Notes from the Bookshelf 4: Sociology on the menu

Today’s review is of yet another academic resource on the sociology of food and eating rather creatively named “Sociology on the Menu: An Invitation to the Study of Food and Society”. I have just finished reading it and am eager to share my impressions, so here we go!

As the name of the book suggests, the authors, Alan Beardsworth and Teresa Keil, invite the readers to embark on an exciting journey exploring the social and cultural dimensions of our global food environment – both the production of food and the experience of eating. The book takes you far back in time to explore and explain the origins of human subsistence, from hunter-gathering to the first revolution in the history of food – the emergence of agriculture and its impact on further development of humans both as a biological species and as a civilization. Authors challenge commonly accepted views of the animal domestication and selective plant breeding as deliberate human activities, and present an alternative view on the nature of human-animal relationships and the concept of symbiosis. They go on to consider further evolution of human society as informed and shaped by continuous changes in the organization of food production and distribution which are portrayed as crucial to such social phenomena as inequality, social stratification and, finally, the emergence of a nation-state.

The next chapter examines the transformation of people’s traditional foodways into a modern food system. Here the discussion focuses on the industrial revolution and its far-reaching consequences for our food environment as well as organization of our social life. Authors describe various technological, scientific as well as social and cultural developments  to explain the origins of our contemporary food system and food culture. As far as the theory is concerned, the book is not much different from other similar resources for it provides an overview of the same major sociological approaches to the study of food as, for example, previously reviewed: “The Sociology of Food: Eating, Diet and Culture”. Still useful to once again go through the differences between functionalists’, structuralists’ and developmentalists’ views on the meaning of food and eating. The review of the literature is comprehensive and immensely helpful in identifying key writings and studies on the most prominent issues in the field.

The book also covers such topics as the experience of eating out, changing conceptions of diet and nutrition with separate chapters dedicated to the subjects of dieting and body image, as well as the phenomenon of vegetarianism as an example of a “moral menu”. Various “levels” of self-restriction are outlined with specific consideration of a range of factors behind people’s voluntary avoidance of meat and animal-derived products, including, but not limited to, religious, moral and environmental concerns. Of specific interest to me was a chapter on food risks, anxieties and scares where authors try to unveil how people’s confidence in food is constructed, what factors affect our perceptions and judgments of food-related hazards, how a food panic cycle operates and what can restore and maintain public trust in consumed food.

Just as a proper meal finishes with a delicious dessert, the book ends with a chapter about sugar and sweetness as a taste experience.  All in all, The Sociology on the Menu offers an extensive and enjoyable menu (the tautology is absolutely deliberate) consisting of a variety of food-related topics as viewed from sociological and cultural perspectives.


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