Anthropologica - Anthropology in Action

From Virture into Vice | Applying Anthropology to Anorexia

Dr. Richard A. O'Connor
Department of Anthropology
University of the South

Wednesday, November 29, 2006
5:45-6:45 pm
State Farm Lecture Hall (BAS S102)

Our era knows two anorexias. One, the private hell that anorexics suffer, is lived rather than spoken. The other, a public debate over gender, genetic and media causes, is spoken rather than lived...

Although well intentioned, the public's anorexia silences the anorexic by ignoring her point of view-how she lives within her life-world. When it comes to explaining the disease, activists as well as experts either look through her to some underlying biological or psychological cause or beyond her to an overarching social or cultural determinant. Yet our research shows anorexia is neither beneath nor beyond the anorexic's life-world but within her point of view. Anorexics are moral actors, not media puppets. They embody our era's ascetic values, what Max Weber called "the ghost of dead religious beliefs." While their restricted eating aims at virtue-to be good, not just look good-the activity takes on a bodily life of its own, becoming a self-destructive vice.

Can research capture a lived but silent viewpoint? Indeed, can outsiders get inside self-starvation's madness? That challenge goes to the heart of anthropology. To meet it, we chose to focus on the little and local as well as the large and global. For the little, we did in-depth interviews with 20 recovered anorexics-13 in Tennessee and seven in Toronto-to get their stories in their own words as well as to place each within her own life-world. For the large, to place those life-worlds within today's ecology, we studied the historical origins and ongoing sources of contemporary attitudes toward food, eating and the body. Taken together, the little and large place today's anorexic within a century-old reaction against modern laxity and anomie. Withdrawing into rituals of restricted eating, she creates an island of purity and control in society's corrupt and chaotic sea. Although this turns pathological, this same island-making fuels today's competitive sports, a popular fascination that arose at the same time as modern anorexia.

Dr. O'Connor is Biehl Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Teaching at the University of the South. His research interests focus on Southeast Asia, American Culture, and Anorexia.

For more information, contact Dr. William Leggett, (615) 904-8589,

Sponsored by the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and Middle Tennessee Anthropology Society