‘All My Life I’ve Only Been a Student of Anthropology’

Dr. William Dressler, professor emeritus in anthropology, was recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He spent his entire academic career at The University of Alabama. Dressler’s work defined and enabled the objective study of the influences of cultural and societal expectations on individual health. 

Strategic Communications interviewed him after his election. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Dr. Williams Dressler in a photo taken earlier in his career.

Were you surprised when you got the call that you’d been elected to the National Academy of Science? 

It was more than a surprise. I was stunned. I had no idea I had been nominated. I found out about all of it after the fact. A very old friend of mine who I’ve known for close to 40 years and worked together with off and on nominated me and called me to tell me.  

I never once thought my work would lead to a National Academy membership one day. It’s an independent evaluation of the importance of the work, and a venerable institution saying, ‘Yes, this matters.’ I am grateful for that recognition.” 

I’ve always done my work first and foremost for the intrinsic joy of it. I love doing research. As I’ve always told my students, the work is the thing. That is what’s important. We can have other things in mind during an academic career. There are obviously other goals that we must have, but, principally, it turns out to be one of those things where if it’s not fun, don’t do it. For me it’s been a lot of fun. 

You worked at the University for more than 40 years. What did you like about UA? What kept you here when, surely, there had to have been offers for other opportunities? 

On a very practical level, my wife is a professor as well, and getting two academic jobs appropriate to our respective skills and accomplishments in the same place can be a challenge. But, we were comfortable here. We had options to move, but The University of Alabama was good to us over the years. My experience at The University of Alabama was if you do your work — keep your head down and work hard — you get the support you need. UA was good to me.  

I had a funny career because I was a full-tenured professor in three programs: College of Community Health Sciences, School of Social Work and, when a new Ph.D. program was on the horizon, I moved over full time to the Department of Anthropology. I always felt encouraged and supported in my ability to carry on my research career. 

Dressler was honored with the Burnum Distinguished Faculty Award by former UA President Andrew Sorensen in 2002.

If you had to describe your research to a layperson, what would you say you’ve done to garner the attention of the National Academies? 

We as individuals live within a culture that has a set of guidelines and plans and rules and recipes about how to live your daily life, how to get from one day to the next, how to achieve the collectively defined goals within the society we live in. That culture is essential to who we are, but we really aren’t aware of it. As individuals, we have varying backgrounds and experiences. We have a set of values and goals and plans, but we are variably able to achieve the kinds of goals that are collectively defined and valued in society. Many of these goals have to do essentially with leading an ordinary life. Living in a way that we all understand to be ordinary is tremendously important to us. The ability to do that and achieve that kind of common standard of decency is not easy, necessarily. Sometimes people match up with that pretty well, and sometimes they don’t.  

The term I coined, cultural consonance, means to live in a kind of harmony with those expectations in our society. There are people who are closer to those expectations and people farther away. I found that people who are farther away have health problems. I studied culture consonance in relation to blood pressure, immunocompetence, body composition and mild to moderate depression syndromes. I looked at cultural consonance also relative to diet, exercise, and even genotype. 

What’s remarkable is just how potent an effect this ability to be consonant with one’s own culture — to match up — has on one’s own health. It’s been talked about for a long time in anthropology and other social sciences, and what I did – my little brick in the wall – is I came up with the term for it, and most importantly, a way to measure it. That’s the thing about science, you can have all the great ideas in the world, but if you can’t find a way to connect the idea to the world around you, how do you know if it’s any good? The measurement model I started developing in the late 1980s and refined over 30 years is what separates my work.  

What do you see as the legacy of your work? 

One thing is, I’m pleased how far outside anthropology it has diffused. I’ve never worked in an anthropology silo. My view has always been interdisciplinary. I’m pleased so many people in so many other fields like public health, evolutionary biology, psychiatry and other areas have found this idea useful. The concept of culture is a tough one because getting ahold of it, wrestling with it and getting it to work for you in research has been difficult, and my having been able to do that has enabled people in other areas outside anthropology to add to their own toolkit when studying behavioral health and society. 

Along with the research, what satisfaction have you gotten from teaching and mentoring students? 

It’s terrific to look around and see that I’ve been able to mentor students and see their success. My work would not be what it is without my students. I’ve always approached the student-professor relationship not as there being a large difference in status between us, but, and this can sound coy but I’m sincere, all my life I’ve only been a student of anthropology. There’s no significant point where I felt I can say I’ve mastered this or that. I say that to my students, we’re all students. I’ve been around longer and have more experience, but we’re in the same boat. We’re working together. I’ve had the greatest experience working with students.