“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.
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.
In an earlier post, I discussed the role of biology in biocultural research by debunking common misconceptions. Here, I turn to the messier question of what biocultural research needs from biology.
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.
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 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?
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
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.
Mixed-method research involves inherent challenges that make it at once more gratifying and more difficult than traditional single-method approaches. By “mixed-method,” I am referring to studies that employ a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods. This approach is a hallmark of most biocultural research, and those of us committed to this approach believe that the triangulation of multiple methods is a more effective way of capturing human experience than an approach that attempts to represent only quantitative trends or only qualitative individual experience. Mixed methods also have the potential to make our work more intelligible to those outside of anthropology who transact primarily in the quantitative—those, for instance, in public health, psychiatry, or sociology.
Mixed-method studies are fundamentally challenging because they often take twice the work and require methodological expertise in multiple areas: Instead of just conducting an epidemiological survey to learn about the spread and correlates of a disease in a given sample or only conducting illness narrative interviews to learn about individuals’ experiences with a disease, a biocultural researcher is likely to be doing both of these. This requires a fair amount of time, money, training, and logistic agility.
I am certainly not the first to point out the complications involved in mixed-method research (see Bill Dressler’s 5 Things You Need to Know About Statistics: Quantification in Ethnographic Research from Left Coast Press). But the complication continues after the research is done, and these days, I’m finding the post-fieldwork integration of quantitative and qualitative data more difficult than the execution of research itself. How do we combine all those mixed-method data together into a coherent form that accurately represents human experience?
Let me give an example. At the recent March 2015 Society for Applied Anthropology meeting in Pittsburgh, I organized and participated in a session called “Food insecurity and mental health in global perspective.” The purpose was to bring together scholars who are studying the relationships between food insecurity and mental health and to move toward a unified research agenda that might help us identify some of the social pathways that link these two states in widely different parts of the world. This kind of comparative enterprise obviously requires that there be some standardization in the methods used to measure important outcome variables like food insecurity and mental health across locations. Accordingly, most of us assessed mental health through a standard scale like the Hopkins Symptoms Checklist-25 (HSCL-25) or the Center for Epidemiological Studies-Depression (CES-D) scale. While these have been validated for use in many cultural contexts (including those in which we work), they nevertheless reduce a profound experience of human suffering—depression—to a number.
Dr. Steven Schensul, an applied anthropologist with many years of experience in mixed-method research who attended the session, pointed out the relative lack of attention that each presenter gave to mental health. And he was right—most of us did little more in our 15-minute presentations than name the depression assessment scale we were using before moving on. As he reminded us, there is a whole branch of anthropology, psychological anthropology, dedicated to questioning, problematizing, and pluralizing psychiatric diagnostic categories. And indeed, many of those presenting at the session have an arm of our own research dedicated to just this (for instance, see my and Bonnie Kaiser’s recent article in Field Methods, where we suggest an approach to measuring mental health that employs standard scales to appeal to those who need numbers but also develops locally-derived and ethnography-based ways of measuring mental health in a context specific fashion). My response at the time was to say that we as a group are indeed aware of this limitation and to point to some of the more nuanced mental health work we have done in other contexts.
Making a mixed-method study happen is inherently challenging because it often takes twice the work and requires methodological expertise in multiple areas.
Afterward, I kept wondering, if we are all in fact sensitive to the potentially problematic nature of some of the measures we use, then why didn’t we find time to address that in our presentations? And I kept coming back up against the idea that one can only do so much. I don’t mean that as a defense of my research’s shortcomings, but rather to say that it’s a resounding theme in my own experiences of working and writing at the intersection of qualitative and quantitative social sciences. One can only do so much: in 15 minutes, in a single paper, in a single book, in a single study, with that amount of money, in that time frame, with that word count. In a session devoted to the relationships between food insecurity and mental health, then, perhaps it’s not surprising that none of us dwelled on the methods we were using to measure either one—unsurprising, but not necessarily best practices, either.
