In my research in Colombia, I dealt with teenagers across the spectrum—kids from good families with futures they could see, kids who had gone through more shit than most people will see in their lifetimes. One kid, let’s call him Rafa, came from a small town outside of Bogotá, his family not in the best circumstances. In my talking with Rafa, he dwelled on the horrible process of social exclusion that he went through—first the whispers and bad looks, then problems at school, the violence and rejection at home, and the final demand from a coalition of men, powerful and dangerous men, that he simply leave. Sure, Rafa was no saint himself, but that’s not the point. The dwelling on what other people did, that was the hard thing in his life when I met him. He didn’t deal with that in the best way either, finding support in hate-filled ideologies and drug-using friends. I don’t think many adults had ever just taken the time to talk with him, to get to know him. And he still got kicked out of the school, a school that took in kids that had had problems elsewhere, during that year I knew him. I remember that administrative meeting well. No teacher spoke up for Rafa, and I didn’t count as the anthropologist. So Rafa ran out of chances once again. Except that is the wrong expression—he ran into chances that bopped him around like the ball on a roulette wheel, only to end up on zero. It was people that did that.
So that’s the ethnographic moment.
Let’s turn to some other research. Robert Sapolsky’s work is widely known. His best-selling book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, is now in its third edition, and his Perspectives piece in Science has been cited 485 times according to Google Scholar. He is acclaimed in biological anthropology circles because of his concern with mechanism, the elegance of his naturalistic studies with baboons in Kenya, and his consideration of the heavy stress-related costs of inequality. The back cover of the Zebras book summarizes the core argument of the book, “When we worry or experience stress, our body turns on the same physiological responses that an animal does, but we usually do not turn off the stress-response in the same way—through fighting, fleeing, or other quick actions. Over time, this chronic activation of the stress-response can make us literally sick.”
Michael Blakey is better known for his critical archaeology work and his leadership with the New York African Burial Ground. The work I will discuss, Blakey’s chapter “Beyond European Enlightenment” in the edited volume Building a New Biocultural Synthesis, has been cited 5 times according to Google Scholar. His earlier chapter “Psychophysiological Stress as an Indicator of Disorder in Industrial Society” in the book Diagnosing America: Anthropology and Public Engagement has been cited all of once. But it is Blakey’s work that has turned my mind around in the past few days in ways that Sapolsky never quite has. These two posts will explore why the blurb on Sapolsky’s book is wrong and why that is important to what neuroanthropology can do.
Today I will start with Sapolsky’s recent Science review “The Influence of Social Hierarchy on Primate Health.” The article begins with the familiar “socioeconomic gradient,” where the “stepwise descent in socioeconomic status (SES) predicts increased risks of cardiovascular, respiratory, rheumatoid, and psychiatric diseases; low birth weight; infant mortality; and mortality from all causes.” Sapolsky then provides a traditional review of the stress response—there are physical and psychosocial stressors, and both activate an “array of endocrine and neural adaptations.” These adaptations are generally mobilized in response to challenges to homeostasis. In response to “an acute physical challenge,” the stress response works through mobilizing energy, increasing cardiovascular tone, and inhibiting unessential anabolism; in other words, the classic “fight-or-flight” framing of stress. Chronic activation, particular by chronic psychosocial stressors, can increase or worsen health problems ranging from “hypertension, atherosclerosis, insulin-resistant diabetes, immune suppression, reproductive impairments, and affective disorders.”