Finding the Culture in Acculturation

Author, Courtney Andrews, and her daughter

Author, Courtney Andrews, and her daughter

“Juana,” a Mexican immigrant who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, is a native of a small ranching village in Jalisco. Fifteen years ago, her husband lost his job in Mexico. They had no money saved, and she was scared for the safety of her children because of drug-related crime in their community there. Her husband convinced her that they needed to move to the U.S. where he could find work, they could get their kids in good schools, and they could have better lives. He went first, and, a little while later, Juana paid a “coyote” to take her across the border. After a month-long, treacherous journey, during which she was arrested and sent back, attacked by wild animals, left behind in the desert without food or water, and was constantly scared, she finally made it across the border and eventually to Alabama where her husband was living. He found steady work, and they sent for their three kids, who are now participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Juana and her family have achieved all the things they set out to achieve in moving to the U.S. Yet her health has suffered considerably, both physically and mentally. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon experience for people like Juana.

The typical framework used to study what happens to individuals who developed in one sociocultural context when they attempt to live in another is called “acculturation.” In my work with Mexican immigrant women in Alabama, I’m trying to figure out what the acculturative process looks like and why typical measures of acculturation are associated with a dramatic decline in health outcomes, particularly diabetes and depressive symptoms. To understand how cultural meaning systems change and the effects of such meaning on human lives, we need to have a clear concept of what culture is, how it works, and ways to measure it. A cognitive definition of culture is a good place to start because it moves culture out of the realm of abstraction and allows for it to be measured in concrete terms. As Dressler point out in a previous post, culture is the information needed to think and behave appropriately in certain situations and to interpret the behavior of others correctly. This knowledge is encoded in overarching cultural models, which we draw on to structure our understanding of how we ought to live. Once we have an idea of what a cultural model looks like in a certain context, we can measure individuals against it and see how well they stack up. That stacking up is termed “cultural consonance“—the ability to live up to the shared cultural expectations of the group—and it affects health.

So, what’s going on with women like Juana? We know they tend to be in better health upon arrival than their U.S.-born counterparts, despite tremendous suffering before and during immigration. However, as they carry out their lives in the U.S.—even as their standard of living improves and they gain access to better health care—their health often gets worse. Researchers haven’t been able to explain the underlying cultural mechanism responsible for this. I’m interested in using cultural consonance as an intervening variable between measures of acculturation and health outcomes to determine if the pathway by which acculturation leads to declining health is, at least in part, in its effect on the ability to achieve a culturally valued lifestyle.

I focus on four cultural domains—lifestyle, family life, Mexican immigrant identity, and life goals. Using a technique called free listing, I asked my informants to list as many items as they could in response to these four questions:

  1. What kinds of things are important or necessary to have a good life?
  2. How would you describe a loving family?
  3. What are the qualities or characteristics of Mexican immigrant women?
  4. What are your goals in life? This gives me a glimpse into how cultural realities are changing in a new context

The next step is to understand what kinds of things go together and why as well as which items are most highly valued and sought after. This is analyzed using cultural consensus analysis, which measures the extent to which cultural knowledge is shared among informants and provides the best representation of how the collective thinks about a particular domain.

In general, people act in ways that correspond to cultural influences and expectations. I believe that, as Mexican immigrant women carry out their lives in the U.S., they internalize a new cultural model for how one ought to live, and, as they do this, their positions in the cultural landscape change. The further away they find themselves from living a collectively valued lifestyle in their new U.S. cultural context, the greater risk their risk for declining health. For Juana, adapting to a new culture has been difficult. For example, speaking Spanish in the home and celebrating Mexican traditions is very important to her, but she struggles to get her children to do this, which is a source of family discord. Another thing is that she is scared to drive, so she can’t get around easily and has lost her sense of independence.

Reasons for cultural dissonance among immigrants may range from economic constraints, structural or interpersonal violence and abuse, or lack of interest in engaging with a new culture. I hope to improve understanding what role culture plays in immigrant health outcomes as well as what social and institutional factors may limit the achievement of a culturally valued lifestyle. Such limitations may simply produce new stress that contributes to poor health outcomes.


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

Courtney Andrews is a doctoral candidate in the department who has conducted research in Fiji and Peru and is currently studying Mexican immigrants in Alabama.

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.

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.”

Challenges of Mixed-Method Research

Jo Weaver

Jo Weaver

Reposted from Anthropology News April 2015 column.

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.