ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Food, science, and anthropology

Contact Convenor: Ben Campbell

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester
Roscoe Building
Oxford Road
Manchester, M13 9PL

Tel: 0161 275 2460

Panel abstract

Changing understandings of relationships between food and science have revived interest in the anthropology of food in recent years. The portrayal of GM crops as ‘Frankenstein foods’, and the events of BSE and Foot and Mouth in the UK have thrown into high profile questions of ‘sound science’ supposedly underpinning the regulation of health and environmental factors in modernised food production. Meanwhile in development paradigms in the South, the value now attributed to indigenous varieties of crops and livestock, and to local knowledge about managing agro- biodiversity to provide culturally preferred culinary, production, and storage options has displaced the primacy once occupied by hi-tech agronomic transformation.

Against these developments towards more pluralistic understandings of food and science, the global political economy of food production and distribution provides ethnographers with abundant fare for theoretical reflection. Patterns of migrant agricultural labour, multinational product promotion, world trade agreements, disputes over ‘biopiracy’, and farmers’ movements, have transformed old anthropological analyses of characteristically localised alimentary systems of peasant and subsistence communities. ‘Inventive’, ‘hybrid’, or ‘creolised’ cultural understandings of food, health, and technology increasingly feature in ethnographic accounts that seek to dispell images of poor farmers as passive victims of change, but how capable is anthropology of addressing the politics of famine, pesticide dumping, and junk food?

In addition to these issues workshop contributors might want to explore aspects of food symbolism and identity, such as the suggestion that the favourite national dish in Britain is now chicken tikka masala, which has been taken as emblematic of cultural change. Following Caplan’s argument that “food is never just food” (1997. Food, Health and Identity. Routledge) participants are invited to demonstrate anthropology’s unique perspectives on interrelationships of food with practices and discourses of the body, gender, ethnicity, risk, medicine, modernity, and politics.

Panel participants will be encouraged to join in a meal at Manchester’s finest Nepalese restaurant.

Working with, not against nature? A Finnish food story

Eeva Berglund, Independent researcher

How is it that there seems to be no contradiction in applying capital-intensive (‘high’) technology to enhancing the marketability of ‘local natural produce’, even ‘organic’ food? This is reality in parts of Finland, where agricultural production is apparently only possible if it is incorporated into the logic of the new information society.

Anthropology has analysed changes in the conceptual status of nature, it has insights into the cultural significance of ecopolitics, and has developed a sophisticated if counter-hegemonic understandings of technoscience. I shall draw on these contributions as I describe economic concerns articulated by Finnish scientists engaged in the research and development of local resources (milk, berries and herbs). Their (technoscientific) work articulates with taken-for-granted assumptions about Finnish human-nature relationships as well as with patterns of state-citizen relationships rooted in Nordic understandings of the welfare state. The apparently mundane work of adding value to food production through technology is narrated as a resolutely local, regional or at best national affair. The trope of local ‘natural resource’, however, obscures many inconsistencies in the hype surrounding ‘Finnish’ food technology.

The magic of Maggi cubes: eating and talking modernity in Burkina Faso

Liza Debevec, University of St. Andrews

This paper studies the following oppositonal relationships: ‘tradition and modernity’, ‘African and White’ and ‘rural and urban' through the lens of food preparation and consumption in Bobo-Dioulasso, a large town in the south west of Burkina Faso.

Based on fieldwork that was carried out in Bobo-Dioulasso between 2000 and 2002, I will explore the manifold meanings of the emerging cooking and eating practices in this multi-ethnic and multi-religious town. Part of the attention of the paper focuses on specific traditional African cooking ingredients, such as sumbala and shea butter, which today are being replaced by Western imports, such as stock cubes and sunflower and groundnut oil.

Despite the fact that in their everyday discourse people like to present the above mentioned oppositional relationships as mutually exclusive, a closer look shows that most of the time these ‘pairs of identities’ coexist remarkably well and are often merged into new forms of practice for which a name may not exist and people therefore prefer to refer to them in the old oppositional way.

The intention of the paper is to show that things are not as ‘black and white’ as they seem to certain observers who like to focus on the differences.

