Food Studies for Anthropologists

David Beriss

I have just returned from the joint annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Food and Society and the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society, which is one of the most interesting Food Studies conferences around. This year’s event, at Occidental College, in Pasadena, California, was organized by sociologist John Lang, who, along with his team, did a great job while also maintaining a kind of relaxed cool. Many participants live tweeted the event, providing an interesting subtext. Emily Contois, who organized the live social media team, has written up an excellent overview of the conference and provided an organized view of the social media feed here.

Food Studies is an inherently multidisciplinary field, which may be what makes it attractive to anthropologists, the Zeligs of the social and human sciences. The opportunity to experience different approaches to the study of society through food is hard to resist. Of course, sometimes these cross-disciplinary conversations can be complicated. Discussing the politics of “cultural appropriation,” for instance, can be difficult when we are not all working with the same definition of “culture.” Yet the value of trying to figure out what everyone means is worth the effort. Three of the trends I noticed at this year’s conference help to explain why.

First, over the last few years, public policy has become an increasingly significant part of the conference. In addition to examining local foodways, increasing numbers of participants have worked to relate their analyses to the broader political-economic context and to the public policies that shape people’s choices and actions. The idea of a “food movement” gained national legitimacy during the Obama years, but that seems to be changing in the Trump administration. Yet the opposite is happening among food scholars, who seem more anxious than ever to find ways to make their research relevant to public policy and public debate.

There are many areas of policy (sustainability, agriculture, public health, globalization, etc.) that can be approached through food studies. There were policy-related discussions of all of these things at this year’s conference, but I was especially struck by a particular focus on labor in the food industry. This was central to the conference plenary panel, which was led by Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s “Good Food” show. The other participants were Joann Lo, the executive director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, Diep Tran, owner and chef at Good Girl Dinette, and Besha Rodell, restaurant critic for the LA Weekly. Tran wrote a powerful piece about food work and “cheap eats” on the NPR food blog earlier this year. With quite a lot of direct experience in the industry, the panelists made a compelling case for the need to change wage and tipping structures, along with providing better social support for food industry workers. The panelists also insisted on the centrality of gender, race/ethnicity, and immigration to discussions of food industry labor. The struggle for equity and fairness, already significant during the Obama administration, seems likely to become even more difficult—and essential—in coming years.

The influence and responsibility of science and of universities was also a central theme at this year’s conference. The keynote address, by Sharon Friel of the Australian National University, examined the role of research, activists, and corporate lobbies in shaping global food and nutrition policies. The presidents of both of the organizing associations, Leland Glenna (AFHVS) and Krishnendu Ray (ASFS) addressed the place of university research and researchers in the public sphere. Glenna focused on the hazards of corporate control of university research, while Ray raised questions about the politics of teaching and knowledge. From climate change, to vaccines, antibiotics, obesity, nutrition, health care, and, indeed, labor, the need for solid research to support public policy seems more important than ever. Yet the increasing grip of private industry on university research, combined with a delegitimization of scientific knowledge, threatens the role of scholars in helping to shape public policy.

Finally, there was a remarkable number of presentations that focused on research collaboration with the people being studied. Collaborative research has been a central focus in anthropology in recent years, so it was interesting to see that this sort of work, involving students, faculty, and broader communities, has also become more common in other fields. Areas of collaboration included promoting food justice activism, creating food-related museum exhibits, developing local food initiatives, and more. This kind of collaboration may offer an important link to both the making of public policy and efforts to make university research relevant to the public sphere. The national discourse from certain quarters may work to delegitimize the voices and work of university and other professional scholars., Grassroots engagement with the people we study can have the opposite effect, legitimizing research because it is their research as well. This is, I think, a good trend to see in food studies.

There are many kinds of knowledge that can be used to make sense of society through food. I have touched on only a few of the many themes that were reflected in the conference program. As a field of knowledge, Food Studies is clearly growing and thriving. For anthropologists who are interested in finding ways to make their research more relevant to policy debates, there is a lot to learn and many people to collaborate with in Food Studies. Next year’s conference will be in Madison, Wisconsin. I hope to see even more SAFN members there.

Leave a comment

Filed under AFHVS, anthropology, anthropology of food, ASFS, Food Studies

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s