Classification of Edibility and Inedibility: Unveiling the Sociomental Logics beneath Food Habits

By Yeh, Hsin-Yi | Theory in Action, October 2016 | Go to article overview

Classification of Edibility and Inedibility: Unveiling the Sociomental Logics beneath Food Habits


Yeh, Hsin-Yi, Theory in Action


In everyday life, individuals seem able to effortlessly distinguish edible objects from inedible objects. However, as in many other aspects of social life, it is the "social scalpel" that helps socialized individuals carve out "mental slices" from the continuum of reality and to experience edible and inedible objects as discrete entities. As Eviatar Zerubavel claims, the sociomentally constructed discontinuities of reality are "mental chunks" that bring meaning to things (1991: 5). Individuals rely heavily on the broadly accepted classification system to manage their everyday life, and it is thus difficult (if not impossible) to imagine a society without classification. To classify is a social being (Durkheim, 1995 [1912]; Douglas, 1996; Bowker & Star, 1999), and it is not going too far to say that socialization is an ongoing process that leads individuals to learn the "desirable" ways to classify in a specific society (Mead, 1967). Classification is a sociomental mechanism that categorizes things into islands of meaning, and socialized individuals thereby perceive great gaps between things that are situated on distinct islands (Zerubavel, 1997).

For socialized individuals, there is a fine line between edible and inedible objects that they are reluctant to transgress (Simmel, 1997 [1910]; Mennell et al., 1993). Thus, they rarely misapprehend water in toilets or dogs in their houses as edible objects. In fact, a tight relationship exists between eating and identity. As Nippert-Eng points out,

...eating and drinking are activities closely connected to our self images. These activities reflect a way of thinking not only about food but about who we are and who we wish to be (1996:60).

Hence, although it varies, every society has its own way to classify between edibility and inedibility (Falk, 1994). Moreover, while in most circumstances people regard their food habits as a given, they voice with every bite (Rosenblum, 2010; Lupton, 1996; Yeh, 2014).

CLASSIFICATION OF EDIBILITY AND INEDIBILITY AS A SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION

In this article, I attempt to discuss the sociomental construction of edibility and inedibility and unveil that it is "conventions" through which individuals take for granted the distinction between the edible and inedible. Upon closer examination, we can see that the fine line between edible and inedible objects is located in different places across and within cultures. I suggest that while edible and inedible objects are allotted to separate "mental partitions," no inherent logic separates them. To some extent, the "mental chunks" of edible and inedible are provided by the arbitrary compartmentalization of reality, and that is exactly why, for example, some people consider eating snakes to be repulsive and absurd, while others regard it as normal. Moreover, while the social scalpel cuts apart edible and inedible objects, even in the same society, it does not unconditionally cut along the same line. It is socialized people who are guided to consider the continuum of reality as consisting of discrete entities.

What I am concerned with in this article is neither personal preferences for eating objects at the subjective level nor "universal" inedible objects, such as desks and chairs at the objective level. What I discuss in this article is the distinction between the "socially edible" and "socially inedible"; I focus on the "intersubjective" definition in the eating domain.2 Therefore, I delve into how the mental chasm between edible and inedible islands of meaning is socially formed and what the variations across cultures, within a culture, and across time periods mean. I am interested in how socialized people intersubjectively regard certain objects as edible or inedible and how their taken-for-granted distinction is changed in a taken-for-granted way by sociomental, temporal, and spatial factors.

To facilitate my investigation, I rely heavily on the approach of cognitive sociology

(Zerubavel, 1997). …

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