Making the Self in a Material World: Food and Moralities of Consumption

Article excerpt

Food is increasingly central to consumer culture. From fine dining restaurants to farmers' markets, stainless steel kitchenware to celebrity chef cookbooks, a stylish array of culinary commodities are on offer for fashioning our identities. Yet this occurs at a time when commodity consumption more generally is under greater question as a site of self-making, and anti-consumerist sentiment is rising. In this article I examine how people negotiate moralities of consumption in their identity formation by focusing on those for whom food is central to their sense of self: 'foodies'. I define foodies as amateur enthusiasts who strive to form a moral self not only through the consumption of material cultures of food-which is my focus here-but also their production.1 In this article I draw on theories of consumption, identity and material culture, and ethnographic research conducted with foodies in Melbourne, Australia. I argue that many foodies are anxious about the morality of making a self through consumption, and explore how they negotiate this in a number of ways: first, through the selection of which material goods are deemed proper for self-formation and, second, through what levels of consumption are considered appropriate. I focus on fine dining and shopping-two consumption practices that are central to foodie lifestyles-and argue that different moral registers operate within each practice.


Consumption is a syncretic concept that has two senses, one of 'purchase' and the other of 'using-up'.2 Daniel Miller argues that the latter sense has led consumption to be viewed negatively throughout history as an 'intrinsic evil'. A higher moral value has historically been placed on production, which 'creates the world', than consumption, 'whereby we use it up'.3 This morality is epitomised by the work ethic and abstention from consumption on the part of puritan Protestants, which Max Weber explored in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.4 Miller highlights how this suspicion of consumption and the moral stance against it continues today and has dominated academic work on the topic. It is embodied in the theory of consumption as materialistic, which suggests that people in capitalist societies are bound up in the excessive accumulation of material goods-either for their own sake or for purposes of distinction-and that these goods, while never satisfying the consumer, are more important to them than their relationships with other people. Miller argues that this perspective is inherently middle-class-voiced by affluent academics anxious about their own levels of consumption-as it advocates an 'ascetic repudiation of the need for goods per se', the 'liberation' of people from things.5 Moreover, writings from this perspective, which tend to be speculative, ignore the many empirical studies of consumption which have found that most people are not that materialistic.

This critique by Daniel Miller warns against viewing material consumption as intrinsically bad, yet as Toby Miller reminds us, it should not be seen as intrinsically good either.6 He highlights how cultural studies has often viewed consumption in a less critical manner, particularly that undertaken by minorities, such as the 'resistant' consumption of working-class subcultures. Cultural studies is renowned within other disciplines in the social sciences for its postmodern model of the consumer as the playful identity-maker.7 This more positive and at times celebratory approach to consumption has led to criticisms not only from other academic disciplines, but also from left-wing journalists, who have accused cultural studies of being aligned with right-wing economics, suggesting that it has become 'the handservant of capital'.8

An effective way to escape polarised views of consumption as purely positive or negative is to employ the method of ethnography which, as Don Slater argues, allows scholars to approach consumption as 'a realm of everyday practice that has to be understood in its own terms, rather than from a moral high ground'. …