Masikoro_rice_farmer, Madagascar

Associate Professor Bram Tucker has been awarded a National Science Foundation grant for a three year investigation of cultural adaptations to risk in southwestern Madagascar entitled “Testing Multiple Approaches for Understanding Adaptive Functions of Cultural Institutions” (NSF BCS 1733917). When anthropologists encounter cultural beliefs and practices that have persisted for centuries within challenging environments, they often conclude that the culture persists because it helps people to adapt to these environmental challenges. The purpose of this project is to test exactly how culture is adaptive. More specifically, Tucker will study how cultural beliefs and practices related to ethnic identity and ancestor veneration help Mikea hunter-gatherers, Masikoro farmers, and Vezo fishers to adapt to extremely high climatic unpredictability and subsistence risk. Some social scientists argue that culture contains information that helps people adapt, through taboos, dietary rules, and social norms, that guide people to avoid harm and reap benefits. Other theorists hypothesize that the specific information content of a given culture is not necessarily what is important. Instead, just having a shared culture is in itself adaptive because it binds together cohesive groups that can cooperate to solve common problems, such as collective action problems. A third theory is that culture acts more on the level of the individual by providing psychological benefits that help people undertake difficult tasks and navigate misfortune. The research will also examine the contexts in which adaptation results from competition versus cooperation, and how children learn cultural information. Tucker will spend 10 months in rural Madagascar working alongside collaborators from the Université de Toliara, Madagascar. This research has potential significance for social scientists, policy makers, project planners, and indigenous leaders, because it will discover the costs of losing specific kinds of cultural information as cultures change.