Biological Anthropology

Western Samoa

Culture change, stress, and immune function in Samoan youth

Samoans are currently experiencing an unprecedented period of cultural diversification:  non-traditional legal, political, and economic institutions continue to encroach, and western consumer goods and lifestyles are increasingly available and desired.  A recent epidemic of adolescent suicide suggests that these transitions may be problematic, particularly for the youth of Samoa.

Research objectives

  1. To introduce a cross-cultural and developmental perspective to the large body of Western-based research in stress and immune function;
  2. To evaluate new methodological tools for assessing immune function in field settings;
  3. To develop models of culture change and stress specifically relevant to the experiences of youth. 

A blood spot measure of EBV antibody level was developed as an immunological measure of chronic stress, and assayed in over 800 samples from 5-20 year-olds living in a range of urban and rural Samoan villages.  C-reactive protein levels were also assayed to control for pathogen burden. 

Findings

Adolescents living in more westernized areas of Samoa, as well as adolescents from households with high levels of incongruity in aspects of social status, have elevated EBV antibodies, indicating lower immunocompetence and a higher burden of psycho-social stress.  This work has been significant in introducing new methodological tools for assessing stress, and in evaluating new models of culture change specifically relevant to the experiences of youth.

Relevant Publications  

McDade, TW and CM Worthman (2004).  Socialization ambiguity in Samoan adolescents:  A new model for research in human development and stress in the context of culture change.  Journal of Research in Adolescence 14: 49-72.

McDade, TW (2003).  Life event stress and immune function in Samoan adolescents:  Toward a cross-cultural psychoneuroimmunology.  In Social and Cultural Lives of Immune Systems:  Contextualizing Psychoneuroimmunology, Embodying the Social Sciences, J. Wilce (ed.).  New York:  Routledge, pp. 170-188.

McDade, TW (2002).  Status incongruity in Samoan youth:  A biocultural analysis of culture change, stress, and immune function.  Medical Anthropology Quarterly 16: 123-150. 

McDade, TW (2001).  Lifestyle incongruity, social integration, and immune function in Samoan adolescents. Social Science and Medicine 53: 1351-1362.

McDade, T.W., Stallings, J.F. and C.M. Worthman (2000). Culture change and stress in Western Samoan youth:  Methodological issues in the cross-cultural study of stress and immune function.  American Journal of Human Biology  12: 792-802.