As a biocultural medical anthropologist, I am interested in the relationship between culture and the individual, how culture is learned and shared in social groups, and why and how one’s positioning in the cultural landscape matters in terms of health. I consider disease as much social as it is biological, and I believe that health disparities should be situated in the broader social, political, and historical contexts in which they occur. I work within the framework of a syndemics model (Singer and Clair 2003), which combines the terms synergy and epidemic, and seek to describe the ways in which the lived experience of inequality imparts chronic assaults on the body that over time weaken the body’s natural defenses and expose vulnerable individuals and communities to a cluster of interacting diseases. The goal of my research is to help elucidate the pathways by which biology and culture intersect and interact by examining how the social and environmental constraints of lived experience get under the skin and alter the physiological responses of individuals that experience them.
My dissertation research focuses on better understanding the daily realities of Mexican immigrant women in Birmingham, Alabama, and I consider how the stress of sociocultural change as well as legal and institutional discrimination limit choice and movement for these individuals and increase their risk for developing type 2 diabetes and/or depressive symptoms. There is a paradox in the epidemiological research that shows a health advantage for recently arrived Mexican immigrants that is attenuated over time, despite improvements in standard of living and better access to health care. Acculturation has been linked to declining health in this population, but the pathways by which typical measures of acculturation actually cause poor health remain unclear. Cultural consonance theory has emerged as a way of exploring the relationship between cultural realities and health outcomes that involves eliciting the meaningful ideas and behaviors shared by individuals in a particular social context and then measuring the extent to which individuals live up to these shared goals in their everyday lives. Successful integration of cultural ideals as well as continuity with the widely shared and highly valued ideas about how to live have been linked to better health outcomes. Through ethnographic investigation as well as data collection techniques from cognitive anthropology, my goal is to use cultural consonance theory and methodology to bridge the gap between the epidemiological research that focuses on the relationship between certain proxy measures of acculturation and health outcomes and the ethnographic literature that considers the broader political-economic and social conditions that shape the felt experience of the acculturation process for individuals. My hope is to better understand the cultural meaning systems that develop in the context of immigration to Alabama, how these are shared and acted upon, and how these shape the proximal pathways by which everyday lived experience is linked to blood glucose levels and depressive symptoms.