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Open Access Research

Reconsidering nutrition science: critical reflection with a cultural lens

Craig A Hassel

Author Affiliations

Department of Food Science & Nutrition, University of Minnesota, 1334 Eckles Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55108, USA

Nutrition Journal 2014, 13:42  doi:10.1186/1475-2891-13-42

Published: 2 May 2014

Abstract

Background

European culture gave birth to modern science as a means to investigate and explain the natural world. The biomedical disciplines that have since emerged, including nutrition, presuppose a web of basic presuppositions, background assumptions and implicit cultural values that are often overlooked and escape peer review. These "hidden subjectivities" are widely taken-for-granted while exerting a powerful hold on the scope, direction and patterns of disciplinary thought. Nutrition science currently has no accepted means of collectively attending to hidden subjectivities embedded within its methods and practice. Here I propose that directing inquiry into these dimensions holds potential to advance our discipline.

Methods

This critically reflective approach emerged from critical theory and the practice of cross-cultural engagement (CCE). CCE deliberately seeks out and critically engages food and health understandings of non-European cultures. Its protocol includes cognitive frameshifting, a practice of temporarily stepping outside of habitual thought patterns and into a non-biomedical framework of background assumptions. A cultural lens metaphor derives from CCE practice and is forwarded here as a viable means for restoring critically reflective attention to hidden subjectivities while also inviting further CCE practice within the discipline.

Results

Critical reflection with a cultural lens allows cognitive attachments to materialism, reductionism, mechanistic thought, naïve realism, control over nature and pervasive subject-object dichotomies between mind and matter, scientist and nature, experience and reality, among many others to become more available for critical consideration. Culturally diverse food and health understandings otherwise dismissed as "unscientific" or held in abeyance gain value as alternative assumptive frameworks and cognitive models that can be temporarily inhabited for further intercultural reflection and insight.

Conclusion

Critical reflection with a cultural lens allows reconsideration of nutrition science in light of its culturally specific origin and foundation. This perspective can advance the discipline in two ways. First, it extends skeptical inquiry into hidden subjectivities that are otherwise implicit and seldom given over to critical consideration. Second, it can broaden scholarly inquiry through deliberate attempts to cross cognitive boundaries and empathically inhabit different cognitive worlds. This developmental practice holds potential to both deepen and broaden disciplinary inquiry.

Keywords:
Nutrition science; Philosophy; Hidden subjectivity; Culture; Epistemology; Cross-cultural engagement