What Can Ethnography Do for Food Allergies?

Unless you were an anthropology major in college, it’s pretty likely that you haven’t heard of the research technique called “ethnography” before.

Briefly, ethnography is a qualitative research strategy used in several social science fields to study human cultures and societies. Developed by anthropologists and sociologists in the early 20th century, ethnography is a research method which stresses direct interaction between the researcher and people who are members of a group under study. Collecting data by watching and participating in social activities with a group of people is called “participant observation,” and it is still the primary tool used to conduct ethnographic research.

In the early days, many European and American anthropologists traveled to distant locales to study people they considered exotic. Some sociologists in Chicago traveled to a different kind of “exotic” locale: into the slums of their own city, which were worlds away from their own experience. Ethnographers would typically live among the groups they wanted to study, collect objects like tools and clothing, make recordings of music and speech, and fill notebooks upon notebooks with stories about what happened to them, what they saw, and what people told them about their lives. Based on these artifacts and notes, ethnographers would document how different cultures worked and theorize about the social structures and rules they thought explained what they observed.

In the 1980s, some researchers began thinking that scientific “cultures” might be interesting to study using ethnographic methods. Philosophers of science had been writing for decades about the rules that seemed to govern how scientists conducted scientific research, but few researchers had actually gone into the lab to observe how those rules worked in practice. Bruno Latour was an early proponent of conducting ethnographic research among scientists. His early studies examined how scientists use machines to help them collect data that is invisible to the naked eye, and how they then distill and interpret that data to produce previously unknown facts about the world.

Studying scientific cultures turned out to pose unique problems for ethnographers. Science isn’t a closed community where everyone who follows the rules lives and grows up in the same place. Scientists are spread throughout the world; they speak in different languages; they have different local customs. Plus, science isn’t anyone’s native culture. It’s learned in school and through professional training. Latour’s breakthrough was to argue that certain facts, techniques, and objects become the vehicles for scientific knowledge and values. For example, knowledge about Louis Pasteur’s discovery of certain infectious microbes in the 19th century circulated the globe by way of the primitive vaccination techniques he designed around the same time.

So what does this tradition of ethnography do for understanding food allergies?

An EpiPen trainer – an ordinary object?

Chatting with people with food allergies, following allergy-related news online, reading books about allergies, and talking to doctors about how they treat allergies gives me a pretty comprehensive view of all the different ways people deal with food allergies. My own daily experience and memories of allergies gives me ideas about what questions to ask and what activities to pay attention to. By talking to so many people, I’m gaining an understanding of the core values and concerns of the food allergy community. Safety is a huge issue. Food preparation is another. For different people, though, these issues are problematic in different contexts. Some people are concerned about safety for children who eat food in school, while others are worried about the safety of teens as they head out into the world during college. For some, finding ways to eat out safely is a priority, but for others, finding safe packaged food brands to prepare or eat at home is number one. The bird’s eye view that I get access to through talking to lots of different kinds of people gives me the perspective to understand how a variety of values and life circumstances affect how food allergies are managed.

Like Latour, I’m also interested in how technological objects can open the door to conversations about important scientific and social issues. Take epinephrine auto-injectors, like the EpiPen. Some ongoing advocacy work is focused on getting epinephrine injectors into schools to keep kids with food allergies safe in the event of a reaction. Along the way, advocates and parents have the chance to make their concerns about safety heard, and to educate the public, school staff, and legislators about what food allergies are and what they can do to make life easier for people who have them. These injectors are thus more than life-saving objects: they are also vehicles for education about health, science, and values related to living with food allergies.

Studying the many communities who are invested in managing food allergies effectively is also important to share with other social scientists. From what I’ve learned so far, people dealing with food allergies are resilient, determined, and strategic in their approach to the condition. For about twenty years, social scientists have been interested in the way that people rally around medical conditions, coming together to find strength and solutions, both for the near and long term. An ethnographic study of food allergy on the scale of my study has not, to my knowledge, been conducted to date in the United States. My work is an important contribution to this body of scientific knowledge, which can in turn shape medical care and political agendas.

I’m not sure yet exactly where this research will lead. I hope I’ve made a convincing argument for why it needs to be done – or at the very least, why it is interesting!

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