Replacing the Lone Stranger with Evidence-Based Theory: Collaborative Fieldwork in Anthropology

Drs. Michaela Howells and Christopher Lynn (author) in traditional business attire to meet with officials outside Samoan Affairs, Tutuila, in American Samoa.

Drs. Michaela Howells and Christopher Lynn (author) in traditional business attire to meet with officials outside Samoan Affairs, Tutuila, American Samoa.

An abridged version of this post first appeared in our column in Anthropology News: http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2016/12/19/replacing-the-lone-stranger-with-evidence-based-theory/

At the 115th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association this year in Minneapolis, MN, I was recruiting a graduate student whose former adviser was denied a promotion and who then told the student she should leave academia because she would never get hired or tenure at an R1 institution. There are several layers of things wrong with this scenario, but my pitch in gaining her interest in our program (as she has no intention of leaving academia) was that I absolutely refuse to send students into the field alone unless they essentially demand it, have already set up the field site, and have a proven track record of mature and independent work. There are several reasons for this. One, fieldworkers learn more from each other as part of a team. Two, there is emotional support when working with trained collaborators. Three, fieldwork teams conduct better science and collect more thorough data. Four, in theory, team fieldwork should be safer, provided the team makes safety a conscious priority and is ethically vetted. And, five, team fieldwork is a joyous, fun experience.

In the most recent issue of Annals of Anthropological Practice (an all-around great special issue called “‘Involve Me and I Learn’: Teaching and Applying Anthropology” edited by Toni Copeland and Francois Dengah), Max Stein and other students in my research group outline several advantages of this collaborative approach (2016). We draw on Philip Salzman (1989, 1994), who has written previously on problems with the implicit anthropological myth of the anthropologist as “lone stranger,” that of doing fieldwork alone in a remote location. As Salzman points out, we tend to be relatively uncritical of this model, which owes more to the heritage of our discipline and the predecessors we look up to than any value added to research. Similarly, Philippe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg (2009) clearly articulate how the elicitation of “deep meaning” during data collection and analyses is improved through anthropological collaboration.

American Samoa is simultaneously a U.S. territory, a tropical paradise, and a developing country. WWII pillboxes remain all over Tutuila, the main island, such as this one near the village of Alega, 7/20/16.

American Samoa is simultaneously a U.S. territory, a tropical paradise, and a developing country. WWII pillboxes remain all over Tutuila, the main island, such as this one near the village of Alega, 7/20/16.

As we were preparing the AAP article and I was teaching with Bourgois and Schonberg’s book in my Anthropology of Drug Use course, I was invited by my friend and fellow biocultural anthropologist Michaela Howells (UNCW) to tag along as her research assistant for a trip to American Samoa to assess the influence of the Zika outbreak there on prenatal care access and utilization. Michaela and I have collaborated for the past several years on our Family and the Field Study, but we had never worked together in the field. This trip to American Samoa gave us an opportunity to test out this collaborative fieldwork model firsthand. I was recruited because, as a male with relatively high rank in the U.S. (as a tenured associate professor), I would be able to interview males in this traditional, hierarchical cultural system, where it is not appropriate for females to interview males, especially high status males, and vice versa. 

American Samoa is a small group of islands in the South Pacific and the southernmost territory of the U.S. It is characterized as the most traditional of the Pacific cultures, with village-based authority dominated by mostly male chiefs (Shore 1982). It is also strongly evangelical Christian and influenced by neoliberal identity politics. Women have been the primary resources for studies of prenatal care utilization, but in the American Samoan cultural system, resources are redistributed in the villages, with preferences given to elite members or relatives of chiefs (Howells 2013). Michaela and I spent several weeks making arrangements to interview males in the village of Fagasa, even buying ritual goods to give for the planned sua, a ceremonial gift-giving ceremony when interacting with matai or chiefs. However, the arrangements ultimately fell through; we collected survey data from 172 participants in the Department of Health clinics, but we failed to conduct any firsthand interviews. This situation could have been really frustrating, given the resources Michaela used to get me to American Samoa. Instead, it was the best, most productive field season I have ever experienced, primarily because we established and developed our team.

