Dr. Clarence C. Gravlee and Dr. Christopher McCarty will undertake research on the social and cultural influences on racial inequalities in health. Some social scientists view race as a cultural construct, not a biological reality. But this view is coming under increasing scrutiny, as medical researchers seek to explain racial inequalities in health in terms of genetic differences. This development challenges social scientists to clarify how race exists as a social and cultural phenomenon that has force in people's lives and, indeed, one that has biological consequences.

The driving research question is why African Americans suffer disproportionately from hypertension, or chronic high blood pressure. This problem is a key test case, because it is often attributed to unknown genetic differences between racially defined groups. This project tests the alternative view that social and cultural factors account for the pattern of hypertension among people of African descent. In particular, it seeks to identify the contributions of social structure and the experience of culturally defined stressors to blood pressure variation among African Americans. The study combines (a) ethnography to explore how class and color shape the meaning of everyday social interaction and (b) methods of social network analysis to examine how the social structure in which individuals are embedded shapes exposure to racism and other social stressors. The research will be conducted among African Americans in Tallahassee, FL, a city with a large and socioeconomically diverse African-American community, as well as a history of racial struggle and civil rights activism. The exploratory phase involves participant observation and two rounds of ethnographic interviewing (N = 48 in each round). The explanatory phase will involve a representative survey (N = 350) of adult African Americans in Tallahassee to test the associations between social network characteristics, the experience of culturally defined stressors, and blood pressure variation, above and beyond known risk factors for high blood pressure.

This study contributes an anthropological perspective to national discussions about race and racism. It develops a novel application of social network analysis and builds on efforts to integrate the social and biological sciences. In particular, it will identify the biological consequences of racism and contribute to our understanding of how social and cultural processes become embodied in health.

Project Report

The goal of this project was to improve understanding of the social and cultural factors that influence poor health among African Americans in the United States. This problem has important implications for public policy and for our understanding of human cultural and biological diversity. For example, this project developed the idea that apparent biological differences between racially defined groups may be a consequence of social inequalities and experiences of racism, rather than an inevitable result of presumed genetic or inherited difference. This idea promotes a deeper understanding of the interactions between culture and biology, and it expands the range of possible policy approaches to improve health and well-being. The project was based in Tallahassee, FL, the state capital. Tallahassee is an appropriate setting because it is home to a large and socioeconomically diverse African American community, making it possible to disentangle poverty and non-economic forms of racism. Tallahassee also has a rich history of civil rights activism, which persists in the form of local, community-based efforts to redress racial inequities in health. This context made the work relevant to the public and fostered the development of the Health Equity Alliance of Tallahassee (HEAT), a community-academic partnership between university-based researchers, community-based organizations, state and local government, and concerned citizens. The project also led to a new collaboration among researchers at the University of Florida; supported the training of three graduate students, including one who is using study data in a doctoral dissertation; and created part-time employment for more than a dozen Tallahassee residents. The project included two main phases that integrated methods from the social and biological sciences. The first phase used qualitative and quantitative ethnographic methods to identify social stressors that are meaningful in the day-to-day experiences of a diverse sample of African Americans. In addition, we used state-of-the-art methods of social network analysis to examine the webs of social relations in which African American participants are embedded. The integration of ethnography and social network analysis helped to identify aspects of everyday racism that are not well captured in predominant approaches to the measurement of racism and discrimination. The grant also supported further development of free, open-source software for collecting personal network data (EgoNet). The second phase consisted of a community-based, epidemiologic survey with a representative sample of African Americans in Tallahassee (N=268). This survey has four distinctive advantages: (1) It is informed by the first, ethnographic phase, such that questions emerged from and are relevant to people’s day-to-day experiences. This aspect of the survey design increases validity. (2) It is, to our knowledge, one of the largest studies to incorporate extensive measures of personal social network composition and structure among African Americans. (3) It includes an unusually wide array of data about culturally meaningful stressors, coping resources, neighborhood conditions, experiences of racism, perceptions of injustice, and both self-reported and biological measures of health and well-being, including blood pressure and biological markers of stress response. (4) With support from a separate National Science Foundation (NSF) grant (BCS-0820687), we were able to collect DNA samples from survey participants. This synergistic use of NSF funds will enable us to pursue important questions about the interactions between genetic and environmental influences on health and well-being. Beyond the period of funding, the investigators and community partners from HEAT will use data from this study to examine associations between exposure to social stressors, social network structure and composition, experiences of racism, and physical and mental aspects of health and well-being. We expect results to be disseminated in scientific journals, professional conferences, community events, and data briefs that discuss the implications for policy makers and the public.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Jeffrey Mantz
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University of Florida
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