When you watch a movie about a research study, there can be a lot of research-related takeaways. That was the case with Kitchen Stories, a Norwegian film we watched in our research methods class this week.
The film tells the story of a research study that is examining the habits of bachelor men in the kitchen. The research is conducted through observation, with the researcher (Folke) sitting quietly on a tall observation chair in the corner of the kitchen, documenting the researched’s (Isak’s) every move. The real story is, of course, built upon the relationship that develops between the two men.
The research study that is central to the plot of the movie is perhaps not the best example of a research study, but instead, is deeply flawed. It raised questions about ethics, methodology, and the colonial nature that research can have. Let’s explore.
One of the key ethical considerations of any research study involving humans is informed consent. Study participants must grant permission to be a part of the study, and this permission must be voluntary, informed, and ongoing. As Alexandra D’Arcy wrote in her yet-to-be-published article IRBs, researchers, and the gathering of data from social media, “consent should be freely given and able to be freely withdrawn, at any time, without penalty.”
This hardly seemed to be the case in Kitchen Stories.
When the researchers first pulled up at Isak’s house to begin the study, Isak would not answer or open the door. They knocked, yelled through windows, climbed ladders, and seemingly tried for days to get Isak to let them in, with no success. I’m still uncertain as to what changed in the end.
The thing that struck me during this whole montage was that there was never any conversation about leaving Isak alone, or about simply allowing him to withdraw from the study. It seemed obvious to the viewer that Isak, in those moments, was not consenting to participate, but the researcher didn’t really seem to care. Admittedly, there was a moment where someone suggested going elsewhere, but they were quickly told “these were the only volunteers”. They needed Isak, so they pressed on.
From the perspective of the researcher, I can understand that ongoing informed consent can be frustrating. You’ve worked hard to find research subjects. You’ve already packed up your little camper van and driven down to Norway. In some cases, as Dr. D’Arcy explained during her in-class visit, you’ve already invested time transcribing research interviews or analyzing data, and it all just needs to be thrown out once consent is removed. How do you not try and fight back? (For those who are familiar with Grey’s Anatomy, this reminds me of the multiple episodes that revolve around organ donation, where the doctors aren’t allowed to try and persuade families to make a particular decision, and it just seems so hard!).
But it’s also easy to understand the perspective of the participant who has changed their mind. I mean, if you want out, you want out. Life changes, circumstances change, perspectives change; you should be allowed to change your mind.
Besides, as we soon see in the film, having resistant research subjects doesn’t exactly provide you with solid research data.
Piling on the ethics train
The horse being offered as an incentive was in fact just a small dala horse, and not a real, living, breathing animal at all.
If that doesn’t feel unethical, I’m not really sure what will. If that scene didn’t make you feel for Isak… well, I’m not sure what will.
Observation as methodology
Once we’re over the ethics hurdle (and by over, I simply mean they’ve somehow gained access to Isak’s house, not that they’ve become ethical), we start to see the intended methodology of the study.
The whole design of the research study in Kitchen Stories is observational. The researcher, or the observer, sits on a tall chair (think a lifeguard’s
The study is designed with the intention that the researcher does not interfere with the participant, but as the film goes on, we see over and over again just how impossible this is.
The minute you know you are being observed, your behaviour changes. Today, this is a well-known
Isak’s behaviour in the movie has obviously changed as a result of Folke’s presence, so much so that Folke is unable to get any good data. Isak simply leaves the room sometimes. He purposely leaves the tap dripping, he turns out the light while sitting at the table so that he can’t be observed, and most drastically of all, he sets up his own little kitchen in his bedroom where he prepares his food. Folke’s whole purpose in being there is to observe the habits of Isak in the kitchen, but Folke’s mere presence has changed Isak’s kitchen habits entirely.
It’s not simply that Isak changes his habits due to Folke’s presence. Even if Isak hadn’t explicitly set out to ruin the study, other scenes in the movie demonstrate just how difficult it is for the observer not to influence the scene. When Folke borrows salt for his egg, he influences the scene, and then even more so when he doesn’t put it back in the same spot and has to point out it’s
Often, when we, as readers, look at research, we can forget that the researcher even exists. This means we forget about the influence the researcher might have on the study- on the research question itself, the study design, the data collection methods, how the data is analyzed and interpreted, etc. In some research methodologies, such as action research or autoethnography, the presence of the researcher and their biases is clear and upfront. But in other research methodologies, including many quantitative and qualitative approaches, it’s much less clear. However, Kitchen Stories really drives home just how much that bias and influence might be present in what is supposed to be an unbiased study.
The research pedestal
In the entire film, one line really stood out to me- so much so that I wrote it down word for word.
“We sit up on our pedestals and think we know everything.”
This line was said by Greene, a fellow researcher in the study who had befriended the participant he was observing, and was about to quit the study altogether (he was also about to be fired). And it hits on multiple different elements of the film.
First, and most obviously, is the statement’s direct application to what was happening in the research study. The researchers were, quite literally, sitting up on a pedestal, and the premise of the study was that by making observations from that pedestal, they would know everything about the kitchen habits of bachelor men and be able to make generalizations and recommendations.
In reality, as far as the viewer could tell, the researchers were learning very little. Sure, they might be tracking movements and habits, but they weren’t understanding them. When Isak cut a friend’s hair, and the friend then took that hair with him, Folke didn’t know why. When Isak’s phone would ring and he would simply stare at it without answering, Folke again didn’t know why. When Greene’s participant would crack open a beer every day at precisely 4:58 p.m., Greene had no idea why. None of these questions answered while the researcher was up on their pedestal. They were only answered after the researchers came down from the pedestal, formed a relationship with the participant, and asked the question: why?
Taking it further
But I think the statement about the pedestal can go even further than that. This idea that researchers sometimes have, that they can sit and observe from a distance and then know everything or know better, is deeply colonial.
This plays out in Kitchen Stories. The researchers themselves are all from Sweden. And yet, they drive all the way to Norway to conduct their study. Despite the fact that Sweden presumably has plenty of bachelors (and the fact that the researchers themselves are all bachelors, and could easily be participants in the study), they’ve chosen to spend their time observing Norwegian bachelors. They seem to think that they can identify patterns and provide recommendations to a population that is not one they belong to, and who have not asked for their help. If that’s not colonialism, I’m not sure what is.
We see this all the time with Indigenous research as well; this idea that the white researcher can swoop in, observe without being a part of anything, and then come out of the research with something ‘valuable’ to say. In student affairs, we often hear the phrase “nothing about us, without us” in regards to student participation in institutional decision making. I think this concept can also apply to research. If there is not a connection between the researcher and the researched, we should probably think twice.
Kitchen Stories was an entertaining movie to