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“Bioculturalism” — An interview with Jason DeCaro

This article is part of the series:

“Bioculturalism” resumes this week with the first of three new interviews with self-professed biocultural anthropologists. This series aims 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. New interviews will be published every other week, followed by a new piece by series organizer Jeffrey G. Snodgrass on Internet gaming, which has progressed in tandem with the series’ publication.

In this interview, Jason DeCaro responds to questions posed Snodgrass.

 

How and why might cultural anthropologists and social scientists interested in health benefit from integrating biological variables/biomarkers into their research and analysis?

This is hard to answer in the abstract because it depends so much on the research question, but I will give it a shot. In psychological and medical anthropology, we talk a lot about embodiment. The body is deeply encultured, to the extent that I am completely convinced neurological functioning can’t be understood properly without reference to the shaping of the nervous system through culturally-constructed developmental experiences throughout the lifespan. Perhaps that is more a case for why biologically-oriented anthropologists should attend to culture. But here’s the thing. It seems to me that the reverse is equally compelling. Twenty years ago, who would have thought that inflammation has a role in depression? (It does.) And we’ve known for a while that physical activity does as well. And undernutrition. And so on and so forth.

Another way of looking at this is that biomarkers provide one part—not the whole, just a piece, but an important one—of the picture regarding the subjective impact of daily experience. I emphasize “subjective,” even though we’re talking about a quantifiable bio measure, because brain-body connections are so pervasive that subjectivity influences a wide array of biological parameters. It’s sort of boring, honestly, when the biomarkers just confirm what you already thought based on talking to people. But on the other hand, when the biomarkers tell you something counterintuitive or surprising—like that some group (or even an individual) is biologically responding in a way that you wouldn’t expect based on what you otherwise know about them—it’s illuminating. Such was my reaction, for instance, when I and collaborators recently completed a data analysis (unpublished but presented at AAA 2015) showing that, once food security was controlled for, a biomarker of chronic stress was “worse” in young children from households with greater material assets in an East African community where I work. I won’t give away the end of the story, which would take too much space anyway, but these “huh?” moments lead us to re-examine what we know about people—re-open those interview transcripts and field notes—and ask “what is the body telling us here?”

 

How would you respond directly to one potential cultural anthropological or social scientific critique of such an integrative “biocultural” approach?

Not going there anymore. I’m no longer investing energy in endless scripted arguments about the purported value or purported dangers of biocultural research as a general class (which are really just a subset of arguments about integrative holism in anthropology, and don’t seem to have changed much since I was a first year graduate student in 1998). Biocultural research isn’t for everyone, nor is it the best approach for every research question, but ideally it complements cultural anthropology nicely, especially in medical anthropology. On the other hand, done poorly, yes indeed it can be dreadfully reductionist and everything else people fear. So my view boils down to this: do it very well, with careful ethnographic contextualization and a thorough understanding of biology… great. Don’t do it at all, great. AAA is a big conference with plenty of room in those cavernous hotels we rent out. I hope we’ll all see each other in some sessions, but if not I’ll certainly give a friendly wave in the hallways.

 

What is one potential caution you’d have for cultural anthropologists or social scientists considering a biocultural approach?

To do biocultural research well requires a high level of sophistication regarding social/cultural anthropology and human biology at the same time. For one thing, this means that teamwork is incredibly valuable… I work almost entirely in collaborative teams now, because I just can’t be good enough at everything. And the research question (along with any measures that are going to be employed while addressing it) should flow from theory. If the theoretical framework doesn’t naturally call for an integrative biocultural approach, that is a red flag. Theory can and should be stretched of course, but it’s important to ask ourselves: will including a biomarker or a biological interpretation really tell us something substantially more than we could learn without it? Will it address a theoretically interesting question in a new and exciting way that moves the field forward? I ask students these questions all the time, and if they don’t have strong answers, I send them back to the drawing board. If they do, then I’m the biggest cheerleader they could want for their integrative approach.

 

What is one piece of research (ideally your own) that points to the benefits of such an integrative approach?

I’d like to point to some work that was done by my colleague Lesley Jo Weaver, on which I am honored to have been a co-author:

Weaver LJ, Worthman CM, DeCaro JA, Madhu SV. 2015. The signs of stress: Embodiments of biosocial stress among type 2 diabetic women in New Delhi, India. Social Science & Medicine 131:122-130.

In brief, Jo found that congruence with gender roles among women with diabetes in India protected against the adverse effects of diabetes on mental health and inflammation, even when biomarkers showed the diabetes to be poorly controlled. Trade-offs among biological, social, and cultural dimensions of well-being that can only be identified within an integrative framework that joins ethnography and biomarkers with clinical outcomes. Good stuff.

 

What are some other references to help cultural anthropologists or social scientists interested in such an approach get started?

DeCaro JA. 2015. What’s biological about biocultural research? (Part 1). Anthropology News 56(3):e1-e2.

DeCaro JA. 2015. What’s biological about biocultural research? (Part 2). Anthropology News 56(6):e1-e2.

 

Jason DeCaro, PhD, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alabama, is a biocultural medical and psychological anthropologist and human biologist. His research concerns interactions among the social and cultural architecture of everyday life, cognitive processes, and physiologic systems in human development and the production of differential well-being across the lifespan. His primary international research site is Mwanza, Tanzania, where he has conducted research on child care practices, household adversity, caregiver mental health, and young child growth and development. He also is active in the Southeast U.S., where he has investigated emotion regulation and the biological stress response during the transition into grade school. He directs the Developmental Ecology and Human Biology Lab, which supports the analysis of blood and saliva biomarkers related to immune function, stress physiology, metabolism, and nutrition.

 

Bioculturalism” aims 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. It is edited by Jeffrey G. Snodgrass.


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