Sociology of Food and Eating Research Paper

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Whetting the Appetite: an Introduction

In this research paper, we explore the sociology of food and eating, one of the emerging subspecialties of sociology. We look at its roots in sociological history and its status as a still small but expanding subfield that intersects with other sociological specialties and with other disciplines. Food studies are by their nature interdisciplinary. Other fields have enriched sociological food studies; similarly, sociology has made unique conceptual and theoretical contributions to the food-related work of scholars in other disciplines. We introduce some core themes and questions that drive sociological research on food. Finally, we speculate on the future of this specialty: Does the sociology of food and eating have the potential to thrive as an independent subfield?

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One difficulty in discussing the sociology of food and eating is that its identity as a subfield is recent, but sociologists’ food studies are not. Over the years, food-related research has been done by rural, medical, and other sociologists. Recent works have been produced within the sociologies of culture, consumption, the body, and gender. To speak of a sociology of food and eating, then, entails appropriating for this subfield scholarship produced by those who do not define themselves as “food sociologists” but who instead locate their work within other domains. Thus, the sociology of food and eating may seem a construct artificially created by “carving out” the food-related works of other subspecialties. We argue that since the 1980s a separate subfield has emerged, gradually taking its place alongside other areas within the discipline. Nevertheless, we face a practical problem: How can we describe this area without being drawn into describing other subfields (and, even worse, other disciplines) that have well-established food literatures? The answer, of course, is that we can’t. What we attempt here is to highlight some core concerns of and theoretical influences on sociologists (and some nonsociologists) who study food, and we point the reader to other related areas, some of which are described in 21st Century Sociology: A Reference Handbook.

This nascent field still seeks an identity—even what to call the specialty has been discussed over the years. John Bennett (1943) referred to a “sociology of diet” to describe studies by rural sociologists of the correlates and meanings of what people ate. This moniker seems not to have taken hold, and it would not describe most food studies by contemporary sociologists. The label we use, the sociology of food and eating, we owe to Anne Murcott (1983), who in 1983 published an edited volume of “exploratory and speculative” (p. 1) articles on the moral and structural implications of food. Some scholars emphasize a link to nutrition studies by referring to “the sociology of food and nutrition” and “nutritional sociology” (Germov and Williams 1999). Alex McIntosh (1996) has referred in the plural to “sociologies of food and nutrition,” acknowledging that food-related topics are studied sociologically from a variety of perspectives, while Alan Warde (1997) refers simply to “the sociology of food.” Recently, Murcott (1999, 2001) has argued that what is today called “the sociology of food” would more legitimately be called “the sociology of eating” for its emphasis on consumption and the “demand” side of the food system, and its relative neglect of the production or “supply” side. Nevertheless, for now, Murcott’s original emphasis on both food and eating seems the most appropriate way of describing this diverse field.

Food as Grist for the Sociological Mill: A History

A decade ago, Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson and Sharon Zukin (1995), pointing to the public’s growing fascination with food and cookbooks, celebrity chefs, dieting, and new modes of food production and distribution, asked,

Why is there no sociology of food? The material and symbolic richness of the subject suggests an infinite number of issues for sociologists’ conceptual menu. The provision and distribution of food, the divisions of labor surrounding food, the role of food rituals in creating solidarity, domesticity, and community—these should be meat and drink for sociology. Yet few sociologists have analyzed food in terms of systems of production or consumption, cultural products or cultural words, or social context. (P. 194)

Their question was being answered even as it was asked. More than a decade earlier, Murcott (1983) had compiled her edited book, The Sociology of Food and Eating, because she and others felt that “the sociological significance of food and eating is important” (p. vii). The same year that Ferguson and Zukin posed their question, Whit’s (1995) Food and Society: A Sociological Approach and Wood’s (1995) The Sociology of the Meal were published. These were followed in short order by McIntosh’s (1996) Sociologies of Food and Nutrition, Beardsworth and Keil’s (1997) Sociology on the Menu, Warde’s (1997) Consumption, Food and Taste, Germov and Williams’s (1999) A Sociology of Food and Nutrition, and Warde and Martens’s (2000) Eating Out: Social Differentiation, Consumption, and Pleasure. All touted the merits of studying food and eating sociologically, and most included accounts for sociology’s relative neglect of food when compared with other disciplines such as anthropology and history. Food had been “taken for granted” (Beardsworth and Keil 1997; McIntosh 1996), perhaps lacking a scholarly cachet due to its association with the mundane—home, family, and women’s domestic roles (Beardsworth and Keil 1997; Mennell 1999). Alan Beardsworth and Teresa Keil (1997:3) attributed sociology’s “coyness in relation to food and eating” to a perceived need to create a unique intellectual domain distanced from matters of physiology. The dearth of attention to food is apparent in Neil Smelser’s (1988) Handbook of Sociology, wherein rare references to food production and eating habits are scattered across chapters on labor, gender, family, and medical sociology. Warren Belasco (2002) linked the neglect of food to the effects of a nineteenth- and twentieth-century “technological utopianism” that envisioned a future of innovation where the synthesis of food pills created in gleaming laboratories and “automated factory farms” might free people from menial labor (p. 8). Such visions fostered an institutional bias that removed social scientists from contemplating the murky worlds of traditional food production, processing, and packaging. When food was studied, rarely was it the primary object of inquiry: “Rather than being the end focus, it tends to be a novel means to illuminate already accepted disciplinary concerns” (p. 6).

