Anthropological Approaches to Food Choice

Discussion by: Maddie Chera and Lindsey Mattern

How do we study choice? What methods and theoretical frameworks do we use to try to understand, and sometimes even predict, how choices are made? Given the seminar’s mission of discussing and discerning how humans make their food choices, we thought that consulting the discipline dedicated to the study of humans would be a wise course of action. Surely, we thought, anthropology must have something to offer here. And while the discipline gives us no shortage of case studies and ethnographic examples full of Geertzian “thick description,” we purposely sought out anthropological research that formulated field data in terms of decision-making models that could be widely applied.

Despite having this in common, the anthropological approaches to food choice we discussed in class were diverse in orientation. We reviewed articles from the fields of Anthropology and Public Health (see references at end of post), which illustrated a wide range of methodologies and foci. The articles included a formal analysis of strategies for reaching specific goals based on ethnographic observation, explorations of personal eating stories in a focus group setting, quantitative testing of optimal foraging theory using field data, and a reconstruction of ancient resource constraints to understand the roots of religious food taboos. All of these articles offered models or explanations that could potentially be used for understanding decision-making beyond a single cultural context, highlighting the fact that, although sociocultural anthropology has historically and continues to focus on cultural particulars and how these shape identities, worldviews, and behaviors, the ultimate goal of anthropology is to understand the human species. While localized ethnographic work illuminates how we are different and how culture can guide our choices in specific and unique ways, comparative work, model building, and theoretical analysis aim to find what is shared by all humans. In this case, anthropology attempts to show how our decision-making processes are influenced by biological, environmental, political, and cognitive factors. In our conversations about the selected research, we used the particulars of the cultures explored in each article and in our own research and experience to question whether the models we read about seemed widely applicable.

Discussion of one of the articles (Dean et al. 2010) prompted us to ask if it is possible to isolate food choices from the rest of life. Can decisions regarding provisioning, processing, feeding, and eating effectively be separated from each other for research purposes? Are these really separate choices or are they interconnected? We generally agreed that decision-making is a continuous, iterative process, not a series of stages with set outcomes, and that decision-making can be both active and passive. Decisions are not discrete events, and often the choices that affect food are not only about food per se. For example, the decision to go to a football game might have little to do with food, but once there, the dinner choices have already been made to some extent, as options are limited by the setting. Life also gets in the way of our best intentions to eat in a certain way, particularly when faced with unexpected changes in plans, such as a dinner invitation.

If food choice is not just a single decision-making act, then we must ask if and how the methods used to study decision-making, which attempt to examine decisions as discrete events, are still relevant to questions of food choice today. For example, do public health studies and interventions match up with what people are really doing? We might look to the title of the Dean et al. (2010) article we discussed, “I Can Say that We Were Healthy and Unhealthy,” and argue that rather than change their choices, public health campaigns often seem to prompt people to feel guilty, while their choices remain the same. Rather than try to redirect decisions within demographic groups (which are often wrongly assumed to be homogeneous), perhaps we should take inspiration from Mathew’s research on goals and scenarios and from the prominent role that memory and nostalgia played in the focus groups Dean et al. studied, and analyze personal narratives as powerful heuristics in decision-making. How might such storytelling heuristics delimit possible outcomes, because the result has already been preconceived? In a changing food landscape, perhaps the stories we tell ourselves can help guide us, as the choices that would be best for our health become less clear.

While considering new methodological approaches to the study of choice is important, perhaps an even more valuable question to ask is Why do anthropologists and other academics study choice? Within the articles we read, the motivations for studying choice varied from trying to better understand human evolution (i.e. how did our species survive?) to a focus more on health (i.e. what are possible public health interventions?) to trying to better understand a culture by studying and understanding the goals of the people in that population or the history and ecology of a region. Like other sciences, it seems anthropologists are trying to create models to explain and predict outcomes, fitting the diverse particulars of the real world into patterns that can be simulated and analyzed at a distance. However, the model-building task does not seem to be the end of the discussion for anthropologists. If the scholarship we discussed this week is any indication of the field in general, then we can presume that anthropologists and their colleagues in public health want to understand food choice in order to bring recognition and awareness to the decision-making process itself. The range of methods and models anthropologists use demonstrates the complexity of choosing and the need to take multiple approaches to fully understand and appreciate all of the factors that influence human food decisions. Clearly, Anthropology has much to offer and much to learn from the study of food choice.

Dean, W.R., et al.
2010 “I Can Say that We Were Healthy and Unhealthy”: Food Choice and the
Reinvention of Tradition. Food, Culture and Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research 13(4):573-594.
Harris, M.
1997 The abominable pig. Food and Culture: A Reader:67-79.
Hawkes, K., K. Hill, and J.F. O’Connell
1982 Why hunters gather: optimal foraging and the Ache of eastern Paraguay.
American Ethnologist 9(2):379-398.
Mathews, H.F.
1987 Predicting Decision Outcomes: Have We Put the Cart before the Horse in
Anthropological Studies of Decision Making? Human organization 46(1):54-61.

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