Social and Cultural Lives of Immune Systems

By James M. Wilce Jr | Go to book overview
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Chapter 7

Cultural congruity and the cortisol stress response among Dominican men

Seamus A. Decker, Mark V. Flinn, Barry G. England, and Carol M. Worthman

Introduction to the research problem: social status and stress

A growing body of research contributes to new conceptions of stress and immune responses - physiological axes which have traditionally been regarded as separate - as elements in an integrated life-history resource allocation process. According to this new understanding of mind and body, biology and culture, physiology and symbol, “systems” which have previously been regarded as being relatively autonomous aspects of human experience (e.g. stress-response, worldview, emotion, decision-making, immune function, social identity, and power) are being redefined as integrated but dynamically interacting elements in the complex human biocultural phenotype. The give and take in this process occurring between evolved predispositions and sociocultural opportunities are poorly understood.

For example, among nonhuman primates, social dominance (measured as frequency of victories in competitive bouts) associates negatively with baseline HPA activation and immunosuppression (Coe et al. 1979; Cohen et al. 1992; Cunnick et al. 1991; Golub 1979; Keverne 1990; Manogue 1975; Sapolsky 1982, 1983a; Sapolsky and Mott 1987). In other words, animals who are subordinate - those with less competent behavioral styles, who win less, are harassed more, and have less predictable and lower-quality access to food, mates, nesting sites, and other “resources” - show evidence of higher chronic stress response, and immunosuppression. In contrast, two studies of humans indicate that military and/or socioeconomic rank associate positively with HPA activation (Bourne et al. 1968; Brandstadter et al. 1991; Seeman and McEwen 1996). These differences demonstrate that, at present, we have a poor understanding of the degree to which homologous aspects of psychosocial intelligence, emotional sensitivity, and responsiveness among humans and nonhuman primates account for human social experience, psychosocial stress, and psychoneuroimmunological function compared to more evolutionarily novel cultural factors particular only to humans. Moreover, cultural factors may influence psychosocial stress not only by shaping differences in

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