In this introduction, I seek to suggest ways in which social scientists can begin to make sense of the bewildering variety of eating practices discernible in one western society today—Britain. The chapter begins by outlining how anthropologists have approached this topic, looking particularly at the legacy of the structuralists as well as their critics who adopt a more historical and materialist approach, and then turning to some more recent post-structuralist approaches. It next examines three themes which arise out of the papers in this volume: changing food practices and their implications, food as a marker of identity and difference, and the relationship between food and health. The discussion also includes issues which have recently become significant such as risk and lifestyle. The chapter argues that the study of food reveals our social and cultural selves, as well as our individual subjectivities.
Anthropologists began to write a good deal about food with the rise of structuralism in the 1960s, 1 particularly following the work of Lévi-Strauss (1965, 1968, 1970). He and his followers sought to understand food as a cultural system, an approach which clearly recognises that ‘taste’ is culturally shaped and socially controlled. There is by now a considerable literature influenced by his structuralist approach which treats food as analogous to language, and examines the ways in which its meanings can be grasped from an understanding of symbol and metaphor. Lévi-Strauss maintained that food was ‘good to think with’ and that deciphering the codes underlying such matters as food enabled the anthropologist to reach ‘a significant knowledge of the unconscious attitudes of the