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close this bookResearch Methods in Nutritional Anthropology (United Nations University, 1989, 201 p.)
close this folder5. Cultural patterning and group-shared rules in the study of food intake
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View the documentIntroduction
View the documentMethods for studying cultural rules for food use
View the documentResearch techniques
View the documentSocial units
View the documentFood choices: a process of many phases
View the documentLevels and units of analysis
Open this folder and view contentsA comprehensive interview approach to food patterning
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Methods for studying cultural rules for food use

Anthropological Classics

In order to study the pattern rules of the food system, a significant amount of ethnographic work, open-ended probing, and participant observation is required. However, ethnographic classics in nutritional anthropology provide no clear-cut methodological strategy to follow. Most of the early studies of food and culture were outgrowths of the traditional ethnographic method and were labour- and time-intensive. Moreover, they were often aimed at illuminating theories of culture rather than the impact of culture on intake.

As Levi-Strauss is often quoted as saying, food is not only "good to eat," it is "good to think." Food is an area of interest for theoreticians of culture because it is a material item essential for survival, and it is also heavily invested with symbolic meaning and elaborate rules for use. Food is a domain of culture that often illustrates the relationships between material factors (production and sources) and cultural symbolism involving concepts of health, relationships with the supernatural, and social relationships between the sexes and within the family, the community, and the external world.

While several anthropological classics include information about both food intake and symbolism, they focus more intensely on the latter and do not systematically tie cultural ideas about food to actual eating behaviour. For example, Firth's analysis of food as symbol among the Tikopia (1973) focuses more on the logical and systematic patterning of symbolic analogies and reversals than on actual diet. While Rappaport (1967) did collect data on intake, he was comparing the allocation of foodstuffs between pigs and humans rather than examining in detail the nutritional adequacy of human diets. His analysis of the interaction between ecological factors and the cultural definition and evaluation of food is oriented more toward explaining basic cultural processes than observing the actual operation of cultural rules in food use and individual ingestion. Similarly, Douglas's explanation of the "Abominations of Leviticus" (1966) is most concerned with cultural belief systems and less with the way in which such systems actually affect food intake. While these classics are of interest to nutritionists, they do not seem to provide enough information applicable to problem-solving policy research to justify such a time-consuming and often vague methodology.

Many early writings assumed that social systems were isolated and closed. The earliest studies actually focused on geographically isolated tribal groups in which it was relatively easy to define the available foods and look at those that were used, avoided, or preferred. These groups were studied using the developing field-work techniques of anthropology. Anthropologists cut themselves off from previous social ties and immersed themselves as participants in the '`alien" socio-cultural system. Through intensive interaction and participation in a culture in a face-to-face manner over several months the anthropologist was eventually able to describe the generalized food pattern and the folk rationalizations of the definitions of food categories and ascriptions of value. The observer was searching for the shared pattern and not the variations in the observation of rules nor the possibility of change over time.

Today, the emphasis has changed. The societies we wish to study, including our own, are undergoing massive changes in food production and distribution. There has been an expansion of the variety of available foodstuffs and channels of procurement. Increasing social and geographic mobility lead to frequent changes in the individual's socio-cultural milieu through a lifetime while the macro-system of food availability also changes rapidly.

Today, much research on food use is aimed at direct problem-solving goals related to improving the health and nutritional status of populations. It is no longer feasible for the anthropologist to spend up to two years as a participant observer in order to understand a food system. Given the flux of conditions, such continuous intensity of observation is also no longer as useful. The task for this discussion is twofold: first, to examine whatever we have learned about cultural rules for food use and, second, to illustrate how they are best studied and understood. In doing this, we must restore faith in the techniques of ethnography. Without some long-term intensive relationships with informants, without in-depth open-ended elicitation and observation, such pattern rules cannot be understood.