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Learning to see through others’ eyes

How does a farmer decide if his cow is a prize winner? An anthropologist studying these farmers should not only look at the farmers themselves, but should in particular learn how they see the world. This is what Cristina Grasseni, the new Professor of Anthropology contends. Inaugural address on 30 October.

Anthropology involves researching and understanding social relationships and cultures. ‘But, as an anthropologist, you are first and foremost a student of a culture or cultures,’ Christina Grasseni states in her inaugural lecture. Grasseni was appointed Professor of Anthropology in February and scientific director of the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology in June.

A student of cultures

A student of cultures? Grasseni explains this concept based on her fieldwork with cow breeders in the Alps in northern Italy. ‘When they talk about their cows, they’re judging the beauty of the animals. However, there's much more behind that aesthetic assessment,’ Grasseni says. When breeding their cows, the farmers focus on improving the anaimals: how can they make sure the next generation produces even more milk? If they call a cow ‘beautiful’, they are looking at characteristics they recognise as a feature of good milk production and reproduction potential.

Skilled vision

The farmer thus has a skilled vision: as a trained professional, he can estimate the value of his product based on what he sees. And his farming peers have the same vision. They recognise features from breeding programmes, computer models and even photos of other prize-winning cows or by comparing successive generations of cows. Grasseni used the example of a cattle market. The jury literally places the animals in order of excellence: this cow is the best based on these characteristics, followed by this cow. ‘The jury’s shared vision is put into words, and commented on by the farmers in turn.’

Complex whole

However, the farmers’ view of what constitutes a beautiful cow is not undisputed. Environmentalists and farmers who do not support intensive livestock farming will not find the same cow beautiful. For them, ever greater milk production is undesirable, and they will not describe such characteristics in a cow as beautiful. Their moral values therefore also influence their view of the cow. Skilled vision is the result of a complex whole, involving attention, customs, history and context. There is hidden knowledge, behind which not only facts but also assumptions, preferences, cultural stereotypes, prejudices and racism may lie. ‘This is why skilled visions are an essential part of a culture,’ Grasseni emphasises.

Learning how to look at a cow

Grasseni therefore advocates a skilled vision approach to ethnographic research, in which you as a researcher become a student of the community you are studying, so you can make their view of the world your own. ‘In my time in Italy, I had to learn to assess the beauty of a cow. I truly started at zero; I didn’t even know from which side I should look at a cow to be able to see its qualities. By the way, it’s from the back!’

Giving meaning to food

At the moment, Grasseni is applying the skilled vision approach to her ‘Food Citizenship’ research, for which she has obtained an ERC Consolidator Grant. ‘In three European cities – Rotterdam, Turin and Gdansk – we are looking at initiatives for collective food purchasing and whether this leads to new or different forms of citizenship.’ Grasseni and her team are using a multimedia design. ‘In addition to text, we use video footage and let people in the initiatives film themselves and offer their commentary. The participants are tracked in their daily activities and meetings. This way, we discover the different means by which they give cultural and political meaning to their dealings with food, and thereby truly learn to see through their eyes.’

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