The Influential, Ever-Evolving Nature of Food

UA doctoral student Mary Good is teaching an online course that serves to investigate ways in which beliefs about and practices around food are largely shaped by social and cultural constructs.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications, January 19, 2011

Would you maintain a regular diet containing either bee larvae, fried tarantula or tripe? What about pickled pig feet or chitlins? Or how about Twinkies?

The answer depends partially on personal preference, access and habit, but also socially and culturally defined normative beliefs about food.

That's a crucial point. Food does not always serve as mere sustenance or a jolt for the taste buds, but also represents a socially and culturally relevant staple shaped by regionalism, mood and ideology, among a list of other things, said Mary Good, a doctoral student in the University of Arizona's School of Anthropology.

"All humans everywhere must consume food in order to live, but how 'food' is defined, produced, procured, thought about, and interacted with is subject to almost endless variation around the world," she said.

"Some people like to eat bugs and monkey brains, and we are trying to understand why that relationship exists and also why other people find it gross," Good added.

This semester, she is teaching a Web-based course, "Anthropology of Food," which considers past and contemporary cultural ties to eating, nutrition, agriculture, the domestication of animals and global movements and the global food market.

In doing so, the class is meant to examine ways food is defined and how it aids in social identity development and ways it is utilized for organizing societies.

"I focus more on ways that people make social connections with each other through food and ways in which food is expressive," Good said.

Dawn Gonzales, an Honors College student studying anthropology, took the course during the Spring 2010 online.

"It isn't about nutrition, but we did study the effects of the western diet as it has been introduced around the world," said Gonzales, a UA South senior.

"The class is about food as ritual, food as politics and food as culture," she said, adding that she enjoys "crunchy and colorful foods."

And being that she is a UA student in Sierra Vista, Gonzales said it was especially beneficial to take a course she was interested in without having to commute.

"Mary Good is a very involved instructor," Gonzales said. "The content of the class is interesting and current for the cultures which she introduces. " 

Good said it is particularly fascinating that ideas about food shape what it means to be a "good national citizen" in different countries. Consider the bento box and sushi in Japan compared with curry in India, falafel in Israel, poutine in Canada, empanadas in Chile or Peking duck in China.

"Everybody eats, and it's something most all students can relate to on some level so that we are able to get into some deeper anthropological concepts," she added. "As the world gets smaller, you can get food very easily from any place in the world, so it is important to understand that connection."

So strong is the influence of food that it has spawned an industry marked with massive marketing campaigns, educational drives, research and also government regulation of safety, production and sales.

Television shows such as "Man v. Food," "No Reservations" and "Worst Cooks in America" along with cookbooks, food blogs, manuals on cooking methods and techniques are among the contemporary mainstays.

"Books and television shows have sort of brought the connections between food and culture to the forefront of people's minds," said Good, who has previously taught the UA course online and in person.

Specific issues explored in her class deal with body image, children and food, localized identities associated with food, the lunchbox phenomena in the U.S. and parts of Asia, fast food consumption, the global food market, disease, genetic modification, the geography of food also food with relation to religion and ritual.

Take college culture, for example.

"The university itself is a great place to study food," Good said. "The dorm room pizza isn't just a little innocent thing."

Neither are habits in overindulging in salad to lose weight or in committing to a skimpy diet right before spring break, she noted.

So understanding the socialization mechanisms influencing individual and group perceptions about food can help explain why people maintain certain activities around their most coveted eats.

Which gets back to the original question – how about those Twinkies?

Extra Information
A number of other anthropologists and social scientists at the UA are investigating food-related issues, including:

    * Timothy Finan, a research anthropologist with the Bureau of Applied Research, or BARA, has studied food scarcity and food aid flows.
    * Mamadou Baro, an associate research anthropologist with BARA, has studied global food crises.
    * Gary Nabhan, a research social scientist, was involved with the Renewing America's Food Traditions Alliance in producing an assessment of food biodiversity in the Gulf of Mexico, before and after the Deepwater Horizon accident.
    * Communication professor Dale Kunkel and Dana Mastro, an associate professor of communication, have examined televised food marketing to children.