Working on the survey back translation with R.N. Tele Hill at the American Samoan Department of Health. (Photo by Michaela Howells).

Working on the survey back translation with R.N. Tele Hill at the American Samoan Department of Health. (Photo by Michaela Howells).

One of the best parts of this experience was watching each other work and learning how to communicate nonverbally with a good team member. One of the things I learned from Michaela is how easy it is to give a compliment to someone and how far that can go toward forging a relationship. Like many cultures of the world, one of the most important ethnographic skills to develop in Samoa is learning to hang out and shoot the shit. When you’re meeting someone, bring food to share, sit down with them (i.e., don’t hover over them, suggesting you’re in a rush and preparing to leave), and look for something to compliment. Michaela admired a lot of puletasi (traditional Samoan two-piece formal garment, worn by Samoan women to church or other formal events) while we were there. In turn, I learned to comment on the tatau (tattoos) I was noticing. I have brought this new skill home with me—I love good facial bling, colored contacts, tattoos, hairstyles, and clothes. People go to the trouble to deck themselves out, and it turns out they enjoy it when people do them the courtesy of noticing. The necessity of making small talk before getting down to business is common cross-culturally, but it’s not a norm in the U.S. and requires learning, especially for academic types, who are not necessarily known for their skills in verbal social grooming.

We talked with high school students in a health professions summer program through American Samoa Community College at LBJ Tropical Medical Center. Michaela and I intuitively traded off telling stories about medical anthropology to broaden these students' awareness of possible careers related to health.

Michaela talking with high school students in a health professions summer program through American Samoa Community College at LBJ Tropical Medical Center. Michaela and I intuitively traded off telling stories about medical anthropology to broaden these students’ awareness of possible careers related to health.

To figure out how to talk with people in Samoa, I watched Michaela and quickly learned how to show deference and when and how to reinforce what she was saying. But she also pointed out things I wouldn’t have noticed, such as that I am a resonant talker and tend to dominate a room. Ordinarily, and as a teacher, this works to my benefit; but in working with Samoans, I needed to tone it down, speak quieter, and literally lower my body so my head would be below that of the person I was speaking with. This behavior shows respect in a status-conscious, traditional society. This type of context is where our non-verbal communication came into play. As a feminist male, I defer to Michaela’s ethnographic expertise in American Samoa but am conscious to explicitly give her credit where it is due because others may assume that, as a male, I am in charge and that she is my student (or something else). I pointed out, for instance, that she developed the project and field site and that I was there as her research assistant.

I learned a lot about myself as well. I have never been observed by a colleague or superior in the field, though anthropology is not my first career or where I learned to teach or interview. However, aside from being hired for teaching jobs after demonstrating my approach, reading my teaching evaluations, or listening to my interviews and reading the transcripts, this was the first time I have ever received feedback on the job I was doing while doing it. For instance, I always try to maintain eye contact and to talk with people, not at them. Michaela noted that my eye contact seems to bring my interlocutors to life, like they are being seen, and my skill at turn-taking opens them up so that they feel like they are being heard. This was extremely validating and something I had developed on purpose but without realizing its effect. Our feedback to each other, thereby, reinforces our strengths and tweaks our skills while they are in use in the field.

Michaela working with Director of Nursing Margaret Sesepasara on the survey translation, 7/11/16.

Michaela working with Director of Nursing Margaret Sesepasara on the survey translation, 7/11/16.

