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Sociology of Food

'Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are'.
Alexis Soyer

The words of the world's first celebrity chef, the nineteenth-century Frenchman Alexis Soyer, continue to be relevant even today. A person's eating habits tells us a very great deal about them not just their tastes and their pleasures, their aspirations and their everyday routines, but also their sense of themselves, their gender, ethnicity, social class and many other things besides. Food can reveal many aspects of a person, a social group and a society. Food is a source of inquiry for the cultural sociologist because of its heavily symbolic character.

This is because food is invested with profound symbolic significance apart from being a physical and material aspect. A group or society definition of a particular foodstuff may be radically different from how another group or society. For example Americans, Britons and Australians would never eat horse, but horsemeat is a familiar ingredient in certain parts of Italy, France and Belgium, societies that are otherwise not too culturally distant from the English-speaking world.

Each human group has its own distinctive, culturally shaped food likes and dislikes. Cultural forces decide and dictate where, when and by whom a particular food is eaten, and how it is prepared for consumption. The Jewish and Islamic prohibitions on certain kinds of food consumption, such as eating pork, are well known. But every human group has its own ways of encouraging the consumption of some foods, and restricting even banning outright the eating of others.

According to Simmel studying the specific nature of cultural rules and definitions to do with food reveals much about the ideas, values, assumptions, practices and institutions of the social groups who have invented and live by those rules.

The symbolically highly nature of food makes it an ideal subject for cultural sociology, which is concerned primarily with the meanings and values that groups of people project on to the world around them, and how in turn those meanings and values come to affect profoundly how those people think and act. People create cultures that invest foods with meaning, but the meanings of food then come to have wide-ranging effects on what those people think and do. Because its nature is always culturally informed, food can only be understood fully by the kinds of analyses that put culture and meaning at the forefront of their concerns, like cultural sociology.

Anthropologists, tend to focus much more on micro-level contexts of food preparation and eating, endeavoring to unpack the symbolic and meaningful dimensions of food-related activities, such as how meals are organized according to specific cultural conventions.

People's food conditions vary radically across the world, from the African and Asian peasant-facing constant near-starvation to the affluent urban Westerner enjoying food products from every part of the globe. Under conditions of advanced globalization these diverse conditions are profoundly connected with each other: the food wealth of some parts of the world is made possible by, and exists side by side with, the food poverty of other parts.

Over the last 30 years, the increasingly globalized food production systems upon which people in these regions rely have become ever more subject to crises that can have long-term, often highly destabilizing, effects. From pandemics such as swine flu and chicken flu, through mad cow disease and outbreaks of foot-and- mouth disease, to ethical and health concerns about factory-farmed animals, genetically modified crops and world agriculture's contribution to environmental crises like global warming, food production across the world today is in a state of uncertainty and ambivalence. These are all hallmarks of what the German sociologist Ulrich Beck (1992) calls 'world risk society', whereby human activities create problems that can spiral out of control, beyond the reach of any particular institution to deal with them effectively.

Campaigners today have the power to change other people's understandings of what is good or bad to eat, for health reasons or for reasons of ethics and morality, such as respecting animal rights.

The Norwegian anthropologist Marianne Elizabeth Lien (2004) writes that campaign groups working across national borders have successfully created new food taboos, encouraging people in different countries to reject the attempted defining by the meat industry of certain animals, such as kangaroos, as fit for human consumption. Just as food production systems have become ever more transnationalized, so too have certain food prohibitions and dispositions towards what is ethically unacceptable food consumption. But in today's highly globalized world, groups, societies and cultural forms have all become much more complex and heterogeneous. Credit: Food, Eating and Culture, Cultural Sociology – An Introduction Edited by Les Back, Andy Bennett, Laura Desfor Edles, Margaret Gibson, David Inglis, Ronald Jacobs and Ian Woodward, 2012