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Tasting in Mundane Practices: Ethnographic Interventions in Social Science Theory. Anna Mann. Ph.D. Thesis, Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, Amsterdam. 2015.
Yingkun Hou (Southern Illinois University, Carbondale)
As an essential part of bodily experience, the cultural significance of taste can often be overlooked. While sensory science and food industry are typically interested in the physiological aspects of taste for practical reasons, the Western traditions of downgrading taste as only a bodily “sensation” may have affected the view of many social scientists—only in the last few decades did we start to look more intently into the role of taste from a cultural perspective. Indeed, a closer look at taste can reveal insights that may otherwise be ignored, as David Sutton (2010) proposes in his “gustemological” approach to culture. In her published dissertation Tasting in Mundane Practices: Ethnographic Interventions in Social Science Theory, Anna Mann adopts this approach, putting taste and tasting at the forefront of her study. Mann uses her ethnographic observations from three different everyday scenarios in various Western European countries in order to reveal and analyze what is happening in the process of tasting.
Tasting in Mundane Practices consists of five chapters. Mann introduces the topic by questioning the accounts of tasting by other social scientists, pointing out that tasting is influenced by the specific context a person exists in, and that it is not only a “physiological response” that takes place in the body, but also a simultaneous experience of the multi-sensorial qualities of the object being tasted. Instead of using “tasting as a vehicle to understand other matters” (17) as a student of Annemarie Mol, who is a leading figure in Science and Technology Studies, Mann takes the approach of “material semiotics” in this study. As Mann explains, this approach requires her to not take “tasting” for granted, rather, she starts by “not knowing what tasting is” so that she can focus on “tasting itself.” Tapping into the ethnographic data she gathered between 2009 and 2013 in Western European countries, in this first chapter, Mann sets the stage for an investigation of tasting: How is tasting accomplished in different practices?
From chapters two to five Mann describes a particular type of setting where tasting was happening. In the second chapter, Mann focuses her investigation on “physiological responses” by describing two sensory science laboratories’ experiments she observed between 2009 and 2011. While the first lab focused on flavor perception in chocolate liquids, the other one studied the relation between food intake and sensory qualities. Mann gives a detailed account of the design of both experiments. In addition, she attached excerpts of her fieldnotes for each lab, providing greater contexts for each observation. In the conclusion of this chapter, she summarizes what these two experiments have in common: they both enacted taste as “an object of science” yet one that is “staged in different versions of the bodily response” (47). In so doing, the researchers managed to tie their research to a set of “practical concerns:” To lab F, it is about optimizing the food product; to lab N, it is about how to prevent obesity (47).
In the third chapter, Mann focuses on particular moments of a family celebration event that took place in eastern Austria in June 2010, when the participants described the food they consumed as “schmeckt gut”— a German expression, which literally means “to taste good”. Taking the phrase schmeckt gut literally, she uses scenarios from her fieldwork as examples to discuss the three different modes of “ordering and organising” tasting: experiencing, socializing and processing food. She also suggests that despite the possibility of combining different approaches to investigate tasting, not all of these aspects are “equally relevant” in any particular moment. At the end of the chapter, Mann points out some challenges for ethnographic investigations of sensual engagement of participants in the future—how exclusions/inclusions are made in a “tasting together in difference” (71).
What, then, shapes people’s sensual engagement with food when they state schmeckt gut in different situations? In chapter three, Mann uses ethnographic data she collected from doctors, patients and nurses between 2009 and 2013 to the everyday life contrast with the theories on the contexts of taste from Pierre Bourdieu, Günter Wiegelmann, and Geneviève Teil, stating that none of these three contexts can apply to practices she observed (77). Instead, she argues that what is important to the experience of people’s sensual engagements with food in everyday life that lead to the comment of “schmeckt gut” is what she calls “mundane going-on”: the tasks and activities one was involved in “before, after and around eating” (83). Moreover, she also suggests some questions for contexts that could be further explored such as how different contexts relate to each other, and the possibility and challenge for us when we consider contexts as interventions.
In chapter four, she discusses tasting and subjective knowing, contrasting wine tasting with “mundane eating”. She uses examples from Teil’s works, which demonstrate that wine tasting is “a specific achievement”: the guides, trainings and tools for wine tasting help to “configure tasting as knowing” (109), where one needs to recognize particular colors, aromas and flavors in different wines in order to “pass a verdict” (109). Using examples from her fieldnotes, Mann states that the process of mundane tasting, however, highlights the fact that tasting is not about people “knowing” how to judge what they taste, rather, it “comes to flow over and blend into what happens before and afterwards” (114). People are not just “knowing subjects,” as they may “shift between different subject positions that imply a different relation to their food” or even “renounce being ‘a subject’ altogether” (122). In the convent Kloster Fahr, where food is shared among the collective, as Mann points out, nuns didn’t use expressions like “tasting good,” refraining from implications of differentiations. In this case of devotional living, “knowing and judging” can be even more insignificant. Instead, appreciating food is much more important. Here, as Mann puts it, “tasting dissolves into yet another way of being in a relation with God” (105).
In the final chapter, Mann briefly revisits the “strategy” of engaging with the four aspects of taste and tasting in different practices, which is the physiological response (chapter 2), the multi-sensory experience (chapter 3), contexts (chapter 4) and knowing (chapter 5). She argues that it is possible to “tease out differences between the ways in which tasting is part of mundane goings-on” (131). Mann also points out that in most of the situations she discusses in these chapters, English is not the primary language; thus, by bringing all these observations together, the tasting that has been crafted here is “a composite of various entities” (132) in different languages that would resonate with the English term “tasting”. In the end, Mann suggests possible directions for future studies that could build on this one—to further our understanding of “the good” when something “tastes good.”
Tasting in Mundane Practices offers an interesting set of ethnographic studies of tasting in different scenarios ranging from laboratory experiments to devotional eating, revealing how different aspects of tasting can point to different subjects in our understanding of culture. Particularly, her call for attention to the roles of contexts and “mundane goings-on” instead of more general and abstract concepts of tasting that some well-known previous works have suggested is worth further exploration. To researchers who are interested in studying the culture of taste, tasting, and everyday life, this book can help to spark ideas for new directions in future studies.
Sutton, D. E. (2010). Food and the Senses. Annual Review of Anthropology, 39(1), 209-223.