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Editorial: A sociology

of food and eating

Why now?
Paul Ward, John Coveney and Julie Henderson
Flinders University, Australia

The sociology of food and eating has recently re-emerged as an issue, not
only within health sociology where concerns with healthy eating have come
to the fore, but also in relation to emerging food markets, identity and food
consumption, a renewed interest in food governance and diminishing trust
in the food supply (McMillan and Coveney, 2010). Whether the concerns
are about lack of food, too much food, the quality and/or safety of food,
how/what to feed family/children, or the symbolic meanings attached to
different types of foods, the central issue is that we all, as human beings,
have to eat in order to survive. The core question for sociologists is around
the generative mechanisms underpinning these questions and issues. Indeed,
the degree of interest in the sociology of food is evidenced by the level of
response to this Special Issue on the Sociology of Food and Eating, with
nearly 60 abstracts being submitted.
There are a number of social factors which have contributed to the
resurgence of interest in the sociology of food and eating at this juncture.
The globalization of the food supply and increasing access to information
has contributed to increased risk consciousness with regards to food, with
recent scares dominating news media (Knight et al., 2007). In Australia
there has been a significant increase in consumer concern about food safety
stemming from media coverage of stories about food safety resulting in
growing concerns about the use of pesticides, food additives and preservatives
(FSANZ, 2008; Williams et al., 2004). In addition, the food supply in
Australia is changing. Australia is rapidly becoming a significant food
importer with imported food reaching a record $8 billion in 2009 (Food
Policy Section, 2009: 11). Many imported foods are staples, like fruits and
vegetables, meat and cereal products, raising questions about Australias
ability to be food secure.

Journal of Sociology 2010 The Australian Sociological Association, Volume 46(4): 347351

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Insecurities and anxieties about the food system are further exacerbated
by the emergence of new food technologies, which mirrors debates in
sociology about ontological insecurities (Giddens, 1990) and cultures of
anxiety (Crawford, 2004). European research has long reported concerns
with food technologies, such as GM foods, which have been less evident in
an Australian context (Lupton, 2005). Recent changes such as the lifting of
a moratorium on GM canola crops in New South Wales and Victoria have
the potential to increase concerns with safety of the food supply.
Globalization is also a factor in rising food costs and food insecurity.
Growing demand fuelled by rising populations (Stoeckel, 2008) and
increased consumer expectations and consumer demands (ODI, 2008);
alongside diminishing food supplies attributed to poor harvests in export
countries (ODI, 2008), increasing farming production costs (Stoeckel,
2008) and the use of crops to produce biofuels (Dornboech and Steenblik,
2007) have all contributed to rising food costs. Food cost plays a significant
role in mediating food choice, particularly among low income people
(Harrison et al., 2007), who often have to cut back on food spending to
allow for other essentials such as housing and utilities (Dowler, 2008),
contributing in turn, to poorer health.
Health concerns also underpin an increasing focus upon prevention of
chronic disease through adoption of healthy lifestyles. In the food arena,
concerns with the prevention of chronic disease are most commonly associated
with obesity. A number of authors (Boero, 2007; Lawrence, 2004; Mitchell
and McTigue, 2007) point to the construction of obesity as an epidemic with
long term health and economic ramifications. As a consequence, 30 million
dollars were allocated for obesity-related research in Australia between 2005
and 2009 (Maher et al., 2010). Guthman and DuPuis (2006) associate the
emergence of concerns with obesity at this point with a tension between
models of personhood which encourage consumerism and those which
encourage self-discipline. Obesity is constructed as a problem requiring both
self-appraisal and governance, creating fertile ground for the emergence of a
variety of commercial weight loss programs and public health initiatives
(Guthman and DuPuis, 2006). The designation of obesity as a risk factor for
chronic illness creates a social imperative for self management while
designation as an epidemic leads to vigilance as obesity is an issue for which
we are all, as individuals, at risk (Boero, 2007).
A final consideration is the impact of ethical concerns upon food
production, consumption and transport. Ethical consumption of food
centres on localism, as a means of promoting environmental sustainability
and social justice through reducing food miles and the creation of alternate
food networks (DuPuis and Goodman, 2005). It provides a venue for the
construction of identity through food choice with that choice providing a
mark of membership of cultural groups (Fischler, 1988). Soper (2007)
associates ethical consumption with the acquisition of status. The purchasing

