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Editor: Solomon H. Katz
Date: 2003
Encyclopedia of Food and Culture
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 4)

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SOCIOLOGY. Sociology involves the study of how people relate to each other, as well as how the institutions of society affect behavior and attitudes. For most of the past hundred and fifty years, sociologists have focused mainly on social institutions and structures. It was only around the middle of the twentieth century that they turned their attention to the important roles that technologies (including food production and processing) play in society. Other disciplines (particularly anthropology) have a much longer history of research into food and culture.

Food and food habits have been only implicitly assumed in sociological literature until just recently. Food studies have been an integral part of both rural sociology and medical sociology. For rural sociologists, food has been central in studies of agricultural and technological change. Food has also been a main focus in the studies of farms, community living, social change, and consumer issues. In fact, rural sociologists began to study food production in the 1930s through research on the adoption and diffusion of innovations (new technologies).

For medical sociologists, food and nutrition are now recognized as an important factor in the study of health and wellness. Sociologists examine how our nutritional habits are based on cultural identity, gender, race and ethnicity, and social class. Although food is a fundamental concern for human life, sociologists are now just establishing a sociology of food by identifying how lifestyles, social class, gender, and ethnicity influence food selection and consumption. In fact, much of the market research that food companies conduct is in fact a Page 293  |  Top of Article form of sociological research (e.g., focus groups, surveys, and interviews).

The sociological study of food is important in understanding social change, the state, and consumer society. For example, positive social change has come about as a result of epidemiological and sociological studies of the importance of sanitation. Sociological studies based on food exportation, importation, and food agricultures have examined how states develop. In addition, research into the inequality of distribution and access to food comprises another way that sociologists can expose to explain class, race, and gender differences, as well as forms of political domination. Food is also important in explaining consumerism, cultural assimilation, modernization, and how beliefs and rituals change.

Sociologists have always been interested in social inequality and stratification (i.e., through analysis of gender, ethnic, and class differences.) For example, some foods are associated with women and some with men. Women eat less food overall, and they are usually light foods or foods that can be nibbled, such as salad or fish. Men tend to eat more food, and prefer foods associated with strength, such as red meat. Food habits also vary significantly with age. For example, soft or strained foods are appropriate for very young children who have no teeth, as well as for the elderly (for the same reason). As people age, they also become more concerned about the role of diet in their overall health.

Food also represents distinctive cultures; for example, pasta is associated with Italian culture, or curry with Indian culture. Cultures evolve to suit the local environment. For instance, spicy foods are more popular in the warmer climates. Class distinctions in foods abound. In the early 1900s in Great Britain, people in the upper classes ate more meat than those of the middle or lower classes. However, by the middle of the century, all people ate about the same amount of meat, as advances in food technology put meat in the range of everyone. Economically disadvantaged groups are sometimes forced to eat what is cheap, and these foods may not be as nutritious as higher-priced foods. Disadvantaged groups then are more vulnerable to health problems, such as heart disease or obesity.

It has been said that "We are what we eat." Food becomes part of our self-identity. From a very young age, an individual is socialized into his or her adult eating habits. A person eats what his family eats when he is young—these habits do not tend to change that much with age. In Western cultures, young children are taught that the insects they find are not to be eaten. In other cultures, however, young children are taught that certain insects are edible and they become part of the diet. Foods are part of the rituals we use to accept new members into our group, to celebrate milestones, and to express religious or political beliefs. For example, a new neighbor might be presented with a basket of food or a homemade pie as a welcome gift.

Celebrations, such as birthdays and anniversaries, usually involve some kind of cake or other sweet food. National holidays usually include foods associated with the country. For example, Americans celebrate Independence Day with backyard barbecues (including hamburgers and hot dogs, potato chips and watermelon). Thanksgiving is closely associated with turkey. Religious holidays also use symbolic foods, such as ham at Christmas for Christians. Some religions have specific taboos on food. For instance, Jewish people do not eat pork, while Hindus do not eat beef, and Seventh-Day Adventists do not eat meat at all. Many religions also endorse fasting as part of their rituals.

Sociologists have shown how the level of development within a country influences food habits and preferences. Industrialized countries consume and waste more food than developing countries. Americans may waste up to 25 percent of their food. Waste results from poor storage and processing, as well as from unused leftovers and spoiled foodstuffs that are never used. There is less consumer waste in developing countries. However, this practice is increasing as more countries adopt Western ideas and values concerning food.

Almost every culture has some form of food taboo. In fact, there is only one taboo that is universal, and that is the restriction on eating human flesh. This was not always the case, however. Early people, such as the South American Indians, would grind up the bones of their ancestors into a communal pot, to share their strength and wisdom with all tribal members. Some taboos restrict certain kinds of foods to certain meals. For example, Americans eat cereal for breakfast, but not for dinner. Food taboos may be based on cleanliness standards, but taboos may also be used to change entire food systems. Sometimes it is easier to restrict foods on religious beliefs, than to convince people rationally to change their eating habits. Emotions also play a major role in decisions about what people eat and why. Sociological research and theory are therefore important for understanding how to increase human health through better diet and nutrition.


Beardsworth, Alan, and Terresa Keil. Sociology On The Menu. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Gabaccia, Donna. We Are What We Eat. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

McIntosh, Alex, Sociologies of Food and Nutrition. New York: Plenum Press, 1996.

Thomas Jefferson Hoban IV

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3403400539