Eating Salt and Symbols: Exploring the Relationship of Biology and Culture with eHRAF
by Susan Parman
The intention of this assignment is to illustrate principles of scientific method by using the eHRAF World Cultures database at http://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu to explore the relationship between diet and attitudes toward salt. We are all familiar in American society with the idea that salt is bad for us; that it increases blood pressure, promotes weight gain, and contributes to skin wrinkling. These ideas would constitute a negative attitude toward salt. Are cultures with certain diets likely to have predictable attitudes toward salt?
The advantage of eHRAF World Cultures is that it provides a comprehensive database that may be used to test whether or not such beliefs are universal across cultures, and if not, what factors might affect these beliefs. Choosing a topic such as salt is useful because while salt is essential to human survival, too much salt can be harmful; thus it is reasonable to ask whether or not culture acts as an adaptive mechanism to increase or reduce the intake of salt (through positive or negative attitudes). Do Americans eat so much salt that our negative attitudes toward salt constitute a cultural mechanism to reduce salt intake? Is it reasonable to predict that cultures with diets with very low salt content would contain statements and rituals that indicate positive attitudes toward salt?
1. The inductive phase of research
Gather information about the significance of salt in human biology (and be sure you’re clear on what “salt” is). Gather information about sources of salt in the body, comparing different types of diet. Books on nutrition are useful, especially those that list different types of food in relation to milligrams of sodium.
Browse through eHRAF World Cultures , looking for patterns of relationship among variables. Ask yourself: which Outline of Cultural Materials (OCM) categories would be most useful to look at? For example, relevant OCM categories might be 262 (diet), 263 (condiments), 146 (nutrition), 147 (physiological data), 261 (gratification and control of hunger), 840 (reproduction: food taboos in the reproductive cycle), 853 (infant feeding), or others. You can can find a list of all the OCM categories in the eHRAF World Cultures database at http://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu by clicking on Browse Subjects then Major Subjects or OCM Code. Browse the OCMs and see which categories provide you with information useful to diet and attitudes toward salt. (In addition, the Advanced Search function in eHRAF World Cultures database supports word searches, so you could enter the word “salt*” [truncate with * to catch salty or saltiness also] and see what pops up.) For example, you may come across information that the Onge of the Andaman Islands, who eat pig a lot, detest salt (somewhat like Americans). Are meat-eating cultures more likely to have negative attitudes toward salt? You may then browse cultures that are primarily vegetarian, in search of evidence that such cultures have positive attitudes toward salt. What evidence do you consider? Folk tales? Proverbs? Ceremonies in which salt plays an important role?
The inductive phase of research is extremely important. Sometimes researchers talk about “intuition”; most researchers have a pretty good idea of what they expect to find before they start looking systematically – and that’s because they’ve spent a lot of time soaking in data, wallowing in relevant material, being exposed to patterns. The purpose of scientific method is to test rigorously what we already expect to find through inductive exposure to data; “to test rigorously” means to set up your test so that the possibility of bias is reduced and the data are allowed to speak for themselves. Sometimes the data surprise us.
2. Generating hypotheses
Having browsed through relevant materials, you should begin to have an idea of what variables are significant, and what the relationship between the variables is likely to be. Now is the time to start tightening your thoughts.
One of the things you may have picked up in your omnivorous reading is that animal byproducts have much more sodium content than plant products (for example, 277 milligrams of sodium in an oyster vs. 1 milligram of sodium in a cucumber). One possible hypothesis could explore the relationship between plant-vs-animal diet and high-valuation/low-valuation of salt as a condiment.
Hypothesis 1: Populations with vegetarian diets are more likely to emphasize salt as an important condiment, whereas animal-byproduct diets are less likely to do so. But our reading has suggested that valuing salt goes beyond valuing it simply as a condiment; salt seems to play a broader role in culture (think of Lot’s wife; throwing salt over your shoulder if you’ve spilled it; proverbs such as “as dear as salt,” or the fact that the word “salary” is derived from “salt”). Thus we add a second hypothesis:
Hypothesis 2: Populations with vegetarian diets are more likely to value salt positively, whereas animal-byproduct diets are more likely to value salt negatively.
3. Operationalizing variables
In order to test either of these hypotheses, we need to operationalize our variables, i.e., be very clear about exactly what we mean.
Variable 1: The degree to which the typical diet of a particular group of people is plant-based or animal-based. “Typical diet” is determined by what the predominant diet is for the largest number of people for the greatest amount of time, according to whether it is primarily plant-based, animal-based, or a combination of both. “Animal” means the flesh of any animal or its byproducts (such as milk or blood).
Variable 2: The degree to which salt is used as a condiment. “Using salt as a condiment” means using salt as an additive to food (not as a food by itself), either before, during, or after food preparation. Salt added as a preservative is excluded from this operational definition. The presence or absence of Variable 1 is indicated by both general and specific statements by the ethnographer about how often salt is used in the diet.