Now, to get back to my original point, I think these realistic limitations of academic presenting and publishing are part of the reason why I find it so challenging to assemble the qualitative and quantitative data I’m collecting. Human experience is hard to chunk into measurable quantities, single conversations, a 15-minute presentation, or even an article-length manuscript. This is something that all anthropologists struggle with, and it brings up some of the fundamental issues of social science—things like, how do we make our work “speak” to as wide an audience as possible? How do we know that we’re measuring what we think we’re measuring? How do we represent the people we study with fidelity and ethics? How do we even know what their reality is? How do we claim some authority to knowledge about the people we are studying without overstating the case?
In other words, the challenges of biocultural anthropology are the challenges of anthropology in general. We can’t capture it all. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Our January column from Bill Dressler harkened to 2005 when, concerned about the absence of an explicit theory of culture in much biocultural research, Bill had written a piece in Ethos entitled “What’s Cultural about Biocultural Research?” While not all of us follow Bill’s approach to the letter, his perspective has been influential in our Biocultural Medical Anthropology PhD program.
One could ask a parallel question: What’s biological about biocultural research? I attend theHuman Biology Association (HBA) meetings on a near-annual basis and encounter more researchers there who consider themselves biocultural than at the American Anthropological Association (as a percentage and a raw number, despite the fact that HBA is much smaller). Nearly all human biologists consider their work biocultural whether or not it hews to Bill’s definition, because human evolution is irreducibly biocultural, and human biologists are interested in that. And, being human biologists, they rarely feel the need to prove that they’re biological enough.
Yet the Biocultural Medical Anthropology program at UA historically has followed a different pathway. If one were to put my doctoral students to date into a box, for instance, it would be labeled psychocultural in caps, with biological in lowercase. Transacting across such boundaries creates a wonderful environment in which someone like me, whose scholarly roots are in biocultural human biology, can advise great students whose topics include HIV-related cultural models in adolescents, Our Lady of Guadalupe and the stress of migration, and how food security is reinforced or mitigated through social networks. This has been a positive experience for all of us, frequently sans biomarkers or explicitly evolutionary hypotheses. (Our program’s very strong tradition of group mentorship and co-advising has a lot to do with this too.)
The inclusion of biomarkers does not by itself make a study biocultural any more than the inclusion of a question about someone’s ancestry or “traditional foods and dress” makes it biocultural.
In short, as I see our students develop, a question that I continually turn over in my mind is: what does it mean to refer to biology here? First, let’s do some debunking.
Biocultural research is not necessarily about biomarkers. I have seen biomarkers thrown into studies for their own sake with no significant development of biocultural theory. I have seen them thrown into studies because it was fashionable. I have seem them thrown into studies because they are falsely understood as a shortcut that circumvents all the challenges of assessing stress or some other nebulous concept, by observing and talking to people. The inclusion of biomarkers does not by itself make a study biocultural any more than the inclusion of a question about someone’s ancestry or traditional foods and dress makes it biocultural.
The inclusion of biomarkers does not by itself make a study biocultural any more than the inclusion of a question about someone’s ancestry or “traditional foods and dress” makes it 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 are not called for by theory, they should be omitted. They’re neither a sufficient element to constitute a project as biocultural, nor are they necessary. Consider Daniel Lende’s (USF) work in substance use in Colombia or most of the other recent work in neuroanthropology. Not a biomarker to be found in many cases—but careful is paid attention to underlying neurological mechanisms that influence and are shaped by subjective experience.
Biocultural research is not necessarily about genetics (or genomics). This is an extension of an older false equivalence: biology = genes. Biological phenotypes are complexly determined through multi-level interactions among genes, developmental systems, physical and social/cultural environments. The “biology = genes” fallacy is common in discussions with a “nature vs. nurture” tone. Such discussions often take the form of “Is X trait/phenotype biological or cultural,” where “biological” = “genetic” and “cultural” = “anything remotely social or experiential.” In such discussions, the developmental systems that actually produce the phenotype are ignored. Genotypes can be quite helpful in biocultural research, depending on the question, but they also are neither necessary nor sufficient.
