Notre Dame professor publishes study with new insights on fatherhood
Isabella Laufenberg | Monday, October 5, 2020
Recently published in Nature Magazine’s Scientific Reports, Dr. Lee Gettler, an associate professor of anthropology at Notre Dame, has completed a new study which links testosterone levels in fathers with their broader cultural settings.
Gettler said that he became interested in his research when he met Dr. Adam Boyette, who is now a senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, at a conference put on by the Jacobs Foundation.
“[The Jacobs Foundation] put together a conference that was specifically bringing together a really large group of scholars who specifically studied fathers from diverse perspectives —psychology, sociology, neuroscience, anthropology — to try to get all these people in the same room to talk about how we can begin to kind of best understand the way that fathers impact human children,” Gettler said.
Boyette did his dissertation research in a remote region in northern Republic of the Congo —accessible by a weeklong journey from the capital city of Brazzaville. There he studied the BaYaka and Bondongo people who live a very different lifestyle than one we’re used to. Although located in the same village, the two tribes have their own distinct cultures. The BaYaka people are a more egalitarian society, focused on cooperative living, whereas the Bondongo people are fisher-farmers whose society is hierarchical and status-based.
Boyette noted that the differences between these two communities who live in such close conjunction is really what drew their study to this remote corner of the world.
“Our interest was to work with both groups and try to understand differences and look to see if there were differences in fathering that are related to cultural differences, including things like variation in the family systems and what fathers do in the community,” Boyette said.
They hypothesized that the testosterone levels of the BaYaka men and Bondongo men were different. Testosterone, a hormone which has been shown to decrease in men when entering fatherhood in some cultural settings, can be associated with physical strength and aggression. Gettler’s team hypothesized that since the BaYaka fathers place more emphasis on community and generosity, their testosterone levels will be lower than the Bondongo fathers, who are valued more for their strength and being a good resource provider.
When the researches had an opportunity to collaborate via funding from the Jacobs Foundation, Boyette said that he and Gettler jumped at the chance.
“[The Jacobs Foundation] offered us this opportunity to apply for funding to work on projects together,” Boyette said. “It was a really fantastic opportunity and Lee and I right away saw a really good opportunity to collaborate because we both had different skill sets that we recognized would work well together.”
Before the two could conduct any formal research, they had to connect with the communities and get settled.
“The first summer of our grant, [Boyette] went to field site and just basically was hanging out to gain trust with the communities to talk to them about ‘Here’s what we’re interested in, we’re interested in learning about your communities and here’s what we would do,’” Gettler said. “[Boyette was] getting permission from the communities, particularly the elders and the leadership councils in the community, to make sure that they were that it was acceptable to them, ethically, that we do this work.”
Boyette said that the work was challenging, and it would not have been possible without the help of others who blazed the trail for him.
Another challenge faced by the team was how to transport their materials. Gettler explained that this was an especially difficult project because they needed to transport large liquid nitrogen jugs to store saliva samples containing information about testosterone from the BaYaka and Bondongo men.
“If we look at testosterone in saliva, it correlates really strongly to what is circulating in the blood in the body, but it’s obviously much less invasive than collecting blood so that’s the benefit,” Gettler mentioned. “Part of the reason that there are few studies in this kind of relatively remote setting is because of the challenges of dealing with the biological markers.”
Boyette explained that they had to modify their travel plans in order to transport the materials to the remote communities because the canisters of liquid nitrogen need to be closely monitored at all times to prevent spillage.
The researchers also struggled with the problem of how to quantify how the different cultures viewed fatherhood and how to decide who were the “good fathers.”
Gettler explained that the team conducted a series of long interviews with the villagers to get a sense of the values that were sought after in a good father.
“[Boyette and his team] spent a lot of time doing semi-structured qualitative interviews—we’d call that data ethnography,” Gettler said. “Our real goal was to try to understand how these communities are defining what a good father is and then can we find a way to operationalize that to get at whether good fathers, based on local values, have healthier kids.”
Once they had sorted out the cultural ideas of fatherhood, the researchers had each respective father rank each other on the main values pointed out by each community. The questions that the fathers ranked each other by varied between the BaYaka and Bondongo groups: The BaYaka cultural ranked good fathers based on how they shared resources, how hard they worked, whether they had any spousal arguments, whether their children were healthy and if they contributed to community teaching. On the other hand, the Bondongo people ranked good fathers based on fishing/hunting abilities, how big their gardens were, if they traveled to get commercial goods for the community, if they had healthy children and if they contributed to social education.
Boyette said that the different questions actually revealed a lot about the communities. He explained that they found that the Bondongo fathers were actually sorted into two groups: one of the groups of fathers focused more on the hard, laborious chores of fishing and hunting, and the other group focused on the teaching of children and staying closer to the community. As Boyette and Gettler expected, the group of Bondongo fathers that focused on the strength intensive tasks had higher levels of testosterone than the group that focused more on the children. With the BaYaka tribe who are more focused on cooperative communities, the researched noted lower levels of testosterone in men who were ranked as better fathers.
The team also noted a correlation between testosterone levels and martial arguments. They found that fathers in both communities who were rated as having more martial conflicts had higher testosterone levels.
Gettler and Boyette both agree that their study has impacts outside the remote village in the Republic of Congo. Boyette said that he believes this study shows us that there is not just one way to be a great father.
“There’s not one good way that men should be contributing to their families and we have to recognize that men see themselves as coming from particular different cultural backgrounds and that these may also suit their biology better or are promoted by their biology in different ways,” Boyette said. “We should be able to welcome various ways of being fathers and different ways of contributing to the child development and supporting.