Ethnographies as case studies?

by Tanja Schneider, Research Fellow in Science and Technology Studies

Last week, Professor AnneMarie Mol (University of Amsterdam) gave a talk on “Some eating body’s wider relevance: on the elsewheres of the case” as part of the Science and Technology Studies (STS) seminar series Issues in Scale at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS). Her presentation addressed how ethnographic research, despite its local specificity, may still attend and pertain to the wider world. In particular, she suggested considering ethnographic research as case studies that ‘contain traces from elsewhere’ and as such may be relevant on a broader scale.

To tease out these connections and the relevance of the ethnographic case, she used materials from her current research project, ‘The eating body in Western practice and theory’ funded with an Advanced Grant of the European Research Commission. This project looks at the role of the body as it pertains to food, eating and its enjoyment – for example, Mol is studying the tension between control and pleasure in healthy diets, and how the concept of ‘good taste’ is both aesthetic and political.

In her talk at InSIS, Mol used the example of Mrs. Klerk, a patient in a Dutch nursing home eating bami goreng, an Indonesian noodle dish. Mol described how she attempted an ‘ethnographic diagnosis’ of Mrs. Klerk’s eating practice by asking what is present and what is absent in this particular situation. According to Mol, if one considers Mrs. Klerk’s case, at least six issues emerge:

(1) concern about nourishment
• present: the nursing home staff is primarily concerned about Mrs. Klerk’s nutrient intake
• absent: the nursing home staff is not concerned about the amount of pleasure Mrs. Klerk derives from eating

(2) individualised care
• present: the nursing home allows Mrs. Klerk to bring her personal clothes and objects and attempts to take into account her personal history in their care relationship
• absent: Mrs. Klerk’s personal history is not presented to pose any major problems to the institutional logic

(3) food culture
• present: the nursing home staff takes into consideration Mrs. Klerk’s personal history when providing food for her
• absent: the nursing home staff does not ask Mrs. Klerk to eat exclusively traditional Dutch food

(4) cooking practices
• present: cooking in the nursing home takes place in an industrial kitchen outside of the nursing home’s premises, the food is then transported to the nursing home.
• absent: Mrs Klerk (as well as many other female nursing home inhabitants) was accustomed to cooking for herself and her family before living in a nursing home. This is difficult to achieve in an institutional setting, but the nursing home staff attempts to provide opportunities for occasional communal or individual cooking.

(5) dementia care
• present: the nursing home staff attempt to find out what inhabitants like to eat to handle food refusal (often related to loss of taste and appetite in dementia patients)
• absent: Mrs. Klerk is not force fed if she refuses food

(6) global food trade
• present: the ingredients of Mrs. Klerk’s bami goreng are consumed locally
• absent: however, the ingredients of Mrs. Klerk’s food are most likely produced/sourced globally

Mol concluded that by ‘drawing in and drawing out’ of the case of Mrs. Klerk, it is possible to (1) study cases as if they were monads or single entities that contain the world – or at least lots of traces from elsewhere; and (2) make case studies relevant for what is ‘elsewhere’ to them, by engaging in (or encouraging) the effort of translation.

The ensuing discussion focused on the potential limits of ‘drawing out of cases’ and Mol suggested considering the task of drawing out of a case as a way to challenge dominant knowledge production which is usually generated by quantitative research that allows for generalisations. Another issue that was brought up was that colleagues might ask ‘what is this case about?’ Mol responded by stressing that her research interest was primarily in understanding a particular moment and in the case she presented she sought to understand the logics that inform Mrs. Klerk’s eating practices. She compared her role as ethnographer with that of a doctor trying to diagnose the behaviour of a patient, hence the expression she introduced earlier, namely ‘ethnographic diagnosis’.

For more information:
Visit the website for the STS Oxford seminar series Issues in Scale.

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The Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) researches and informs the key processes of social and technological innovation.

One thought on “Ethnographies as case studies?

  1. Thanks for the summary Tanja. Especially helpful as I was unable to attend.
    It seems to me that Annemarie Mol, with her “ethnographic diagnosis,” is probing whether the results of ethnography may be made generalizable (applicable between cases/patients) without appealing to any conventionally defined objective standards (of measurements, data rendering, testing, and so forth). Reminds me a bit of the discussions happening when social anthropology entered business and management studies in the 1990s (the work of Gellner, E. Hirsch, Chapman and others). How can specific, personal and ‘local’ information be confidently applied at the meso- and global scales of practice? How to be relative while not being relativist . . .

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