Biocultural research is not limited to work drawing from evolutionary theory. This one is perhaps more controversial among researchers in my circles, most of whom approach their work from the standpoint of evolutionary theory and hypotheses drawn from it. Much of my work does as well. Yet it is not necessary to chart the evolutionary history of a physiological system to usefully study it. Again, sometimes developmental theory is more helpful. Sometimes stress theory. Sometimes eco-cultural theory. Denying the importance of the evolution of these systems to their current variation and functioning is a non-starter, but it’s sometimes useful to study the current endpoint of a long process of evolutionary change without explicit reference to how and why we got there. Conversely, there’s danger of evolutionary tokenism. Mentioning Paleolithic diets does not a biocultural study make (even when it’s not blatant misrepresentation or over-interpretation of the Paleo-human data).
So far, I’ve outlined negatives but no positives. If the biological in biocultural research is not per se about biomarkers, genetics, or evolution, then what is the biology?
In our next post, I’ll explore this question in more detail, making the argument that biocultural research is about integrative transactions across theoretical frameworks combined with methodological opportunism. Those methods are chosen from an interdisciplinary toolkit to fit specific hypotheses and research questions rather than a pre-set, unchanging, conventional inventory. I’ll argue that how we operationalize human biology is less important than how we understand it to work. I’ll outline the value of developmental perspectives, without claiming all biocultural research must lean on human development, and the importance of measurable outcomes with biological implications, even when biology is not directly measured to achieve this.
2014 was an interesting year for the concept of culture. Merriam-Webster declared ‘culture’ the most important word of the year, in that more people looked up its definition online than any other. Then, on the website edge.org, the question was posed: what scientific idea should be retired? No less luminaries than Pascal Boyer and John Tooby responded: culture. Hmmm…EB Tylor – author (arguably) of the first true anthropological definition of ‘culture’
I will declare first that I belong to the ‘culture-is-too-important-a-concept-to-be-jettisoned’ wing of anthropology. And, I think a useful concept of culture is well within reach.
My perspective is that the concept of culture ought to do something. Concepts are tools, after all, and a tool needs to be useful. It has work to do. Culture must be put to work in the service of research and explanation. Culture as a concept must function both in a network of theoretical constructs to account for some phenomenon, and in a network of operational constructs that enables us to reach into the world and capture phenomena in observation.
Curiously, though, in much work culture as a term may not appear at either level. Culture often occurs as little more than an orienting construct, indicating to a reader what direction an argument will (or won’t) take. At some level we are all crypto-Tylorians. If culture is ‘that complex whole,’ than we just declare that’s what is important, and then we go on to talk about class, gender, race, or whatever, because it’s all culture (right?).
In 1934 Sapir wrote that a less comprehensive, more focused concept of culture “…will turn out to have a tougher, more vital, importance for social thinking than the tidy tables of contents attached to this or that group which we have been in the habit of calling ‘cultures,’” although he didn’t specify precisely that focused concept.
I propose that five questions must be adequately answered (note ‘adequately,’ not ‘ultimately’) to get the tool I want, and perhaps the ‘tougher, vital’ construct Sapir envisioned. These five questions have bedeviled culture theory since Tylor, although there certainly are others as well. But I think these need answers in order to move our endeavor forward. They are:
(1) What is culture made of? In highfalutin’ terms this is the issue of ontology. Key explanatory terms must reach into the world to latch onto phenomena that are epistemically observer-independent (i.e., knowledge of which does not depend on the mind of a single observer). And, as John Searle argues, an ontological account of culture must be consistent with what we know about the rest of the world (like cognitive neuroscience, language, and human information processing). We don’t get to invent a new order of reality.
(2) Is culture a term that refers to aggregates or individuals? This is the part-whole problem debated in social thought for quite some time, in various guises. Another way to approach this is: what is the locus of culture, the group or the person? I think it is both, but a satisfying account of that must explain how, not merely assert that it is so.
(3) How do we account for variability? This is the issue of ‘intracultural diversity,’ and a description of variability must apply to both the part and the whole.
(4) What is the relationship of culture and behavior? In anthropology culture has been thought to: cause behavior; result from behavior; be abstracted from behavior. This needs to be sorted out systematically (frankly it’s probably ‘all of the above,’ but there has to be an account of that).
