In what now feels like a lifetime ago, I was having one last catch up with a mate from my PhD cohort before we both set off for the field. We’d grabbed burgers at a burger bar in Canberra and were nursing a couple of pints.
As I returned to the table after a brief visit to the bathroom, my mate said to me, “Ah, Alex, I’m glad you’re back. I was just about to say to Sarah (my partner) that we have so much in common – neither of us originally studied anthropology, both of us are from a development studies background, and we’re both too fat to be anthropologists.”
I pissed myself laughing. But then I thought about it. Neither he nor I are obese people (though the most recent lockdown has hit me hard, I’ve got to say), but, thinking about it, I absolutely was (and still probably am?) the heaviest person in ANU anthropology. I thought about conferences I’ve attended, and I would certainly have been among the bigger people there. Anthropology is a weirdly skinny discipline. I’m sure there are a host of socio-cultural analyses that could be made of that. I’m tempted to say something to do with class, except it’s not like anthropologists are famed for being wealthy; however, what my mind went to was a moment much earlier in my PhD course.
Sweetness and paunch
One of the lecturers had generously started an economic anthropology reading group for three students, and the four of us were discussing Sidney Mintz’ Sweetness and Power—an amazing rundown of, appropriately enough, the history of the sugar trade from the colonisation of the Americas through to the Industrial Revolution. It’s an excellent book and well worth a read.
During the discussion, I mentioned that while Mintz only briefly discussed some work being done on the addictive properties of sugar, a lot more had been done since the book was published, and it would be interesting to see the argument around the cultural meanings of sugar as a commodity updated with that in mind.
In essence, being an anthropologist, Mintz looks at addiction to sugar primarily as something habitual. He doesn’t deny chemical addiction, but it’s simply not his focus. Instead, he looks to a history of how sugar was once an absolute luxury, once considered a spice that you would delicately sprinkle a pinch of onto food, and how it came to slowly move down the class chain until it was considered a necessity to fuel the working classes of the Industrial Revolution. He even makes the argument that it served a role in furthering early laissez-faire capitalism as the sheer demand in England outstripped the production capacity of the Empire.
This does not discount the observable effects sugar has on the brain. At the same time, it doesn’t directly engage with them. Understandable, given the book was written in 1985. Even so, at one point, Mintz talks about sugar statues set out on tables as ostentatious displays of wealth and status. I don’t doubt this, but think about how much more powerful a symbol that is if everyone in the room is a low-key addict and yet can’t touch the display.
Even so, my comment didn’t get a lot of traction with anyone else in the room. I was in a room of anthropologists making a biological argument—a rookie mistake. In fairness to them, I have had years of time to think about this and put it succinctly. I was not so articulate then in person as I am (hopefully!) now on the page. Either way, I did not think about it too much at the time.
That night at the burger bar, however, the reading group immediately came back to mind. I was absolutely the fattest person in that room. And not just by a little. I was in a room of incredibly fit people—one of whom used to compete internationally in Iron Woman events. They clearly had a very different relationship to food than I did.
And drunkenly that night, and a little more soberly the next day, I thought about that relationship and what it meant for anthropology, both with regard to how we know things and how we do things.
Sweet, sweet solipsism
In many ways, this cuts back to some fairly elementary stuff about the ethnographic method. Some of our most important work as anthropologists is to examine those from other cultures and convey to a wider audience the logic behind their actions that otherwise appear strange and unusual—making them familiar. And by ‘culture’, I am talking in very broad terms, such as how us D&D fans absolutely have our own culture. In doing so, we hope to show how strange our own familiar habits are (though I’ve always known how odd my D&D playing is).
But there will always be a limit on our ability to do this. I overeat and have a bit of a sweet tooth. Not the sweetest, and when I’m on fieldwork in Ecuador I find a lot of food there too sweet. Nevertheless, I have felt such a desire for food as what I imagine an addiction must feel like, not just as plain and simple hunger. In fact, often it’s not hunger, as my belly is full, but a desperation that gnaws at me on an emotional level.
I have no true way of knowing to what extent others have shared this experience. They’ve certainly said they have, but there is no way of truly knowing.
In asking people if they minded me writing about them for this article, I mentioned to my friend, the “Iron Woman”, how sometimes I felt addicted to food, especially chocolate. She told me that she felt the same and that the reason she tried to avoid foods with added sugar was precisely because she felt that if she didn’t, she’d snap. She had to go cold turkey.
Instinctively, I found this hard to believe. She doesn’t look like me. She doesn’t behave like me. As I mentioned, she’s incredibly fit and healthy and does feats of exercise I can only dream of. But of course, there’s no way for me to know one way or the other. Not only that, but to dismiss her claim would be terrible anthropological practice. We would never dismiss the words of our interlocutors so casually, so why would I not extend my friend the same respect?
This is the classic problem of solipsism—how can I know anything exists except for my own thoughts? But solipsism gets us nowhere really. If I doubt everything, including my own senses, then there’s nothing to be said about the world.
You have to take your time
So, generously assuming my friend actually exists, this becomes a methodological problem for anthropology. So much of what we care about goes on inside the minds of others, but that is a realm that will forever be closed to us.
We are therefore left only with the observable. This is actually part of why I think anthropology is a deeply empirical science. We mightn’t use the quantitative, replicable methods that are often associated with empiricism, but observation is, at the end of the day, all we’ve got.
Methodologically, this becomes what ethnography, especially the classical I-will-live-among-them-for-years-at-a-time kind of ethnography, is all about.
The term “armchair anthropologist” is bandied around as an insult within the discipline. It’s often used for those who didn’t do “real” fieldwork by going somewhere remote, living with a group for an extended period of time, and just generally doing it tough. It’s part of the old-school “trial by fire” idea of anthropology in which you don’t have real findings unless you have suffered for them.
Unsurprisingly, this can create a pretty unhealthy culture in anthropology. Both in the sense of the mental state of anyone doing research, but also in the exclusions it creates for anyone who can’t do that form of research (say those with families, partners who can’t move, children who need to go to school, medical needs, or those who simply lack the money to disappear into the wilderness for an extended period of time).
As is so often the case, however, there is a grain of truth at the centre of it all. All early anthropologists were armchair anthropologists. They theorised from their offices in European or American universities and sent letters to local missionaries for information. They then proceeded to theorise about “the natives” from afar.
A generation of anthropologists changed this. Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, Boas, and Mead—all the big names in anthropology revolutionised the discipline by insisting you had to actually spend time, substantial amounts of time, with the people you’re studying. If anthropology is concerned about people’s experiences of the world, how can you claim to have any sort of understanding without at least a semblance of a similar experience?
And so now we spend long periods with people, hanging out with them. We participate in people’s lives and, hopefully, gain a glimmer of what they experience and, maybe, have the opportunity to reflect on our own previous experiences. This can only come from deep and sustained observation. The tastes, smells, sounds, and other senses are the only tethers we have to each other, weak as they may be.
“The opacity of other minds”
Of course, the beauty and cruelty of ethnography is that we’ll never know if we’re right. I could live all my life with someone and never truly know if when they say they feel like they need food, whether or not they experience that need just as bad as me (or even more so).
As highlighted by Robbins and Rumsey, there are cultures out there who almost always assume that other minds are permanently closed to them. What it means to remove the experiential from ethnography is difficult. They point out that most anthropologists would dodge the explicit claim that we were getting inside the heads of our interlocutors, and yet beautiful descriptions of what it was like to be there, is such a part of how we write up our fieldwork.
But that is how ethnography beautifully represents the human condition—forever rich and partial. Knowing that we know so little about each other, and yet trying to piece together what we can nonetheless.