The Social Relations of Food

By Wilkes, Christopher | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

The Social Relations of Food


Wilkes, Christopher, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction: the Emerging Sociology and Anthropology of Food.

The sociology and anthropology of food have recently become very fashionable places to work, with large volumes of books, articles and papers erupting from the academy. (1) This emerging concern with food has sent these new researchers off in all directions; to study the rise of national cultures and national cuisines; to examine processes of reification, colonization and the social relations of labour surrounding the process of food production; to reassess the issue of authenticity and inauthenticity in cuisine; to analyse the role of commodification and market pressures; to investigate more fully the pathologies of anorexia, bulimia and over-eating; as well as the newly-discovered old--the investigation of the daily practices of eating. Also emerging is an extensive history of manners centred on eating (2), as well as elaborations on hierarchy, taste and alimentary pleasures. (3) And, unlike post-modern theorists of the literary text, sociologists and anthropologists have concentrated less on meaning than on social practices, cultural histories, class, inequality and material conditions. Less Derrida; more Bourdieu. (4)

My paper focuses on a single question: if we were to take this new field of scholarship seriously, what effect would it have on our thinking about nutrition? At first glance, there seems little that is immediately useful to nutritionists from work which examines, on the one hand, the historical sources of conflict in Mexico (5), and on the other, the relation between Florentine women and their mothers. (6) So let me start by laying out some preliminary assumptions.

First, I am not concerned narrowly with the physiological and chemical dimensions of food. Rather, I want to make claims about the power of a particular kind of social science to add to what we know about how people organize around food. I argue that there is much more for us to understand about food practices beyond its chemistry and its production if we are serious about nutritional health. Second, it is a commonplace in the more enlightened areas of the medical profession to pay attention to the extra-medical issues at stake; the issues of stress, the role of family in caring for patients and those with nutritional disorders, and the importance of social support in recovering from illness. So I am not trying to bring coals to Newcastle, nor am I repeating obvious points about the need for social support in the nutritional care area. (7) But what I am arguing is that we must go much further in our social and cultural understandings if we are to make meaningful progress in combating some of the major pathologies we face, such as the epidemic of obesity in the United States, and the various neurotic behaviours associated with body image. (8) Third, I am not much interested in belabouring the ills of the food industries, in which such critiques as 'The Fast Food Nation' and 'Supersize Me' (9) already excel, but rather in using such critiques as starting points towards developing healthy culinary practices in the world in which fast food dominates.

This paper examines the work of four social researchers for clues about what the social relations of food might look like, and what this understanding would add to the field of nutritional studies. (10) I use Jeffrey Pilcher's work to examine the origins of Mexican cuisine in the light of early globalization, and show how the political struggles to develop the modern Mexican state are closely mapped onto food practices. This means power and nutrition are closely intertwined and cannot be meaningfully separated, and it highlights the 'cultural memory' embodied in food practices. In Carole Counihan's writings, we interrogate the relation between women and their mothers to discover the roots of motivation and desire which drive the formation of body images and the sense of family. In Bourdieu's work, we are reminded of the elaborate and powerful relation between social class and food habits, a connection which explains much about why we eat as we do, and in Mintz's formulations, by examining the long chain of social activities which surround the production and consumption of food, we bring history and geography to bear on the subject. …

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