(5) What is the relationship of culture and other theoretical constructs—like ‘value,’ ‘belief,’ ‘attitude’—that are thought either to be subsumed by or to compose culture? These social-psychological terms appear prominently in explanations of human behavior, and if culture is a part of those explanations, how does it relate to those other constructs?
A contemporary cognitive theory of culture can adequately address each of these questions. To wit:
(1) Culture is the knowledge we use to function in a given social system. As Searle has shown, that knowledge is of a special kind, generated by a certain class of speech acts. These speech acts, that Searle refers to as ‘constitutive rules,’ literally construct the world around us. And, this is an ontological account consistent with what we know of our biological and evolutionary history.
(2) Cultural consensus theory and its associated formal model have shown that there is indeed an aggregate culture in the sense of a knowledge-set that cannot be found in any single person’s mind. Nor is this a pious pronouncement that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but rather empirically demonstrable. At the same time, each of us carries around versions of that knowledge-set that place us more proximate to, or distal from, the aggregate knowledge-set. In a non-mysterious way, culture is a term that applies to both individuals and aggregates.
(3) Culture is variable within a social group in the sense that there may be multiple models, even in the context of an overall cultural consensus (again, empirically demonstrated). And of course culture is variable in the sense that any subset of people have varying degrees of idiosyncratic biographical influence on their personal configuration of that knowledge.
(4) Culture as a variably shared knowledge-set gets variably translated into behavior. This is what I have called ‘cultural consonance.’ Just because you know something doesn’t mean you get to act on it, and variation in cultural consonance is both systematic and can have profound effects.
(5) This knowledge-set called culture underlies other social-psychological constructs. Your understanding that, for example, the American cultural model of marriage is beginning to extend to same-sex partners doesn’t explain your beliefs, values, or attitudes about that understanding.
This thumbnail sketch of a culture theory that works is just that—a sketch. Fortunately, there is a growing body of empirical studies that demonstrate its utility, and perhaps this culture theory provides both the toughness and vitality that Sapir envisioned.
At the beginning of the semester and my class, “Culture, Mind, and Behavior,” I started thinking about this topic, because this class is devoted to cognitive culture theory, including the concept of cultural consonance. Cultural consonance is the degree to which people incorporate into their own beliefs and behaviors the cultural prototypes for belief and behavior encoded in shared cognitive models. In other words, it’s how closely people match up with the culture around them.Over a number of years of research, my colleagues and I have reliably identified shared cultural models in a number of domains (e.g., family life in Brazil), and we have found that higher cultural consonance–that is, people actually, for example, believing that their own family matches the prototypical Brazilian family–is associated with better health status (such as lower stress and depression, and lower blood pressure).
Whenever I lecture about or teach this material, inevitably there is somebody who raises some form of the following objection: well, what about people who reject the shared cultural model and follow their own personal model of how life is to be lived? Sometimes it’s a student who, I often suspect, is offended by the notion that he or she is not all that “special,” i.e., that what he or she thinks or does is actually a variant of what a lot of other people are thinking and doing, simply because they are all working from the same template. Other times it’s a more principled objection from anthropologists who are taken with the notion of personal agency and (mistakenly) think that I think that people are what the Brits charmingly call “cultural dopes,” i.e., we are all cookies stamped out by the cultural cookie cutter. Of course, the concept of cultural consonance is completely compatible with an agentic perspective, and in fact I’ve got at least one paper planned for the future to explore how that works in some detail. In any event, however it is framed, there are people who object to the notion of cultural consonance because they think that personal, individual models would trump the influence of cultural consonance were I to measure and incorporate them into my analyses.