Of course, sociologists hadn’t completely neglected food and eating. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century social theorists laid the groundwork for sociology by recognizing the significance of food as both an object of human activity and an indicator of the human condition. Friedrich Engels ([1845] 1969) connected workers’ food rations to their wages, with the lowest paid and unemployed subsisting on spoiled, often adulterated foods. Thorstein Veblen ([1899] 1953) noted that at the opposite end of the social spectrum, lavish foods served as objects of “conspicuous consumption,” displaying a high social standing. Conspicuous consumption was possible because of shared preferences throughout society specifying which items are most prestigious. Georg Simmel ([1915] 1991), contrasting the simple communal meal of farmworkers with the formal dinner of higher classes, saw the meal as an exemplar of the culture’s inevitable, pernicious movement from nature toward increasing formality and social order. The formal dinner, with its matching tableware and regimented manners, symbolized for Simmel a modern culture hostile to individual uniqueness despite its “cult of individuality.” The meal represented conformity: “The plate symbolizes order. . . . The plates on a dining table must all be identical; they cannot tolerate any individuality; different plates or glasses for different persons would be absolutely senseless and ugly” (Simmel [1915] 1991:348). These classical theorists recognized food and eating habits as inextricably tied to and indicative of a powerful societal structure.

Although there was no “sociology of food and eating” as such for most of the twentieth century, sociologists were studying food and eating in fields such as rural, medical, and family sociology. They addressed many issues that concern today’s scholars: eating habits, nutrition, hunger, the meanings of food in daily life. In rural sociology, for example, these interests were long-standing; rural sociologists began to examine food habits and means of improving people’s diets after World War I (Bennett, Smith, and Passin 1942). During the Great Depression, inequalities in food-abundant nations such as the United States left as many as one-third of citizens underfed (Taeuber 1948). Such concerns prompted studies assessing the nutrition and food preferences of rural dwellers (Bennett 1943; Bennett et al. 1942), contrasting them with the diets of urban dwellers (Leevy 1940). John Bennett (1943), for example, showed that the impoverished residents of a rural “riverbottom area” disparaged certain foods for their associations with lower-status groups and desired the processed “urban foods” that indicated higher status and upward mobility. Global food adequacy was of concern as well, especially after World War II. Conrad Taeuber (1948:653), a demographer trained in rural sociology, described the sociological challenges faced by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), whose mission included improving global nutrition, the efficiency of food production and distribution, and rural living conditions. Taeuber saw sociologists playing a vital role in helping the FAO to understand the social factors that affected hunger: Local customs and religious practices could prevent acceptance of certain foods. Agricultural improvements must be suited to the social environments into which they were introduced, or they would fail. Improved nutrition could reduce mortality but also foster population increase. In some places, a better food supply would spur industrialization and alter patterns of farming and land tenure. Today, rural sociologists tackle these and other, new problems. For example, public concerns aroused by the expanding use of genetically modified foods, by heavily publicized waves of food-borne illness, and by conflicting messages regarding health and nutrition have prompted rural sociologists to examine public perceptions of food safety and risks (e.g., Knight and Warland 2005). Rural sociologists continue to look at local agricultural development as well as global food systems. As the sociology of food develops as a subfield, we expect that research from specialties such as rural sociology will continue to yield important insights into the role of food in society.

Food preparation and consumption have long provided sociologists with opportunities to gain insights into modes of production, political rule, rural development, social health issues, discourse and language, image and class, race and gender, family structure and function, intergenerational relations, and regional differences. There is probably no field of sociological endeavor that could not address aspects of food or eating in some fashion or to some benefit.

Take, for example, the many ethnographies of the restaurant, a rich milieu for examining such diverse topics as power relationships, the building of community, and identity construction. William Foote Whyte (1948) described interactions and status relations among restaurant workers and customers in an expanding, increasingly complex food service industry. Joanne Finkelstein (1989, 1998) analyzed dining behavior in restaurants using the symbolic interactionist framework of Erving Goffman. “The restaurant,” she argued, “marks the convergence of the personal and the social, the private and the public” (Finkelstein 1998:203). There, a kind of exhibitionism takes place, “where the influences of social pretensions, guile, and the dictates of fashion have been strongly in evidence” (p. 203). Restaurant behavior connects dining out with false conceptions—and false presentations—of the self. A more benign representation of eating and drinking establishments is found in Ray Oldenburg’s (1989) work; he sees them as “third places” occupying a realm between public and private spheres. In such contexts, home-style familiarity and informal interaction coexist with the excitement of seeing and being seen. As a “third place,” a coffee shop or restaurant might nourish not only the body but also feed a sense of community spirit and pride of place. Gary Allen Fine’s (1996) analysis of the occupational rhetoric of chefs in upscale restaurants showed how chefs use the languages of professionalism, art, business, and labor to claim prestige and maintain a sense of self-worth in an occupation of ambiguous status—cook, manager, artist—in the public’s mind. Jennifer Parker Talwar (2002) described the fast-food restaurant as a venue in which immigrants adapt to American culture while simultaneously shaping the local operations of what are often global corporations. These diverse studies demonstrate the versatility of foodrelated topics for exploring sociological ideas.

Still, despite the usefulness of food in social inquiry, sociological research on food was scattershot at best for many decades. Alan Warde and Lydia Martens (2000), commenting on the history of this research, observed that

for a sociologist, the field consisted of a stuttering debate on the nature of the proper meal and its role in domestic organization . . . , [and] a few occasional essays on exceptional behaviour like vegetarianism, health food shopping and children’s sweets. (P. 1)

That began to change in the 1980s, when a few works on food and eating practices appeared. Anne Murcott (1983) laid out fundamental questions still addressed by today’s food sociologists: What are the moral and symbolic meanings of food, and how are food and eating related to hierarchies of class, age, and gender? Stephen Mennell (1985) drew on Elias’s ([1939] 1978) work to trace the “civilizing of appetite” in England and France since the Middle Ages. Joanne Finkelstein (1989) explored eating out as a form of entertainment that, by turning emotions into commodities, allowed people to purchase and present images of self.

It was during the 1990s that a critical mass of interest stimulated development of a sociological specialty in food and eating—but why? First and foremost, significant changes in the food system, from production to consumption, and growing public enthusiasm for new foods, celebrity chefs, cookbooks, and high-end kitchens may have altered the academic climate regarding food studies.

Increasing student demand for courses on food and society may have provided a practical rationale for sociology and other departments to add food-related courses to their curricula.

