics). This is an extension of an older false equivalence: biology = genes. Biological phenotypes are both overdetermined and complexly determined, through a multi-level interaction among genes, developmental systems, and social/cultural environments. The “biology = genes” fallacy is particularly common in discussions that have a “nature vs. nurture” tone to them, and often take the form, “Is X trait/phenotype biological or cultural,” where “biological” = “genetic,” “cultural” = anything remotely social or experiential, and all 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 or sufficient.

3)   Biocultural research is not limited to work drawing from evolutionary theory. This one is perhaps more controversial among people in my circles, most of whom approach their work from the standpoint of evolutionary theory and hypotheses drawn from it. Much (although not all) of my work does as well.  Yet it is simply not necessary to chart the evolutionary history of a physiological system to usefully study it. Sometimes developmental theory is more helpful. Sometimes stress theory. Sometimes ecocultural theory. Sometimes epidemiological theory. Denying the importance of the evolution of these systems to their current variation and functioning is a non-starter for me, and all our students get exposed to evolutionary principles. 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 to there. Conversely, there’s a danger of a certain evolutionary tokenism. Mentioning Paleolithic diets does not a biocultural study make (even when it’s not blatant misrepresentation or overinterpretation of the actual paleo human data).

So far, we’re in a place where I’ve outlined some negatives, but no positives. If it’s not per se about biomarkers, genetics, or evolution, than what is the biology in biocultural research about?

In a subsequent post I’ll explore this 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 ultimately less important than how we understand it to work. I’ll argue for the value of developmental perspectives, although without claiming all biocultural research must lean on human development. I’ll argue for the importance of measurable outcomes with inherent biological implications, without claiming that biology need be directly measured to achieve this. If this seems too vague, or filled with straw men, hopefully Part 2 will dispel that. In the meantime, comments would be received warmly.

[Update: Part 2 is now available here.]