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Review: The Sociology of Food

Romina Delmonte reviews Jean Pierre Poulain’s “The Sociology of Food: Eating and the Place of Food in Society,” as translated by Augusta Dörr, which reads as a theoretical essay and an introductory guide to sociologies of food.

Published onJun 01, 2018
Review: The Sociology of Food

Jean Pierre Poulain and translated by Augusta Dörr. The Sociology of Food: Eating and the Place of Food in Society. New York: Bloomsbury, [2002] 2017. xxiii, 312 pp.

As stated by Jean Pierre Poulain himself, The Sociology of Food is both a theoretical essay and an introductory guide. I would add, especially considering the contributions of this English edition, that it is also a reflection on institutional dynamics in academic fields. The book provides an excellent introduction to anyone approaching the social study of food for the first time, while simultaneously presenting valuable insight for those who are familiar with it and interested in any of its particular aspects.

The book is organized in two parts. The first one focuses on permanent and changing aspects of modern and contemporary food practices and studies the import of sociology in identifying the underlying social issues of this phenomenon. Building on Claude Fischler’s L’Homnivore (1990) as well as Jean-Pierre Corbeau’s “Goût des sages, sages dégoûts, métissage des goûts” (1994) and “L’exotisme au service de l’égotisme. Nourritures vietnamiennes et métissages des goûts français” (1997), the author contends that globalization has generated a threefold movement: first, the disappearance of certain specific characteristics; second, the emergence of new foods resulting from the process of intermixing; and third, the spread of certain food products and practices at the transcultural level. From his point of view, these three processes should not be seen solely as a destructive influence on food cultures but also as factors that contribute to their reconstruction. Although globalization does iron out certain differences, it also acts as the driving force in a dual process of diversification and integration.

In relation to this process, Poulain’s second chapter analyzes the industrialization of food supply and distribution, the development of semi-prepared foods, and the effect of these economic phenomena on domestic practices, gender roles, and food choices. In chapter three, Poulain affirms that changes in modern eating practices are the result of three interrelated phenomena: an over-abundant food supply, the relaxing of social constraints, and the multiplicity of often-contradictory discourses on food. This general framework allows the author to reflect on other aspects of consumption, such as the influence of the simplification of meal structures or the act of eating between meals on the class system as well as on the discrepancies between discourses and practices. Following this analysis, chapters four and five are concerned with obesity, food risks, and food safety.

The second part of the book opens with chapter six to propose a historical overview of socio-anthropological movements and their interest in food, starting with the functionalist perspective, including both French and English examples. Poulain suggests that this movement was then historically followed by an anthropological approach that encouraged an ethnology of cooking practices and placed food and eating as an established part of material culture. The list continues to include culturalist perspectives and structuralist postulates ending with different approaches that the author groups under the banner of “sociological perspectives on food.” Here, he refers to knowledge related to food and eating that has been accumulated through the study of other sociological subjects, including work in rural sociology, the sociology of development, the sociology of work, the sociology of mobility, and the sociology of everyday life.

In chapter seven, the author focuses on the obstacles that arose as the sociology of food was becoming a discipline before he establishes a typology of sociological approaches to food studies in chapter eight. Poulain organizes them in four groups: the “sociology of food consumption,” the “developmentalist perspective,” the “sociology of the eater” (delineated mainly by Fischler’s contributions and most certainly embraced by Poulain himself, although not explicitly), and finally, the “sociology of eaters,” which incorporates an interactionist dimension.

Chapter ten focuses on gastronomy (mostly French gastronomy) as the aesthetization of cooking and table manners. Here, Poulain is particularly interested in the exchanges and in the conformation of taste and distinction brought about by historical processes, which can also be analyzed from the perspective of gastronomy. He further studies this aspect in chapter eleven, presenting the novel concept of “food social space” as a tool to access the different dimensions related to the study of food and eating, in accordance with the Maussian concept of total social fact. From there, he questions the limits of constructivism, and encourages the description of eating practices as a necessary step to allow pluridisciplinary dialogue.

The last and new chapter added to this edition has two strong points. Here, the author presents a reflection on the role of politics and institutional funding on the development of food-related studies. He also analyses the differences and relations between the French and the English-speaking world, concerning the development of social knowledge related to food. When reading, one should take into account that the book was first published in France in 2002 but written between 1999 and 2001, now almost two decades ago. As the book is more focused on the French tradition of food studies, one of its strengths is to introduce English-speaking readers to scholarly publications with which they might not be fully familiar. In doing so, the book actually reveals the relationship between food studies scholarship in French and English/North America.

In addition to being a complete introductory guide, Poulain’s seminal work also presents a history of science through food by relying on a rich bibliography composed of various types of publications and methodological approaches. It is also notable that the author indicates who supervised some remarkable doctoral dissertations, information that is often overlooked but that helps understand the development of academic fields.


Biography

Romina Delmonte is a PhD candidate in Social Sciences at Buenos Aires University. She holds a BA in Sociology and a MA in Social Sciences Research at the same university. Her research focuses on the role of food in the construction of Asian immigrant identities in the Latin American context. More specifically, she studies the practices of food production and consumption among Korean and Chinese migrant communities in Buenos Aires city.

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