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!

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5 thoughts on “Suddenly non-vegetarian: Dilemmas in anthropological fieldwork

  1. This blog post is quoted in this excellent article I’m reading right now:

    ‘Eating Animals to Build Rapport: Conducting Research
    as Vegans or Vegetarians’ by Katie MacDonald and Kelly Struthers Montford

    I’m writing my methodology for my PhD thesis about long-term ethnographic research in the nuclear landscape of Chernobyl and finding it very useful to read about how Vegetarians have situated (and performed or adapted/suspended) their food identities while ‘in the field’. During my own research I faced the prospect of potentially risky (contaminated) food on a day to day basis.

    Interesting blog post – thanks,

    Thom

    http://www.thomdavies.com

    1. Thanks for the heads-up on the journal article – I’ve just downloaded it and look forward to reading it. Your research sounds fascinating and I’d love to hear more about how you navigated food choices.

  2. Interesting – would you have refused meat if your religion would not allow it? Does religion or politeness trump ethics? I feel vegans and veggies almost feel they must apologise for not eating animals or their products. Would you have eaten a human, hypothetically?

  3. I’m trying to work this out for myself, though it has been made problematic by doing fieldwork as ‘other’ at home. I’ve been vegan for three years, and vegetarian for seven before that. This was not an easy decision: In many ways ‘getting in a killer’–selecting and slaughtering a beast from one’s own herd to slaughter for meals–is a key ritual observed in secular rural settler-descendent culture (the culture in which I was brought up). I am currently conducting fieldwork in Northern Australia, in a predominately pastoral based economy and spending a lot of time with graziers on beef properties. There is open hostility here towards vegetarianism, fueled by recent damage done to the industry by actions animal rights activists. In the lead up to field work I began eating dairy and eggs again, and thus far have ended up eating tinned fish in the field because there was simply no other option or, on one occasion, because an interlocutor deemed fish to be ‘vegetarian’ and prepared it for me specially.

    On the one hand, I’ve tried to leverage off my vegeterianism. As a fellow Australian, it has enabled me to tassidly assert that even though I may look and speak like locals, I am still ‘other’ and thus need to have certain practices explained to me. I’ve also tried to use it as a means of demonstrating my interest in participating in daily life and respect for culture–I might not eat meat but will happily assist in handling cattle, butchering meat, and cooking it for others.

    However, on the other hand, I still feel that by not partaking in eating eat I am threatening the quality of data I collect and damaging long term rapport with locals. The thought of personally eating meat makes me feel ill (like you I have eaten meat in ceremonies abroad and was sick as a result), but as an anthropologist I feel it’s part of doing my job correctly. In many ways, if I were in PNG, it would seem obvious. But in the same country as I normally live, I feel a sense of conflict (is it that I thnk other Australians should ‘get’ me? I don’t know.). For me, the question arising is: If beasts and thus meat is the material and economic basis of a culture, can an anthropologist come to understand that world without partaking?

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