Comparing Cultural Knowledge Across Different Settings

In addition to the general comparisons across cultural settings discussed above, a number of studies have taken a closer look at what can be learned through a comparative approach. Three different approaches are examined here. The most ambitious of these is a "collaborative, multisite study using a shared methodology" to study "intra- and inter-cultural variation in beliefs" (Weller, Pachter, Trotter, & Baer, 1993, p. 109) for four geographically separated and distinctive Latin American samples. The illnesses are considered to be either biomedical or folk conditions. Weller and Baer (2001) present findings for five of the eight illnesses studied (AIDS, diabetes, the common cold, empacho, and mal de ojo; with asthma, nervios, and susto also included in the larger design) and some detailed studies, comparing beliefs for individual illness conditions have been published (Weller et al., 1993, 1999). Noting that it "is usually impossible to know if reported differences between cultures are due to cultural differences or due to a difference in methods used to study the cultures," the researchers constructed a series of 100-150 yes/no questions for each of the illnesses which allowed them to collect comparable data at each site. The questions asked about "potential causes, susceptibility, signs and symptoms, treatments, healers, and sequelae" and were constructed on the basis of informal interviews at each of four sites and some additional sources (Weller & Baer, 2001). With cultural consensus analysis supporting high agreement within samples (Weller et al., 1993), the results of a binomial test indicating a "strong majority response (>66%) in each sample for each illness was used to estimate group beliefs about the presence/absence of features that best described each illness" (Weller & Baer, 2001, p. 201). Features determined to be of high concordance within each setting were then directly compared as a way of assessing what was distinctive or unique across the four groups. The finding of a high degree of sharing with little unique variation across the groups led Weller and Baer (2001, p. 222) to reflect on the underlying cognitive representation and suggest that "the illnesses and features that define them may compose a systemic culture pattern or high concordance code in the sense that they may form a structured set of related items with high agreement and stability across culture members." These comments about "feature sets" brought to mind D'Andrade's (1976) somewhat different assessment, based on work involving the term-frame substitution interview, that it was cognitively plausible to expect that knowledge about illness or any other cultural domain is stored in terms of propositions, or in other ways of representing conceptual relationships, which have the generative or productive capacity to answer novel questions and make inferences.

Garro (1996) explored the generalizability of causal accounts of diabetes through an analysis of 88 dual-format interviews carried out across three Canadian Anishinaabe (Ojibway) communities. In all three communities type-II diabetes was viewed as a relatively "new" illness, with the first cases diagnosed within living memory, but also as a disease which affected so many people that it was seen to be a major health problem. The three communities were chosen to vary in significant ways from each other, including the relative degree of geographic isolation and language use. The first interview format was an open-ended and wide-ranging discussion where individuals talked about their experiences with diabetes. The second was a structured interview consisting of a series of yes/no questions about diabetes based on comments and reflections made by community members in earlier informal interviews about diabetes and other illnesses. Agreement and variation in the structured interview responses were analyzed through a variety of means (including cultural consensus analysis, the binomial test, and the Quadratic Assignment Program). While the direct comparisons using the yes/no responses converged upon a set of explanations which could be found in all three communities, comments made in the open-ended interviews allowed for an exploration of differences in how explanations were framed and emphasized across the three communities. Particularly in areas where agreement was less strong, the dual interview format allowed for a deeper and more finely nuanced representation of understandings about the causes of diabetes across the three communities.

Based on her work in Pichataro and a Canadian Anishinaabe community, Garro (2000b, 2002) explored potential connections between a cognitive anthropological focus on illness understandings and efforts concerned with cross-cultural comparisons at the level of meaning across culturally divergent sites. Mindful of Hallowell's admonition (1955, p. 88) that the categories used for making comparisons need to be grounded in an examination of how experience is endowed with meaning within the context of culturally constituted behavioral environments, Garro drew on information from multiple sources using diverse methods to explore the range of explanatory frameworks that were culturally available for conferring meaning on illness at both of her research sites. With reference to existing comparative frameworks, Garro discussed the challenges in working toward the construction of a comparative framework that captures the range of known variability across cultural settings while still remaining open to ethnographic possibilities.

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