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Intervals of confidence: Uncertain accounts of global hunger

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Abstract

Global health policy experts tend to organize hunger through scales of ‘the individual’, ‘the community’ and ‘the global’. This organization configures hunger as a discrete, measurable object to be scaled up or down with mathematical certainty. This article offers a counter to this approach, using ethnographic cases to illustrate how the calculated referent of ‘hunger’ does not hold stable. In the highlands of Guatemala, where obesity has become a matter of concern, many people treated hunger as a sensation connected to family and history. For doctors working in the region, hunger was determined through body mass indices and global risk statistics. For global health experts it was different still, operating as an indicator derived from agricultural and population data. I draw these different, yet connected, versions of hunger together to explore dilemmas of scaling an object that is not solid but is made and unmade variously. This allows me to illustrate that global hunger is not a summation of hunger in the world, but its own version of hunger. I further suggest that ‘multi-object ethnography’, which allows for the persistence of uncertainty, can help to develop policy responses to hunger(s) that will, in some cases, be more appropriate and effective than scale-based evaluation.

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Notes

  1. Expertise is fraught and contingent (cf. Carr, 2010) but in referring to experts here and throughout the article I adopt my informants’ terminology.

  2. Some of these meetings, such as the Global Health Metrics and Evaluation meeting in Seattle, Washington, were open to the public; others, such as the International Congress of Nutrition-2 at the FAO in Rome, were highly restricted. Some of the conferences had no registration fee (for example, the annual LCIRAH conference in London) while the registration fee for many of the meetings, such as the Public Health Nutrition meeting in Gran Canaria, or the 20th International Congress of Nutrition in Granada, Spain, or the Global Food Security meetings in Noodwijkerhoot, the Netherlands, was roughly €500, greatly limiting access.

  3. For more on the idea of socio-material enactments, and how they differ from social constructions, see Law and Mol (2002), Moreira (2006) and Moser (2008).

  4. The reliance on this number has been heavily criticized for several reasons, not the least of which is that this is reported to be the caloric needs for a “sedentary lifestyle” whereas many hungry people are anything but sedentary (cf. Lappé et al, 2013). For more on the problematics of “macro body counting”, see Sparke (2014).

  5. Latour’s (1996, p. 371) analysis of scale has inspired my thinking in many ways, but I remain troubled by his insistence that one of the problems with the small-scale/large-scale model is that it “implies that an element ‘b’ being macro-scale is of a different nature and should be studied thus differently from element ‘a’ which is micro scale”. In my research on global hunger, the practice of scaling did precisely the opposite: it flattened away difference, treating macro- and micro-level interactions as though they were equivalent in quality, simply different in size.

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Acknowledgements

This research was enabled by research grants from the Wenner Gren Foundation, Fulbright Hays, and the ERC Advanced Grant, AdG09 Nr. 249397. The author is grateful to all those who shared their stories with her. Thanks are also due to Emily Martin, Tom Abercrombie, Sally Merry and Renato Rosaldo, Annemarie Mol and the Eating Bodies team, Tjitske Holtrop, Emily McDonald, Janelle Taylor, Rachel Chapman, Mercedes Duff and Andrew Roper. This article has benefited from the feedback from participants at the Bergen retreat sponsored by the University of Amsterdam (2012) and the Cascadia Seminar for Medical Anthropology (2013), as well as from early commentary from Marilyn Strathern and the careful attention of two anonymous reviewers. Rayna Rapp, to whom the author owes the title, deserves particular recognition.

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Yates-Doerr, E. Intervals of confidence: Uncertain accounts of global hunger. BioSocieties 10, 229–246 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1057/biosoc.2015.9

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