Dossier Society

Let’s eat! Food and the social sciences

by Thomas Grillot & Nicolas Larchet , 9 February 2015
translated by Ophélie Siméon

Food is now a conspicuous topic, from culinary blogs to magazines, diet books, TV shows and contests. Yet unbeknownst to many, it often holds an underground, clandestine place in some of social science’s major works. This dossier assesses the current importance of such scholarly endeavors, known as “food studies” in the United States.

Nowadays, food is highly prominent in culinary blogs and magazines, TV shows and contests (“Who will be crowned next Star Baker?”), investigative reports (“If only you knew what you’re eating!”) and other edifying cultural productions, much more than in social science journals. [1] In other words, it is mostly viewed by the general public and some scholars as a “social phenomenon” rather than as an object of study. However, many founding works in human and social sciences have addressed the issue of food, albeit often in an unsuspected, underground or even clandestine way.

Frédéric Le Play [2] and Maurice Halbwachs [3] saw food as the objective measure of the condition of the working classes; in the eyes of Thorstein Veblen [4] and Pierre Bourdieu [5] , it was a key symbol of the distinction between the classes; Norbert Elias [6] viewed it as an instrument of “civilization”; for Michel de Certeau and his disciples [7] , food constituted a practice of everyday resistance against processes of world ordering, whereas Claude Lévi Strauss [8] and Mary Douglas [9] saw it as a window into any society’s hidden structures. In other words, food, cooking and table manners have been an undercurrent in many sociological and anthropological works over the generations, through the use of inventive sources and methods – family budgets and monographs, household consumption surveys, good manners handbooks, structural analyses of myths, factorial studies, and so on. Likewise, historians have shown a long-lasting interest in the issue of food riots and grain prices in Ancien Régime societies, two factors which, according to Ernest Labrousse [10], were at the root of the French Revolution. Another famous example is Fernand Braudel’s great inquiry into food, which he launched in the Annales journal of May 1961, with the intent to write the history of “material life and biological behaviors” [11] . In a 1983 interview given during a stay at UC Berkeley, when asked about the slow publication rate of his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault himself declared that “sex is boring”, exhorting scholars to dwell instead upon a bigger issue, to be found everywhere from Ancient Greece texts to monastery regulations: “food, food, food”! [12]

Needless to say that food is a fleeting object of study, present everywhere and therefore nowhere. As such, it has often been studied in a fragmentary way, to illustrate a specific theory or event with a more general scope, such as the civilizing process, distinction, Revolution, and so on. Few scholarly works have placed food at the core of their analyses, an exception being Sidney Mintz’s historical and anthropological study of the place of sugar in the emergence of Transatlantic capitalism, where he encouraged his peers to attempt at “following production to where and when it became consumption”. [13] It looks as though social sciences had forfeited a sense of over-enthusiastic ambition to documentary and late-night TV show filmmakers. What can the social sciences say bout food, when the apparent banality of it reduces it to a mere illustration of great theories, and when many journalists prove more daring than scholars in their investigative work? [14]

With this dossier, we do not pretend to give back either its coherence or dignity to an object otherwise resisting clear-cut definitions. In France at least, social science scholars have been tackling the issue since the 1990s, leading to the publication of several handbooks and overviews on the history and sociology of food. [15] This dossier wishes, perhaps less ambitiously, to present various ways of thinking and writing about food from a social science perspective, dealing with a variety of problems, field works and research experiments. The various contributions to this dossier share a common feature, i.e. the will to counter a tendency to consider food only through its more dramatic or noble manifestations, either as a leisure activity or as a heritage. We wish to see food from below, addressing the experience of ordinary people, activists, “critics” and “experts” in their confrontations with this multidimensional object, be it from a nutritional, aesthetical or political point of view.

Claude Grignon’s contribution «Une sociologie des normes diététiques est-elle possible?» [Can We Establish a Sociology of Dietary Norms?] is a fact-based, epistemological study of obesity addressing how sociologists view food norms. A long-time collaborator of Pierre Bourdieu and the founder of an inter-disciplinary research unit on consumption at the INRA [16] , Grignon advises not to fall prey of either “speedy criticism” or “exaggerated expertise” in order to distinguish between the arbitrary aspect of necessity and the social character of biology. Part of a wider reflection on the utility of sociology, [17] this paper goes beyond a mere examination of food to analyze the work conditions of sociologists and their role in the public sphere.

José Luis Moreno Pestaña’s article, «Le marché préfère les minces» [The Market Prefers Thin People] is the result of a field study on the consequences of eating disorders on the labor market in Andalucia. Based on interviews with working-class women, it sheds new light on the issue of eating disorders, showing that these not only stem from primary socialization, but also result from the adoption of body ideals at odds with habits acquired within family units, peer groups and educational institutions. Against a clear-cut division branding anorexia as “upper-class” and obesity as “working-class”, the paper shows that the poor are led to develop new “body cultures” as a response to employment constraints based on “strong aesthetical demands”, here in the case of fashion retail workers.

