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Summer Roundup: Bioculturalism

We continue our set of summer roundups by focusing our attention on a series of interviews conducted by Jeffrey G. Snodgrass. Snodgrass spoke with William Dressler, Emily Mendenhall, Christopher Lynn, and Greg Downey on the subject of bioculturalism, aiming to get anthropologists and closely-related others talking seriously, and thinking practically, about how to synergize biological and social scientific approaches to human health and well-being, and to what positive ends.

 

Introduction: “Bioculturalism: The Why and How of a Promising Medical Anthropological Future”

“I’m perplexed by cultural anthropology’s antagonism toward biology, with culture and biology more typically treated as providing alternate and competing, rather than complementary and synergistic, explanations for human functioning. This is particularly strange to me—a practicing cultural anthropologist with a background in molecular biology—when even medical anthropologists fail to account for the role biology plays in shaping human health. Wouldn’t such a consideration enrich our comprehension of the interplay between sociocultural milieus and human bodies?… To sketch a blueprint for such a future, I have invited a group of self-professed ‘biocultural anthropologists’ to address the question, ‘How might cultural anthropology gain by taking biology more seriously?'” —Jeffrey G. Snodgrass

 

Interview: William Dressler

“Anthropological analyses are full of intriguing theoretical and ethnographic models proposing processes that operate at many levels, ranging from the molecular to the symbolic. Very often I find myself reading such analyses, only to get to the end thinking: “and……?” I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, in the sense of what the implications of those processes might be for health or biological outcomes. That other shoe can be a biological outcome or a biomarker. For example, medical anthropologists are interested in various sorts of social relationships. These could be between a healer and client; among family members coping with a social or economic crisis; within a voluntary association — in short, social relationships that organize persons in any number of of ways and contexts. The epidemiologic literature teaches us that integration into a network of relationships is, generally, associated with better health status, assessed in a variety of ways; the problem is that the epidemiologic literature tends to deal only with social relationships that seem plausible from a generally middle-class, North American orientation. Therefore, much of the potential for understanding in detail how social relationships shape health outcomes in diverse settings is left unrealized.” —William Dressler

 

Interview: Emily Mendenhall

“Disciplinary muscle within anthropology has always baffled me as a medical anthropologist. This may be due in part to my prior training in public health, which is inherently interdisciplinary. It may also be a reflection of my research, which focuses on interpreting hidden as well as more visible capillaries of power that source health inequities, and incorporating individual-level interpretations of disease and suffering with epidemiological ones. Yet, many anthropological efforts draw from other disciplines or sub-fields (or very well should) to enhance and make their research relevant beyond their field site or in the public arena.” —Emily Mendenhall

 

Interview: Christopher Lynn

“It’s important to be sensitive about collecting biological data. Simply put, people are distrustful and with good reason. For many of our research participants — whether from ‘developed’ or ‘Westernized’ cultures or not — there is a bit of sympathetic magic associated with giving up pieces of you. As Frazer taught us all, cultures throughout the world associate personal power with hair, names, fingernail clippings, blood, saliva, etc. To give these away gives away power. It has never been articulated this way to me, but I have had participants concerned that, in collecting their saliva to measure cortisol, I would do something with their DNA. Another participant in my study of speaking in tongues among Pentecostals was concerned that I would misinterpret her data. She had eight of her own children and ran a home school, frequently felt very stressed, and was concerned that her potentially high levels of cortisol would make God look bad (i.e., as though her relationship with Him was not bringing her any peace or sanity). In my research, navigating the terrain of fundamentalist Christianity to measure biomarkers requires a fair amount of finesse that came rather naturally to me, I’d like to think, because of my cultural anthropology training. On the other hand, because of the widespread familiarity with biomedicine and the normative nature of providing urine and blood samples, many of my participants in that study, surprisingly, were less concerned about the saliva sampling than some of the questions in the survey I used.” —Christopher Lynn

 

Interview: Greg Downey

“When I have presented work to cultural anthropology audiences unfamiliar with my research, I will often have someone imply that talking about the biological consequences of skill acquisition or sensory learning is inherently ‘reductionist,’ as if any mention of a body part or brain system necessarily is a rush to throw out all other considerations. I’ve never really understood this critique, except as a knee-jerk response of defensiveness. To me, ‘reductionism’ is the assumption that complex emergent processes can be explained by reference to smaller processes at lower levels of system analysis. On some level, every explanation that is not simply description is going to be ‘reductionist.’ Marxist analysis is notoriously ‘reductionist’ in that sense. Post-structuralism is reliably ‘reductionist.’ Structuralism was fantastically ‘reductionist.’ If anything, when I see the complex neural-functional explanations of skilled performance, they look even more byzantine and complicated than even a fairly thorough descriptive account of what is happening in terms of overt behaviour and observable phenomena. And the whole thrust of considering the biological, neurological, and perceptual consequences of training and enculturation is to demonstrate how ‘top down’ influences can restructure what are sometimes considered the substrates of that behaviour, such as brain anatomy.” —Greg Downey


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