What can sociology teach us about food?

Dec 2, 2016 · 3 min read

by Jean-Pierre Poulain, Sociologist. University of Toulouse / Taylor’s University Malaysia.

The way men cater for their food needs cannot be sized down to strictly biological, utilitarian or even technological logics. It plays a key part in the culture of the social group they belong to. Eating is a social act, even more so: a social event, central to family and public life. Meals are the foundation of socialization, in the twofold meaning of the word: the place to learn the rules of living together and the place for social interaction, for sharing and for friendly exchange. Obesity and eating disorders may well be the heavy price to be paid by those societies, which tend to ignore it. Because, if men do need nutriments: carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, minerals, vitamins, water, etc., all these they find among the natural products of their environment, they can in no way ingest, incorporate them but in the form of foods, more precisely of prepared dishes, that is of transformed natural products that are culturally valorized and consumed in a way consistent with a protocol of highly socialized behavioral patterns. Thus, food is both a natural and a cultural fact. These two poles, so often opposed in the modern western approach, mix within, intertwine or even become one and the social practices it generates also contribute to regulate it.

Actually staging the fundamental values of a culture, cooking activities and table manners provide a privileged approach to social representations. From production, distribution, preparation to consumption, food structures the organization of human groups and emerges as a core subject for socio-anthropological science. Food cultures reveal the original ways human groups bio-anthropologically connect to their biotope. Although they have been acknowledged by a number of researchers, ethnologists, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, geographers, human and social sciences have been somehow slow to recognize them as a legitimate question. The intricate connection of its cultural and social dimensions with its biological and bodily functions, added to its omnipresence whether daily and private or public and ostentatious in social life may well have contributed to make the food fact paradoxically invisible as a scientific subject.

Rethinking the food behaviors and decisions

It was not until the end of the 1970s that social sciences started to focus on the subject. Then, over the last twenty years, research work has grown considerably but still on the sidelines. That was how a scientific heritage was built up and acknowledged as such in the light of the 1990 and 2000 crises. Historians, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists were then been called upon to describe what those in charge of managing the crisis would interpret as irrational behaviors and to identify target issues. That was when the world productionist food model started breaking up, a model geared to production, such a successful one that had enabled the Western World to end atavistic malnutrition since after World War 2.

We are probably on the eve of what could definitely be, if not a revolution, a very deep transformation of nutritional approaches. The extremely fast development of nutrigenetics, of nutrigenomics and much more so of epigenetics will reshuffle the current approach to food, opening up new avenues for research work and more particularly exchanges between social sciences and food. The knowledge acquired about food models and the food “social fact” will then be extremely useful for research, public health and food education; Hence, the challenge we are to face: connecting and reconnecting the “nutritional fact”— which, as knowledge develops and enables the identification of personal risk factors, will definitely promote an individualized approach to food — with the “food social fact”, which reminds us that eating means sharing and is a social act, a significant act. An act that is framed by cultures, and that contribute to there transmissions. A meal is a “mise en scene” of the core values of a society. So the nutritional fact and the “food social fact” are two dimensions, part of the well-being of human eaters.

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