How Social Networks Shape Cultural Consonance

The Embeddedness of Cultural Knowledge

The relationship between social networks and health has been established in anthropology since Émile Durkheim identified a link between social isolation and suicide. Medical anthropologists have also long recognized that people with more diverse social ties and greater emotional and economic support are typically healthier, but how this association is intensified by culture remains under-explored. Specifically, how does “embeddedness” in a social network influence health and interact with internalized cultural beliefs?

Author (middle) with Dr. Kathy Oths (left) collecting data in the Peruvian highlands (Courtesy Adam Booher).

Author (middle) with Dr. Kathy Oths (left) collecting data in the Peruvian highlands (Courtesy Adam Booher).

Sociologist Mark Granovetter coined the term embeddedness to describe how social relations shape economic behavior and institutions. Douglas Massey later applied this idea to migration, pointing out that specific families, groups, and classes of people disproportionately gain access to movement via more diverse network ties and social relations. In other words, embeddedness in a migrant network entails status, prestige, or position, which may influence cultural success and well-being. Cultural success is determined by shared knowledge, such as migration goals and lifestyle expectations, which is cognitively embedded in people who then enact these cultural beliefs to varying degrees, depending on the level of power they derive from their position within a social network.

Chugurpampans Embedded in the Trujillo Migrant Network

I recently concluded two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Peru, amassing social network data for hundreds of people. My research involves a group of internal migrants from the hamlet of Chugurpampa in the north Peruvian Andes (pop. ~600), where my adviser, Kathy Oths, began longitudinal research of sickness and treatment choice over 25 years ago. While serving on a research team she assembled for a 2012 restudy of the village, we discovered that overwhelming economic and political pressures, coupled with effects of climate change on the highland agricultural system, have forced many Chugurpampans to pursue work in the coastal city of Trujillo.

Trujillo is a bustling metropolis of over 1 million residents, many of whom establish residences in informal neighborhoods called pueblos jóvenes (‘young towns’) on the outskirts of the city (Courtesy Author).

Trujillo is a bustling metropolis of over 1 million residents, many of whom establish residences in informal neighborhoods called pueblos jóvenes (‘young towns’) on the outskirts of the city (Courtesy Author).

Across Trujillo, Chugurpampans maintain a network of kinship and social ties, including a hometown association in which members develop collective financial and material resources for their hamlet. However, there is a rising middle-class within the group’s  leadership, while less integrated Chugurpampans struggle to feed their families. Thus, some migrants are more successful than others in achieving shared migration goals and lifestyle expectations. My research focuses on whether one’s embeddedness within the migrant network influences their individual capacity to implement shared cultural expectations and how this impacts well-being.

The concept of embeddedness for this group is best illustrated during Chugurpampa’s annual harvest festival (‘fiesta patronal’), an agro-religious celebration in which migrants attempt to gain and reinforce their social status by making large material and financial donations. Each year, the hometown association selects an organizer known as a mayordomo, whose challenge is to surpass previous years, usually at no small expense. During interviews, high-status Chugurpampans like the mayordomo and other collaborators were most likely to be identified by respondents as close family or friends, even if these highly-embedded individuals did not always return the sentiment. Individuals with lower prestige desire to associate with those whom they see as successful in achieving shared migration goals and lifestyle expectations, such as having a secure job with stable pay, owning a house, or having vacation time, all of which communicate socioeconomic achievement. Essentially, more embedded Chugurpampans serve as cultural prototypes of success in migration.

Combining Social Network and Cultural Consonance Approaches

My research explores interactions between social structure and cultural models–or the cognitively embedded cultural information—to understand how culture mediates relationships within social networks to influence health and well-being. Cognitive theory, in particular Bill Dressler’s theory of cultural consonance, provides a way to measure how fulfillment of such cultural expectations can influence health.

The mayordomo of the 2015 harvest festival achieved widespread acclaim for providing free daily meals and hosting all-night dances at a level never before seen in previous celebrations (Courtesy Author).

The mayordomo of the 2015 harvest festival achieved widespread acclaim for providing free daily meals and hosting all-night dances at a level never before seen in previous celebrations (Courtesy Author).

