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When we look back on the earliest attempts to understand the influence of cultural pattern rules on food intake, it is obvious that there has been a lack of clarity in regard to methodology.

First, we need to be clear about the six steps in the food-flow process: production, access, acquisition, preparation, presentation, and ingestion. Each of these are affected differently by structural, situational, and cultural variables.

Second, it is necessary to define clearly the social units being studied and the relationships between them. Individuals, households, communities (networks of households), and regional or national macro-cultural units are each distinct but related levels of the social order. Research designs that incorporate controlled comparison and explore the relationships between the levels are very important.

It is also important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of different research strategies and the benefits derived from the complementary use of several different techniques. Research strategies include collecting information about real food behaviour away from the context of behaviour (informant record-keeping, recall interviews) or at the event through observation. Information on shared ideals can be collected through surveys away from the event, or by probing elicitation at the event that examines why particular choices were made and others avoided.

Observation is more accurate than recall, but it is intrusive (may lead to alteration of behaviour) and time-consuming. In order to be less intrusive, the use of a limited number of key informants with whom one can establish long-term, intimate ties can be used. Recalled or recorded information from a large number of households is more easily interpreted after insights have been developed from participant observation.

While ideal rules alone do not provide a picture of food habits, actual intake data is most easily analysed as patterned, non-random, and non-idiosyncratic if we have some knowledge of group-shared ideal rules. Once again, both kinds of information reveal what neither can alone.

Observation of ongoing food-related behaviour has been shown to be essential for understanding food-preparation rules and the recipe patterns in different groups. Meal formats or menu sources can also be elucidated through observing different food events. To understand social process, i.e. the transmission and reinforcement of rules of appropriateness, it is important to observe mealtimes and food-preparation activities, since these help us to understand how social interaction affects menu negotiation and how verbal comments about preferences and appropriateness provide social reinforcement. Such observations also provide insights about how temporal, social, and spatial contexts constrain and influence choices.

The issue is not the importance of ethnography (observation and discussion, but: How much ethnography? How many families? When in the sequence of research activities? Moreover, much can be done to increase the rigour and usefulness of the "looser" methods involved in observation and open-ended elicitation.

Ethnography has been used in most studies only incidentally, as a way of becoming generally familiar with a community. Khare's strategy (1976) was to observe many households, each on a few occasions only, to supplement interview data. Another strategy, since ethnography is an intensive tool, is to use it within a few households continuously on many occasions in order to uncover cycles of patterns and social process. Furthermore, once the complete repertory of occasions, recipes, and meal formats has been described, these occasions should become the units of analysis, with many like occasions sampled over many households to explore the impact of context and constraints. These events can be compared using combinations of observed, recalled, and recorded data (those types of data that can best be collected extensively). Dietary records, surveys, and spot observations of particular occasions are best attempted after continuous, intensive observations in a few key households, since such intensive work reveals the necessary knowledge of how time cycles, social context, and place influence choices of items, recipes, and meal formats; how family roles influence choices; and how community norms influence choices.

A second point relates to the degree of probing elicitation or discussion about why particular food choices are made. While intrusion is to be avoided in early phases of ethnography, the observer's position after a week becomes so customary that informants may volunteer reasons for behaviour and explain their choices. Discussions of why things are done are not likely to affect or change routine. Systematic queries about why alternatives were not selected can be safely made.

Observation without elicitation or discussion has been effective in revealing important patterns in several studies. Douglas and Nicod (1974) discerned the regularity of structure to daily meals, especially high tea, and the relationship of this structure of major and minor feasts. The Andersons could observe regularity in recipe patterning as well (1969, 1972, 1977). In mealtime observations, Najma Rizvi (1981) was able to record comments that illuminated the transmission and reinforcement of rules for the differential eating habits for women. Goode, Curtis and Theophano ( 1984) recorded all unsolicited comments made about foods during preparation and eating. They were able to develop criteria for evaluating menu format selections and the choice of ingredients and types of preparation. Comments were made about the frequency with which dishes and meal types were served as well as about the sensory and metaphysical aspects of foods.

More intensive probing after long-term acquaintance yields even greater knowledge, as Laderman's work shows. Discussing the choice of format and content as well as the avoidance of alternatives can be very revealing. Questions about why expected pattern rules are not followed can also be asked. This kind of probing, sometimes called "contrastive elicitation,' requires a prior awareness of the repertory and pattern rules.

A major problem with food-system ethnography so far is the lack of common frameworks for data collection. A preliminary suggestion for a common framework would include:

  1. A comprehensive search for all the referent domains discussed by Messer in chapter 1: sensory-aesthetic (organoleptic) food characteristics (tastes, texture, colour, etc.); ideas about food emanating from the social order (status, reciprocity); ideas about food and physical health as well as food and ritual/spiritual purity. While these domains may overlap in particular cultural systems, they provide a comprehensive initial framework for the observer.
  2. Any study of food and culture must explore the effect on the operation of any set of preferences or rules of the three most salient contextual variables: time cycles (work/leisure, sacred/secular, seasonal, etc.); social status/social contexts; and space.
  3. The process of social transmission and reinforcement of rules of appropriateness must be probed by focusing on analysing family roles and their participation in food choices and their evaluation. In addition, the nature of household embeddedness in social networks (particularly the female in female peer networks) must be probed to understand the maintenance of community food norms for both ordinary and festival food events.
  4. The final element involves the focus on more than the food item. Cultural rules concerning the relationship between items (in dishes) and dishes (in meals) can exert a major influence on food choice. A minimal awareness of the community repertory of eating occasions, the taxonomy of recipe structures (cuisine rules), and meal formats is necessary to put any dietary information, either ideal or real, into perspective. More attention needs to be paid to these complex structures in the food system and the most direct ethnographic techniques are essential in this endeavour.


1. These categories were developed by the Working Group on Cultural Social Factors Influencing Food Intake Behavior at the workshop on Methodological Issues in Nutritional Anthropology, held at MIT in November 1980, and sponsored by the United Nations University, World Hunger Programme in collaboration with the North American Unit of the International Commission of the Anthropology of Food (IUAES). These categories appear in the workshop report prepared by J. Goode (rapporteur), L. Allen, D. Cattle, M. Douglas, E. Hermitte, M. Scrimshaw, and M. Vasques-Geffroy.


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