Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo

The Good, Bad and Ugly.

In honesty, I have yet to read a journal article that I felt was flawless, or on the other hand useless. There are however, seemingly stark differences between some pieces in a body of literature. These differences might be assumed to result from the wide range of specialities that exist within a given subject- the articles one might find incomplete or irrelevant are embedded in a part of a subject area in which one is unequipped to intellectually engage with.

However, from my time as a graduate student, participating in discussions with other students and profs of all different anthropological backgrounds, I have indeed found that there is good evidence that there are good, bad and ugly articles and that their successes and failures transcend the discipline of their readership.

Ben-Shlomo, Yoav, and Diana Kuh

2002 A Life Course Approach to Chronic Disease Epidemiology: Conceptual Models, Empirical Challenges and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. International Journal of Epidemiology 31(2):285-293.

This paper introduces the reader to ‘the life course approach’ to the epidemiological study of chronic disease. I have found there is a great tendency for articles that outline anthropological theories and frameworks to be frustratingly, and no doubt purposefully, muddy and vague. This mistake in not made in the description of this framework, and is refreshingly specific with examples to illustrate conecpts.

The theoretical approach to the structure of this paper makes the framework easily approachable and understandable. First the framework is established within the current study of epidemiology, as filling a certain need as highlighted by chronic disease. Most disease models focus on the study of pathology in a cross-sectional fashion, rarely accounting for the context in which an individual might develop a disease. The life course approach gets its explanatory power from attempting to bridge the divide between the social factors that influence health, and the biological systems in which they manifest. This approach focuses on risk, not linearly like most other models, but through the concepts of sensitive and critical periods of development, periods in which biological and social insults may be especially impactful in the short and long-term.

The strength of this paper is in its effective integration of somewhat hazy anthropological theory with specific examples. The authors illustrate concepts surrounding biological-social interaction in diseased states with a network of causes; and include 2 other diagrams which force the reader to have an accurate interpretation and conceptualization of the framework.

Finally the authors also pay close attention to context. This is important as the reader wants to know where a paper fits into their interpretations in the literature. Just as the paper began with some historical context, it wraps up by placing this framework in an evolutionary context. I feel this is again important. Evolutionary principles are ingrained in anthropological research, and a commitment to explore them should be more prevalent when it is available. The context of this theoretical approach is also discussed with reference to other frameworks that are already used- how they differ and how they may be used in tandem when tackling certain complex issues in the study of disease. Finally, there is an honest discussion of the limitations and challenges of this framework, namely databases and data collection, which may be a significant hindrance now, but might be later solved with more sophisticated data technologies.

Piperata, Barbara Ann

2008 Forty Days and Forty Nights: A Biocultural Perspective on Postpartum Practices in    the Amazon. Social Science & Medicine 67(7):1094-1103.

This paper researched the postpartum changes of lifestyle in women that belong to a particular community in the amazon. When these women deliver their child, there routines and feeding practices change markedly. At this point, certain cultural stigmas surround certain foods, which the women are not to eat. There contributions around the house also change and their responsibilities to the smooth functioning of the community diminish.  They tend to sit back as other family member take on the extra work. The authors approached this postpartum event and subsequent changes in hopes to address 3 questions- what were the ideas surrounding the consumption of certain foods over others; what type of commitment did these women have towards this practice; and whether this restricted diet and altered community chore commitment had a negative impact on their ability to breastfeed their child.

Their findings suggested that these practices were quite varied amoung the different communities and that this tradition focused on limiting the types of foods, ie. Certain sea creatures, that may cause illness in the mother. The authors also found that some women, those closer to the nearest town, did not subscribe to these practices to the same extent as other women, and finally that these women did a reduced caloric load, but this was offset by their reduced caloric expenditure.

