A prominent topic that has emerged recently out of my studies and become one of the most visible strands of discussion in my inchoate research thesis is the relationship between food and identity. In the literature on the sociology of food, the centrality of people’s foodways to their personalities is a common argument. Some see this as a natural outcome of the fact that eating practices are a deeply personal matter and a result of individual choices which reflect not only what we see as a gustatory pleasure but also what kind of persons we are, what we care about, what we want to achieve, etc. For others, food consumption is inherently social, since throughout the life people tend to share eating experiences with others thereby subjecting their dietary behaviour to external observation and judgement. Whatever the case, and I would argue for both, food consumption is seen as a scene for the expression of our personal – what we think of ourselves – and social – how we are perceived by others – identities.
The most straightforward and, probably, unjustly oversimplified understanding of how food serves individual identity goals is based on the notion of conspicuous consumption (Veblen 1899) whereby people through appropriation of high cost goods try to attain (however illusionary this may be) and manifest higher social status. Such an approach does not seem to embrace the myriad of ways in which food, eating choices and habits can reflect many different sides and aspects of individual characters, not all of them being related or having anything to do at all with a social hierarchy position or material wealth as such. Although going to a high-end restaurant and paying up to $100 for a swallow’s nest soup may be an eloquent way to display your social status, other important aspects of foods can be an equally powerful vehicle for communication of different sides of the self and the relationships with others.
Alan Warde (1997) offers deep insights into the interconnections between food and identity. His concept of the antinomies of taste which ascribes strong moral overtones to food choices elucidates how people’s food purchase decisions can affect their self-view and become a site of collision between individuals’ various concerns. Are you familiar with the sense of guilt for putting a ready meal on a family dinner table at the end of the working day? Have you ever felt good for choosing a healthy option for your kids’ lunch box? Do you often invest the entire week-end into the preparation of a proper Sunday lunch as a way to re-assert your position of the family carer? Then you too are perfectly aware (or not, as it is often a subconscious process) of the close associations between food provision and preparation and the ways we see ourselves and come (or hope) to be seen by others.
Moving one level up from an identity articulated in the realm of private relationships, let’s consider how food is linked to our national (and within it, local or regional) identities. Few will argue that adherence to locally, regionally, or nationally specific food habits is a powerful way to achieve and re-enforce the sense of belonging to a particular social formation. Usually formed in early childhood under significant influence of cultural and traditional factors, food habits become an important part of our personalities which we tend to preserve throughout our life courses. Pollan’s (2006) remark about the refrigerator as “the very last place to look for signs of assimilation” is a nice way to express the argument.
Moving now onto a global level we will discover ethical consumption as yet another arena for the continuous process of moulding of the self as a particular kind of person through specific eating practices. Although the idea behind responsible consumerism is that the motives behind people’s food choices should not be limited to caring about the self or the family, but also involve thinking about “distant others”, alternative consumption is actually an effective means to differentiate from the mass-consuming crowd and establish a very distinctive identity. Choosing fair-trade or animal cruelty free produce is a way to position yourself as a morally responsible citizen of society and a better person – the one for whom values of reciprocity and care are above personal benefits. Visualisation is an important element in such a behaviour. Means of visualisation include all kind of textual and pictorial matter that surround a product. Ethical labels are probably the most illustrative example of such symbols which serve as a means of distinction not only of products themselves, but of consumers who choose them too. By selecting fair trade you show your care about human labour issues, picking up free-range is a way to proclaim support for animal rights, by going organic you provide yourself with a greener image and so on. However, identity goals that can be addressed through ethical food consumption do not necessarily have an outward projection. A person can commit to ethical shopping as a way to self-moralise, or put it simply, feel good about oneself (see, for example, Shaw 2007; Cherrier 2006) – I have already mentioned the “clean-hands” motivation for green consumerism in one of my previous posts.
Nowadays, however, it is a question to what extent our food choices are a vehicle for identity communication. For many people it has become a challenge to choose foods in congruence with their personal values and concerns. Modern life conditions often dictate the choice of products as well as our daily menus, not to mention financial factors which have always put significant constraints on many families’ shopping lists. Now when most western households have two working parents, ready meals have become a reality and, in fact, the only choice that families can rely on during the working week. To what extent is that the expression of low attention to family bonds or the only available solution? How are food “choices” of consumers living in the regions where food deserts is the only kind of food environment people have access to are to be judged from an identity viewpoint? Theory is to always be taken with a pinch of “reality”. Still, it seems a useful exercise to invest some more deliberate thinking into what stands behind our so habitual food choices and practices – it might indeed be a new, yet unexplored way of self-discovery.
CHERRIER, H. 2006. Consumer identity and moral obligations in non‐plastic bag consumption: a dialectical perspective. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 30 (5), pp.515-523.
POLLAN, M. 2006. The omnivore’s dilemma: a natural history of four meals. Penguin.
SHAW, D. 2007. Consumer voters in imagined communities. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 27 (3/4), pp.135-150.
VEBLEN, T. 1899. The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1998 edition, Great Minds Series. Prometheus Books, London.
WARDE, A. 1997. Consumption, food and taste. Sage.