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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
View the document(introduction...)
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
View the documentConclusion

Research techniques

Most studies employ a mix of research techniques, which is common in anthropology because it has proved useful to combine the strength of intensive, qualitative data with the quantitative results of structured interviews. Qualitative data help elucidate the unique world-view and meaning system of the group being studied; quantitive data can be useful in developing scales and indices.

Food research can involve both data collected about actual (real) behaviour or the elicitation of ideal rules (the cognitive system of "shoulds" and "oughts" shared by a group). One cannot automatically infer actual food intake from stated ideal rules nor can one automatically infer an underlying system of meaning from actual behaviour. The two types of information are complementary.

Information about actual food behaviour has been collected by a variety of means in cultural food research: (a) direct observation without intrusion; (b) a combination of observation and probing elicitation for explanations; (c) dietary record-keeping for varying periods of time and with varying degrees of precision; and (d) interviews about specific events, including 24-hour recall and recollections about special events.

Direct observation without intrusion is designed to minimize the effect of the observer on the behaviour. The use of a video-tape recorder over long periods of time is one example. Another is the presence at meals of an observer who has a neutral role (Goode, Curtis, and Theophano, 1981, 1984; Goode, Theophano, and Curtis, 1984; Jerome, 1979).

Other research has involved the development of intimacy and trust with informants over a long period of time so that behaviours and their underlying patterning can be openly discussed (Laderman, 1981a). In this strategy, the unique relationship between the researcher and the informant is stressed. Such a relationship, developed over time and through mutual respect and reciprocity, is one means of breaking down social distance and learning about what really happens within households. The technique of developing such close relationships with informants assumes that, while behaviour observed early in a relationship may be guarded and artificial, the passage of time and the continuity of the relationship leads to natural behaviour at later stages, which can be especially important in regard to eating behaviour.

Direct compilation of data on people's food intakes can be an important means for identifying cultural rules. Methods range from relatively precise (and intrusive) direct observation, including weighing and measuring portions, to somewhat less precise self-reports, such as the keeping of food diaries, and structured responses, like the 24-hour-recall method.

Ideal rules for behaviour are all developed from interview techniques including, (a) casual conversations, as part of traditional long-term ethnography, (b) open-ended interviews, and (c) pre-coded survey techniques. The focus of the search for ideal rules can be on patterns, e.g. what is eaten for typical meals, on typical days, for special events, or queries about food preferences or food avoidances. Very often the most useful insight may emerge from a casual conversation in an unstructured situation rather than from a pre-structured question. Openended interviews are useful in initial, exploratory stages of research, while pre-coded surveys work best to test hypotheses derived from less structured techniques. Constructing formal measures before one is familiar with folk categories of foods and food events often yields less useful results.

Laderman (1981b), in her work with Malays, avoided a survey early in her study since she "was convinced that simply asking people how they would classify individual food items would yield nothing more fruitful than the usual mystifying contradictory charts." She wished to discover the "basic underlying criteria"' used by Malays to classify foods. Some of these were not consciously recognized and had to be drawn out by probing elicitation. Since her data dealt with item classification rather than recipes and meals (requiring observation), she was able to elicit intensive data from lengthy discussions with three key informants. She probed for "possible organizing principles" by making suggestions with which informants were quick to agree and disagree. She also probed for the reasons for her key informants' ranking or classifications of foods when she perceived them as ambiguous. In addition, Laderman picked up many "situational" comments regarding foods, since she often heard women casually discussing the appropriateness or "goodness" of foods when she was present in domestic situations. From long-term observation, she learned that time and weather influenced whether people followed shared rules or not. With an elaborate framework thus developed, Laderman was able to construct a neutrally phrased survey.