Consider the changing food system. In developed nations, food choice abounds. In the United States, global marketing of foodstuffs has exposed us to an array of food products from foreign sources. The seasonality of fruits and vegetables has nearly vanished as supermarkets tap into the bounties of producer nations in both hemispheres (Regmi 2002:1). As food manufacturers strive to maintain competitiveness, they expand product lines by developing variations on their products, increasing “assortment depth” at the supermarket (Stassen and Waller 2002). Consequently, the number of discrete products or stock keeping units available in a typical American supermarket, estimated to be about 14,000 in 1980, is now more than 40,000 (Kaufman 2002). Consumers thus have far more choice, perhaps at the expense of confusion and increased time needed for shopping (Nelson 2001).

Shifting gender roles, especially women’s entry into the labor force, have altered patterns of food purchasing, preparation, and consumption. Increases in discretionary income, coupled with reduced time at home, have contributed to more eating out. Two-paycheck households spend at least 45 percent more on food eaten away from home than do single-paycheck households (National Restaurant Association 2005b). In 1955, only 25 percent of each American food dollar was spent on restaurant food; in 2005 that figure is at least 47 percent (National Restaurant Association 2005a). Fast food accounts for most growth in eating out (Price 2002:35), and the industry has significantly altered food production and consumption patterns (Schlosser 2001). Eating out has had consequences for the grocery business: To win back customers lost to restaurants and take-out food, supermarkets have increased the availability of “home meal replacements.” In just one year, 1999, sales of these fully prepared meal items rose 3 percent (Price 2002:40).

But, alongside this abundance, consider too the statistics on food security and hunger. Hunger has not yet been eliminated in the United States, although food insufficiency is low (estimated at less than 3 percent) and usually transitory (Ribar and Hamrick 2003:iii). Although many populations (especially in Asia, most of Latin America, and the Caribbean) are experiencing increasing levels of food security (Shapouri and Rosen 2004:iii), large Third World populations—just over 900 million in 2003—faced at least short-term food insufficiency. In places such as sub-Saharan Africa, bad weather, drought, political conflict, and the spread of HIV/AIDS contribute to poverty, economic stagnation, and food insecurity (Rosen 2003:14). These conditions raise questions about the politics of food distribution, the social consequences of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, and the use of biotechnological “fixes” to solve problems of hunger and dietary insufficiencies that are attributable, in part, to social and political causes (Nestle 2003). While short-term hunger may be remedied with food aid, the social causes and consequences of long-term food insecurity pose deeper challenges (Jenkins and Scanlan 2001; Nestle 2002).

Other changes in the food system may have sparked academic interest as well. The 1980s and 1990s brought rapid expansion of American fast-food corporations into new markets in Asia and elsewhere, generating questions about cultural change and dilution of local food habits (Watson 2002). Innovations such as genetically modified (GM) foods have not fulfilled the promise of eliminating diseases caused by dietary deficiency. While GM foods are widely grown and used in the United States, they are far less trusted in Europe and parts of Africa, where both the public and politicians question the long-term safety of these products on health, environmental, or economic grounds and the financial motivations of the agribusiness giants who developed them (Nestle 2003). In Europe, and to a lesser extent the United States, food scares in the 1990s, such as “mad cow disease,” raised public concerns regarding food safety (Atkins and Bowler 2001). As the production of food has become less local and more industrialized, some food-borne pathogens (such as E. coli 0157:H7) have increased despite overall improvements in safety (Fox 1997; Schlosser 2001). Sensationalized media stories feed public fears about the food they eat (Miller and Reilly 1995; Reilly and Miller 1997). Other health concerns, particularly over obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, have arisen because processed and fast foods—typically higher in fats and sugars—have become central to our increasingly “supersized” diets (Brownell and Horgen 2004; Critser 2003). Moral and ethical concerns have motivated greater attention if not adherence to vegetarianism (Maurer 2002).

Food system changes have become grist for the sociological mill, providing new opportunities for the application and expansion of sociological theories and methods. But the 1990s also brought changes in the academic climate, fostering greater interest in and legitimacy for food studies in sociology and other disciplines. Stephen Mennell,Anne Murcott, and Anneke van Otterloo (1992:5) suggest several such changes: (1) heightened awareness of nutritional problems worldwide; (2) the professionalization of nutrition and dietetics; and (3) a growing interest in the sociology of culture. The intersection of fast-growing sociologies of culture, of consumption, and of the body has become a nexus for theoretical discussion (Germov and Williams 1999), for example, in studies of the stigmatization of obesity.

Finally, student demands for food and society courses have fostered academic interest, with both undergraduate and graduate courses “oversubscribed” (Watson and Caldwell 2005:1). Jeffery Sobal, Alex McIntosh, and William Whit (1993) have discussed the contexts in which sociologists teach about food. In sociology departments, eating and nutrition provide examples whereby sociological principles can be taught, whereas in nutrition departments and professional schools, sociologists are called on to provide means of interpreting nutrition- and health-related behaviors. There is no simple way of estimating the number of food courses in sociology departments, but the availability of teaching resources for them has grown since 1990, when Whit and Lockwood (1990) compiled a teaching guide that included 16 syllabi, four from sociology programs. Today, one online syllabus set (Deutsch 2003) contains more than 70 syllabi spanning a dozen disciplines. The American Sociological Association recently sponsored compilation of a sociology of food teaching manual (Copelton and Lucal 2005), suggesting that food-related courses are becoming mainstream in sociology.

The development of the sociology of food and eating was aided by the nearly simultaneous publication in the mid- to late-1990s of several texts on the subject. These works, although varying in emphasis, reflected some consensus regarding the core concerns of the field: food production and distribution systems, food consumption patterns as linked to social differentiation and/or stratification, food as a significant cultural object, health/nutrition, hunger and food security (global and local), and the perceived body (body image, disorders of eating and identity, and stigmatization processes). We believe that these texts were significant in defining the subfield in the United States, especially because relatively little food-related research appeared in major American sociology journals in the 1990s.

