Food For Thought: Sociological Perspectives on Food and Eating
For a long time, food was viewed as no more than a biological requirement. But over time, scholars have discovered that eating is a central aspect of socialization.
This article discusses the contributions of five major sociologists and anthropologists to the study of food as a social phenomenon. The researchers discussed are Claude-Levi Strauss, Jean-Pierre Poulain, Sidney Mintz, Pierre Bourdieu and Mary Douglas.
Claude- Levi Strauss: The Culinary Triangle
The French anthropologist Claude-Levi Strauss (1908-2009) studied the eating habits of North and South American societies in the 20th century. He inferred that all cultures shared a similar categorization of foodstuff that consisted of three phases – raw, cooked and rotten. Levi-Strauss recognized that just as each culture has its own language, every culture also cooks their food in some form or the other. From this, he developed “The Culinary Triangle”.
The three points of the triangle are raw, cooked and rotten. When the triangle is looked at with “raw” at the top, the other two points could be viewed as outcomes of different processes. The explanation Levi-Strauss provides for the triangle is as follows:
- The raw food lies between both cultural and natural forms. This means it should be untouched by human intervention and decay. For example, truly raw food would be carrots growing on a farm before they have been washed or peeled for human consumption.
- Cooked food is raw food that has been processed by culture. For example, potatoes may be boiled before using them in a dish.
- Finally, rotten food is raw food that has undergone change due to natural means. For example, fruits kept for a long period of time may become rotten and start to decompose.
Alternatively, if the triangle is tipped onto its side, and “cooked” is placed at the top, then the other two points may be viewed as different categories of inedibility (Davis 2013).
Levi-Strauss not only elaborated upon the culinary triangle as a classification of foodstuff, but also as the differentiation of culture. According to him, cooking is the primary differentiator between other animals and human beings because animals eat raw food while all human societies cook food in some form or the other. Once a baby is weaned off their mother’s milk, it is the norms of society that decree what is suitable to be eaten and what is not. Thus, Levi-Strauss proposed that each society’s cuisine is like an unconscious language that structures the daily lives of members of a society. Each culture emphasizes eating at a particular time, which food is to be eaten at what social occasion and what animals are considered socially acceptable to be consumed. For example, in China, many wild animals such as snails, bats and songbirds are served in restaurants. Such eating practices are looked down upon by most of the rest of the world. The recent COVID-19 pandemic played an important role in changing the food habits of many Chinese people due to the introduction and strengthening of various bans on eating wild animals. Thus, Levi-Strauss emphasized the role of cuisine in determining a society’s culture and vice-versa.
Jean Pierre Poulain: The Food System Perspective
The French sociologist Jean-Pierre Poulain published his book The Sociology of Food: Eating and the place of food in society in 2002. He stated that eating must not be viewed as a biological requirement but rather must be studied as a social act. According to Poulain, food is the foundation of socialization since meals teach people the rules of social interaction. Thus, food not only fulfils a biological role but also contributes to the formation of individual and collective identity. Drawing from Levi-Strauss’s differentiation of foods, Poulain suggests that food is a product of both natural and cultural processes (Poulain 2016).
The food system perspective classifies food-related activities into cultivation and harvest, production, distribution, preparation, consumption and waste disposal. This classification of food systems was proposed by Poulain who believed that each step structured the organization of human beings in groups. For example, in rural India, agriculture is the main source of income and thus the distribution of work is based upon the requirements of the season. Men and women occupy different roles such as sowing, harvesting, collecting water etc. based on their gender. Thus, agriculture organizes society in a particular manner and determines people’s roles and functions.
Sidney Mintz: Sweetness and Power
Sidney Mintz (1922-2015) was an American anthropologist who was influential in positioning food as a legitimate object of academic study. Mintz has been attributed the title of “father of food anthropology” by the New York Times. His major work was Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History that was published in 1985.