One of the misnomers of fieldwork is that it is always a dream come true while it is happening. In fact, most anecdotal evidence and a significant accumulation of literature supports a different model. Conducting fieldwork alone, especially as an inexperienced student, is scary and can even be traumatizing. I often tell students about the first time I went into a Pentecostal church service, when I was beginning my dissertation fieldwork. I was in New Paltz, which I affectionately term “Portlandia East” (or the liberal vortex of the east coast). Despite feeling very comfortable in this, my hometown at the time, I was so nervous about walking into the “other” that I sat in my car until the service was half over. The result was that the only seat left was right up front, and I drew more attention to myself by arriving late than if I’d gone straight in. Most of us are nervous about fieldwork and lack anyone to talk to about these experiences. My wife does clinical work, part of which includes processing emotions and “transference” with a clinical supervisor or adviser. Anthropologists only get this if they have empathetic advisers and colleagues, which is certainly not guaranteed and, in my discussions with colleagues, may be relatively rare. Even as a professional, when I began setting up a second field site in Costa Rica, a veritable tropical paradise, I often felt alone and exposed and did not particularly enjoy it. By contrast, setting up a new field site in American Samoa (mind you, one that had really been set up in advance by Michaela) was truly pleasurable. I enjoyed every moment of it specifically because we gave each other emotional support while problems were occurring. Because Michaela and I share similar training, the support we could gave was qualified and credible. For instance, when we could not get the interviews in the short time we were there, we were able to remind each other that we were learning actual realistic things about navigating culture and that our process was as or more important for the long term project as was the survey data we were collecting for the short term project. Our sympathetic support of each other meant that we rolled with the frustrations of the field and took things in stride, without reacting in potentially negative ways.

Tuna, crackers, water, and beer we bought for the sua, for the interviews arranged in fagasa.

Tuna, crackers, water, and beer we bought for the sua, for the interviews arranged in Fagasa.

Team research is better research, whether for scientific or humanistic data collection and interpretation. We do both in Samoa. For instance, together Michaela and I constructed a better (though always imperfect nevertheless) survey in a rapid amount of time, complete with translations into Samoan and back-translations to ensure accuracy. It is always difficult to find a balance in survey questions when one is also soliciting native input, as emic and etic biases pull you in different directions. Michaela and I were able to continually confer with each other to ensure that the questions we asked addressed our research questions first and foremost, while remaining sensitive to cultural perspectives. This was particularly important and difficult when asking about condom use, the discussion of which is basically verboten in the Samoas. Furthermore, we were able to discuss the greater vision of our project. Is this 10-year plan that we envision practical? Can we do this? What are our resources? What should we include? Are we on the right track? Regardless of the expertise of one trained individual, two or more trained team members can observe more, have greater vision, and plan better. And, frankly, while we share training, Michaela and I have complementary but slightly different temperaments that enhance our abilities to connect with a variety of people. Finally, it is no coincidence that we follow in the footsteps of Margaret Mead in American Samoa. Mead realized immediately after her first field experience in Ta’o, the island we plan to return to, that fieldwork in the Pacific—and probably everywhere—is better conducted by a team of trained researchers that includes females and males (Shankman 2009).

Michaela meets the First Lady of American Samoa at the Nursing Association Centennial, 7/30/16.

Michaela meets Cynthia Malala Moliga, the First Lady of American Samoa, at the Nurses Association Centennial, 7/30/16.

As I said, Michaela and I  planned to interview men and get their perspectives. We went so far as to buy goods for ritual gift-giving for the sua and Samoan business attire for the occasion. (Michaela had puletasi already, but I needed Hawaiian shirts, which I borrowed from David Herdrich, an ie faitaga [male sewn lavalava in neutral colors, with pockets], and a kukui nut necklace.) However, our trip coincided with the planning and celebration of the American Samoa Nurses Association Centennial, which took place over the last several days we were there and dominated everyone’s time and attention, including ours. Since there were two of us, Michaela focused on refining our social networks to develop leads for later or the next field season, as well as collecting data for a project with Nicky Hawley and Micah van der Ryn on gestational diabetes, while I collected survey data from visitors to the Department of Health Physical Exam, Prenatal Care, and Well Baby Clinics.

