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.”

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.

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.]

Biocultural Anthropology Bibliography

University of South Florida anthropologist & Neuroanthropology blogger Daniel Lende has written an excellent & useful bibliography of biocultural anthropology as part of the Oxford Bibliographies Anthropology series.  Here is the introduction:

Introduction

Biocultural anthropology exists at the intersection of cultural and biological approaches. Given how concepts, methods, and institutions have changed with regard to “biology” and “culture” since the early 1900s, the biocultural intersection has proven a dynamic space. It is also a contested space, where claims about human nature and culture and about science and ethnography have often come into stark contrast. Biocultural anthropology is linked to the four-field holistic tradition of anthropology within the United States. Individuals who don the biocultural mantle often claim holism as well and the accompanying ability to cross among archaeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. Other individuals often object to this presumptive turf-grabbing and the accompanying assumption that the biocultural tradition is somehow better through being more integrative (or “holistic”) and better able at getting at more “fundamental” questions within anthropology. Here too controversy can arise. Yet, over the course of one hundred years, the biocultural tradition has helped tie together anthropology, first in the United States and, then, increasingly so in Europe. Certainly biocultural anthropology—broadly conceived as drawing on biological and cultural theory and using an inherent interdisciplinary approach—has gone through periods of obscurity, where small groups of researchers kept some of the main ideas and ideological commitments alive for another generation. But today, biocultural approaches are experiencing a renaissance across many arenas within anthropology. The perception exists, however, that the present biocultural approaches largely come from the biology and science side of anthropology and aim to increasingly encroach on questions seemingly reserved for social and cultural theorists. This bibliography emphasizes both biological and cultural research, with the hope that this broader selection can help anthropologists understand the conflicts that arise at the biology/culture interface as well as find important texts outside their areas of expertise that can facilitate further developments in biocultural anthropology. The bibliography has a three-part organization: an overview at the beginning, a historical review in the middle, and particular examples at the end. The overview provides a selection of introductory texts, overviews, recent collections, Internet resources, methods, and applied work. The historical coverage comes in the sections Foundations of Biocultural Anthropology and Disciplinary Divisions, Controversies, and Syntheses. The Foundations of Biocultural Anthropology section begins with the origins of holistic anthropology, considers mediating traditions from earlier to recent research, covers evolutionary and cultural theory amenable to interdisciplinary work, and highlights research that crosses the biocultural divide. Disciplinary Divisions, Controversies, and Syntheses delves into the recent history of anthropology, examining the disciplinary divisions that sprang up in the 1970s; then tracks important controversies that cut across the biocultural divide in the ensuing decades; and finally examines recent integrative attempts and reworkings of anthropology’s holistic tradition. The final section covers neuroanthropology and addiction as two examples of biocultural research.