The lead author of the chapter, Cultural Consonance, Consciousness, and Depression: Genetic Moderating Effects on the Psychological Mediators of Culture, is Dr. William W. Dressler, a professor of Anthropology at The University of Alabama. His work on culture and health has taken place in many settings including urban Great Britain, the Southeast U.S., and, in particular, Brazil where he has conducted research for over 30 years. Two of his main collaborators in Brazil are Dr. Mauro C. Balieiro and Dr. José Ernesto dos Santos, the co-authors of this piece.
Dr. Mauro C. Balieiro is a professor in the Psychology department at The Paulista University (UNIP), a Brazilian university based in São Paulo. His research topics include clinical psychology, psychoanalysis, and depression.
Dr. José Ernesto dos Santos is a professor of Internal Medicine at the University of São Paulo. His skills and expertise include nutrition, metabolism, insulin resistance, and metabolic diseases to name a few.
Dressler, Balieiro, and dos Santos (2012) focus on gene-environment interactions with a particular emphasis on the environmental aspect of this interplay. The primary research described in the chapter takes place in urban Brazil and centers around how cultural consonance, a measure of how much people actually embody the prototype of a shared cultural model (described in detail below), interacts differently with individuals who possess variants of a genetic polymorphism that codes for a receptor in the serotonin system. Overall, the researchers found a significant relationship between an individual’s genotype and how strongly cultural consonance impacted depressive symptoms. This research provides preliminary evidence for how genotype can influence the impact of stressful life experiences on an individual and also demonstrates the importance of looking closely at the “environment” in gene-environment interactions.
Dr. William Dressler first described the theory of cultural consonance which measures the degree to which individuals live up to the shared model of prototypical beliefs and behaviors within a culture. In order to determine what is prototypical, cultural domain analysis and cultural consensus analysis are employed as the first steps in this research design.
Cultural domain analysis begins with individuals free listing terms that they associate with an area of life that has importance to them (e.g., lifestyles, social support, family life, national identity). Participants are then asked to sort these responses into piles so that terms that are similar are grouped together. The researcher does not specify the number of piles so it is up to each participant to decide how related the different responses are to one another. Through multidimensional scaling and cluster analysis, researchers can then graphically display how the terms are seen as similar and different.
The next step is to determine how much individuals agree on these groupings through cultural consensus analysis. The basic presumption here is that when individuals respond similarly to a set of questions, they are drawing on a shared knowledge base. By looking at correlations between participant’s responses, the researchers can then infer how much an individual understands the culture (referred to by the researchers as cultural competence).
The results of the cultural consensus analysis are then used by the researchers to create a measure of cultural consonance for each domain. For example, when examining the cultural domain of family life, participants report how many of the items or behaviors apply to their family that were identified as being important in the cultural consensus analysis. A participant’s cultural consonance in a particular domain is then compared to some type of outcome variable, commonly depression. Research has found that individuals with lower cultural consonance tend to score higher on measures of depression and other negative health outcomes.
Dressler et al.’s research in Brazil looks at how a single nucleotide polymorphism in the 2A receptor in the serotonin system (-1438G/A) interacted with cultural consonance in family life to predict depressive symptoms. The researchers found that cultural consonance in family life had a larger effect on individuals with the A/A variant as compared to those with the G/A or G/G variant. These results suggest that negative aspects in one’s social environment may result in some genotypes being more vulnerable to developing depressive symptoms than other genotypes. Importantly, in this situation it is neither the genotype nor the environment that is working in isolation; rather, it is the interaction of gene and environment that is important.
I was very impressed with how the Dressler et al. chapter presented genetic research in a highly accessible manner. As we have discussed throughout this semester, creating writing that can be understood by a variety of audiences is crucial to interdisciplinary research. For instance, many of us struggled with the Balsters et al. article from earlier in the semester because it was written in a more technical language. If neuroanthropology is going to achieve its goal of uniting fields such as neuroscience and anthropology, it is important to make sure that there are pieces available that skip over some of the more complex aspects and summarize the main points.
With that being said, I would say that one drawback of cultural consonance research is that it can be a bit hard at first to wrap your mind around all of the terms due to the similarities of the words being used. For instance, it took me a little while when I first started reading this research to be able to discern the difference between cultural consensus vs. competence vs. consonance. I find this interesting because the concepts are not actually that hard to grasp and once you do get them sorted out in your mind, you cannot really understand where the confusion initially came from. However, I have noticed that I have to be careful when I am describing these ideas to people who are not familiar with this work because I can see the looks of confusion when I start using the terms too quickly. I am curious, did others who weren’t familiar with the cultural consonance literature find themselves confused with the terminology at first as well?
- What is the best way to define culture?
- How can Dressler et al.’s research be used to help individuals with depression?
- What did you think about the limitations of the Dressler et al. study and how could this research be improved?
- How could future research further test the link between “culture, consciousness, neurophysiology, and depression”?
- How does embodiment theory relate to cultural consonance?