Suddenly non-vegetarian: Dilemmas in anthropological fieldwork

I thought I had prepared for my PhD fieldwork in India and Papua New Guinea. I’d taken language lessons, made initial contacts, researched cultural traditions, read the Lonely Planet guides to each place, tried to anticipate what culture shock might be like, and decided to ‘expect the unexpected’. What I hadn’t fully considered, however, was what I would eat in the field.

Being vegetarian was no problem on my trips to Kolkata (India) where vegetarianism is normal for many. It was easy to find suitable street food and restaurants when I was out and my (Muslim) research participants usually included a vegetarian dish in their meals. I even found vegetarian options at weddings I attended (which was a relief, as it is considered rude not to eat at a wedding and I wanted to be a good guest).

On my first trip to Lae (Papua New Guinea) however, I suddenly became non-vegetarian. I’d met with a village women’s literacy group and, after touring their facilities and meeting the women involved, we shared a meal. Pride of place at the meal was a pig the women had slaughtered and cooked. As a guest, I was offered my plate of food first. All eyes were on me as I accepted it and sat down to eat. I had seconds to decide whether to decline the pork and risk offending my hosts, or whether to eat what was on the plate in front of me. I ate it. I was quite unwell afterwards (not having eaten meat in some years) but preferred this to the discomfort I thought I would have caused by refusing the meal cooked for me.

Everyone has different reasons for becoming vegetarian. Mine involved the treatment of animals in the commercial meat industry in New Zealand, and the fact that I don’t like the taste of red meat. I remember quickly thinking ‘it’s okay, they’ve raised and killed this pig themselves’ and ‘this doesn’t look too bad’ before I ate it. For the rest of my fieldwork in PNG I ate meat when it was offered to me and, over time, became non-vegetarian at home as well (for a whole host of different reasons, and I still dislike red meat).

Recently, conversations I’ve had with colleagues suggest that suddenly becoming non-vegetarian is actually quite common. David Sutton (1997) has written about being a vegetarian anthropologist but I haven’t found much written by anthropologists who faced food-related dilemmas during fieldwork and changed their dietary practices (by either becoming non-vegetarian or vegetarian), temporarily or permanently. Is this because it is considered ‘normal’ or expected for anthropologists to follow the cultural practices of those we work with?

I am curious to find out whether others have crossed the vegetarian/non-vegetarian divide while doing fieldwork. Did you become non-vegetarian, vegetarian, vegan? Why? Have you maintained it? I would love to hear about your experiences!

Write when the baby sleeps

I’ve just started a year-long professional development course for early career researchers* which has given me an opportunity to think about how my writing style has changed since I was working on my PhD. When I was writing my dissertation I had a fantastic writing habit and, inspired by Inger Mewburn’s tips on How to write 1000 words a day without going bat-shit crazy, was producing anywhere between 1000-2000 ‘keeper’ words (that would go directly into the thesis with minimal revision) every day. Things have changed a lot since then: I now have a wonderful, bright, inquisitive, 2-year-old and a job I love. Long gone are the days where I could dedicate all my waking hours to thesis-writing!

The biggest change for me is being a parent. In particular, being the parent of a child who doesn’t like to sleep unless it’s on or next to me. Like Ava Neyer, I read all the baby sleep books in first few months after she was born to try to figure out how to help her sleep. Nothing worked. Eventually we found our own rhythm: I wrote (or read) when the baby slept. Most days I had at least one 25-minute block (or one Pomodoro) where I couldn’t do anything except sit or lie next to my daughter while she slept, so I used this time to write, read, or plan out what I was going to work on next.

She’s getting the hang of sleeping now (we use the Wait It Out method, which works for all of us) but I still use the time just after she’s nodded off to read or think. One of my goals this year is to cultivate a daily writing habit so I can get back into the writing groove I had going as a PhD candidate. To do this, I re-read Charlotte Frost’s top 10 tips for forming good writing habits and joined the Savage Minds Writing Group for anthropologists, which has some fantastic  posts on ethnographic writing. The course I’m on will also help, as will Shut Up and Write sessions (in real life and on #shutupandwrite Tuesdays on Twitter).

I’m keen to hear how other early career academics make space for their writing. Who else does #shutupandwrite Tuesdays on Twitter? How do you juggle parenting with life as an academic?

* Dr Kathryn Sutherland studies the experiences of early career researchers and has recently published her findings: ‘Success in Academia? The experiences of early career academics in New Zealand’