Anthropology’s Eileen Anderson-Fye leads advanced seminar on obesity and upward mobility

Eileen Anderson-FyeExperts deem obesity an epidemic. The American Medical Association has gone so far as to call it a disease. And research shows it correlates with higher risk of cardiovascular incidents and cancer.

Add in centuries-long trends of bias against the overweight, along with more recent debates about the wisdom of using pharmacological approaches to help alleviate the condition, and it’s little wonder that worldwide attitudes toward body image are, at best, complex.

Into this fray steps anthropology assistant professor Eileen Anderson-Fye, who this month became the first Case Western Reserve faculty member to chair or co-chair an advanced seminar at Santa Fe’s School for Advanced Research (SAR), a renowned nonprofit dedicated to research and scholarship related to questions of culture, humanity and the social sciences. The title? “Obesity, Upward Mobility, and Symbolic Body Capital in a Rapidly Changing World.”

Anderson-Fye co-chaired the event with Alexandra Brewis Slade, director of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University (ASU). Since 2012, the pair has collaborated on a global research initiative aimed at better understanding the evolving relationship between perceptions and symbolic significance of body size and shape and cultural and economic implications.

“This issue carries enormous implications across multiple disciplines,” Anderson-Fye said, “but to date has been broached largely from a medical and behavioral perspective. The more we can achieve a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of this multi-faceted phenomenon, the better our chances of addressing it in meaningful ways.”

Thanks to support from the Department of Anthropology, the College of Arts and Sciences, the university’s Office of International Affairs and the National Science Foundation*, more than 20 Case Western Reserve graduate and undergraduate students have participated in the global project, including conducting fieldwork in places ranging from Korea to Nepal to Jamaica and Belize. The project spawned a new university course last spring, when student researchers analyzed collected data and developed articles for publication in peer-reviewed journals. The aim of the course was to give students intense instruction and hands-on lessons about methodology, analysis and scholarly writing.

Meanwhile, Anderson-Fye and her ASU colleague also applied for the opportunity to host this spring’s session at SAR; winners in the highly competitive process (the school typically funds two to three sessions per year) gather national and international experts for a week of presentations and discussions about a subject of ongoing research. Attendees for this session included faculty from Harvard University, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Arizona. Participants now are developing chapters for a book to be published by the SAR Press. Previous volumes emerging from advanced seminars include Anthropology of Race (2013), The Evolution of Leadership (2010), and Nature, Science and Religion (2012).

“By working with such a diverse group of scholars for a concentrated period of time, we were able to delve deeply into the themes that already had emerged as well as areas worthy of additional exploration,” Anderson-Fye said. “The conversations were rich and compelling and will add immeasurably to the rigor and impact of our work. Our appreciation of this rare opportunity cannot be overstated.”

In addition to the upcoming book, Anderson-Fye said the research project also has led to multiple presentations—including students—at national academic meetings; several more are planned for the fall. Meanwhile, the study is set to add more countries pending institutional review approval, and continues to attract new students.

“The more we explore this subject, the more opportunities emerge for deepening our understanding,” Anderson-Fye said. “The growing enthusiasm and expertise of our students and international collaborators are inspiring—as are the potential implications this work has to benefit people worldwide.”

*NSF grants included one EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) award, BCS-1244944, and two Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) supplements, BCS-1338955 & BCS-1338956.