Call to anthropologists: Make positive proposals

March 15, 2006, [MD]

I have long had a very ambivalent relationship to anthropology, although it has been very hard to put my finger on it. Although I realize that it is a very useful discipline, and I have read a number of very good and interesting works of ethnography (for example Golden Arches East, which I should do a write-up of here), there was often something that just grated me the wrong way.

I tried formulating this in my class on Tourism, environment and development - a geography class, although many of the readings and classes employ anthropological perspectives. One of our assignments was to analyze a tourist brochure critically; to write about the “tourist gaze”, the “othering”, and the colonial perspectives that are assumed to be omnipresent. During my research, I read a number of critiques of tourist descriptions, some of which I found quite inane. One quoted the reports from a backpacker in Central Asia to a newspaper, talking about bustling markets, women dressed in colorful headscarfs and selling handicrafts etc; a report that I could have made myself when I was visiting exactly the same area. However, this was attacked by the author, who complained that the “colorful women” were caught in capitalist infrastructures that forced them to work at that market, that by describing them in this way without individual voices he was marginalizing them and what not. I thought the author was exaggerating quite a bit.

Now, I am doing research for a medical anthropology course on Chinese immigrants’ perceptions of healthy foods, and I was just reading “Pilaf, pozole and pad thai”, edited by Sherrie A. Inness, and the article “Let’s Cook Thai” by Lisa Heldke. Heldke analyzes the concept of ethnic cooking (by “White Americans”) as an almost colonial practice, where we continue to assert our dominance and exoticize the other. Not only that, she also discusses the case of Claudia Roden and her book “A Book of Middle Eastern Food”, the result of “anthropological studies” in Middle Eastern food cultures. The bone of contemption is that Roden takes utmost care to cite written sources that she bases her work on, but the numerous women that she interviewed are only introduced as profiles, and sometimes not at all. As she says: “She [Roden] tells “colorful” stories about some of them in the body of the book, but the reader can match their names to their stories (or their recipes) in only a few cases - and then only with assiduous detective work.” (p. 185)

Whether this is a valid critique or not, I will leave to you. I am initially hesitant, especially because I could easily imagine an “all-American cookbook” with recipes from the Wild West with plenty of objectified cowboys and housewifes in just the same style. However, the question I asked in my tourism class, and which was perhaps not entirely comprehended (I might have had problems wording it) was: Is there a “good tourism ad”? Similarily, we could ask “Is there a good kind of ethnic cookbook?” Because for me there are two alternatives. Either the researchers/critics must unequivocally state that tourism / tourism advertising and ethnic cookbooks / eating ethnic food is wrong, and should not happen. Or they must be able to tell us how we should do this. I want my tourism teacher to tell me how an ideal tourism ad would look, one that did not other, or exoticize, lumpt together, or “gaze” in any way. One that was beyond reproach. Similarily I want Heldke to show me an ideal ethnic cookbook.

Heldke does give us some pointers in the final pages, stating that the women that contributed their recipes should have been informed about the use of their work, and perphas have been involved in a real collaborative effort. She also lauds community fund-raising cookbooks, where multiple members contribute similar dishes, but with subtle differences. I applaud the beginning of something constructive, but much more is needed. I wish that more social and cultural critics would step out of their usually negative positions, and start envisaging very concretely improvements. Only in this way can things improve. After all, that is the idea, the reasons, for critiquing things in the first place, right? Not merely the joy of showing intellectuall prowess?

Within the erotic film genre there have been some very good examples of this; people who say “We are very unhappy with the erotic material available today, but we don’t think that depictions of naked people are wrong in principle. Let’s make something better.” This has resulted in everything from

For some, making a porn movie might seem extreme, but what I am exhorting is merely: give us positive role models, examples and ideas for making this world a better place - with less “othering”, “gaze” and “post-colonialism”. Perhaps it will make your academic work less interesting, but that is a risk we must be willing to take!

Stian, all post-colonialized out.\ (Photos by Roland and Ian Fuller)

Stian Håklev March 15, 2006 Toronto, Canada
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