Anthropology and the Rashomon Effect

A reflection on group fieldwork.

There is a high-fever-pitch limbic sensation of simultaneously registering something you heard or read as wrong, and the antsy, itchy, compulsion to raise your hand, right there, everyone in the room as your witness. You might write a comment or review, maybe draft an article, or even embark on a wholly new project, all in order to, once and for all, set-the-record-straight. The problem with all this, common as it may be, is that research takes a really long time to do well, particularly in anthropology. If you hear someone say something that sounds conceptually amiss, but their research site is several time-zones and language-families distant, you may just have to sit with that smoldering sensation and let the ember die. Fortunately, this is only usually how things go within anthropology.

A few semesters ago, seven excellent graduate students, Sarah Lamb, and I, all heard some things that we thought were compelling but incomplete, and we were in the position to collectively do research to find out more. But, to accomplish this, we’d have to deliberately function as an ethnographic team. And, given the enduring attachment we—as individuals and a discipline—have to solitary fieldwork, this was no small leap.

Word cloud created using worditout.com and the text of this article.

In September 2015, at a colloquium at Brandeis University, Susan Greenhalgh gave a talk about her work on weight and shame in the United States. She suggested that there is a thoroughgoing, ever-present way people talk about bodies and weight (“fat talk”), that involves the moral condemnation of those who are perceived as over-, or even under-weight. This generates obsessive, frenzied, and self-destructive body monitoring and weight loss practices that, in many cases, lead to eating disorders and no small amount of misery. Even those who don’t succumb tend to understand their social self-worth vis-à-vis their body. Although Greenhalgh focused deliberately on young people, her work suggests that the painful stories she heard from college students illuminate far more pervasive issues that permeate our “fat-talk nation” as a whole.

We were all receptive to Greenhalgh’s project. While we could certainly recognize much of what Greenhalgh described, some doubted that these observations were as universally shared—or even that the experience is as universally miserable—across the United States as she was suggesting. This in turn, was our bridge to methods.

Greenhalgh’s data was largely from self-reported narratives and surveys from undergraduates enrolled in one of her classes at the University of California at Irvine, “The Woman and the Body.” Greenhalgh had not gathered narratives from other groups of people—older people, non-college people, non-California people, etc.

All the claims about fat-talk were general to the United States. And just as UCI is in the United States, so is Brandeis. So, we thought, well, what’s stopping us from doing our own fieldwork? We wanted to use ethnographic methods (participant observation most specifically), with other fieldworkers and in other contexts, to illustrate some of the limits and nuances of fat-talk, and how, perhaps, other ideas about weight and body also come to the fore in the contemporary United States. This would give Lamb and I an opportunity to teach graduate students how to do fieldwork as part of an actual project.

Given that we were curious about people and their relationship to their bodies and to food, and given that Greenhalgh had presented findings from a cohort of people from a specific age (young) and class location (elite-college-educated, although from varying class, gender, and ethnic backgrounds before college), we wanted to see how attitudes towards the body shifted when you changed those variables. So, we identified two field sites—a Boston-area fire house with an all-male group from less rarefied educational backgrounds and an upscale Boston-area senior residential community. Since our focus was on food, we thought we might spend time with folks as they cooked and ate, and then do follow-up interviews about people’s lives and their attitudes towards health and weight. All this produced some findings.

First, age, gender, and class/occupational status made a difference in how these Boston-area residents understood their bodies. When they engaged in fat talk and talked about the body, health, and fitness, they usually engaged a moral register, discussing how to be a good person in their particular social world. In contrast to Greenhalgh’s work, our findings seemed less apocalyptic for both the firemen we got to know as well as the elders we ate with.

We all were able to overcome anthropological paralysis and do fieldwork in order to answer a question that directly spoke to the intellectual life of our department.
For the firemen, fat talk was present, and the firemen certainly mobilized it to talk about each other. But, they ultimately saw weight and health as practical matters bound up in their vocational and moral obligations. There is a sense that if you are unhealthy and inactive you may let your colleagues or your family down. Similarly, diet was loosely-governed by a common-sense logic of “healthy choice.” That said, the older men, recognizing “fatness” as a marker and symptom of age, often accepted that their fit days are behind them, teasing one another and making self-deprecating jokes.