In that short time, we made two significant observations. The first is that public health initiatives need medical anthropologists on their teams from the design stage through implementation. This is by no means a novel finding, but it is the first observation specifically with regard to the Zika outbreak. We have written a short commentary on this that is currently in review, but journalist Jessica Carew Kraft recently published an NBC News piece about our work on Zika and the role of culture in American Samoa. Second, according to our data, there is a general consensus among Samoans that prenatal care is more urgent for married mothers than for unmarried mothers, despite believing that all pregnant women should get prenatal care and be screened for Zika. Such attitudes place an additional burden on lower status women and their babies, reinforce social inequities, and play a role in the “biosocial inheritance” of health disparities trans-generationally (see Schell 1992 and 1997 for how risk is focused across multiple generations like this and Hoke and McDade 2014 for a thorough integration of risk-focusing and related models under the theoretical paradigm of “biosocial inheritance”).

Gaualofa Msipili, ??, Michaela Howells, Sivai Miki Kupu, and Chris Lynn at the American Samoa Nurses Association Centennial Celebration, 7/30/16.

With friends at the American Samoa Nurses Association Centennial Celebration, 7/30/16.

Conducting fieldwork with partners with the same professional status does not guarantee safety, but I would like to think it reduces the chances of sexual harassment. There are few ways to guarantee that sexual harassment and assault won’t happen, but there are ways to minimize their potential and it is important to be explicit in addressing them with students. Safety in the field is discussed in most graduate programs but generally with respect to human subject protections and the stability of the site. Less discussed until recent publications by the SAFE team (e.g., Clancy et al 2014) and others is safety with regard to sexual harassment by peers, supervisors, and advisers in the field. While I hoped we were entering a new era of increasing scrutiny within our disciplines of microaggressions that lead to sexual harassment, the U.S. public’s willingness to be represented by President Pussy-Grabber leads me to believe that people really do think there is a problem with so-called “political correctness.” In reality, the backlash against being politically correct is a frustration by those in positions of privilege at the inconvenience of having to consider the feelings of those previously invisible to them. Such microaggressions start with professors or supervisors feeling they can put their arms around undergraduate student shoulders without permission and get worse from there. And it’s not restricted to aggressions by males toward females. When I was an undergrad on a study abroad program in Ecuador, a male professor plied me with whisky and began kissing me. The difference is that I felt brave and protected enough as a white male to tell the program administrators, and they were probably homophobic enough that they fired him immediately with absolutely no process to confirm or check my story (maybe he’d been reported before—I don’t know—but I still feel guilty about this 15 years later).

Fieldwork environments and experiences like the one Michaela and I created become, as a consequence, downright joyous and fun. Working this past summer in American Samoa with a friend and partner with the same training was more exciting than any field experience I’ve had before. Therefore, the work we did was enormously satisfying WHILE we were doing it. This was the type of experience that we tell our students about that inspires them to become anthropologists and the kind we have that validates our own career choice and keep us going. My goal going forward is to purposively create such experiences for my students by being explicit and concrete about how to design research, where to conduct it, how to get support, and how it should feel while doing it. There are no theoretical or methodological reasons to send out any more lone strangers. 


Christopher Lynn (PhD, University at Albany) is an Associate Professor in the Biocultural Medical program and director of the Evolutionary Studies program. He studies the cognitive science of religion, human behavioral ecology, and health in the U.S., Costa Rica, and American Samoa.

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

Anthropologists at the Table

The question of what an anthropology degree means, especially in cultural anthropology, has been asked ever since I was an undergraduate (back when I saw Pigpen on keyboards with the Dead). As things change, in the academy as in the world around us, there is a certain renewed urgency in that question, as we prepare students to do: what? (And don’t for a second think that I regard a university degree as vocational training.)

The what will be what anthropologists have always done. Some will continue in the academy, both in traditional faculty roles and in new ways of teaching and doing research. Others will become applied anthropologists in government and non-profits. More will likely forge new roles for themselves in the shifting landscape of the marketplace. How do we help?