Variable 3: The degree to which salt is valued. “Valuing salt” would be indicated by explicit or implicit statements about the value of salt (e.g., how important or unimportant it is, how much people like or dislike it, how important or insignificant it is to control or produce, how significant or insignificant it may be in rituals, and so on).
4. Locating data
Having browsed through the OCM categories in eHRAF, we can narrow the categories that are likely to be useful to 262 (diet) and 263 (condiments), and also do word-searches for “salt*.”
5. Coding data
We need to have clear criteria for coding the information found in the searches. The variables should be scaled in a way that allows for relationships among the variables to emerge. (The following codes are simplified versions of the codes found in Susan Parman’s article, “Lot’s Wife and the Old Salt: Cross-Cultural Comparisons of Attitudes Toward Salt in Relation to Diet,” Cross-Cultural Research 36, 2 (May 2002):123-150.)
Coding system for Variable 1 (Diet: Vegetarian vs. Animal):
Code as 1 if the ethnography contains explicit statements that the primary source of food is vegetarian.
Code as 2 if the ethnography contains explicit statements or specific examples that the food eaten is “mostly” vegetarian.
Code as 3 if the ethnography contains explicit statements or specific examples that the diet is a roughly equal combination of vegetarian and animal.
Code as 4 if the ethnography contains explicit statements or specific examples that the diet is “mostly” animal.
Code as 5 if the ethnography contains explicit statements that the primary source of food is animal.
Code as 6 if the ethnography does not contain enough information to score the culture. Sixes are excluded from the analysis.
Coding system for Variable 2 (Degree to which salt is used as a condiment):
Code as 1 if the ethnography contains general statements about “using salt all the time” or, when many specific examples are given, by a high proportion of these examples including salt.
Code as 2 if the ethnography contains general statements about using salt “most of the time”; or if contains many examples of the use of salt.
Code as 3 if the ethnography contains general statements about salt being used “sometimes”; or it contains some examples of the use of salt.
Code as 4 if the ethnography contains general statements about salt being used “rarely”; or it contains rare examples of the use of salt, in combination with a much larger proportion of examples of the non-use of salt.
Code as 5 if the ethnography contains general statements about “never using salt” or, when many specific examples are given of condiment use, by salt not being referred to.
Code as 6 if the ethnography contains descriptions that are vague (e.g., general reference to “seasoning.” Sixes are excluded from the analysis.
Coding system for Variable 3 (Degree to which salt is valued):
Code as 1 if the ethnography contains explicit positive valuations of salt: peoples greatly desire salt; it is considered an essential ingredient in a meal, without which food is inedible.
Code as 2 if the ethnography contains implicit positive valuations of salt: People go to great efforts to control it, manufacture it, get it; salt plays an important role in ritual.
Code as 3 if the ethnography contains references to salt, but it is taken for granted; a “take or leave it” attitude; no special efforts made to control it, manufacture it, get it; no role in ritual.
Code as 4 if the ethnography contains implicit negative valuations of salt: some negative comments about salt, or about the control, manufacture, and task of getting salt; if there is a role in ritual it is a negative role.
Code as 5 if the ethnography contains explicit negative valuations of salt: People express an active dislike for salt, or find it “repulsive”; it is considered poisonous or harmful.
Code as 6 if there is insufficient information to be able to score the culture for this category. Sixes are excluded from the analysis.
The criteria used for coding data are derived from the inductive phase of your project, when you are identifying relevant variables and seeing all the variable ways they can show up in your data. (How would you modify your codes to account for variation within a culture? What if men eat one type of diet and women another? Adult vs. children? Seasonal variation?)
6. Assigning Data Quality Score Codes
The ethnographic data available in HRAF vary in quality. It is useful to assign data quality control codes to your data that enable you to assess your results. When more than one ethnographic source is available for a particular culture, for example, you may want to use the Data Quality Score Codes to eliminate some of the sources.
DQ code 1: Ethnographer provided detailed, specific information about diet and/or matters relating to the cultural uses of salt, such as dietary practices, government monopolies, ritual use.
DQ code 2: Ethnographer had general observations but was more concerned with other matters; was specific and precise on other matters, but not focused on diet or related issues.
DQ code 3: Ethnographer had summary statement with little supporting evidence or details.
DQ code 4: Ethnographer had no summary statement or general observations; provided anecdotes, with no indication of whether they were typical.
DQ code 5: Information provided as confusing, contradictory, ethnocentric, or based on personal feelings or ideas.
7. Selecting your sample to test your hypotheses
Use a random numbers table to draw 25 cultures randomly from the pool of 60 cultures in the Probability Sample File (PSF). Once you’ve performed an Advanced Search you can narrow your search to cultures from the PSF.
8. Choice of statistical tests
Because each of the measures was a five-point ordinal scale, the hypotheses can be tested with a measure of ordinal association, such as Spearman’s rho. Test your hypotheses.
9. Think about the results
What exactly do they mean? Do they tell you something about the relationship between diet and attitudes toward salt? About the relationship between biological processes and culture? What new questions can you ask, and what hypotheses might explore these relationships further?