Why Ethnographic Research?

Insight behind gathering research data from a cultural perspective

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Dr Eva C Monterrosa is the senior scientific manager at Sight and Life and the co-author, with Prof Gretel H Pelto, graduate professor at Cornell University, Ithaca, of “The Mother-Child Food Relationship in the Study of Infant and Young Child Feeding Practices”, published in the ‘Focus on Food Culture’ edition of Sight and Life magazine. This article shines a light on how biology and culture come together at the level of the diet by reviewing infant and young child feeding (IYCF) practices. Far from ‘story-telling’, Dr Monterrosa says research that incorporates a cultural perspective achieves two objectives: First, to generate explanatory frameworks that help us understand and generate hypotheses about health behaviors; and, second, to design programs to improve behaviors.

When we spoke with Dr Monterrosa about how she came to this topic of research, she had some stimulating answers:

Sight and Life magazine (SAL): Why did you choose this topic – what inspired it?

Eva Monterrosa (EM): In my opinion, public health nutrition research design is focused on getting the results we want – often at the expense of understanding ‘how’ results were achieved. But it is precisely the ‘how’ (or the ‘black box’) that can help us design programs that achieve our goals. A successful outcome in one setting might not lead to success when it is replicated in a different context. By context, I don’t just mean a different country. Even replication in the the same type of institution, such as a hospital or clinic, can be a challenge. In essence, we must understand the context to know what factors are driving our results, and how to adapt interventions to fit our context. Ethnographic research gives us the tools to do this.

Guatemala research
Dr Monterrosa and colleague researcher watching mothers in Guatemala make pap food for their young children. Photo credit Eva Monterrosa

 

SAL: What challenges do you face when doing this type of research?

EM: I think my greatest challenge is people telling me, often not in a nice way, that my research is ‘story telling’, or worse yet saying that what I do is ‘not research’. This however, speaks to another predisposition in nutrition science: That research is only valid if it uses a randomized trial design , or uses complex statistical procedures. Don’t get me wrong – I can hold my weight when it comes to running a complex analysis of longitudinal data, but I understand this work’s limitations. Moreover, when you deal with food and eating habits, these are complex social phenomena that cannot be reducible simply to numbers.

In the research Prof Pelto and I share in the article, we use ethnographic methods, such as observations, interviews, and other cognitive elicitation techniques, including free listing, and card-sorting exercises. The selection of the methods is always guided by a research question. One must skillfully apply interviewing techniques, including careful wording of questions and precise ordering to reduce reporting bias. Lastly, a rigorous analysis of the text data is necessary to elicit solid insights based on the data.

SAL: What has been the most surprising result or outcome from your research?

EM: When study participants ask clarifying questions – their questions lead to all sorts of wonderful discoveries. I recall from my Mexico work that I asked one of my first participants: ‘What meals do you prepare at home?’ And she asked, ‘Meals for whom? My family or my children?’ and this was an unexpected answer that led to a wonderful discovery of child-appropriate meals, which added another dimension to our data analysis. We went from just describing complementary feeding practices to understanding how mothers and children inhabit the same ‘eating space’. It was fascinating!

SAL: Why is applied ethnographic research for nutrition science important?

EM: Two pieces are featured in this issue of Sight and Life magazine, because I want our readers to understand the explanatory power of ethnographic methods, and how this work can help their scientific inquiries or programs. It is not about the biological perspective versus the cultural perspective. That is counterproductive. We need a holistic view of nutrition science.

SAL: Do you think people will listen?

EM: I hope so! Prof Pelto developed the biocultural framework in the late 1970s as a framework to examine the different domains that in interaction determine dietary and eating practices. Today, there is a new generation of scientists seeking to address the complexity of eating practices. We are seeing a rise in training on mixed-method designs, excellent research question(s), solid training in ethnographic methods, and the analytical procedures to elucidate patterns in the data.

Guatemala
As a guest, people are always curious as to why you visit their communities. This bright, young girl didn’t leave my side the whole time we were conducting focus group discussions in her village. Photo credit Eva Monterrosa

SAL: How is your research used?

EM: Much of the work that we do is used to develop programs. A lot of the nutrition research that draws on the biological perspective has an impact on the policy sphere, for example, in helping to set recommendations of vitamin A or calcium. As for the ‘how’ to develop programs for administering vitamin A or calcium? That is a whole different research phase, but it is the space that our research inhabits.

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