Abstract: There is a well known relationship—in humans and in other social animals—between social status and health. This relationship is often explained in terms of the stress process: One’s rank in a social hierarchy shapes exposure to toxic social stressors and the risk of subsequent disease. A limitation of some research in this area is that it takes the social hierarchies for granted. Here I argue that the association between social status and health is contingent on the meaning and experience of social hierarchies. I illustrate the argument with ethnographic and epidemiologic data on racism and hypertension in the African Diaspora. Recent ethnographic evidence from the southeastern U.S. implies that common approaches to measuring the health effects of racism may not capture the most meaningful or salient dimensions of everyday experience. I show how integrating ethnographic data on the experience of racism with social network data on one’s position in racial hierarchies can enhance our understanding of the stress process. Future research that further integrates work on cultural meaning and social structure with the neurobiology of stress response has potential to clarify our view of the relations between social status and health.
Bio: Clarence C. Gravlee is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Florida. He also holds affiliate appointments in the College of Public Health and Health Professions, the African American Studies Program, and the Center for Latin American Studies at UF. The central goal of Gravlee’s research is to identify and address the social and cultural causes of racial inequalities in health. He takes a critical biocultural approach to health and human development, drawing on methods and theory from the social and biological sciences. Gravlee’s current primary project integrates ethnography, social network analysis, epidemiology, and genetics to examine the health effects of racism among African Americans. He has also done research on racism, stress, and blood pressure in Puerto Rico and has been involved in the Tsimane’ Amazonian Panel Study, which examines the health consequences of globalization among indigenous people in the Bolivian Amazon. Dr. Gravlee received the 2010 Rudolph Virchow Award from the Critical Anthropology of Global Health Caucus, a section of the Society for Medical Anthropology. He is incoming editor of Medical Anthropology Quarterly is co-editor (with H. Russell Bernard) of the forthcoming second edition of the Handbook of Methods in Cultural Anthropology.