“Bringing something to the table” is a hackneyed but nonetheless useful phrase, and that is of course how we must help in educating anthropology students. The student of anthropology must bring something to the table. That mythical table will be set for some in universities, although it seems for more it will be in novel settings, and ones in which the table will be shared (contested?) by those from other social sciences.

The main dish we bring to the table is the concept of culture and the overarching framework that people and what they do are shaped day-to-day by this mysterious miasma of shared knowledge. And they, in turn, modify that shared understanding in response to changing circumstances. Grasping this and all of its implications is what anthropology is all about. This was, of course, Malinowski’s directive—“to see the world as others see it”—and while other social sciences flirt with this perspective, it remains at the core of anthropological thinking.

Malinowski’s directive—“to see the world as others see it”—remains at the core of anthropological thinking.

Bringing this perspective, however, will get you nowhere if you can’t demonstrate its utility, especially in hard-nosed settings like interdisciplinary research groups, applied projects, or in business. This hinges in part on what we mean by demonstrate. An online dictionary defines this term as “clearly show the existence or truth of (something) by giving proof or evidence.”

We are, in part, talking about methods that our students use to demonstrate the utility of their perspective for explaining something. But this will not be an exhortation just for better methods, mixed methods, or more rigorous qualitative methods. These appeals are correct and important and have been voiced for a long time. What I want to argue for, however, is the development of a configuration of methods that can uniquely capture empirically, in a way that can be clearly communicated to others, the singular contribution of an anthropological perspective.

Research methods are often presented in exhaustive compendia, or, continuing the table metaphor, a smorgasbord. The budding researcher is faced with a vast array of research methods, just like a vast buffet of potential consumables, especially in the day and age of mixed methods. We teach methods as being suited to particular problems. You choose the best set of methods for the problem at hand. Yet, alighting on the best set of methods can be a very difficult task, especially when we are trying to pull together traditional tools of ethnography and quantitative techniques.

I’ve come to think lately about this in a somewhat more focused way, and it goes back to that Malinowskian directive, interpreted from a mixed-methods mindset. We want to understand the world as others see it, then what? The mixed-methods orientation says that we then go on to quantify that in some way. It is worth stopping and reflecting on what that means. In strictly emic terms, seeing the world as others see it is to discover the categories and modalities that people use as their taken-for-granted reality. From a measurement standpoint, quantifying that means coming up with a way to order people along a continuum in terms that they themselves have defined. By ordering people along such a continuum, we can in turn relate that variation to variation in any other variable. Such a measurement strategy generates what Kathryn Oths and I have termed high “emic validity,” which in turn can be used in examining anything you care to study, alongside the etic measurements that are staples of other social sciences.

There are a variety of ways of doing this, and for examples I would start with Lance Gravlee’s research on race in Puerto Rico, Lesley Jo Weaver and associates’ studies of mental health, François Dengah’s studies of religion, as well as my work on cultural consonance. These are all empirically successful approaches in capturing that emic perspective in ways that are both theoretically and methodologically satisfying.

This is something special to bring to the table. This approach requires a rigorous and systematic attention to a way of understanding human existence. It requires mastering a specific set of qualitative and quantitative research skills. And it requires staying true to a particular vision of anthropology. Furthermore, it is a unified perspective that can be taught at any level of study in anthropology.

At this point I would be remiss were I not to give a shout out to a few people who have done our field immeasurable good by putting their energies and efforts behind providing the training to students in anthropology to do just this kind of thing. I’m talking about Russ Bernard, Jeff Johnson, and Sue Weller and the NSF-funded Summer Institute in Research Design (SIRD). The SIRD is coming to a close this year, after providing some 340 anthropology students over 20 years with absolutely top-notch education and critique as they embarked on their dissertation research. They, along with the support offered by Stu Plattner and Deb Winslow at NSF, deserve all our thanks for all they’ve done to enhance anthropological research.

This post originally appeared in Anthropology News‘ August 2015 Knowledge Exchange.

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.”