At the senior living community, while people did engage in various forms of fat talk, most dismissed its appearance-related dimensions as trivial at their age. There was a sense that maintaining health and fitness through eating healthy foods and engaging in daily exercise, one might arrest some of the more ignominious parts of aging, and ultimately feel good enough to enjoy this last phase of life. Residents also nourished the hope that exercising and staying active would enable them to avoid those stigmatized walkers or wheelchairs and thereby be less of a burden on family and society.

Fat-talk here was present, but in ways connected to broader concerns about aging and anti-aging in our society, including the imperative to not become “old.” We could not help but notice how many among the more fit were extremely proud of their own pursuit of good health. Others seemed quite comfortable rejecting an earlier-life-phase pressure to keep fit, asserting that they deserved to enjoy themselves, and to eat and do whatever they please; “I’m as lazy as can be!” one 90-year-old exclaimed with delight.

That talk about fat, bodies, and health would vary across age, gender, class, and locational contexts and evince a rich social complexity should not be surprising. Context matters in all things cultural; fat talk proves no different. But what, perhaps, is of even greater interest, is the way we came to these conclusions: Together, we covered much more ground than any of us could singly.

Take two examples:

1) Work in the firehouse was filled with abrupt interruptions of meals to answer emergency calls. After a brief warming-up period, they invited us to accompany them on calls. Upon reflection, Sasha observed that she just felt like she was taking up space wherever she went, particularly in the firetruck. As we analyzed our data, we realized that this was a moment that Sasha may not even have remarked upon had she done fieldwork by herself, as many women in our society experience feelings of “taking up space” as commonplace. But as we talked, we noticed that a male researcher didn’t feel this way. The firemen were not concerned about how much space they were taking up. In those moments, they were concerned with their bodies reliably working. Sasha’s experience was different from theirs and from the male researcher, and it had to do with a way of surveilling and being conscious of a body that was distinctly gendered. All this only became explicit in the context of group analysis of our data.

2) In the context of a group project, particularly one based on bodies, having different bodied researchers—older, younger, fatter, skinnier, and varying shades of pale and brown—elicited different responses from informants. With this in mind, Maya one day overheard some of the elder community residents talking about the project, noting about her that, “It’s funny, she’s talking about bodies and all when she’s so fat. I mean, and the interest is sort of peculiar, isn’t it?” Maya went on to observe in her field notes:

This overheard conversation brings up the same reflexive issues I was speaking [to] Prof. Lamb about earlier in the day—my own fatness unavoidably plays a part in these interactions in an interesting way. I have suspected for a while that one of the reasons I’ve witnessed less fat-talk than either Prof. Lamb or Clara at these dinners (such as discussions of the slovenliness of other residents) is the inclination to avoid deprecation of something that I so clearly embody. On the other hand, those residents who do identify as [overweight] have been more comfortable and open with me about discussing their weight and the emotions attached to it.

The people who self-identify as not-fat engage in more fat talk with researchers who they perceive as not-fat. Conversely, the people who identify as fat open up more to a researcher with whom they bodily identify. We often suspect that things like this happen in the field. With a mixed field team, we could both prove it and then make use of the different data and experiences this all generated.

In the final account, Sarah Lamb and I were able to successfully lead seven graduate students through supervised, practical methods training. They will have a greater appreciation for what they personally and bodily bring to the field, and what their limitations might be. More generally still, we all were able to overcome anthropological paralysis and do fieldwork in order to answer a question that directly spoke to the intellectual life of our department. Most of the time, presentation is an abstract artifact of the seminar room—we read it, hear it, debate it, and move on. Here, we mobilized a research team and are seeking to be in dialogue with another scholar and her work that stimulated, provoked, and ultimately galvanized us. At this point, it’s hard for us to imagine teaching research methods any other way.

Daniel SoulelesBrittany Collentro, Jara Connell, Maya Dworsky, Steven Gonzalez, Hwa Yeon (Clara) Lee, Alexandra Martin, and Sarah Lamb

Daniel Souleles is the corresponding author for this article. He is an assistant professor at the Copenhagen Business School and can be reached at [email protected]

Cite as:  Souleles, Daniel, Brittany Collentro, Jara Connell, Maya Dworsky, Steven Gonzalez, Hwa Yeon (Clara) Lee, Alexandra Martin, and Sarah Lamb. 2017. “Anthropology and the Rashomon Effect.” Anthropology News website, December 15, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.725

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