Biocultural Anthropology & Linguistic Anthropology: Points of Possible Convergence?

Sonya Pritzker

Sonya Pritzker

Biocultural anthropology offers an inherently interdisciplinary, cross-subfield approach to anthropological research. As such, it draws heavily upon various biological, cognitive, and sociocultural theories, among others, to point researchers towards certain methodologies and variables for inclusion in their research design. The outcome of such an approach yields a growing genre of work that articulates the ways in which the human body, at every level, both shapes and is shaped by cultural practices. As one of the four major subfields of the discipline, linguistic anthropology also engages questions regarding bidirectional connections between culture and body. Such work emphasizes the ways in which embodied experience is constantly mediated by interactions that involve words, gestures, and prosodic features such as rhythm and emphasis.

Despite a shared interest in demonstrating links between culture and body, theoretical and methodological approaches within biocultural and linguistic anthropology have only rarely been actively combined. Besides a few outlying studies by, for example, Erica Cartmill, bioculturally oriented research has rarely engaged seriously with language as a multi-modal process shaped by and shaping embodiment. Researchers in linguistic anthropology have likewise, for the most part, chosen not to focus on the biological implications of complex, culturally mediated interactions.

From my current vantage point as a linguistic and psychocultural medical anthropologist working in a department with a strong biocultural program, I am beginning to question what researchers in each area might be missing out on when they choose not to include either linguistic or biocultural perspectives when they design their research. While I fully acknowledge that it is not always possible to do everything in every study, I would like to propose that the two fields are at a point where they could fruitfully be joined together more explicitly and consciously. This is both a methodological and theoretical endeavor.

Methodologically, for example, biocultural work draws upon methods such as cultural domain analysis (including cultural consensus analysis), and inclusion of biological outcomes, in addition to traditional long-term ethnography and interviews. From my perspective, there is ample room in such studies for incorporating additional methods from linguistic anthropology, such as audio and/or video recording and the use of conversation analysis to transcribe and interpret data. For biocultural anthropologists, such an approach can arguably increase the ‘grain’ of research, enabling scholars to track how difficult-to-operationalize concepts, such as “stress” or “belief,” emerge over time in interaction. Likewise, the inclusion of biocultural methods offers linguistic anthropologists an opportunity to study how conversations literally get under the skin.

The incorporation of additional methods alone, however, does not automatically lead to such enhanced results. Research seeking to combine biocultural and linguistic methods must thus be held together, at every level from research question to data analysis, by theory. Here, biocultural theories that recognize bidirectional links between large-scale sociocultural and economic processes and individual human biologies (e.g., Goodman and Leatherman 1998) are a good starting point. Even more relevant, perhaps, for scholars seeking to incorporate a linguistic anthropological perspective is the specific theoretical construct of cultural consonance, described here by Bill Dressler. As Dressler describes, cultural consonance theory pushes past generalized theories of “culture as context” to develop nuanced connections between cultural meanings and individual meanings, further linking such connections to individual biology. Although admittedly I am not yet an expert in this theory, it strikes me as an excellent opportunity to incorporate theories from linguistic anthropology that focus on the emergence of culture as an uneven process that occurs in specific interactions (see, for example, Duranti and Goodwin 1992 or Tedlock and Mannheim 1995). Some specific examples of areas where both the theories and methods of biocultural and linguistic anthropology might be productively combined include, then:

  1. Research on illness and healing: Biocultural anthropologists have made significant contributions in demonstrating the link between cultural processes and health outcomes A lot of work is being done in this realm across anthropology. Some examples from our department include Oths 1999, Lynn 2014, Weaver et al 2015, Dressler et al 2016. At the same time, many linguistic anthropologists, often in collaboration with medical anthropologists, have drawn upon recordings of doctor-patient interactions, and the fine-grained analysis of conversations between suffering individuals and their families to demonstrate the role of micro-interaction in the experience of illness and healing. Future work combining approaches might examine how, for example, conversations with physicians or family members work to mediate stress and other biological outcomes.
  1. Research on child development: Several biocultural anthropologists, including Carol Worthman and Jason DeCaro, have made great strides in demonstrating the ways in which cultural and social circumstances affecting children translate into lasting physiological characteristics. In linguistic anthropology, the field of language socialization observes the role of interaction between caregivers, children, and peers in shaping children as participants in culture, as well as speakers of language. Future research combining approaches offers the possibility of measuring the ways in which different kinds of interactions, over time, form the basis for how children become embodied participants in culture.
  1. Research on emotion: Most subfields of anthropology have considered emotion in some way. Biocultural approaches to the emotions have challenged traditional divides between nature and nurture when it comes to emotional experience. Studies of emotion in linguistic anthropology, on the other hand, have shown that emotion, rather than being a product of individual or a simple reflection of culture upon individual, is a jointly produced phenomenon. Again, future collaborative research might demonstrate how the biology of emotion is similarly mediated by interactions with others.

I have listed just a few examples here. The list could go on. Whatever the specific research topic, however, it is important to reiterate that the combination of biocultural and linguistic anthropology is both a methodological and theoretical endeavor that has certain practical implications. While it would certainly be possible for individual biocultural researchers, for example, to stretch their work to incorporate video or audio recording and analytic theory from linguistic anthropology, this could easily become unwieldy without the participation of a researcher trained in linguistic anthropology. The reverse is also true. From this vantage point, it becomes incredibly important to think about managing the logistics of creating multidisciplinary research teams working with mixed methods. Tom Weisner has, in fact, written that “the future of our field and the social sciences is far more likely to be characterized by interdisciplinary methodological pluralism.” This blog post is obviously in agreement with this. As a linguistic anthropologist, I would just like to note that, at a practical level, this kind of work demands efforts at understanding one another’s language, and developing communicative strategies that serve the project. From my perspective, such strategies can serve to enrich rapport among colleagues, but also form the basis of an enhanced ability to conduct research that addresses pressing social issues in ways that can have a lasting and beneficial impact on human lives.

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.]

Join our Biocultural Medical Faculty!

We are seeking a  cultural anthropologist with research interests in medical anthropology that converge with a biocultural focus.  Topical and geographic specialization are open.  Knowledge of both quantitative and qualitative research are expected.  Teaching responsibilities include specific core undergraduate and graduate level class and courses of one’s own development.  Please visit our Biocultural Medical Program and Anthropology Department pages for more information.

The Department of Anthropology of The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, invites applications for a full-time, tenure-track Assistant Professor position in cultural anthropology beginning Fall 2014. Ph.D. in Anthropology is expected to be in hand at the time of the appointment. We seek a cultural anthropologist with research interests in medical anthropology that converge with the biocultural focus of the department. Topical and geographic specialization are open, although the applicant should complement existing specialties in the department and be well-versed in both quantitative and qualitative research methods. The successful applicant will have research skills and interests that contribute directly to our undergraduate and graduate programs, with particular reference to our Ph.D. program and its focus on biocultural medical anthropology. The proposed faculty member will have teaching responsibilities that include specific core undergraduate and graduate level classes and courses of their own development.

To apply, go to and complete the online application. Attach a letter of application (outlining research interests, plans, and relevant experience) and a curriculum vitae. Send names of three potential referees and examples of manuscripts (for submission as publications and/or published articles; PDF format is desirable) and teaching evaluations, if available, directly to Dr. William W. Dressler, (, Cultural Anthropology Search Committee, Department of Anthropology, Box 870210, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL, 35487-0210. Review of applications will begin December 15, 2013, and will continue until the position is filled. Members of the department will be attending the American Anthropological Association meetings in Chicago in November and will be available to answer any questions of prospective candidates.