Dressler found that individuals in Brazil with larger perceived social support networks are generally more consonant with an ideal cultural model of social support. My research takes the next step by evaluating cultural consonance in a whole network. This encompasses the entirety of a community’s social relations shared among individuals and households, rather than the ego-centered perspective of a personal network design. I measured the quality and strength of Chugurpampans’ collective social relations to assess whether embeddedness in the migrant network influences consonance in shared models of migration goals and lifestyle expectations.

Cognitive and network approaches are structuralist in nature, meaning that cultural models and social networks exist as part of lived realities. Each method provides the tools to take a ‘snapshot’ (as Dressler calls it) of sociocultural forces in situ, which can then be tested for associations and used to supplement insights from detailed, ethnographic fieldwork. Chugurpampan migrants are strongly-connected via a social network based on shared community origin, and using social network analysis, the power that individuals derive from respective network positions can be compared to consonance with migration goals, lifestyle expectations, and health outcomes. I predict, judging from previous cultural consonance work, that more highly-embedded Chugurpampans will have the highest cultural consonance and lowest blood pressure, perceived stress, and depressive symptoms.

Based on 24 months of fieldwork and preliminary data analysis, it’s clear that combining cognitive and network orientations can improve our understanding of culture’s crucial role in mediating interactions between social networks and health.

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

Max Stein is a doctoral student in the department who has conducted research in Honduras, Costa Rica, and Peru.

Global Health Policy Toward Traditional Healers: A 21st Century Update

Kathy Oths, author

Kathy Oths, author

Introduction

Much has occurred in the world of traditional medicine since the World Health Organization first appealed for the integration of Bio- and traditional medicines at Alma Ata in 1978. In the interim, while most efforts to include traditional healers’ services in hospitals and clinics foundered on the basis of distrust and unshared epistemology, paradoxically, worldwide interest in ‘alternative’ medicine only continued to grow.

An unfortunate result is that while the prestige of some traditional medicines heightened, and bioprospecting “integrated” traditional knowledge in pursuit of profits, concern about the survival of folk healers themselves subsided. Climate change, poverty, hypermobility, and globalization, among other factors, have led many young persons with healing potential to choose other career paths, or if they do enter healing fields, to choose professional paths that relocate them to urban areas far from the places of greatest need. Thus, one wonders whether folk healers will survive past the next generation, and what role governments and agencies might play in assuring that they do.

Background

The WHO’s Alma Ata Declaration stated “the need for urgent action …to protect and promote the health of all the people of the world.“ Article VII-7 reads: Primary health care relies, at local…levels, on health workers, including physicians, nurses …as well as traditional practitioners as needed, suitably trained socially and technically to work as a health team …”   While the WHO continues to encourage and support traditional healers, these same healers are officially outlawed in some countries, such as Peru, where I work, though there have been efforts to legalize them and standardize their practice (WHO 2001, 2005).

Since Alma Ata

Don Felipe

Don Felipe

Complicating the picture is the rise of “CAM” or “Complementary and Alternative Medicine,” which is a term even scholars find confusing. Is traditional medicine a subset of CAM, or vice versa? Is a practice traditional in its primary cultural context and CAM if it is exported? While there are no easy answers, WHO would agree with the latter (2001). Great Tradition/Professional medicines such as Ayurvedic, Chiropractic, Traditional Chinese Medicine, etc., are larger, well-organized, and better funded than the small folk traditions found in local contexts, such as midwifery, herbalism, shamanism, and bonesetting (Kleinman, 1980), and thus are given more attention by physicians willing to operate holistic, integrated clinics (Keshet & Popper-Giveon 2013), and by WHO and other regulating bodies. Opinions of professional healers carry more weight when policy is shaped. Yet while in Latin America no Great Traditions exist, socialist-leaning governments in several countries have been at the forefront of sincere, respectful efforts to truly integrate traditional practitioners with biomedicine (Peru is not one of these, despite sincere efforts by CENSI). A recent example is Bolivia, where one finds notable efforts to refashion state health care delivery to accommodate traditional medicine in a spirit of interculturalidad (Johnson 2010).

