The Cultural Anthropological Contribution to Communicable Disease Epidemiology

Cultural anthropology has made four primary contributions to our epidemiologist led research group in Bangladesh. First, cultural anthropology articulates the conflict between the biomedical paradigm and the cultural understanding of target communities, affecting project choice and framing. Second, anthropologists help epidemiologists construct questions that are meaningful to respondents, while encouraging epidemiologists to frame their understanding of public health problems within a broader context of local choice; local constraints; and social, political, and cultural factors. Third, anthropologists communicate the voice of the community to the public health team in a way that biomedical scientists can understand. Fourth, anthropologists leverage their understanding of low-income communities to generate practical suggestions for public health interventions. Indeed, the contributions that anthropology can make to the public health enterprise are so substantial that epidemiologists would be shortsighted not to engage in them. A number of anthropologists have articulated benefits and barriers to collaboration between epidemiology and anthropology (Inhorn, 1995; Trostle, 2005). The objective of this chapter is to contribute to the smaller literature from epidemiologists on these issues (Behague et al., 2008; Porter, 2006) and explain how cultural anthropology has helped this communicable disease epidemiologist lead a multidisciplinary research group in Bangladesh.

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Applying medical anthropology in the control of infectious disease

This paper focuses on two roles of anthropology in the control of infectious disease. The first is in identifying and describing concerns and understandings of disease, including local knowledge of cause and treatment relevant to disease control. The second is in translating these local concerns into appropriate health interventions, for example, by providing information to be incorporated in education and communication strategies for disease control. Problems arise in control programmes with competing knowledge and value systems. Anthropology’s role conventionally has been in the translation of local concepts of illness and treatment, and the adaptation of biomedical knowledge to fit local aetiologies. Medical anthropology plays an important role in examining the local context of disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention, and the structural as well as conceptual barriers to improved health status. National (and international) public health goals which respect local priorities are uncommon, and generic health goals rarely coincide with specific country and community needs. The success of interventions and control programmes is moderated by local priorities and conditions, and sustainable interventions need to acknowledge and address country-specific social, economic and political circumstances.

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The Anthropology of Infectious Disease

Diseases caused by infectious agents have profoundly affected both human history and biology. In demographic terms , infectious diseases-including both great epidemics, such as plague and smallpox, which have devastated human populations from ancient to modem times, and less dramatic, unnamed viral and bacterial infections causing high infant mortality-have likely claimed more lives than all wars, noninfectious diseases , and natural disasters taken together. In the face of such attack by microscopic invaders , human populations have been forced to adapt to infectious agents on the levels of both genes and culture. As agents of natural selection, infectious diseases have played a major role in the evolution of the human species . Infectious diseases have also been a prime mover in cultural transformation, as societies have responded to the social, economic, political, and psychological disruption engendered by acute epidemics (e.g. measles , influenza) and chronic, debilitating infectious diseases (e.g. malaria, schistosomiasis). Today, the global epidemic of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) provides a salient example of the processes underlying infectious-disease-related cultural transformations. As many of the examples cited in this review illustrate, human groups have often unwittingly facilitated the spread of infectious diseases through culturally coded patterns of behavior or through changes in the crucial relationships among infectious disease agents, their human and animal hosts, and the environments in which the host-agent interaction takes place.

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The Anthropology of Infectious Disease

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Cumulative Cultural Evolution within Evolving Population Structures

Our species’ ecological success is supported by our ability to selectively learn beneficial social information, resulting in the accumulation of innovations over time. Population size affects the social information available to subsequent generations of learners and constrains cumulative culture.

Population structure constrains the flow of social information and can promote the accumulation of innovations by bringing culturally distinct groups into contact. Effective population structure results from a combination of structural barriers (e.g., lack of contact between individuals) and behavioral barriers (e.g., unwillingness to share social information).

Compared with non-human primates, humans live in large networks of unrelated individuals that might be conducive to the accumulation of cultural innovations. This social structure might partly result from selection pressures linked to our extensive reliance on culturally accumulated knowledge.