William Whit’s (1995) Food and Society: A Sociological Approach, a “self-consciously sociological approach” (p. xii) to the study of food and society, drew on multidisciplinary sources to introduce readers to basic nutrition, body size issues, food production and distribution, cultural differences in food choice, stratification and hunger, and agricultural technology. Whit’s (1995) book, unlike most textbooks, revealed an activist orientation, critiquing “profit-driven [agricultural] oligopolies” (p. 189) while advocating vegetarianism and organic farming techniques.

Alex McIntosh’s (1996) more theoretically oriented Sociologies of Food and Nutrition argued that sociologists could examine food as a catalyst for forming or breaking social relationships, and for linking the individual and the cultural, the physical and the symbolic. Studying food could enhance theory development; the title reference to sociologies conveys McIntosh’s view that food and nutrition should be examined from different theoretical stances. He proposed that we think of a sociology in nutrition and a sociology of nutrition (pp. 10–13). The former would address social epidemiology: the social factors that affect diet-related health conditions and their consequences. The latter would study the social organizations, policies, and practices that characterize the fields of dietetics and nutrition, and the linkages of these fields to consumers, medical professionals, and the food industry, for example. However conceptually appealing this distinction may have seemed in 1996, it fails to convey the breadth of topics McIntosh covered even at that time, among them consumerism, the food-related activities of organizations ranging from families to farms to transnationals, food and social stratification at both the micro and macro levels, the body, famine, social change, and the role of the state in food policy and provision. A decade later, what we refer to as the sociology of food and eating is even more expansive, and while there may now indeed be sociologies of food, the nutritional emphasis apparent in McIntosh’s text is but one aspect of today’s food studies within sociology. Nevertheless, Sociologies of Food and Nutrition showed the promise of a nascent subfield as a vehicle for the acquisition and application of knowledge and for theory development.

Alan Beardsworth and Teresa Keil (1997) put forth two themes in their textbook Sociology on the Menu: (1) social change and the human diet and (2) our ambivalence about both our foods and our bodies. Like McIntosh, they advocated the development of a sociology of food that could contribute to theory development and to a broader understanding of social organizations and processes. A more explicitly nutrition-oriented text was the collection A Sociology of Food and Nutrition: The Social Appetite (Germov and Williams 1999). John Germov (a sociologist) and Lauren Williams (a nutritionist) structured the book around three trends figuring prominently in sociology: (1) McDonaldization (a rationalized organizational model, taken to high levels in the fast-food industry, that characterizes many contemporary businesses and social institutions [Ritzer 1993]); (2) social differentiation (with food as an indicator of class, race, ethnicity, gender, and their intersections); and (3) self-rationalization (here, analyses of cultural and personal discourses on nutrition and the body, for example, the stigmatization of obesity).

Other signs of the area’s emergence are found in the professional associations established to support research and practice related to food. The British Sociological Association established a Food Study Group in 1994 (BSA 2005), and the International Sociological Association formed a “thematic group” on famine and society in 1988 (ISA 2005). Progress in the United States was slower: the American Sociological Association has as yet no section on the sociology of food and eating, although the association’s annual meeting has featured several food sessions since 1998. The paucity of food-focused sessions may reflect the fact that food-related presentations are dispersed across sessions on culture, consumption, medical sociology, rural sociology, and other topics. Food studies are more likely to be presented at meetings of specialized organizations, such as the Rural Sociological Society, or at interdisciplinary meetings. Indeed, the development of interdisciplinary food and society organizations may have inhibited the development of a presence for the sociology of food and eating within the American Sociological Association.

Just Add Sociology and Stir: Interdisciplinary Food Studies

What is clear from the last decade’s attempts to define a sociology of food and eating is that this subfield would not be, could not be, a purely sociological endeavor. The study of food and society is inherently interdisciplinary as food touches nearly every corner of human existence.

Scholarship on food and eating appears in the literatures of anthropology, history, economics, geography, marketing, nutrition science, philosophy, political science, psychology, and public health. That sociologists routinely draw on these literatures is apparent in both their research citations and their reading lists for food and society courses, where we commonly find the scholarship of anthropology (e.g., Douglas 1972; Goody 1982; Harris 1985; Lévi-Strauss [1964] 1969; Mintz 1985), history (e.g., Gabaccia 2000; Levenstein 1988, 1993), cultural studies (e.g., Barthes [1957] 1972; Lupton 1996), American studies (e.g., Belasco 1993), geography (e.g., Bell and Valentine 1997; Shortridge and Shortridge 1998), philosophy (e.g., Curtin and Heldke 1992), and journalism (e.g., Pollan 2002, 2003; Schlosser 2001; Sokolov 1991).

Each discipline provides insights that add to a more comprehensive view of this broad-ranging subject, filling gaps or lack of attention in other fields. Ben Fine, Michael Heasman, and Judith Wright (1996) contend that the complexity of the food system requires cross-fertilizations among a number of disciplines. Anne Murcott (2001) argues that an undue emphasis on consumption by food sociologists has left some poorly equipped to deal with issues of production, where researchers in other specialties may be more knowledgeable. Even if food sociologists are not preoccupied with consumption, there still are good reasons for those studying food to call on the scholarship of other disciplines. Other fields examine objects and phenomena that would typically be beyond the purview of sociology. A culinary historian such as Phyllis Pray Bober (1999), using archaeological methods, can delve into the diets of prehistory, or, using the earliest documentary sources, the cuisines of antiquity, providing points of comparison for sociological analyses of today’s eating practices. Moreover, work in other disciplines often parallels research in sociology. Anthropologist Jack Goody (1982) refers to his work on the political economy of food production and consumption as “sociological.” Geographers, whose work sometimes overlaps that of rural sociologists (Murcott 2001), call attention to the importance of place, region, and immigration in ways familiar to sociologists. For example, Gill Valentine’s (1999) work on “eating in” advances our understanding of the complex relationship between identity construction and the home by exploring food consumption and the spatial dynamics of cooking and eating.