At the outset, I would note that conceptualizing and measuring the concept of “personal consonance” or “individual consonance” is a much thornier issue than you might think. Remember that to measure something people have to be presented with the same stimuli, or, in our business, asked the same questions. If you are committed to the idea that people have individual or personal models, then logically each individual would have to be asked about their model only and how they are committed to it. How could that be turned into a comparable measurement from one person to the next? You might present an alternative to identifying each individual model that involves asking people questions like “I always try to do what is most important to me,” and having them respond on a Likert scale. Well, congratulations, you have just re-invented 1950s social psychology and the psychological construct of self-efficacy! Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of incorporating a psychological construct like this into this research, and seeing how it might alter the effect of cultural consonance (it doesn’t). But my main point is that measuring something that people mean by personal or individual models is very, very difficult.
Let’s assume, however, that consonance with an individual model, or “IC” (for individual consonance) can in fact be measured, and hence both IC and cultural consonance (or “CC”) can be examined as influences on health outcomes (“HO”). What would happen? At this point I’m going to digress briefly to reiterate something one of my favorite bloggers, Paul Krugman, has written from time-to-time, and that is the importance of your theoretical model in thinking through a problem. It’s one thing to say, for example, well, somebody’s IC could be more important than their CC. This is on a par with saying, “well, I could learn to levitate.” Yes, maybe, but if your theoretical model of the world includes something called gravity, then you have to think more complexly about this levitation business. It’s the same in anthropology. Yes, somebody’s IC could trump their CC in influencing HO, but what is likely to happen given a particular theoretical model of how the world works?
Here is a theoretical model:
This theoretical model says that CC is associated with HO, and IC is associated with HO, and in some way, CC and IC are correlated. To simplify things, let’s assume that HO is measured in terms of positive health—like better self-reported health or positive affect—so that being culturally consonant and being individually consonant are associated with feeling better, so the association is in a positive direction.
This simple exercise clarifies things a bit. We already know that CC is associated with higher HO (this has been replicated many times by multiple investigators). The question is what happens when IC is introduced into the picture? Well, it depends, and it depends exclusively on how you conceptualize the correlation between CC and IC. What kind of operational or statistical model can we use here? I’ve already been talking about correlation, so that’s my operational model. When, in looking at the correlation between CC and HO, I take into account the correlation of IC with HO, and of IC with CC, what happens?
In somewhat more technical terms, what we want to do is to remove the effect of IC on CC, and remove the effect of IC on HO, and see what is left over in terms of the correlation of CC and HO. Or, put differently, we want to look at the correlations of the residuals among all of these variables.
That sounds like a statistical mouthful, but it actually can be understood very simply by looking at just the numerator of a partial correlation coefficient (which, I might add, is the same as the numerator of a partial regression coefficient; the only difference is in the denominator, or by what you are standardizing). Here’s the numerator, spelled out in prose:
[Correlation of HO and CC] – [(correlation of IC and CC) X (correlation of HO and IC)].
What this says is that if we want to control for, or otherwise get rid of, the influence that IC has in looking at the correlation of CC and HO, we have to subtract out the product of the correlation of IC and CC and the correlation of IC and HO. You don’t even have to be all that much of a statistical heavyweight to get this. Correlation = co-variation. To “purify” the co-variation of CC and HO, we have to get rid of the co-variation of HO and IC, and the co-variation of IC and CC (see the model above).
And, it depends exclusively on the correlation of IC and CC, and frankly has nothing much to do with the correlation of IC and HO. Think about the simplest case, where the correlation of IC and CC = 0. If you multiply the correlation of HO and IC by 0 (zero), that second term in the equation above becomes 0, and the correlation of CC and HO is completely independent of the correlation of IC and HO.
What happens if the correlation of IC and CC is positive? In this case, the second term in the equation would become negative, and the correlation of CC and HO would be reduced in proportion to the size of the IC/CC correlation (again, it doesn’t have much to do with the IC/HO correlation).
Finally, if the correlation of IC and CC is negative, the correlation between CC and HO would increase in proportion to the magnitude of the IC/CC correlation (remember that in this case the second term in the equation would be negative, and then you would be subtracting a negative number, which makes it positive).
To summarize: when the IC/CC correlation is zero, no effect. When the IC/CC correlation is negative, the CC/HO correlation goes up. Only when the IC/CC correlation is positive would the CC/HO correlation potentially go down, and then only in proportion to the magnitude of the IC/CC correlation.