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Ward et al.: Editorial 349

of organic and local food may reflect a form of asceticism in which

distinction is marked by restraint, not only in type of food consumed but
also in the amount consumed (Guthman, 2002), leading Soper (2007: 210)
to suggest that ethical food consumers may be more obedient to
consumerist rather than citizenly urges.
This issue of the Journal of Sociology brings a sociological lens to
emerging issues in relation to food and eating. The papers in this issue
explore concerns with globalization; emerging food risks; the individ
ualization of responsibility for health; asceticism and cultural identity; and
the experiences of dieticians of their professional practice. The theoretical
perspectives adopted include feminist theories, governmentality (and
critiques of neoliberalism), consumerism, theories of trust and risk including
reflexive modernization, and conventions theory.
Buchler, Smith and Lawrence address issues of risk and perceptions of
food safety through survey research with Australian participants. They
distinguish between modern risks, such as food additives which have
emerged as part of modernity and which are unpredictable and unavoidable,
and traditional risks such as food contamination, which are more amenable
to the actions of the individual. They identify a greater concern with modern
than traditional food risks, most notably among women and older
respondents, which, following Beck (1992), they associate with the uncertainty
of these risks. The individualization of risk management is addressed through
identification of groups who have greater confidence in their capacity to
manage food risks. The extent to which people on lower incomes and with
less education express concerns about traditional risks leads the authors to
challenge food policies that promote consumer sovereignty.
Zivokic, Warin, Davies and Moore also explore the individualization of
risk. They argue that the positioning of children in the childhood obesity
debate enables a moral and legal discourse in which mothers are held
accountable for childhood obesity. They demonstrate, through analysis of
media that children are often presented as the victims of poor parenting
enabling a discourse of parental, and in particular, maternal responsibility
for overweight and obese children. This is furthered by policies which
promote what Giddens calls the colonization of the future (1991: 111) in
which public policy invests in the health and well-being of children to meet
the responsibilities of future citizenship but also by ideologies of motherhood
which promote selfless and labour-intensive mothering.
Mah also highlights the individualization of public health through
analysis of food policy in Japan. She undertakes an analysis of shokuiku or
nurturing through food, a policy framework which promotes public
health through dietary change. Mah argues that shokuiku not only
individualizes responsibility for public health but also promotes Japanese
produce through associating healthy eating with a traditional Japanese diet.
Drawing upon Japanese cultural imagery and culinary history, shokuiku

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350 Journal of Sociology 46(4)

has become a domestic and international marketing strategy but also a

marker of Japanese identity, leading to the association of food choice with
citizenship. The good citizen is personally responsible for their health but
also patriotic in their food choices.
Isaacs, Dixon, Banwell, Seubsman, Kelly and Pangsap also explore
consumption issues in an Asian context. They use ethnographic methods to
highlight how the incursion of supermarkets into Thailand has resulted in
the remaking of both supermarkets and fresh food markets. Convention
theory is utilized to identify how localized social and relational norms and
values respond to changes in social context. For supermarkets this is
reflected in the adoption and adaption of features of local market culture
such as the observance of religious festivals and rewards for customer
loyalty, while for local markets it results in greater standardization and
improved hygiene strategies.
The final paper, by Gingras, takes a divergent approach to the sociology
of food through exploring the working experiences of practicing dieticians.
The author argues for a disjunction between the professional expectations
and practical experiences of practicing dieticians which contributes, in turn,
to professional melancholia. Melancholia arises from an educational
background which focuses upon positivist knowledge; from the relative
impotence of dietetic practice to change dietary habits and from professional
power relations within the health care system. Her participants argue for
the promotion of, and take satisfaction from the relational aspects of, their
work, and view the teaching of sociological and psychological knowledge
as an important adjunct to dietetic education.

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Buchler, S., K. Smith and G. Lawrence (2010) Food Risks, Old and New:
Demographic Characteristics and Perceptions of Food Additives, Regulation and
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