For sociologists, interdisciplinary connections also foster professional development. Given the still low profile of food studies within sociology, food sociologists have found interdisciplinary organizations to be ideal venues for sociation and presentation of food-oriented research. The Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society, organized in 1987 by members of several disciplines (among them sociologists), promotes cross-disciplinary work on agriculture and food (Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society 2005). The Association for the Study of Food and Society, founded about the same time by sociologists and others interested in agricultural and nutritional issues (Whit 1999), now claims member affiliations with 23 disciplines (Association for the Study of Food and Society 2005). The joint meeting of these two organizations draws practitioners from the social sciences, humanities, health/nutrition sciences, marketing, and culinary arts. Other venues for presentation are the Popular Culture Association-American Culture Association meeting and meetings of regional culture associations. Interdisciplinary journals (among them Food and Foodways; Gastronomica; Food, Culture, and Society; and The Journal of Popular Culture) publish sociologically oriented food studies.

Key Ingredients: Concepts and Themes in Food Studies

At present, there is no “food theory” per se. Rather, food sociologists draw on theoretical perspectives and concepts drawn from other specialties within and outside sociology. Although the authors of these ideas may not be identified with food studies, use of their work connects the sociology of food and eating to a tradition of sociological thought.

Three Paradigms

Stephen Mennell and his associates (1992) identified three fundamental paradigms in the analysis of food and eating: structuralism, represented in the works of LéviStrauss ([1964] 1969) and Douglas (1972, 1984); cultural materialism, as presented by Harris (1979, 1985); and the developmental approach, Mennell’s (1985) application of Elias’s ([1939] 1978) notion of the “civilizing process.” Although influential, these approaches have not become core paradigms—food studies have branched too widely, beyond their domains. Nevertheless, the insights these paradigms provided encouraged scholars to think about food as significant in human society and to contemplate why peoples vary in their choices and in the symbolic loadings they give to their eating practices.


In The Raw and the Cooked, Claude Lévi-Strauss ([1964] 1969) conceived of a “culinary triangle” of three categories of food: the cooked, the raw, and the rotten. Whereas the passage from either raw or cooked to rotten is a natural process, the transformation from raw to cooked is a cultural one; the juxtaposition of raw and cooked represents the binary opposition of nature and culture. Analyzing food as a kind of language by exploring cultures’ conceptual categories for food classification, as well as their customs and rules for food preparation, is a means by which Lévi-Strauss sought to understand universally shared structures of human cognition. Mary Douglas (1972, 1984), arguably the most influential structuralist author on food, similarly conceived of meals as systems of decipherable codes that reflect classifications within the larger culture. “If food is treated as a code,” she wrote, “the messages it encodes will be found in the pattern of social relations being expressed. The message is about different degrees of hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, boundaries and transactions across the boundaries” (Douglas 1972:61). This code expresses multiple meanings in a highly ritualized, yet taken-for-granted “pattern of social relationships” (p. 61). Unlike Lévi-Strauss, Douglas did not see food as revealing universal patterns, but for both theorists, food revealed underlying structures and meanings of cultural significance.

Cultural Materialism

Marvin Harris (1979, 1985) challenged the view that eating patterns are to be read for the broader codes they reveal by approaching food choice as a matter of efficiency and functionality. Thus, Americans and Europeans choose not to eat bugs and other “small things” not because they are inherently disgusting but because these people have more efficient sources of protein in the form of small mammals and fish. In other parts of the world, small things are relished as food, in part because of the dearth of other accessible forms of protein but also because the small things available are often larger or more efficient food sources—swarmed insects, for example, or large insects and grubs. Similarly, Harris (1985) explained the Hindu reverence for the sacred cow and the Semitic disdain for pig-eating by calling attention to the environmental roles played by these animals as well as to the social implications of their use by humans.

The Developmental Approach

Stephen Mennell’s developmental approach derives primarily from Norbert Elias’s ([1939] 1978) concept of “civilizing process.” Elias articulated a gradual yet extensive civilizing process that occurred in Western societies over several centuries. One of its effects was a shift from the exercise of external constraints on individuals toward the internalized constraints that individuals exercise on themselves, resulting in greater self-discipline and self-control. Mennell extended Elias’s theory of civilizing process explicitly to food, arguing that a “civilizing appetite” reflects a gradual increase in self-control over appetite. Thus, we see a shift in emphasis from quantity to quality in the cuisine of the European upper classes during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Earlier, feasting had been a sign of wealth, but gradually, elegance and refinement came to be represented by the delicacy of the food eaten and the moderation of appetite.

The Culture Industry

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno ([1944] 2002) have used the notion of “culture industry” in analyzing the spread of mass culture and the commodification of cultural standards. Their culture industry thesis highlights the growing sameness of cultural practices globally. With standardization, people become passive consumers: Millions buy fast food daily without considering where this food came from and how it was made. Eric Schlosser’s (2001) description of a ubiquitous American fast-food scene echoes Horkheimer and Adorno’s prediction of an “interchangeable sameness” resulting from mass production. The ambience of the fast food restaurant—the “rush of cold air . . . the backlit color photographs above the counter” (p. 3)—has become ordinary: “The whole experience of buying fast food has become so routine, so thoroughly unexceptional and mundane, that it is now taken for granted” (p. 3). That routine experience has become global, “helping to create a homogenized international culture” (p. 229). Standardization pervades all aspects of the fast-food industry, affecting employers, employees, and consumers. Employer-mandated scripted interactions at the fast-food counter convey the illusion of quality service to the customer while allowing employees to maintain a social distance and impersonality (Leidner 1993). Yi-Chi Chen and Monina Wang (2002) observe that a McDonald’s outlet is identifiable by its standards of service and product, its standard greetings and smiles. The floor plan and food ingredients are calculated and standardized to promote efficient preparation. Both crew and customers are socialized in now-standard consumption behavior: Queue up to order, take the food to the table, and clean up before leaving. Standardization thus embodies a form of control that can be measured and monitored to achieve stability and universality.