This little exercise should help skeptics of cultural consonance re-think their critique. What do they really mean to say? If they are saying that an individual can have his or her own cognitive model of the world that sets them apart—and this is, I think, what most of them are trying to say—then it turns out that it does not alter the effect of cultural consonance. Another way of thinking about this is in terms of the scatter of data-points around a regression line in a scatterplot. If the plot is of the correlation of CC and HO, we will see that many people cluster around the regression line, i.e., as their cultural consonance goes up, their health outcome improves. The people farther from that regression line are the people who, perhaps, are adhering more closely to their individual model. If we take that into account, we are reducing the noise in the data, and the effect of cultural consonance on health outcomes becomes more clear (technically, the standard error of the regression coefficient will go down). Or, IC and CC simply become independent influences on health.
Alternately, skeptics might be saying that IC and CC are negatively correlated. This would be equivalent to saying that overall, people who adhere to their own individual models do so and explicitly respond in the opposite direction to questions about shared cultural models. Well, maybe, but think about this explicitly. In Brazil, for example, the cultural model of social support says, in part, that in response to many problems, you start by seeking help and assistance from your family and friends, and then you gradually seek help in less intimate relationships of work, church, and ultimately professional supports like doctors and lawyers and such. The “IC and CC are negatively correlated” position would argue that in describing how you follow your own model of social support, you also describe yourself in relation to the cultural model of social support in the opposite direction, i.e., you never ask family and friends for help, and you exclusively ask strangers and professionals for help. OK, if one or a few people answer like this, it’s just the wacky nature of humans. But for it to affect the correlation of CC and HO, you would have to have a set of people systematically responding in this way. Hmmm…and of course, even it you want to believe this, it is in this case that controlling for IC would cause the CC/HO correlation to go up.
The third position is that IC and CC are positively correlated. If this is so, it calls into question the whole notion of an individual model and individual consonance, since it (individual consonance) would turn out to be some version of the cultural model and cultural consonance. Actually, some skeptics fail to appreciate that, in one sense, cultural consonance is the personal, lived model, formed as people knit together a life for themselves in the context of the environment of shared meanings (the cultural model) and the various factors that enable them to act, or constrain them from acting, on those shared meanings. A super skeptic—like a full-blown psychological reductionist—could argue that the whole theoretical construct and measurement of cultural consonance is epiphenomenal to individuals, with individual models, making individual decisions, of how to live based on those models. They just turn out to be similar from one individual to the next, probably based on some neurocognitive module selected for in evolution, or some basic personality construct, or whatever. This seems highly implausible, however, given that the construct of cultural consonance is based on a well-developed, well-articulated cognitive culture theory, along with a well-understood measurement model. The full-blown psychological reductionist would have to argue that the theory and method to derive cultural consonance is a social scientific version of reading chicken entrails. They may believe that, but it seems pretty implausible.
So, to me the most plausible way that a consonance with individual models would work in this process is the independence of individual consonance and cultural consonance. If this is the case, bringing individual consonance into the theoretical model would not alter the influence of cultural consonance on health outcomes, except in the relatively trivial sense that controlling for individual consonance would increase the statistical significance of the coefficient assessing the effect of cultural consonance (because the standard error would go down). Where I’m skeptical is in regard to the measurement of individual consonance. I have difficulty envisioning a truly satisfying measurement.
In the final analysis, here, I return to the wisdom of Paul Krugman. Your theoretical model is of paramount importance. It is through your theoretical model that you can sort out the implications of various alternatives, just as I have done in this post. Models of every variety—theoretical scientific models, shared cultural models, personal models—are good to think with.
George Armelagos was a pioneer of biocultural anthropology from a political economic perspective, and one of the earliest, strongest, and most consistent voices against scientific racism among the old guard of physical anthropology. He was one of those people whose personality and intellect could fill a room even when he spoke at little more than a quiet rumble. His bioarchaeological contributions fundamentally altered our understanding of human adaptation and of population health. And his students are everywhere carrying on his work in the classroom, in the laboratory and the field, and in public advocacy.
