Choosing a Method

Summary by Leigh Bush


By far the most interesting panel I’ve seen this year at the AAAs was the invited SAFN session put together by current SAFN chair, John Brett, and outgoing chair, Janet Chrzan. Social cultural anthropology, and food studies in particular, have a tendency to suffer from a surfeit of posturing and a paucity of methodological rigor, perhaps partly attributable to its nascency as a field. However, anthropologists in food studies have employed a variety of dynamic tools for data collection and mixed methods research. John Brett and Janet Chrzan are working to remedy this lacuna by editing their own handbook, slated for publication next year. Their session highlighted and evaluated several of the methods used by scholars and likely to appear in the much-anticipated volume.

Mark Jenike’s presentation gave an overview of the many methods by which we can measure calories in and calories out, attesting to their effectiveness and ease of use through data collected from his own students whom tried out several measurement technologies. These new and constantly improving technologies now only allow for more precise measurement (with different devices ideal for different populations) , but also make mixed methods research more accessible (cheaper, easier, mor accurate) as device results can be paired with food recall diaries. Devices not only provide opportunities to probe for food motivated habits, but method pairing can provide insight into temporal food behavior and eventually help to develop a cognitive and meaning-centered approach to understanding physical activity and variation.

Janet Chrzan’s presentation demonstrated how she was able to use the program Access to track a wealth of information relating to pregnant teen’s dietary habits. Her rigorous quantitative food mapping approach looked toward a variety of factors that allowed her to contextualize a food recall event. By probing for eating context such as with whom the teen ate, at what frequency and their family connection, Chrzan demonstrated how extensive quantitative data/analysis can work towards answering variety of questions relating to pregnant teen health in reference to commensality and family ties – an approach that could easily be extrapolated and applied to an array of food studies questions in diverse environments.

Barrett Brenton and John Brett both covered the diverse uses to what GIS mapping can be put. Brenton for example exposes the proliferation of open source mapping resources across the web citing that there is no centralized listing of these sites and their uses. He goes on to show the wealth of citizen maps that researchers might cull for information. While these resources are open source and not “peer reviewed” per se, they are looked over and qualified by others and, like other open source sites for information distribution accuracy is established partly by its nature as “open”. Brenton notes that, while existing separately a body of data, like with many of the other methods discussed, GIS maps are best used in context making this author wonder what an ethnographic/GIS approach might look like in a multi-media study. One could use any combination of narrative, storytelling, photo-diaries and/or written ethnography to pair with GIS, creating a rich representation of an area where answers to certain health and food related questions could be illustrated to academic and lay audiences alike.

John Brett uses GIS specifically to address Denver’s sustainability possibilities given its vast amount of land that is open to farming, proving that a mere fraction of it could be used to supply most of Denver with the most commonly eaten vegetables. He says this not in terms of urban gardening, but actual urban farming within city limits. From an anthropological perspective, taking a “farming approach” seems relevant to the successful longevity of such attempts to be sustainable, as past work on garden plots and CSAs shows mixed reviews in terms of producer/consumer interest and stability over time (not to mention forced ideologies of farming-is-good-for-you type mentalities).  While this possibility is merely at the gestational theoretical stage, a comparison with current data taken in Delhi, India, demonstrates the possibilities for urban farming even when land is limited and population dense. With mayor support and agreeable zoning laws Denver seems ripe for further pursuit of research on local growing potential including assessment of comparative carbon footprint of growing locally and economies of scale within the city limits.

Penny van Esterik never fails to ignite a call to action among her audiences. Perhaps, she postures, this is because food anthropologists are inherently more invested in their subject because we are “of the same order” as all of our subjects/participants. That is, we eat and presumably would like to keep doing so with some level of autonomy. Thus, when food scholars learn by doing through such methods as service learning the stakes feel higher; how do we best put our experiences into  use in our research design? She defines praxis here as a way of knowing and learning about the system in a way that changes the system. This, of course, is rife with complexity as contributing to activists groups can have repercussions on both sides while not contributing only maintains a status quo. Even social criticism she decries, is not sufficient. It is time for food scholars to activate, using their scholarship and experience beyond the ivory walls of the academy.

Reflection on my own experience with experiential learning at the Moody Farm and slaughterhouse is probably the single most life-changing course I have taken at the University. Admittedly, little more than the IFR article, Embodied Knowledge and Habitus on the Farm and my own blog reflections have come out of it. This is not to say that it hasn’t changed my approach to anthropological research in the realm of food studies (especially in regard to seriously altering me perceptions of farming in the U.S.), but a more structured guide as to how one might best methodologically approach such experiences and put them into praxis would have been incredibly useful. I look forward to a food methods handbook that considers not only the variety of approaches we might choose from to gather data in the field, but also to a critical exploration of how food scholars can put into praxis that which we have learned as acting with our knives and forks just isn’t going to cut it.


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