I found this article unsatisfying because it did not do what I believe a good anthropological paper should- convince me that I should care. I understand that they are anthropologists who would move to the edge of their seat when provided the opportunity to learn about postpartum practices of rural women of the amazon. But they are likely in the minority. I feel the importance of studies like this is to elucidate certain anthropological principles that are larger than the population they are studying. For instance-

Why 40 days and nights? What is the significance of this amount of time? Are there other communities around the world that also commit to cultural practices for this period of time. Could they be compared and contrasted to reveal certain underlying principles?

How were these traditions about food choices transmitted from generation to generation? Is this type of knowledge transmission evident in other facets of the Amazonian culture? Is there any evidence that these practices have changed over time, and if this change is reflective of important qualities of other populations in the amazon?

Also, lets suppose that the authors did find that the reduction of calories expended during the 40 days was not offset by the reduction in calories ingested, what then?  Were they going to let the women in on that in hopes that it would change their postpartum choices?

Why were they spending all this time studying the postpartum practices of amazon women other than discovering the postpartum practices of amazon women?

There is also very little discussion about why this type of practice might have developed, and what this may suggest about the social subtleties in this community. Perhaps there is some interesting psychological factors that have allowed this practice to take hold in these communities- perhaps these women gain a type of satisfaction by having the rest of their family wait on them, that has a positive impact on their child?

Studies like this have a tremendous value in anthropology. But they must be framed in such a manner as to a least engage slightly with more universal principles. In this way this paper failed- in execution and more importantly, in imagination.

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5 thoughts on “Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo

  1. Grazie per un buon post!
    I really liked the latter section of your first article, discussing the incorporation of evolutionary context in order conclude the piece. This was an interesting adaptation of the hourglass approach don’t you think? Broad (history) – specific (theory) – broad (evolutionary application/history). Having read Piperata’s article I fully agree with your interpretation. Do you think that Piperata could have utilized a similar structural approach that Ben-Shlomo and Kuh did? Could the history of post-partum depression in the Amazon (and elsewhere) been discussed so that individuals could have understood the context and cared about this study, gotten to the meat of the article (related to the taboos and caloric intake), and then gotten more broad by explaining the notion of post-partum periods and evolution, or something related to caloric intake and evolution within the Amazon? What are your thoughts on this?

    • Hi Kat-

      Ya for sure. A little background about postpartum physiology and how and if this type of perhaps ‘medicalized’ condition does manifest in mothers not in the ‘western’ setting. Then some discussion of how this practise could be related to relieving some of these issue, and how we may learn about the condition in general.

      That hourglass metaphor in literature seems like it has broad applicability.

  2. Hello Jon!
    I enjoyed your discussion of the life course approach — an approach that does not lend to my own area of research among women living with HIV/AIDS based on our discussion with Dr. Moffat. As you mentioned at the beginning of your post, “no article is flawless” and with this in mind I was wondering whether you could discuss some of the limitations in the Ben-Shlomo et al. 2002 article and how this can be addressed to either clarify the study or provide a more comprehensive discussion of this topic. Also, I was wondering if you could reflect on the overarching structural characteristics you look for when examining a particular article? (i.e. systematic approach or reflexive).

    • Hello again, thanks for the reply-

      oh i dont know, I really did like the Ben-Shlomo et al. I guess it could have been longer. I am not sure what the intend length of the article was, but it could have gone into even deeper analysis, perhaps with even more examples of the principles they were trying to highlight. Although, some might have found that a strength- it was concise and not that intimidating.

      I like reflexive, i think less due to my theoretical inclinations and more due to my personality in general. In this way i feel reflexive papers for me are more enjoyable- those types of papers you slow your reading down and really try to engage with.

      thanks JL

  3. HI Jonathan,
    I like this comment re. papers that “slow your reading down and really try to engage”. It strikes me that this is a theme that might be contrasted with some of the other blogs this week that have noted journal articles that stick to the same report format — presumably to make quick “harvarding” work better? (i.e. I want the data or conclusions fast!)

    Also, you make the point of the importance of context in good Anthropological writing, certainly a point reiterated by Errington and Gewertz in this week’s readings. They point out that even the most eloquent of writers are not good Anthropological writers if they don’t engage with context (whether that is historical, cultural, etc).

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