Research(ing) Fields / Anthropology of Food

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):

  1. Political-economic value-creation
  2. Symbolic value-creation
  3. 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.

Pink, S., 2008. An urban tour: The sensory sociality of ethnographic place-making. Ethnography 9, 175–196.

Sutton, D.E., 2010. Food and the Senses. Annual Review of Anthropology 39, 209–223.

Cultural Appropriation & Cake?? A Bittersweet Analogy

Posted by Miley Cyrus June 5th 2019

I recently started following ‘thesweetfeminist’ A.K.A Becca Rea-Holloway on Instagram. She posts pictures of her cakes which are iced with a generous amount of buttercream and political advocacy. On June 20th 2018 Becca posted a photo of a cake which said “Abortion is Healthcare.” She has reposted this same cake many times since and particularly as of late with the 27 abortion bans that have been passed in 12 American states. Becca, however, wasn’t the only one to express her outrage via frosting. Miley Cyrus announced she’d be collaborating with Marc Jacobs to sell a jumper with the words “Don’t F*ck With My Freedom” of which all the profits are claimed to go to planned parenthood. One of the photos for this campaign depicts Miley licking a cake that not only resembles Becca’s creation, but is an EXACT replica. In response Becca wrote, “Cake art is for everyone, but this is inexcusable.” The issue is that her work was blatantly copied without her consent or any form of acknowledgement or compensation. Now while this may not be an example of cultural appropriation, parallels can be drawn from this case to the arguments presented by Brown (1998) in his paper “Can Culture be Copyrighted?”  

Posted by ‘thesweetfeminist’ June 20th 2018

Trying to copyright ‘culture’ is like trying to copyright ‘cake’ (for different reasons of course) but in the same way that they are both unstable grounds to work on. Firstly, how do we define culture? Do we need to distinguish between material, tangible culture and intangible cultural knowledge? Brown (1998) argues the notion that we can somehow ‘copyright’ culture is flawed because it rests on a romanticized and purist understanding. If we can ‘replicate’ culture then it must be original and authentic to begin with. I could argue this point further or I could insert a compelling quote from Edward Said (1994, p. 448): “All cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic.” 

Now just because culture is fluid and cake is delicious, does that mean they should be a free for all where we can steal as many symbols and slices as we want without any consequences? While at first glance it may seem as though Brown (1998, p. 207) is arguing for the protection of a liberal democracy above all else, he makes an important declaration, “Reduction of inequalities in the distribution of power is just as essential for maintaining liberal democracy as is a free flow of information.”  

Becca & some of her other creations

Becca believes that, “Cake art is for everyone” and likewise Brown (1998) argues that ideas, knowledge and personal expression should not be threatened by copyright laws. Institutionalized secrecy has a tendency to result in abuses of power. For instance, the Church of Scientology has been attempting to privatize their religious texts and ‘sensitive’ information about their organization (and I think we can see how problematic it would be to keep that info confidential).  

Many debates about cultural appropriation have centered on control and the notion that by copyrighting cultural artefacts, symbols and knowledge the ‘original’ culture regains power. But will this really give power back to marginalized and minority voices? Instead Brown (1998, p. 208) asserts that greater change can be enacted through an “agreed-upon social goal” and mechanisms which provide compensation for the use of cultural symbols/knowledge. Brown (1998, p. 203) believes that all this talk about copyrighting culture is actually detracting from more important discussions such as “the fragility of native cultures in mass societies.” 

What can Becca’s feminist cakes and Brown’s (1998) arguments in favour of a liberal democracy teach us about cultural appropriation? For one, copyrighting something as crumby as cake and as elusive as culture is a problematic foundation to work on. Instead we should focus on developing ‘social goals’ which foster respect for cake artists and cultural ideas. We need to think critically about how compensation can best be given to those who have inspired us and how imbalances of power effect the actors involved. I realize that these suggestions are quite ambiguous and ‘fuzzy’, but when dealing with a phenomenon as complex as cultural appropriation, perhaps any possible solutions will be just as elusive.  


Brown, MF 1998, ‘Can Culture Be Copyrighted?’, Current Anthropology, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 193-222.

Said, EW 1994, Culture and imperialism. New York, Knopf.

Enjoy thinking about the pitfalls of defining & appropriating culture? See also:

Dyan’s article

Maddie’s article

Abbie’s article