In his book, Mintz uncovers the history of sugar and its connection to power, economic influence and social status. He positions sugar’s history within the world as one that is closely related to tales of conquest. Sugar cane was originally domesticated in New Guinea around 8000 B.C. and was processed into sugar for the first time in India almost two thousand years later. It reached Europe in the eleventh century with the Crusades. Slavery became an important component of sugar production while it was grown in the Mediterranean. Columbus carried sugar to the New World on his second voyage and thereafter it became a familiar luxury among the European nobility. During this time, production was controlled by Spain and Portugal and slaves were employed in New World colonies to grow sugarcane. Plantation owners used forced labor to create high outputs at low costs. Sugar prices fell between 1650 and 1750 AD and thus the commodity percolated downwards in English society. By 1800 AD, sugar became an indispensable component of every Englishperson’s diet. An important association is the downward percolation of tea in society at the same time. Tea sweetened by sugar became an essential mode of consumption for the working classes. While this may have originated as an attempt to attain a higher class, since the consumption of sugar was previously viewed as a luxury, it soon transformed into a dietary necessity for most people (Marcus 1986).
At every historical turning point, sugar is connected to matters of African slavery, imperial conquest and the exploitation of the working class. Mintz has thus revealed that modern society’s desire for sugar is not dictated as much by biological preference as it is by cultural convention.
Pierre Bourdieu: Consumption and Social Stratification
Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was a French sociologist who wrote extensively on the relationship between consumption and cultural capital. He stated that good taste in food was an expression of different lifestyles and positions within a hierarchical class system. Bourdieu rejects the traditional notion that “taste” is developed through innate and individual choices. Instead, he says that taste is socially conditioned and used as a “social weapon” to create distance between different classes of society. Cultural capital with regard to food could refer to knowledge of a healthy diet or ethical food practices. According to Bourdieu, social class shapes food preferences and practices through access to resources like time and money to eat and prepare food in a particular manner (Allen & Anderson 1994).
Bourdieu also proposed differentiation between a “taste of necessity” and a “taste of luxury”. The upper classes would indulge in food that reflected a refined palette. Such highly exclusive foods would be marked by low supply and high demand. Bourdieu reflected that food was like any luxury product that denoted a sense of class and distinctions to its consumers. For example, foie grass might be viewed as a luxury food in the United States. On the other hand, lower-class groups would indulge in readily available foods that are marked by high supply and low demand. For example, potatoes, pasta and corn are viewed as popular food items for the lower classes.
Following Bourdieu, it can be argued that consumer preferences in food are deeply rooted in a class-based hierarchy that is promoted by hegemonic cultural trends.
Mary Douglas: Deciphering A Meal
Mary Douglas (1921-2007) was a British anthropologist who published an influential piece titled Deciphering A Meal in 1971. In this paper, she used her own family to illustrate the importance of meal as a social object instead of a purely biological one. Douglas proposed the study of food as a code or language wherein the precoded messages could be discovered in social relations. She talked about how observation helps in identifying patterns such as food eaten throughout the day, throughout a week, on various holidays and so forth. Douglas broke down the various sections of a menu such as breakfast, dinner, high tea, supper etc. She then attributed classes to each subsection and ranked each meal individually. Such an exhaustive description helped in her analysis of family eating patterns.
Douglas moved on to highlight the contrast between meals and drinks. While both are social events, meals can be had privately but having a drink by yourself is looked down upon in many societies. According to her, meals rank higher than drinks because while drinks are for strangers, workmen, family and acquaintances, meals are often reserved for family, close friends or honored guests. In the figure below, Douglas expressed her views of sharing meals and drinks in one’s social universe (Douglas 1972).
The views of major sociologists and anthropologists lead us to conclude that food must be studied as a social fact since it is one of the leading aspects of socialization.
Allen, D., & Anderson, P. (1994). Consumption and Social Stratification: Bourdieu’s Distinction. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/7565/volumes/v21/NA
Davis, S. (2013). The Culinary Triangle. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.thesmartset.com/article07181301/
Douglas, M. (1972). Deciphering a Meal. Daedalus, 101(1), 61-81. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/20024058
Marcus, S. (1986). American Ethnologist, 13(2), 377-379. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/644146
Poulain, J. (2016). What can sociology teach us about food? Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://medium.com/@Danone/what-can-sociology-teach-us-about-food-12d4b9fa222b