Loss of Traditional Healers

In the late 1980s in Chugurpampa, Peru, a highland hamlet in the northern Andes of La Libertad, morbidity and mortality were low, in no small part due to a plethora of biomedical and traditional healers (Oths 1998). Since then, drastic environmental changes, such as drought, deluge, unseasonable temperatures, and invasive flora & fauna, have substantially reduced agricultural yields. The ensuing diaspora—one third of the population has fled to the coast for survival—has left the region with few healers, as people are subsistence farmers first and healers as a secondary occupation. Young adults do not have the economic nor residential stability to apprentice to existing healers.

pathway model

Bonesetter Conference, Julcan, Peru – 2013

Don Felipe Llaro, 80, is the last remaining healer in Chugurpampa and one of the region’s few bonesetters. (He is also a midwife, herbalist, and soul caller.)

  • A National Committee on Traditional, Alternative and Complementary Medicine operates out of a prestigious medical school in Lima. Its membership includes hundreds of physicians, healers, and others. They regularly hold conferences with much fanfare about reconnecting with their illustrious Incan past.
  • I accepted the Committee’s invitation to lecture about Don Felipe—twice—and given their insistence on meeting Don Felipe, I arranged a small 2-day conference on their behalf. They clamored to meet him and asked that I bring him to Lima, not considerate of the fact that he is elderly, unfamiliar with urban life, and would be outside of the cultural context in which he best functions. Not being an abstract thinker, he shows and teaches only in the act of working on an injured client.
  • In 2013 we hosted an “intercultural” conference in the rural highland Hospital of Julcan, the district capital near Chugurpampa, to showcase his talents and to promote apprenticeship to him while he still can teach. It was a success, drawing doctors, academics, healers, and others from around Peru, as well as local injured peasants who came for the free treatment they would get as demonstration patients. However, while a dozen D.s from Lima registered, in the end not a single one showed up. (Free room and board was provided to all.)
  • We achieved our goals—honor Don Felipe, re-acquaint local medical personnel with his practice, film the event, and identify an apprentice – his own granddaughter. However, who ultimately chose to attend the event, as opposed to who did not, speaks volumes.

    Treating a woman with a back injury from being thrown from her horse.

    Treating a woman with a back injury from being thrown from her horse.

Upshot

Romanticized notions of a glorious medical heritage collide with the reality of the healers—usually impoverished—who struggle to carry on their traditions. If the self-professed M.D. salvagers of traditional medicine are of no utility, the task of preserving traditional knowledge becomes that much harder. Bolivia’s WHO-assisted government initiatives to privilege traditional medicine in its state-run health care system, while not entirely successful—and with opposition from biomedicine and USAID-–provide an illustration of potential new approaches. Treating folk knowledge as valuable though folk healers as dispensable is not a viable long term strategy.

The Last Bonesetter, an ethnographic film of Don Felipe and the conference, will be shown at SfAA in Vancouver in March and at other future venues.


Biocultural Systematics is written by members of the University of Alabama Biocultural Medical Anthropology program. Kathy Oths, a professor in the department, has worked in the highlands of Peru off and on for over 30 years.

“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What We Know about Family-Career Balances of Anthropologists

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

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

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

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

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

Study: Family and the Field

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

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

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


NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

“Bioculturalism”–An Interview with Christopher Lynn [reposted from Somatosphere]

This article is part of the series: 

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. In this interview, Christopher Lynn responds to questions posed by series organizer Jeffrey G. Snodgrass.

 

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

Cultural anthropologists and other social scientists interested in health shouldbe interested in some objective indication of health status as reflective, at least in part, of physiological status. I don’t feel health issues have been sufficiently addressed if they are not approached integratively in this way. That is not to say that all my projects have gotten there yet or that biomarkers are always necessary in all health-oriented research, but without at least an accompanying biological perspective, any interpretation is lacking. One way of taking an integrated perspective and including biomarkers where feasible and informative is through basing research and data analysis in Tinbergen’s four “Why” questions. This ethological approach lends itself to participation as well as observation and recommends that we examine behavior (1) historically (culturally and phylogenetically), (2) developmentally (what is the role of age, maturity, family, expectations of those stages?), (3) functionally (physiologically or functionalist-ly), and (4) proximally (psychological cause-effect).

