Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Food, Place and Identity: Consuming Australia's `Beef Capital'

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Food, Place and Identity: Consuming Australia's `Beef Capital'

Article excerpt

Introduction

The consumption of food is both intensely personal and profoundly social. Through the act of eating, we both incorporate the elements of food into our bodily organisms, and are incorporated ourselves into a host of social networks. As the geo-politics of food production and distribution shows, eating carries with it potentially enormous social and environmental significance. From the fair trade movement and the campaign against Nestle, to `trade wars' between the United States and the European Community, it is hard to escape constant reminders of the complex and fluid relationships between the livelihoods of food producers, the health of agricultural environments, the economic performance of food exporting nations, the activities of transnational corporations and the ways in which we satiate our own hunger. At the same time that food activists compete to define a normative agenda for consumption practices, we are bombarded with a plethora of media images reminding us of the linkages between what we eat and how we appear to others -- through both our body size and shape, and the desirability, or otherwise, of being seen to consume particular foodstuffs. We are also reminded of the role of food consumption as a focus for sociability and emotional intimacy, and as a marker of group identities.

This article has a particular concern with the spatiality of food consumption practices, an issue that has been substantially ignored to date in the otherwise burgeoning literature on the sociology of food. Not surprisingly, human geographers have been more willing to examine this issue, the bulk of whom have concentrated on the increasingly distantiated social relationships responsible for food provision that link, for example, producers in Central America with consumers in the United Kingdom via an intricate network of producers, agribusinesses and retailers. But as Arce and Marsden (1993; see also Marsden and Arce, 1995) point out, these are not only networks of food provision, they are also networks of meaning through which -- in a multitude of contested episodes of social interaction -- foods are constructed as meaningful commodities. This article draws on the work of a small number of authors who have sought, in particular, to explore the spatiality of meanings associated with food consumption (Bell and Valentine, 1997; Cook and Crang, 1996; Smith, 1996), each of whom offers variants on the argument that our subjectivity, or sense of self, is in some sense derived from the places in which we consume foods. As Bell and Valentine (1997) proclaim, `we are where we eat'. But, importantly, 'where we eat' is not something that may be taken for granted; `foods do not simply come from places, but also make places as symbolic constructs' (Cook and Crang, 1996: 140).

This article is based on a study that utilized focus group and life history interviews within the City of Rockhampton -- the self-proclaimed `Beef Capital' of Australia -- to explore linkages between food consumption practices, the symbolic construction of Rockhampton and its surrounding region as a site for those practices, and the lives of Rockhampton residents. This research will be contrasted with the more substantial literature on the nature of these relationships in the metropolises; the point being not to defend Rockhampton in the face of its apparent dearth of cultural capital, but to offer an alternative perspective to the often textually based interpretations of regionality as a spatial-cultural construct evident in other studies.

Food, space, time and the body

The importance of space and time to the patterning of social relationships has been highlighted in the work of a number of social theorists (for example Giddens, ]990; Harvey, 1996; Lash and Urry, 1994; Latour, ]987, 1993; Thrift, 1996; Urry, 1995). A key feature of these analyses is the problematization of space and time as fixed geographic and temporal categories. …

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