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Cultural evolutionary theory: How culture evolves and why it matters

Human cultural traits—behaviors, ideas, and technologies that can be learned from other individuals—can exhibit complex patterns of transmission and evolution, and researchers have developed theoretical models, both verbal and mathematical, to facilitate our understanding of these patterns. Many of the first quantitative models of cultural evolution were modified from existing concepts in theoretical population genetics because cultural evolution has many parallels with, as well as clear differences from, genetic evolution. Furthermore, cultural and genetic evolution can interact with one another and influence both transmission and selection. This interaction requires theoretical treatments of gene–culture coevolution and dual inheritance, in addition to purely cultural evolution. In addition, cultural evolutionary theory is a natural component of studies in demography, human ecology, and many other disciplines. Here, we review the core concepts in cultural evolutionary theory as they pertain to the extension of biology through culture, focusing on cultural evolutionary applications in population genetics, ecology, and demography. For each of these disciplines, we review the theoretical literature and highlight relevant empirical studies. We also discuss the societal implications of the study of cultural evolution and of the interactions of humans with one another and with their environment.

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Culture in Mind – Cognition, Culture, and the Problem of Meaning

Despite the recognized importance of cultural diversity in understanding the modern world, the emerging science of cognitive psychology has relied far more on experimental psychology, neurobiology, and computer science than on cultural anthropology for its models of how we think. In this exciting new book, anthropologist Bradd Shore has created the first study linking multi-culturalism to cognitive psychology, exploring the complex relationship between culture in public institutions and in mental representations. In so doing, he answers in a completely new way the age old question of whether humans are basically the same psychologically, independent of cultures, or basically diverse because of cultural differences. The first half of the book emphasizes cultural models, from Australian Aboriginal rituals and Samoan comedy skits, to more familiar terrain, including a study of baseball as a cultural model for Americans. Along the way, the author sheds new and novel light on many familiar institutions, from educational curricula and shopping malls to modular furniture and cyberpunk fiction. These observations are then linked to theoretical developments in linguistics, semiotics, and neuroscience, creating a bold new approach to understanding the role of culture in everyday meaning making. The author argues that culture must be considered an intrinsic component of the human mind to a degree that most psychologists and even many anthropologists have not recognized. This new position of cultural models will make absorbing reading for psychologists, anthropologists, linguists, and philosophers, and to anyone interested in the issues of cultural diversity, multiculturalism, or cognitive science in general.

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Slavery entailed the spread of epidemics

Cultural Studies on Genetics Migration

By the forced displacement of Africans to the New World, the Europeans might have brought infectious diseases to America

Three 16th century skeletons from a mass burial in Mexico City highlight the role of the transatlantic slave trade in introducing and disseminating new pathogens to the Americas. Researchers from Germany and Mexico analyzed skeletal features, genetic data and isotopes to explore the life history of three enslaved Africans and explore the wide-ranging impacts of massive forced migration.

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How Language Began: Gesture and Speech in Human Evolution

Human language is not the same as human speech. We use gestures and signs to communicate alongside, or instead of, speaking. Yet gestures and speech are processed in the same areas of the human brain, and the study of how both have evolved is central to research on the origins of human communication. Written by one of the pioneers of the field, this is the first book to explain how speech and gesture evolved together into a system that all humans possess. Nearly all theorizing about the origins of language either ignores gesture, views it as an add-on or supposes that language began in gesture and was later replaced by speech. David McNeill challenges the popular ‘gesture-first’ theory that language first emerged in a gesture-only form and proposes a groundbreaking theory of the evolution of language which explains how speech and gesture became unified.

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The influence of culture: holistic versus analytic perception

There is recent evidence that perceptual processes are influenced by culture. Westerners tend to engage in context-independent and analytic perceptual processes by focusing on a salient object independently of its context, whereas Asians tend to engage in context-dependent and holistic perceptual processes by attending to the relationship between the object and the context in which the object is located. Recent research has explored mechanisms underlying such cultural differences, which indicate that participating in different social practices leads to both chronic as well as temporary shifts in perception. These findings establish a dynamic relationship between the cultural context and perceptual processes. We suggest that perception can no longer be regarded as consisting of processes that are universal across all people at all times.

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Read also: The effect of Culture on Perception and Cognition: A conceptual framework

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The evolutionary origins of human cultural capacities and their implications for understanding human behavior

Humans are unique in their range of environments, and the nature and diversity of their behavioral adaptations. While a variety of local genetic adaptations exist within our species, it seems certain that the same basic genetic endowment produces arctic foraging, tropical horticulture, and desert pastoralism—a constellation that represents a greater range of subsistence behavior than the rest of the Primate Order combined. The behavioral adaptations that explain the immense success of our species are cultural in the sense that they are transmitted among individuals by social learning and have accumulated over generations. Understanding how and when such culturally-evolved adaptations arise requires understanding both the evolution of the psychological mechanisms which underlie human social learning and the evolutionary (population) dynamics of cultural systems.

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