I guess that’s viewing it from the biological side and seeing culture as critical rather than vice versa. I don’t see that there’s any way around me seeing things through the lens of a biological anthropologist, but it’s important to note that this is distinct from how biologists often utilize ethology and Tinbergen, which often lacks awareness of cultural relativity. I started off as a cultural anthropologist in my undergraduate education (literally, I majored only in Cultural Anthropology through an interdisciplinary program), then gravitated to Biological Anthropology because all the questions I asked about health and humanness simply required a better understanding of biological processes. Upon completing my PhD, I think I’ve moved back to a middle ground where the specific questions I ask and stage of research I’m at dictate whether what I look at takes more of a cultural or biological form. Honestly, it’s just anthropology, but I do feel obliged to make distinctions because it is infinitely confusing to students when we seem to call ourselves one thing and do another.

However, biological perspective does not necessarily mean biomarkers. Biomarkers are kind of like the fMRI of biocultural anthropology, at least among students in my department’s Biocultural Medical Anthropology program. They are something students with a cultural bent seem to throw on to show they’re being biocultural, and such proposals tend to look like pigs with chickens stapled to their backs. On the other hand, students who come from a biological background do the same thing with the cultural consonance approach. Bill Dressler has written extensively on this happy wedding of the biological as integral to the cultural in terms of health outcomes, so I won’t rehash but rather direct readers to the new Biocultural Systematics blog on our Bama Anthro Blog Network that will soon also be published via Anthropology News. Yet biomarkers are useful, and there are numerous ways to include them to test claims made through interviews or interpretations of survey data. Biomarkers can be easy to use and unobtrusive even for the relatively untrained, especially in the era of ubiquitous smartphones. For instance, on the “high-tech” side, Francois Dengah (who has a PhD from the University of Alabama in biocultural medical anthropology and is now an Assistant Professor at Utah State) and I have been working toward integrating low-cost skin conductance and heart rate sensors that plug into Android and Apple tablets and smartphones and interface with free apps. On the other hand, Greg Batchelder, a PhD student currently working with me, plans to collect blood pressure and hair samples to measure cortisol among the Bribrí in a remote area of Costa Rica lacking electricity.

 

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

One of the common critiques of anything done from a biological perspective is that it tends to be reductionistic. Especially with regard to health-related research, we focus on outcomes and are in danger of missing the trees for the forest. In my studies of dissociative behavior, I’m sensitive to the frustration of some scholars who are wary of the use of generalizing ethnologic terminology, such as “shamanism,” “possession,” “trance,” etc. This is especially true when we researchers with cross-cultural bents try to discuss function. For instance, I would be leery of saying something like, the function of dissociation — the partitioning of awareness we see in possession trance, dissociative disorders, and so many other psycho-cultural contexts — is to reduce stress. We have to be cognizant of referring to biological capacities, cognitive capacities, and look at how psychosociocultural influences interact with such capacities to influence myriad outcomes. The suggestion of function tends to suggest to readers that we think there is a cognitive module or evolved trait or something that is universal, and this is not necessarily true or what is meant. But to think that readers will not read into our use of the term would be naive. However, we do need some conceptual terms to hang our hats on, even if there is no unity in underlying biology. Suggesting that all people have varying capacities for dissociation does not mean there is a dissociation module in the brain or that even the same neural circuits are invoked.

It’s important that critique be constructive and that we take our colleagues’ concerns about our approaches to heart. My policy is that the more a criticism bothers me, the more I need to think about what relevant criticism I might be steamrolling over in my approach. I take critique to heart more than I do praise (which sucks for my self-esteem, unfortunately). There are ways we can, as I so often say to students, throw the bathwater out without chucking babies. One of my favorite integrations of this nature is Carol Worthman’s development of the concept of embodiment. The theory of embodiment came into usage as a way to appreciate what to me seemed an inherent appreciation of the biological but without clear articulation of biological outcomes in the phenomenological works referencing or invoking this term. Worthman, especially in a 1999 piece in the edited volume Biocultural Approaches to the Emotions, outlined clearly that we biologically embody aspects of our local environment, that we embody our environment of development as we grow up, and that we vary in our responses to hardships in ways that influence our health. As I stated previously, without this context — which speaks directly to Boasian historical particularism — analyses of culture are lacking.