I just don’t know how to state this more strongly except to say there are only a tiny handful of scholars as influential as this within our discipline in a whole generation.
Soon I’ll write a full length piece reflecting on his importance in laying the intellectual foundation for a program like ours. In the meantime, rest in peace, my friend, and thank you for all you have done for our discipline and for the world.
The following is a re-blog of a guest post I did for BANDIT (Biological ANthropology Developing Investigators Troop). I think the “Biocultural Systematics” blog is an appropriate venue to repost this because of the interdisciplinary approach we emphasize in our Biocultural Medical Anthropology program at the University of Alabama. My point in this post & in others by my colleagues on this blog, IMO, is that our combined efforts build toward the objective of a more synergistic, mixed-methods program. While not all of the service each of us is asked to do feels like part of that complex whole, hopefully the service we CHOOSE to do (& which we may be warned off of) is, in the long run, worth the further sacrifice of our personal time.
One final note before getting on with the show. In a Twitter comment, anthropology blogger Jason Antrosio drew attention to a quote by Randy Martin that Antrosio had highlighted in Living Anthropologically in 2011, in which Martin questions inherent gender & racial disparities with regard to service expectations by administrators.
While I agree, I think these are systematic issues not restricted to service & that the concept of a bygone era of weekends free of administrative expectations or more faculty self-governance is a myth (or I’ve just drunk the Kool-Aid).
Guest Bandit Blogger Dr. Christopher Dana Lynn shares his experiences with the slipperiest part of your professional portfolio, service:
I first experienced this one summer during grad school when my department paid me a modest sum to overhaul their website. In doing so, I had to introduce myself to every member of the faculty to update their bios & get new photos. This interaction was integral to my success in the department, as everyone came to know me & support me. I learned about shared research interests I had with faculty doing widely disparate things that weren’t otherwise apparent. This taught me firsthand the value of networking thru service.
However, one of the reasons I got hired at the University of Alabama in 2009 was because I had developed breadth into evolutionary psychology thru the NEEPS & EvoS service. When I arrived at UA, I jumped into involvement with a group of like-minded faculty called the Evolution Working Group, which hosts an evolution-oriented lecture series. In conjunction with this group, we started our own EvoS program at the University of Alabama. The program involves a minor, which I co-direct, & a student-run club, for which I am faculty mentor. For the minor to work, I developed & teach several classes over my expected teaching load of 2/2 (two courses per semester) & help the students organize & host an annual Darwin Day event.
In addition to the EvoS program, I run a research group every week that I modeled on the evolutionary psychology lab I was part of as a grad student. At this point, it is mostly undergrads & my few grad students, but we meet for 3 hours every week to collaborate on research, which amounts essentially to teaching another course. Finally, when my kids were in 3rd grade, their PTA asked me to teach a semester-long anthropology course as part of the partnership their school has with the University of Alabama. By this point, my dean had echoed my grad school adviser several times, stating in my annual recommendation for retention that my service load is too extensive & varied for someone at my career stage & that I should scale back. However, as a chairperson of another department & parent of one of my children’s classmates pointed out, our children grow up fast & won’t give us this opportunity with them again. Although I swore I would only teach the class the first year, it was very successful—who learns anthropology in elementary school?! How could I not continue to teach that?
Last year, I figured out how truly important all this extra work has been for me. I began the process of applying for a National Science Foundation CAREER grant, which requires integration of teaching innovation. I realized that all the service I have been doing was exactly what I needed for developing a “career trajectory.” Thru it, I had developed substantial collaborations throughout my university, indicating my willingness & ability to work across disciplines & with teams. I have met scholars throughout the world by organizing their lectures here who have expressed willingness to vouch for me at tenure time. When I go to conferences, I know far more people than I otherwise would & feel a sense of mission in promoting these programs we’ve developed.
So, what’s the take-home message? Do service willy nilly? Not hardly. But don’t shy away from it either. Everyone is busy, but your willingness to take on just a little more will be greatly appreciated &, to invoke some of my favorite evo theory, it is a costly honest signal of your willingness to cooperate that will reward you with unforeseen dividends!