Food and the Status Quest: An Interdisciplinary Perspective

By Polly Wiessner; Wulf Schiefenhövel | Go to book overview

1. INTRODUCTION
FOOD, STATUS, CULTURE, AND NATURE

Polly Wiessner

B ehavioral predispositions that are shared by all humans and that have an impact on the organization of society are few but significant. In addition to those that structure perception and communication, only a handful have been identified in ethology: social and spatial territoriality, possessiveness and respect for norms of possession, giving and reciprocating in a social context to create bonds, incest avoidance, the tendency of humans to form in-group and out-group identities, and the quest to seek status or high regard ( Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989). These predispositions can provide important guidelines for research in the social sciences because they operate in all contemporary societies, and they can be used to formulate questions about the past and to anticipate problems of the future. Although their roots in human phylogeny and their universality in human societies suggest a biological basis, they are not wholly determined by biology, for it is in these realms that culture experiments most creatively.

In 1988, when the European Committee for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition met to discuss topics for future projects, we decided to take one of these universal tendencies, and to ask: how does culture guide, restrict, or elaborate a biologically-based behavior, and, in turn, how do biological predispositions channel or restrain culture? With food at the center of our interest, the status quest was a logical topic on which to concentrate. After all, it has been long accepted that the popular adage "you are what you eat" applies to our social as well as to our physical being. Participants from a number of different disciplines were invited so that in addition to biological and cultural approaches prehistoric, historic, and

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