Status Incongruity in Samoan Youth: A Biocultural Analysis of Culture Change, Stress, and Immune Function

Abstract

In Samoa, the presence of a matai title in the family has historically been a valued source of social status. However, as the process of Westernization continues, new sources of social status are emerging. This study explores the degree to which new and old markers of social status agree—or disagree —and the consequences they have for the experience of stress in 329 Samoan adolescents. The study integrates cultural and biological methods and data, and measures an aspect of immune function (antibodies against the Epstein-Barr virus) as a biomarker of psychosocial stress. Results indicate that status “incongruent” adolescents experience significantly more stress (indicated by reduced immune function), and that emerging markers of social status are becoming inextricably linked to “traditional” markers in such a way that discordance between them is a significant source of stress. This study proposes new conceptual models for future studies of culture change and suggests that biomarkers may represent ethnographic tools that can provide insight into hidden cultural dynamics and the experience of stress.