Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Brief comment: Words and numbers in public health nutrition

By Gideon Lasco, MD, MSc

"In the field of global public health where well being is dominated by the numerical alchemy of measurement, the work of describing that which eludes measurement remains a challenge for anthropology." Complex carbohydrates - on the relevance of ethnography in nutrition education by Emily Yates-Doerr

In her short article about transporting a gift from Guatemala to New York, and reflecting on the significance of that gift - which happened to be some loaves of bread - Emily Yates-Doerr speaks in two levels, both of which are conveyed by the quote I chose.

The first is a call for ethnography in nutrition. People don't really think in terms of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. There is more to food than what it is made of physically. Eating can mean remembering - as in the article, feeling happy, and many more emotions. Significantly, even the implementors of nutrition initiatives concede that the programs don't work. The limited resources make it difficult to. Though  Yates-Doerr doesn't offer anything concrete in terms of what might actually work (which would have been nice, but I also understand the limited goals of such a short article) - she hints at the right way to find out.

Secondly, she reflects on the relevance of ethnography itself, in general terms, and what it can contribute to fields such as global public health, development. What follows my chosen quote elaborates on this: "the challenge of representing aspects of life that will never be fixed is not small, but the value of complexity makes a case not only for the importance of ethnographic knowledge but also for its importance well beyond the field of anthropology."

This role of ethnography in describing complexity also surfaces in Robert Pool's work; in his case the complexity is that of sensation, what is felt, what is experienced. Annemarie Mol's more theoretical peregrination on the subject of taste - incidentally a fine example of an attempt to capture and convey complexity - has an epistemic concern that echo Doerr's anxiety over measurements: "in the act of testing, knowing and intervening intertwine." Finally, as I embark on my own research about height I am sensitized to the importance of meaning over measurements; and how certain physical measures may be magnified in its social construction. The small differences in height among humans, for instance, create difference, which are reproduced in various forms. Measurements are meaningful in ways beyond their power to indicate certain things,  and even when they are seen as such, they are still limited in their ability to express complexity.  Anthropology addresses these by foregrounding words over numbers, a "thick description" of what Malinowski calls the "imponderabilia" of life over a mathematical formula.

Looking at the quote again, I would like to refine its last sentence. It is not only a challenge for anthropology, it is the challenge for anthropology. But how can we anthropologists assert our voices in a world where numbers are more important than words?

December 2013

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