In her interview “Alternative Foods, Activism and Strawberries in California”, geographer and studies founding figure Julie Guthman examines the emergence of this very field of study [18], which is still widely unknown outside the English-speaking world. She will also dwell on the impact of alternative food movements , which she has been analyzing critically throughout her career. This perspective has influenced her history of the contradictions inherent to Californian organic farming. She has also published a provocative study on the environmental causes of the obesity epidemic. Nowadays, she works on the outcome of a new California state legislation banning certain pesticides in strawberry farming.

Review articles on recent books dealing with popular food culture will also be featured in this dossier.

The variety of these contributions shows how necessary it is to avoid any a priori definition of food. A total social fact, it may sometimes manifest itself as an incorporated practice, i.e. as the locus of a differentiated “corporal investment” based on gender and social trajectories. At other times however, it may be seen as a reform “project” [19] , as an object of struggle between various actors – whether activists, scholars, producers or consumers – or even as a scientific norm, negotiated by its “critics” and “experts”.

It is therefore obvious that human and social sciences have a lot to say about food. If cooking is a language, in the words of Claude Lévi-Strauss [20] , then this language is well alive today, as shown by the general public’s growing interest in the issue. With this dossier, La Vie des Idées and Books and Ideas invite themselves to the discussion table.

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by Thomas Grillot & Nicolas Larchet, 9 February 2015

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Thomas Grillot & Nicolas Larchet, « Let’s eat! Food and the social sciences », Books and Ideas , 9 February 2015. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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[1With the exception of two recent journal issues, “Pauvre consommateur”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 299, 2013, and “L’alimentation au travail depuis le milieu du XIXe siècle”, Le Mouvement social, 247, 2014.

[2Frédéric Le Play, Les ouvriers européens. Études sur les travaux, la vie domestique et la condition morale des populations ouvrières de l’Europe, Paris, Imprimerie impériale, 1855.

[3Maurice Halbwachs, La classe ouvrière et les niveaux de vie : recherches sur la hiérarchie des besoins dans les sociétés industrielles contemporaines, Paris, Félix Alcan, 1912.

[4Thorstein Veblen, Théorie de la classe de loisir, Paris, Gallimard, 1970 [1899].

[5Pierre Bourdieu, La distinction. Critique sociale du jugement, Paris, Minuit, 1979.

[6Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process. Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. Revised edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000[1939]. See also Stephen Mennell, All Manners of Food : Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present, Oxford, Blackwell, 1985.

[8Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mythologiques, t. III, « L’origine des manières de table », Paris, Plon, 1968.

[9Mary Douglas, « Deciphering a meal », Daedalus, vol. 101 (1), 1972, pp. 61-81.

[10Ernest Labrousse, La crise de l’économie française à la fin de l’Ancien Régime et au début de la Révolution, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1990 [1944].

[11Fernand Braudel, Robert Philippe, Jean-Jacques Hémardinquer and Frank Spooner, « Vie matérielle et comportements biologiques. Bulletin n° 1 », Annales ESC, 16 (3), 1961, pp. 545-574. See also the collection of papers published in the same journal under the title « Histoire de la consommation », Annales ESC, 30 (2-3), 1975, pp. 402-631.

[12“I must confess that I am much more interested in problems about techniques of the self and things like that than sex... sex is boring. (...) [The Greeks] were not much interested in sex. It was not a great issue. Compare, for instance, what they say about the place of food and diet. I think it is very, very interesting to see the move, the very slow move, from the privileging of food, which was overwhelming in Greece, to interest in sex. Food was still much more important during the early Christian days than sex. For instance, in the rules for monks, the problem was food, food, food”, Michel Foucault, “On the Genealogy of Ethics: an Overview of Work in Progress”, in Paul Rabinow (dir.), The Foucault Reader, New York, Pantheon, 1984, p. 253.

[13Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, New York, Viking Penguin, 1985, p xxx.

[14See for instance Michael Pollan’s best-selling book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, New York, Penguin Press, 2006.

[15Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari (eds.), Histoire de l’alimentation, Paris, Fayard, 1996; Madeleine Ferrières, Histoire des peurs alimentaire: du Moyen Âge à l’aube du XXe siècle, Paris, Seuil, 2006; Claude Fischler, L’homnivore, Odile Jacob, 1990; Jean-Pierre Poulain, Sociologies de l’alimentation, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2002 ; Faustine Régnier, Anne Lhuissier and Séverine Gojard, Sociologie de l’alimentation, Paris, La Découverte, 2006.

[17Claude Grignon, « Sociologie, expertise et critique sociale », in Bernard Lahire (ed.), À quoi sert la sociologie?, Paris, La Découverte, 2004, pp. 119-135.

[18For an overview of the food studies movement, see Marion Nestle and W. Alex McIntosh, « Writing the Food Studies Movement », Food, Culture and Society, 13 (2), 2010, pp. 159-179.

[19See Aya H. Kimura, Charlotte Biltekoff, Jessica Mudry and Jessica Hayes-Conroy, « Nutrition as a project », Gastronomica, 14 (3), pp. 34-45.

[20« La cuisine d’une société est un langage dans lequel elle traduit inconsciemment sa structure », [“The cooking of a given society is a language with which it unconsciously translates its own structure”], Claude Lévi-Strauss, « Le triangle culinaire », L’Arc, 26, 1965, pp. 19-29, quote from p. 20.

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