Such analyses evoke George Ritzer’s (1993) widely cited work on “McDonaldization,” in which the fast-food industry becomes both the model of and metaphor for contemporary organizational behavior. Describing the rationalization of the fast-food industry, Ritzer shows how predictability (of product, of behavior), calculability (of time, of quantity), efficiency (of food preparation, of service), and control (of managers, workers, and consumers) have enabled the fast-food industry to expand and profit, becoming a model for other organizations and institutions in contemporary society.

The homogenization that accompanied the transition to a global mass culture has given rise to fears that local foodstuffs, flavors, and culinary practices may vanish. The Slow Food Movement, founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986, challenged the core principles of McDonaldization by promoting the preservation of regional agricultural diversity and the celebration of the sensual “pleasures of the table” (Slow Food USA 2005). The backlash to McDonaldization is at times more directly confrontational— French farm activists gained worldwide publicity in 1999 when they protested the industrialization of food by demolishing a new McDonald’s outlet with tractors (Frost 2002).


The food literature in sociology frequently cites Pierre Bourdieu’s ([1979] 1984) notion of “habitus,” internalized structures that shape individuals’actions without necessary reference to the beliefs or awareness of the individuals who have internalized them. The concept is attractive to social scientists who analyze concrete details of everyday life or lifestyle—attire, manners, eating practices, and the like—to trace how an ideology may be specifically and practically implemented, even without the conscious awareness of the actor. In Distinction, Bourdieu ([1979] 1984) describes “taste” as a means whereby class distinctions are reproduced and reinforced. An individual internalizes attitudes, preferences, habits of behavior that represent his class. Food and eating habits, structured by class-related opportunities, are fundamental manifestations of each class’s taste. So, for example, without an individual’s awareness, his choices (of foods, of restaurants), his behaviors (his bodily carriage and manners at the table), and his attitudes (toward others’ choices, manners, and lifestyles) all reproduce the ideologies of class he has internalized. Such distinctions, however, may vary across societies: Michele Lamont (1992) found that the Americans were less prone to making such differentiations than were Bourdieu’s French.

The Reflexive Project of the Self

According to Anthony Giddens (1991), people in modern society face the burden as well as the liberation of constructing their own identities in a process he refers to as “the reflexive project of the self” (p. 52). He writes, “The question ‘How shall I live?’ has to be answered in day-today decisions about how to behave, what to wear and what to eat” (p. 14). In traditional society, making choices about living—about how to be and how to act—is relatively straightforward. In postmodern society, it is complex, stressful, and risky because information is fragmented and diverse: “Taking charge of one’s life involves risk, because it means confronting a diversity of open possibilities” (p. 73). Barry Smart (1994) addresses the anxiety of postmodern eating practices. Contemporary eating experiences look like fragmented snapshots—people nibble in the cafeteria, and wander, overwhelmed, past myriad food items arrayed up and down megamarket aisles. Choosing the foodstuffs and recipes they should use is difficult. Glossy cookbooks and the televised cooking demonstrations of celebrity chefs project images of what people can become, yet the expectations of gratification that they inspire are never quite realized by the individual (p. 171). Glossy cookbooks are “gastro-porn” (p. 170), pleasurable to look at, yet unattainable in reality. The result is “panic eating,” an “orgy of gastroglobal eclecticism” (p.175), emblematic of what Giddens described as the double edge—burden and liberation—of taking charge of one’s life.

Social Contextual Factors in Eating Practices

Eating practices encompass the context and atmosphere of a meal: the total experience of what and where we eat, how we begin each meal, what we eat with, and with whom we eat. Thus, these practices involve a package of culturally, socially, and historically contextualized experiences. The sociological study of food and eating contributes to a fuller picture of this context-specific experience. Rick Fantasia (1995) argues that contexts can change the meanings of eating. Studying fast food in France, he observes that the highly centralized, rigidly standardized operation of McDonald’s is viewed by younger generations as the organizational embodiment of democracy, individualism, and free enterprise (p. 209), a message they embrace to reject the stuffiness and rigidity of French tradition. Fantasia considers “the emergence of the fast food experience in France to be culturally and socially decontextualized” (p. 235). Different meanings emerge in different contexts.

Another sociological study of context—here, time rather than geographic space—appears in Joseph Gusfield’s (1992) comparison of natural food movements in the 1830s and 1950s. While both movements rejected social controls and institutions, the meanings of their messages diverge due to the contexts in which each movement arose. In the 1830s, the natural food movement saw eating practices as a means of reconnecting with the “moral authority” inherent in nature. By comparison, in the 1950s and later, nature was no longer perceived as a source of moral authority. Instead, a return to natural eating represented a countercultural rejection of a technological, commercialized society.

The Interplay between the Global and the Local

Food can reveal dramatic social change. Issues raised at the turn of the twenty-first century—globalization, antiglobal reactions, and the rebirth of nationalism—have created an explosion in food studies, motivating research on, for example, the globalization of food-delivery systems, most notably those associated with the fast-food industry (Belasco 1989; Bloomfield 1994; Reiter 1991; Royle and Towers 2002). Blurring of the boundaries between national, regional, and ethnic identities has prompted studies capturing the effects of globalization and the complexity of the global-local nexus.

Richard Wilk (1999) examines whether globalization erases local tradition in Belize, where there “has been an unusually global society, with open borders, a mobile population, and close connections with international commerce” (p. 69). In this context, one would not expect to find a national cuisine. Yet globalization, via tourism, has encouraged the creation of local culinary traditions. Wilk found that “Belizeans of different ethnic groups have forged a remarkable degree of consensus on what they like to eat and how it should be prepared” (p. 86). The connection between global and local can also be seen in themes of the other in the context of colonialism. Uma Narayan (1997) describes how the colonial British imported curry from India and how they “naturalized and nationalized” it (p. 163), thus “inventing” today’s Western curry powder. Indian kitchens and groceries have no “curry powder.” What Indians buy or make are masalas, different mixtures of ground spices used to season a variety of dishes; curry in vegetarian South India refers to a quite different spicing of vegetables and rice (p. 164). Narayan attributes the invention of curry powder to a British desire to “domesticate” Indian culture and erase the dangers associated with the Indian other.

