Stigma: A biocultural proposal for integrating evolutionary and political-economic approaches

Alexandra Brewis, Amber Wutich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Objectives: Stigma—the process by which people become socially discredited because they hold a characteristic that is classified as unacceptable or undesirable—has barely been considered in biocultural analyses. Yet, it provides an acute point of articulation for evolutionary and political-economic perspectives on human variation, including the biocultural production of health disparities. To explain the theoretical integration of the two perspectives to stigma, we first lay out some operationalizable definitions of stigma, and review feasible methods to capture them in the field. We then test the roles of predictors suggested from evolutionary (respondent's level of disgust, fear of contagion) and political-economic (respondent's perceived social standing and negative social labeling of those who violate hygiene norms) theories of stigma. Methods: We used survey, interview, and behavioral report data from a study of hygiene behaviors at four local community sites in Guatemala, Fiji, New Zealand, and the United States (N = 300). We applied a hierarchical GLMM design that treats site as a random effect. Results: The independent influences of both variable sets are evident in publicly visible forms of reported hygiene behaviors, specifically the exhibition of clean bodies, clothes, and homes. Conclusion: We propose that the study of stigma provides a productive operationalizable space to engage the promise of the biocultural synthesis to integrate evolutionary and political-economic models of health and human variation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere23290
JournalAmerican Journal of Human Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology
  • Genetics


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