Notes from the bookshelf 5: Consumption, Food and Taste

I have recently finished reading another brilliant exemplar of sociology of food – an academic book by Alan Warde, a Professor of Sociology based at the University of Manchester. Written in 1997, it contains now somewhat dated empirical information, but is priceless for its theoretical accounts of modern trends in society, consumption and food culture.

The book starts with an outline of the most significant strands of theoretical thinking about modern social tendencies and their relation to changes in consumption patterns in general and food practices in particular. Warde provides an insight into how ideas of such great thinkers as Marx, Weber, Beck, Giddens, Bourdieu about modern societal changes find application in the discussions of food consumption and eating behaviors. The demise of class structure of society is argued to have provoked major shift in consumption with such social trends as individualization, disintegration of cultural and normative prescriptions of conduct and consequent detachment of individuals from social collectivity having a profound impact on population food patterns. Not only does Warde provide an insightful interpretation of major theories of social change, he also analyzes how these theories correlate with actual trends in food consumption, which he examines empirically through a study of food discourses in women’s popular magazines, an evaluation of statistical data on population food expenditure and a survey of people’s food practices in the Northern England.

In the second part Warde discusses the results of his study of culinary recipes found in women’s popular magazines. He argues that contemporary food discourse seems to be built around four antinomies of taste: novelty and tradition, health and indulgence, economy and extravagance, convenience and care. These antinomies, he argues, are at the same time major frames within which food choices are perceived, guidance for food selection and a source of anxiety for they are not neutral ideas, but moral categories with high potential to confer and manifest particular identities. In the final part of the book Warde re-visits major theories of consumption to specifically discuss how they relate to the accumulated evidence about changes in the nation’s food practices.  Predominant food patterns are discussed against the backdrop of major social trends and the application of the study of food to the general theory of consumption is evaluated. Warde’s concluding argument suggests that despite claims about decreased social stratification of consumption, empirical evidence implies persistent social distinction of eating practices along such social divisions as class (although to a lesser degree), gender, generation or ethnicity, but the one which entails no superiority of one consumption practice over another.  His term “undistinguished differentiation” is best fit to describe the current state of consumption driven by consumers’ innate predisposition to variety, now seemingly delivered by the mass-produced industrial food.

Overall, the book offers an incredibly insightful account of both societal tendencies, changes in consumption in general and trends in food practices in particular. A synergy of classic social theory and empirical evidence is what makes this book such a unique and reliable source of learning about issues of food, consumption, and taste.

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