Food for Thought: Nourishment, Culture, Meaning

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Call for papers

The Food Studies Program, New York University (NYU),

the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Communication (CIRCe)

and the Department of Philosophy and Educational Sciences, University of Turin,

in collaboration with the EU Program Marie Skłodowska   -Curie (MSCA – GA No 795025),

encourage submissions for the International Conference

Food for Thought: Nourishment, Culture, Meaning

dirs. Dr. Simona Stano and Prof. Amy Bentley

October 14-15, 2019

It was 1962 when Claude Lévi-Strauss introduced his famous idea that, in order to be “good to eat” (bon à manger), a substance must be first of all “good to think” (bon à penser): as the French scholar reported in the pages of Totemism, food must nourish people’s collective mind — i.e. their systems of values, beliefs, and traditions — to be considered suitable for their stomachs. Since then other theorists have weighed in on the nature of food and culture, including cultural materialists (Marvin Harris 1985), and practice theorists (including Alan Warde 2014, 2016) who assert that a focus on practices and actions provides a third way to think about culture and meaning, sidestepping tensions between emphasis on ideas and things. While materialism and practice theory have enriched and decentered discourses of food and identity, for example, the value of ideas, beliefs, and symbols remains salient in food studies.

While food habits, preferences, and taboos are partially regulated by ecological and material factors, research has shown that all food systems are structured and given particular functioning mechanisms by specific societies and cultures, either according to totemic (such as in animistic religions), sacrificial (such as in ancient history), hygienic-rationalist (such as in contemporary Western dietetics), aesthetic (such as in gastronomy), or other types of symbolic logics. This provides much “food for thought.” The famous expression has never been so appropriate: not only do cultures develop unique practices for the production, treatment and consumption of food, but such practices inevitably end up affecting also food-related aspects and spheres that are generally perceived as objectively and materially defined. Let us consider, for instance, dietary prescriptions, which are undoubtedly based on the material composition of food products, but are also dependent on the values and meanings conferred on specific food constituents by the narratives and discourses circulating within each culture; or food safety regulations, which are related to the concepts of dirtiness and hygiene — whose perception, as Mary Douglas (1966) effectively showed, is intrinsically related to cultural diversity.

Drawing on these premises, the conference “Food for Thought: Nourishment, Culture, Meaning” intends to enhance the cultural reflection on food, calling into action various theoretical approaches and analytical methodologies, also in the aim to offer new insights on how the study of food can help us understand better what we call “culture.” Topics of interest include, but are not limited to, the following:

a. Food, Taste, and Global Cultures

Food and taste have always represented crucial means of construction and expression of sociocultural identity, as Claude Lévi-Strauss (1958, 1964, 1965), Roland Barthes (1961), Mary Douglas (1966, 1972, 1984), Pierre Bourdieu (1979) and a number of other scholars have effectively pointed out. What is more, in contemporary societies, migrations, travels and communications incessantly expose local food identities to global food alterities, originating remarkable processes of transformation that continuously reshape and redefine such identities and alterities. This originates a series of interesting questions: how can the cultural meanings and values associated with food be identified and described in today’s fast-changing food systems? How do the processes of hybridization (and domestication) of food and taste affect such meanings and values in different contexts and environments (e.g., creole home cooking, “ethnic” restaurants, fusion cuisines, diasporic foodways, culinary tourism, etc.)?

b. Nutrition and Cultures

Nutrition evidently relies on the material dimension of food, since it makes reference to its physical composition (in terms of nutrients, calories, etc.), but is also strongly influenced by the sociocultural sphere: not only do sociocultural factors such as ethnicity, class, education, gender, etc. affect eating habits, but the very ideas of health, beauty, safety and a series of other concepts playing a crucial role in the definition of dietary regimes are culturally defined. Furthermore, contemporary foodways have increasingly emphasized the connection between nourishment and aesthetics (mainly as a result of the generalized process of aestheticization of food and taste), as well as the link between nutrition and ethics (as a dominant position supporting meat-free dietary regimes clearly shows). The conference invites reflection upon such issues, and also consideration of the decisive role played by communication, and especially by the mass and new media, in the establishment of specific collective imaginaries and the association of particular values and meanings to food products, habits, and practices.

c. Food and Law: A Cross-Cultural Perspective

Both at the local and global scale, nutrition is ruled by a complexity of laws regulating very diverse aspects — e.g. quality, safety, ecology, etc. — related to the production, trade and handling of food. Such aspects, exactly as any other facet of law, cannot be disentangled from culture (see in particular Geertz 1983; Rosen 2006). This explains the difficulty that might be encountered in establishing transnational regulations on food, as recently proved by the discussed case of food treatment within the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the European Union and the United States, which reflects not only differences in legislation on food production and handling, but also cultural divergences related to its valorization and perception. The conference focuses on the cultural conceptions underlying food regulations and the way by which they contribute to activate specific meaning-making processes.

Submissions, including an abstract (250-400 words), affiliation and a short bionote (100 words), should be sent to no later than June 23, 2019.


Barthes, Roland. 1961. “Pour une psychosociologie de l’alimentation contemporaine.” Annales ESC, XVI, 5: 977-986 [English Translation 1997. “Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption.” In Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, 20-27. New York and London: Routledge].

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1979. La distinction. Paris: Éditions de Minuit [English Translation 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London and New York: Routledge].

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger. An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

——. 1972. “Deciphering a meal.” Daedalus, 101, 1: 61-81.

——. 1984. Food in the Social Order: Studies of Food and Festivities in Three American Communities. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Geertz, Clifford. 1983. “Local Knowledge: Fact and Law in Comparative Perspective.” In Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, 167-234. New York: Basic Books.

Harris, Marvin. 1985. Good to Eat. Riddles of Food and Culture. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1958. Anthropologie structurale. Paris: Plon [English Translation 1963. Structural Anthropology. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books].

——. 1962. Le totémisme aujourd’hui. Paris: PUF [English Translation 1963. Totemism. Boston: Beacon press].

——. 1964. Mythologiques I. Le cru et le cuit. Paris: Plon [English Translation 1969. The Raw and the Cooked. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press].

——. 1965. “Le triangle culinaire.” L’Arc, 26: 19-29.

Rosen, Lawrence. 2006. Law as Culture: An Invitation. Princeton, NJ and Oxford, UK: Princeton University Press.

Warde, Alan. 2014. “After Taste: Culture, Consumption and Theories of Practice.” Journal of Consumer Culture, 14, 3: 279-303.

——. 2016. The Practice of Eating. Cambridge: Polity.

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Filed under anthropology, CFP, Food Studies

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