Food and Identity

Food is a vehicle, symbolic and material, for negotiating and constructing a sense of who we are. People’s practices around food unfold in a multiplicity of social spaces, each having implications for identity. A large literature examines how eating practices articulate identities: national (e.g., Ohnuki-Tierney 1993; Pilcher 1996; Tam 1997), regional (e.g., Bahloul 1995; Fuller 1995; Toombs 1993), ethnic (e.g., Brown and Mussell 1984; Caglar 1995; Ray 2004), and gender (e.g., Beoku-Betts 1995; Brown and Jasper 1993; Counihan 1988). These studies detail how certain foods and rituals become powerful symbols in the construction of systems of shared meanings. Socially constructed meanings around food, these authors argue, serve to mark boundaries between genders, life-cycle stages, social classes, occupations, religions, geographical regions, racial and ethnic groups, and nations.

Cookbooks are an important medium for the construction of identity. Arjun Appadurai (1988) studies the creation through cookbooks of a national cuisine in contemporary India. He found that middle-class women across the subcontinent communicated with one another through the medium of cookbooks, blurring regional, ethnic, and caste boundaries and thereby fostering a sense of Indian national identity. Appadurai shows how people turn foods into powerful symbols of group affinity. Similarly, Rafia Zafar (1999) examines the creation of cookbooks by African American women as a means of establishing a voice and identity in a situation of internal colonialism. As these women write about certain foods, they recall specific sites. Thus, for Gullah women, writing prompts the awakening of a historical consciousness in which tradition is creatively reimagined, leading to self-affirmation and self-creation.

Food and the Social Construction of Everyday Life

Michel de Certeau (1984) focuses on how ordinary people use everyday objects and spaces. In doing so, he reveals the creativity in everyday routines of cooking, eating, and grocery shopping. Without denying the weight of social structures, de Certeau argues that people practice an “art of living” in everyday life. His theory of a practice of everyday life invites food scholars to reexamine the often trivialized and overlooked daily routines of life. Thus Marjorie DeVault (1991) explores the implications of “feeding the family” from the perspective of those who do that work. From interviews conducted in a diverse group of American households, DeVault reveals the extensive effort and skill behind the “invisible” work of shopping, cooking, and serving meals. Elisabeth Fürst (1997), interviewing Swedish housewives, found that daily home cooking expresses feminine identities and rationality. Compared with other housework, experienced as dull and routine, “cooking carries positive potentials” (p. 441). Similarly, Sherrie Inness’s (2001) collection, Cooking Lessons, reveals cooking to be a source of women’s power and influence in their households and communities. Inness notes, “For women without access to other forms of creative expression, preparing a superior cake or batch of fried chicken has been a way to display their talent in an acceptable venue” (p. xi). Mary Gatta (2002) explores everyday practices in restaurant settings from diners to fancy restaurants. Drawing on Goffman (1959) but attending also to emotional elements she sees lacking in his work, she uses a “stage” metaphor to examine the strategies and narratives used by food servers to construct and maintain identity, especially gender identity.

Production . . . Consumption: From “Versus” to “And”

In the mid-1990s, sociologists and other social scientists shifted their focus from production to consumption as the dominant contemporary cultural force in political, economic, and social life. From this stance, patterns of food consumption could indicate changes in local, national, and global contexts as clearly as patterns of food production would. Anne Murcott (2001) contends this shift may have gone too far: “An undue preoccupation with eating, intake, diet, and cuisines—the demand side—has developed detached from corresponding examination of the logic, imperatives, and organizations of supply” (p. 10).

Increasingly, however, food scholars look for connections between production and consumption. For instance, Purnima Mankekar (2002) illustrates how specific local consumption is contextualized within the global form. She vibrantly describes Indian grocery stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, their commodities—produced in the United States, India, or elsewhere—displayed to evoke, here, the American supermarket, and there, a regional Indian market. The shopper is enmeshed in transnationality, aware at one time of her two national identities, Indian and American. Melissa Caldwell’s (2002) ethnographic study of food consumption practices in Moscow links personal eating experiences to broader political issues, such as growing nationalist sentiments in the context of a globalizing Russia.

Linking consumption and production is advocated by Ben Fine (2002) in his critique of the literature on eating disorders, which tends, he argues, to overemphasize individual consumption, especially among women. Left unaddressed is the relationship between these disorders and the conditions of production: “Compulsions to eat and to diet are heavily created and conditioned by the economics of food. Both eating and dieting are fed by huge industries, seeking to expand in whatever way possible” (p. 223). Our food system encourages overconsumption and then sells us foods to help us diet. To understand consumption, Fine argues, we must link it to production.

Postmodernism and Eating Practices in Popular Culture

Postmodernism is associated with change: industrial and technological change, expanding consumerism, altered patterns of domestic and paid labor for women, shifting immigration patterns, increasing affluence, and new leisure activities for larger numbers of people. With these changes have come alterations in food practices as people travel and eat out more, peruse the photographic art of food stylists in cookbooks and magazine ads, and consume foods enhanced by food chemists and nutritionists. The popular culture is infused with food: food writing proliferates in newspapers and on the Web, cooking shows and “food travelogues” fill television airtime, and food services penetrate into nearly every leisure site—theaters and galleries, cinemas, shopping malls, stadiums, and airports. Even grocery shopping has become recreational. Food is woven into the construction of lifestyles, expanding its role as a marker of social position.

From the debates over postmodernism, food, and popular culture, some themes have emerged. Steve Redhead (1995) argues that a global popular-culture industry has developed, incorporating formerly disparate areas of leisure and pleasure. As eating becomes a leisure activity (Wood 1992), people sample other cultures through their foods, giving rise to notions of a “global kitchen” (Cook 1995; Cook and Crang 1996) and “kitchen table tourism” (Turgeon and Pastinelli 2002). Food media are instrumental in this sampling, with food writers, critics, and celebrity chefs counseling us on cooking techniques, ingredients, and menus of other cultures. The global meets the local via television and cookbooks, and an at-home culinary tourism begins (Long 1998, 2004), often divorced from a sense of the cultural context through which food sampling might yield cultural understanding (hooks 1998). Such “food adventuring” (Heldke 2003) reflects a quest for the unusual and exotic, exposing colonialist attitudes embedded in our everyday relationship with foreign foods.