 

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

Hmm, you should probably ask this of a cautious person. It’s important to be sensitive about collecting biological data. Simply put, people are distrustful and with good reason. For many of our research participants — whether from “developed” or “Westernized” cultures or not — there is a bit of sympathetic magic associated with giving up pieces of you. As Frazer taught us all, cultures throughout the world associate personal power with hair, names, fingernail clippings, blood, saliva, etc. To give these away gives away power. It has never been articulated this way to me, but I have had participants concerned that, in collecting their saliva to measure cortisol, I would do something with their DNA. Another participant in my study of speaking in tongues among Pentecostals was concerned that I would misinterpret her data. She had eight of her own children and ran a home school, frequently felt very stressed, and was concerned that her potentially high levels of cortisol would make God look bad (i.e., as though her relationship with Him was not bringing her any peace or sanity). In my research, navigating the terrain of fundamentalist Christianity to measure biomarkers requires a fair amount of finesse that came rather naturally to me, I’d like to think, because of my cultural anthropology training. On the other hand, because of the widespread familiarity with biomedicine and the normative nature of providing urine and blood samples, many of my participants in that study, surprisingly, were less concerned about the saliva sampling than some of the questions in the survey I used.

Other than that, the previous issue I mentioned — simply tacking a biomarker onto a cultural study or vice versa — is the biggest problem I have encountered. It is important to meaningfully integrate the biological and the cultural in biocultural research. I see cultural factors as driving research design in terms of how and what biological data are collected and biological issues as driving a necessary investigation of cultural variation. They should not seem as though they are two independent studies using the same sample, as they so often do.

 

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

The work I’ve been talking about was the basis of my dissertation. I was interested in the influence of speaking in tongues as a cultural practice exhibited in the context of dissociation on stress response. I started from a functionalist perspective testing the health benefits of trance and quickly discovered that tongues can be negatively interpreted even within a Pentecostal church and increase problems rather than ameliorate them. This discovery led me to be sensitive to the various emic interpretations of the tongue-speaking experience and a nuanced approach to quantifying lifetime tongue-speaking experience. Ultimately, I found that higher rates of tongue-speaking influenced higher stress on worship days, which was expected given the experiential and energetic nature of worship, and relatively lower stress on a nonworship day compared to people within the same churches with less tongues experience. These differences were small but statistically significant. Those data are detailed in two papers in American Journal of Human Biologyand Religion, Brain and Behavior.

While this supported my hypothesis, the biggest lesson that has driven much of my subsequent research and approach is that, as a pastor in one of the churches where I did that research once said, “speaking in tongues is not enough.” It is simply the beginning, and there are numerous factors that influence the benefit of Pentecostal practice that often can’t be generalized even beyond one church. Analysis of an event wherein an individual was accused of being under the influence of the Devil rather than God, and which influenced my thinking in this regard, is outlined in an article in Ethos, and a forthcoming article in the Journal of Cognition and Culture reanalyzes previous data with regard to other factors that are influential in benefiting health besides tongues.

 

How might cultural anthropologists or social scientists interested in such an approach get started?

One of my favorite pieces is “Biocultural Models in Studies of Human Health and Adaptation” by Ann McElroy. Also, I was strongly influenced by a biocultural issue of Ethos that came out in 2005 (Vol. 33, Issue 1), when I was in graduate school, and especially the article “What’s Cultural about Biocultural Research?” by Bill Dressler, with whom I am now a departmental colleague in our Biocultural Medical Anthropology program.

 

Christopher D. Lynn is a biocultural medical anthropologist and human behavioral ecologist, director of the Human Behavioral Ecology Research Group, and co-director of the Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) Program at the University of Alabama. His dissertation research was on the relationship between glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”) and biological stress among New York Apostolic Pentecostals. He is currently setting up broader studies that examine the neuroanthropology and behavioral ecology of Charismatic religious behavior in Alabama and Costa Rica. The focus of much of his research is on understanding the mechanisms and psychocultural moderation of the mechanisms underlying dissociation/absorption.

