September 1, 2022

Anthropology faculty research awarded NSF funding

Dr. Dengah and student assistant in BrazilDr. Dengah (right) consults with a USU student research assistant in Brazil.

Associate Professor François Dengah has received support from the National Science Foundation to begin sponsored work in Brazil

By Andrea DeHaan, CHaSS Communications Editor

The National Science Foundation has funded a study to understand how behavioral changes affect health outcomes. USU Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology, HJ François Dengah II, will conduct a three-year project looking at the impact of gender roles and family life on an individual’s stress levels and overall health.

As a biocultural medical anthropologist, Dengah’s research has long focused on the cultural determinants of stress and the health impacts of culturally-mediated behaviors. “It is my hope that we can get a more fully realized understanding of how culture can get literally under the skin in shaping health disparities,” Dengah explained.

The NSF grant will fund a longitudinal study on the health outcomes of culturally-motivated behaviors in Ribeirão Preto, Brazil. Dengah and others will follow 200 Brazilians over three years to see how behavioral changes impact well-being. In addition to psychological surveys, researchers will use blood pressure and hair cortisol concentrations to measure chronic stress exposure.  

“I’ve examined this topic with diverse populations such as Brazilian Pentecostals, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and online video gaming communities like World of Warcraft,” said Dengah, but he hopes this project will answer a question long-held by other social scientists. “Why do people do what they do? The issue is that most human behavior is incredibly complex. It’s not just a matter of if a person chooses A over B; but rather, people’s behavior is a symphony of interrelated thoughts and actions.”

This project involves an international team of researchers including Mauro Balieiro, professor of psychology at Universidade Paulista; William W. Dressler, emeritus faculty at the University of Alabama; and K. Ann Horsburgh, assistant professor of biological anthropology at Southern Methodist University. Dressler started researching the health outcomes of cultural behavior in Brazil more than 30 years ago, and it is hoped that this project will further explain how culture “shape[s] psychological and physiological health outcomes and in doing so, clarify some of the health disparities seen between populations,” Dengah noted.

The NSF funds nearly a quarter of all federally-supported research conducted through colleges and universities in the United States. However, their grant process is highly selective, and a 2021 NSF report showed that only 26% of competitive proposals received funding. The project that Dengah and the other investigators submitted will also see Brazilian and Utah State University students participate in anthropological data collection and analysis.

For his part, Dengah is excited to begin work in January 2023. “Behavior doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It is shaped and motivated by a web of influences—from our friends and family to more abstract, but nevertheless important forces like our ‘culture,’” he added. “Understanding the motivations for cultural behaviors will help explain a wide range of human behaviors, including how ideas are shared, internalized, and acted upon.”

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