Food and the Body

Concerns about the human body, particularly its size, are a point of intersection for the sociologies of food, health, culture, and gender. Historically, studies of obesity and eating disorders had been the domain of medical professionals and nutritionists, who linked eating disorders primarily to psychological conditions such as depression (Maurer and Sobal 1995). The “pathology” of obesity was treated with drugs, surgery, and counseling (Joanisse and Synnott 1999; Sobal 1995), and the obese were often blamed for failure to curtail food intake (Parham 1999). Little was made of the fact that the vast majority of people diagnosed with eating disorders were women (Way 1995). Hilde Bruch, renowned for her work on anorexia, saw in this condition a struggle to ward off adulthood, without recognizing that it was womanhood her patients were resisting (Chernin 1981). By the 1980s, feminist scholars and social scientists challenged the medicalization of obesity and eating disorders by calling attention to an oppressive “thin ideal” to which women in particular were held (Way 1995). Many women “were in a perpetual state of ‘disordered eating’” (Germov and Williams 1996:631), dissatisfied with their own bodies (Haworth-Hoeppner 1999). By the 1990s, sociologists advanced a number of themes: the “contemporary cult of slimness” (Beardsworth and Keil 1997:175), the stigmatization of the obese (and to a lesser extent, the underweight), weight-related identities, and the role of social organizations and “experts” in shaping social discourse on the body.

The sociological insights of Erving Goffman (1963) figure prominently in discussions of the stigmatization of the obese. Douglas Degher and Gerald Hughes (1999) describe the “spoiled identity” of the fat person and the information management techniques the obese use to deal with stigmatization. Gina Cordell and Carol Ronai (1999) identify strategies of “narrative resistance” used by overweight women to counter stigmatizing stereotypes. Karen Honeycutt (1999) found that whether women dieted, accepted their size, or joined fat-acceptance groups, most stigmatized obesity as unattractive and monitored the weights of other people. At the other end of the weight issue, Donna Maurer’s (1999) dramaturgical analysis of vegetarian organizations shows how leaders try aggressively to counter the negative association of meat avoidance with excessive thinness by emphasizing the health benefits of a vegetarian diet.

Researchers have also examined how organizations shape attitudes toward body size, especially for women. Some women’s team-sport policies and practices encourage excessive dieting (Ransom 1999). Weight-loss organizations, both commercial and noncommercial, moralistically reinforce unrealistic standards of attractiveness (Stinson 2001). Overeaters Anonymous, with a mostly female membership, has come under fire for promulgating gendered norms of size (Lester 1999). By contrast, the size acceptance movement, for example, the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance, promotes an “oppositional discourse” to counter the stigmatization of obesity (Sobal 1999).

Other topics of interest to sociologists include vegetarianism, food technology and agribusiness, food security, and nutrition/health policy. As food touches nearly every aspect of human existence, opportunities for sociological exploration are myriad. Moreover, there is room for sociologists to play important roles in formulating food-related social policies, much needed in a social world still haunted by problems of hunger, yet increasingly vulnerable to the repercussions of overconsumption.

Finding a Place at the Table: The Future of the Subfield

Previously we referred to Ferguson and Zukin’s (1995) inquiry, “Why is there no sociology of food?” As we move well into the twenty-first century, the question has become “What is the future for a sociology of food and eating?” Food studies in sociology are gaining ground as a vibrant arena for the application and extension of sociological ideas. Still, as a field that readily links itself with other disciplines, the sociology of food has yet to become fully recognized as a subfield. What is the likelihood that it will do so?

Just as the cultural field of gastronomy in nineteenthcentury France drew energy from an increasingly enthusiastic discourse on food and cooking (Ferguson 1998), today’s broad popular and academic fascination with food and eating has inspired a disciplinary fervor among sociologists studying food-related topics. A new generation of scholars identify themselves as sociologists of food, thereby affirming the value of the study of food production, distribution, and consumption practices for our understanding of culture and society. We see the work of these scholars unfolding in various ways—in journals and a growing number of textbooks, at conferences, and in the classroom. Eventually, we may witness the establishment of a section on food and eating within the American Sociological Association.

For a field to develop an autonomous identity, certain conditions must be present. For example, Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson (1998) argues that the field of gastronomy developed in France during the 1800s because certain social and cultural circumstances existed, among them increasing urbanization, the movement of welltrained chefs from the homes of the elites following the Revolution into their own restaurant businesses, and increased eating out in these establishments. These conditions inspired an increasingly enthusiastic public discourse about food and eating, which gradually became linked to established domains of French cultural discourse. There are certain echoes of the development of nineteenthcentury gastronomic discourse in today’s emergence of the sociology of food and eating. Rapid and significant changes in food production and consumption have prompted increased sociological discourse on food and eating. Therein we find a point of convergence for those in established sociological subfields—culture, health/ medicine, gender, race/ethnicity, religion, family, work and occupations, and rural sociology among them—who were already studying food-related topics. These interconnections may prove advantageous in reinforcing the sociology in the sociology of food and eating, perhaps strengthening its own identity within sociology while the subfield draws on the insights of other disciplines.

As discussed previously, food scholars have taken this new subfield in multiple directions. We believe this trend will continue. While this multiplicity of interests could hinder intellectual cohesiveness of the area, it also provides opportunities for interdisciplinary research and theory development. Ultimately, the sociology of food and eating offers ways of rethinking notions of production and consumption, technology, law and policy, everyday mundane practices, material culture, and identity and embodiment. In its broad scope of inquiry, the sociology of food and eating will continue to acknowledge the myriad manifestations in which food operates in human society.


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