 

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

“Bioculturalism”–An Interview with William Dressler

This article is part of the series: 

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. In this interview, Bill Dressler responds to questions posed by series organizer Jeffrey G. Snodgrass.

 

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

Outcomes. What I mean is that anthropological analyses are full of intriguing theoretical and ethnographic models proposing processes that operate at many levels, ranging from the molecular to the symbolic. Very often I find myself reading such analyses, only to get to the end thinking: “and……?” I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, in the sense of what the implications of those processes might be for health or biological outcomes. That other shoe can be a biological outcome or a biomarker. For example, medical anthropologists are interested in various sorts of social relationships. These could be between a healer and client; among family members coping with a social or economic crisis; within a voluntary association — in short, social relationships that organize persons in any number of of ways and contexts. The epidemiologic literature teaches us that integration into a network of relationships is, generally, associated with better health status, assessed in a variety of ways; the problem is that the epidemiologic literature tends to deal only with social relationships that seem plausible from a generally middle-class, North American orientation. Therefore, much of the potential for understanding in detail how social relationships shape health outcomes in diverse settings is left unrealized. Furthermore, in anthropological analyses, the demonstration of the importance of a particular configuration of social relationships for health are also left unrealized. A focus on potential health outcomes would help to clarify these associations.

 

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

One critique of such an approach is that it requires that we pay attention to measurement issues. While case-study material is useful for examining in detail the nature of social relationships, a clear demonstration of differences in health outcomes in relation to social relationships requires a more extensive approach to data collection, and especially the ability to differentiate empirically configurations of social relationships, so that these can in turn be compared to health outcomes. A biocultural approach generally requires greater attention to issues of research design and measurement than is encountered in cultural anthropology, and those issues can be regarded skeptically within the field.

 

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

Do not become a believer in magic bullets. What I mean is that biological outcomes and biomarkers are themselves often interpreted uncritically. An example is arterial blood pressure, which is something that I’ve studied a good bit. While arterial blood pressure is extraordinarily sensitive to the quality and quantity of social relationships, it is also influenced by a variety of other factors that must also be taken into account if you are going to incorporate blood pressure as a measure into your research. Viewing this the other way around, do not be seduced into thinking that you can treat someone’s self-report of, for example, the quality of social relationships as capturing the features of social relationships in which you are interested. Consciously and verbally expressed thoughts and perceptions cannot be accepted uncritically as measuring what your are trying to measure.

 

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

There has been a great deal of attention focused on the nature of social support in the African American community. Some years ago we found that a reliance on kin versus nonkin for help and assistance in times of felt need had different associations with blood pressure, depending on other contextual factors. (This is a bit of an old paper, but it does a nice job of showing how an issue of theoretical interest in cultural anthropology can be better understood from a biocultural perspective.)

Dressler, William W. and James R. Bindon. (2000) “The health consequences of cultural consonance: cultural dimensions of lifestyle, social support and arterial blood pressure in an African American community.” American Anthropologist 102: 244-260.

 

What is a good reference that cultural anthropologists or social scientists interested in such an approach could use to get started?

Dressler, William W. (2005) “What’s cultural about biocultural research?” Ethos 33: 20-45.

 

William Dressler is a medical anthropologist with interests in culture theory, community studies, research methods, and especially the relationship between culture and disease risk. In his earlier work Dressler adapted models of psychosocial stress to examine the association between social and cultural factors and the risk of chronic disease, including cardiovascular disease and dysthymic disorder. His recent work emphasizes concepts and methods for examining the health effects of individual efforts to achieve culturally-defined goals and aspirations. He has developed a new concept, ‘cultural consonance,’ to define this link of culture and the individual theoretically and operationally. This work has necessitated the theoretical integration of cultural constructivist and social structural theoretical orientations, and the development of research methods for linking the cultural, the individual, and the biological. Dressler and colleagues have examined these factors in settings as diverse as urban Great Britain, the Southeast U.S., the West Indies, Mexico, and Samoa.

 

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.