The Embeddedness of Cultural Knowledge: How Social Networks Shape Cultural Consonance

The relationship between social networks and health has been well-established in anthropology, and more generally the social sciences, ever since Émile Durkheim uncovered the link between social isolation and suicide. Medical anthropologists, too, have long recognized that persons with more diverse social ties and greater emotional and economic support are typically healthier. Still, few have ventured beyond simply linking social involvement to well-being to explore how this association is intensified by the added role of culture. Specifically, how does the embeddedness of shared cultural knowledge in a social network contribute to the deleterious effects of the social sphere on health, through the added impact of psychosocial stress arising from incongruity with these beliefs?

I recently concluded nearly two years of data collection in Peru for my dissertation, amassing social network data for hundreds of people in an attempt to answer this question. My research involves a group of internal migrants from the hamlet of Chugurpampa in the north Peruvian Andes, where our department’s own Kathy Oths began longitudinal research of sickness and treatment choice over twenty-five 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 the crippling effect of climate change on the highland agricultural system, have forced many Chugurpampans to abandon their homes in pursuit of occupational and educational opportunities in the coastal city of Trujillo (~1 million).

2012-08-14 (11)Blood pressure is one of several biomarkers utilized by Oths as an indicator of health in Chugurpampa (photo courtesy of Adam Booher).

Across the urban landscape of Trujillo, Chugurpampans and their households maintain a network of kinship and social ties within the diaspora, including a hometown association in which members develop collective financial and material resources for their hamlet. However, the group’s rising middle-class leadership reflects widening socioeconomic divides among the diaspora community, while less integrated Chugurpampans often struggle to feed their families. Thus, some migrants are more successful than others in achieving shared migration goals and lifestyle expectations. My research question focuses on whether one’s position within the migrant network, or embeddedness, influences their individual capacity to implement these shared ideals in their own lives, and how this relationship then impacts well-being.

2015-12-08 10.52.08-3Trujillo 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.

Cognitive theory, in particular Bill Dressler’s theory of cultural consonance, already provides a way to measure how incongruity with cultural expectations can generate stress in the form of physiological and psychological illness. The question is, what is the best way of exploring the interaction of cultural models and social structure to better understand how culture mediates the relationship between social networks and well-being? What I am doing is connecting Dressler’s cultural consonance theory to social network analysis to elaborate on this connection. This is not simply an effort to add to the construct, but rather to expand on it by bridging cognitive and network orientations in order to explore how the flow of shared cultural knowledge in a social network influences one’s cultural consonance and health outcomes.

Luckily, social network theory is not foreign to consonance researchers. Dressler, for instance, 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 logical step forward by evaluating cultural consonance in the context of a whole network. This encompasses the entirety of a community’s social relations that are shared among individuals and households, rather than the ego-centered perspective of a personal network design. Utilizing social network analysis, I measured the quality and strength of Chugurpampans’ collective social relations in order to assess whether one’s embeddedness in the migrant network influences their well-being via consonance in shared models of migration goals and lifestyle expectations.

By embeddedness, I refer both to the embeddedness of persons and shared knowledge within a network. Adaptive cultural information, such as shared migration goals and lifestyle expectations, is cognitively embedded in human vessels that enact these beliefs to varying degrees, depending on the level of power they derive from their network position. Sociologist Mark Granovetter originally proposed the term to describe how the embeddedness of daily social relations shapes economic behavior and institutions, but Douglas Massey later applied the insight to migration, pointing out that because migration is a stratified process, specific families, groups, and classes of people disproportionately gain access to movement via more diverse network ties and social relations. In other words, one’s embeddedness in a migrant network—i.e. their status, prestige, or position—may influence their cultural success and well-being.

UntitledChugurpampan migrants’ access to resources in Trujillo varies depending on whom they know in the diaspora.

By uniting methodological contributions from cognitive and network theory, it is possible to track the flow of adaptive knowledge within a network to evaluate how a person’s level of embeddedness shapes their implementation of shared cultural models and impacts health outcomes. The marriage of cognitive and network approaches makes this achievable because each method allows for respective operationalization of two very broad, complex concepts: culture and social relations. Post-structuralist critiques of each orientation commonly argue that cultural models and networks are based on bound notions of otherwise fluid social and cultural phenomena that cannot be quantified. However, the constituents of a network are no more bound to a single network than persons in a culture group rely on a single cultural model.

Cognitive and network approaches are structuralist in nature, meaning that cultural models and social networks exist as part of lived realities whether or not individuals (or investigators) acknowledge their existence. Rather, each method provides the tools to take a ‘snapshot’ (as Bill 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 in cultural models of migration goals and lifestyle expectations, and ultimately health outcomes. Thus, joining together cognitive and network orientations could transform how medical anthropologists comprehend the relationship between social networks and health, by improving our understanding of culture’s crucial role in mediating this interaction.