Chapter 10

Being told what to eat

Conversations in a Diabetes Day Centre

Simon Cohn

Recently it has been recognised that an anthropological concern with food would benefit from alliance with the renewed interest in the phenomenological concepts of embodiment and lived experience (Lupton 1996). Previous work that tended to focus on the interpretation of the symbolic values of food and meals echoed the general trend of utilising cultural events and habits as texts to be read. This domination of symbolic approaches has proved very powerful, providing classic studies that have revealed some of the cultural rules that underlie what were assumed to be merely nutritional requirements (Lévi-Strauss 1965 and Douglas 1972 being the obvious examples). However, in the process of unravelling and revealing cultural patterns this perspective has served to remove the actor from view; by concentrating on the textual aspects of food culture, individual dietary choices, the experience of eating and how these relate to personal ideas about the self and the body are ignored.

The current influence of Heidegger and psychoanalytic theory in the social sciences can be seen as complementary to post-structuralists’ generally singular concern with textuality through the stress on the individual in the lived world. Although Heidegger adopts a somewhat metaphysical claim for an existentially authentic self, the appeal of this perspective is a combined recognition of social influence and that the individual is potentially a free agent. It is thereby a rejection of the western philosophical premise of an a priori self divorced from experience and hence sympathetic to social constructionist approaches. However, in contrast to a Foucauldian depiction of the body as the supreme site of pervasive power, a stress on existence as experience places the self as part of the world—and denies any abstraction from it (Csordas 1994).

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