My honours thesis is about coffee so I’ve been reading a lot about the anthropology of food, which is a larger subfield than I had realised. As a research area it is interesting because it allows for multidimensional research that links together ecological concerns with economics and symbolic and ritual meaning-making. Food studies also directly connects the body with these wider social-cultural-economic systems. Because of the way that food travels, or not, it also can be at the forefront of multi-sited ethnographic research.
In an overview of the subdiscipline, Sidney Mintz describes three areas that the anthropology of food focuses on (Mintz and Du Bois, 2002):
- Political-economic value-creation
- Symbolic value-creation
- Social construction of memory
Mintz, himself, is the author of Sweetness and Power (1986)a very influential book that gives a history of the modern era through the lens of sugar. As one of the most important global commodities, sugar has always been embedded in colonial economic relationships. His fieldwork in Puerto Rico with sugar cane labourers led him to think about the history of the commodity in shaping both the producing nations and the consuming nations. He ties together the economics (demand/supply) of sugar with its changing social meaning.
The research field, for Mintz, started in the sugar cane fields of Puerto Rico, but he believed that in order to understand these economic and power relationships required a historical and transnational lens, paying attention to the ways in which meaning is made through use. Mintz sees the production and consumption influencing each other in complex ways, just like the intertwined relationships between the economic, geopolitical and cultural spheres.
In doing so he uses the ‘follow the thing’ research method, which traces a single object as it passes through different exchanges and social spheres (Marcus, 1995). The object in such research is often seen as being made of up a multitude of social relationships.
Studying food is also about the connection between these larger social practices and one’s sensory experience. The sensory experience of food is critical to a fuller understanding of people’s relationships to it. How can anthropology describe sensory experience? One example of the increasing attempts to tackle this problem is Sarah Pink’s ethnographic description of a Slow Food Movement walking tour in Wales (Pink, 2008). Pink takes a cue from the slow food walking tour to propose a multimodal ‘slow ethnography’ that embeds itself in the places sensory experience of being there (Sutton, 2010). This then allows Pink to understand ethnography itself as a “place-making process”, shared between researcher and participants (Pink, 2008, p. 175).
Marcus, G.E., 1995. Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology 24, 95–117.
Mintz, S.W., 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books.
Mintz, S.W., Du Bois, C.M., 2002. The Anthropology of Food and Eating. Annual Review of Anthropology 31, 99–119. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.32.032702.131011
Pink, S., 2008. An urban tour: The sensory sociality of ethnographic place-making. Ethnography 9, 175–196. https://doi.org/10.1177/1466138108089467
Sutton, D.E., 2010. Food and the Senses. Annual Review of Anthropology 39, 209–223. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.012809.104957