Four years of wide-ranging anthropological research yielded a surprising discovery: the Coca-Cola Company, working through an industry-funded scientific nonprofit, had quietly reshaped China’s obesity science and policy to align with Coke’s position that exercise, not food and drink, is what matters—a view few experts accept. Hoping to get the results to the key audiences, the author submitted a capstone article to a series of high-impact medical journals that was repeatedly rejected. Eventually the article was published in a top journal, but not as “scientific research.” This prompted reflection on the differences between the methods of anthropology and medical science. Anthropological research is distinguished by methodological openness, serendipity, narrative sense-making, and personalism. It is personalistic in that the body is a research tool, and a solo researcher at the center acts as data clearinghouse and marshals regional expertise to show how things make cultural sense. Using the Coke-in-China research, this article illustrates how this systematic yet self-consciously subjective approach was effective in breaching the walls of industry science and uncovering the social ties and institutional mechanisms that allowed corporate schemes to remain hidden while gaining such power. The author encourages readers in medicine and public health to think about the complex, human process by which they reach their own conclusions. A better understanding of how each science is human in its own way might open up space for greater dialogue and even more collaborative knowledge-making at the crossroads of anthropology and the health sciences.


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pp. 131-152
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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