I maintain that people keep a double-bind relationship in relation to these values, whose outcome is a set of ideas that may not necessarily be coherent or internally consistent, but which express a way of being-in-the-world that is consistent and coherent with a modernity that is inconsistent and incoherent.

Technologies of transformation: making the alien palatable

Anne-Meike Fechter, University of Wales, Lampeter

When ‘ethnic’ food is consumed in Western restaurants, dishes are often adapted to make them more palatable for customers, as for example Indian food in Britain. While this might be a rather functional practice, technologies of food transformation assume a much greater urgency when the consumption of ‘ethnic’ food is not a choice, but becomes a necessity. I suggest that, in situations when ‘Western identities’ are being challenged by an alien environment, the transformation of local foodstuffs into ‘Western’ dishes becomes vital. In particular, I discuss the case of Euro-American corporate expatriates living in Jakarta, who often regard their Indonesian environment with suspicion and contempt. Indonesian food can thus symbolise an ambiguous and threatening social Other.  Since expatriates are forced to use local ingredients in their everyday food preparation, I suggest that their cooking aims to strip these off their potentially polluting characteristics, and to convert them into food representing ‘Western civilisation’. This also resonates with Levi-Strauss’ notion of transforming the ‘raw’ into the ‘cooked’.  In this case, it takes place for example through English-Indonesian bilingual cookbooks, intended for Indonesian staff, which explain the preparation of Western dishes with local, Indonesian ingredients. Expatriates’ technologies of food transformation thus extend beyond matters of taste, but crucially perform the reproduction of European bodies and identities.

Food scares and the regaining of confidence: The role of advertising imagery

Celio Ferreira, Göteborg University

In the past two decades there has been a number of food-related safety crises both in Europe and the United States. Consumer response to these crises has often been immediate, with a sharp decline in demand of the compromised products, followed by a slow recovery towards previous or slightly lower levels. While risk management bureaucracies tend to rely on scientific evidence in order to formulate guidelines and prohibitions in efforts to restore consumer trust, food producers are more attentive to consumers’ risk-avoidance strategies as part of lifestyles and the ways these strategies mitigate fears. From this perspective, both food producers and food consumers share basic assumptions about the materiality of food as concrete objects of consumption as well as the symbolic connotations attached to any given food product. Much of marketing research is aimed at finding out how these two dimensions of food can occur together. By focusing on TV advertising, this paper addresses the processes by which awareness of food-related risk is re-constructed in advertising imageries that attempt to transform scientific discourses about food-risk and safety into culturally informed notions of what food should be, influencing people’s food habits and the regaining of confidence in the food they eat.

Mediating access and modernity through food: hospitality, ‘boundaries’ and the ethnographic presence

Narmala Halstead, Cardiff University

This presentation will explore how the use of food became a mediator in ethnographic relations as ways of accessing and constructing particular notions of space and place.  It will consider how a projected emphasis on and claiming of ‘local foods’ allowed for various negotiations of the ethnographer’s presence. The ethnographic data is based primarily on my fieldwork in Guyana, but also draws on my later fieldwork in New York.  It examines how the relationships which emerge through a deliberate emphasis on food provide insights into Guyanese East Indians’ notions of modernity.  This is where food is local, global, ‘ethnic,’ privileged and flows into ideas of purity and pollution as in juthaa (food used by others).  The data also considers how the use and gifts of food can transcend or reformulate these boundaries around ideas of juthaa and further, mediate the boundaries between ethnographer and ‘host.’ This is also where East Indians’ understanding of space and place relate to how they inhabit ‘modernity’ and perform varying notions of equality (non-caste) as ‘diasporic peoples.’

Hot dogs, baseball and apple pie: melting food, politics and identity

Nikoleta Katsakiori, University of Manchester

This paper will look into the relationship between a ‘quintessential’ American food, the hot dog, its symbolic identity in the American landscape, the surveillance of public space and the appropriation of a food which was/is used as a vehicle for facilitating movement, between New York and Mathraki (a small island in Greece), and the realization of ‘home’ for this small group of Greek immigrants who predominately sell hot dogs in the streets of New York.

I will demonstrate how this ‘democratic’ food which started as a pan- European immigrant food, was transformed into the first American mass produced product which, still sold in the streets of New York today, has been, and still is, in the middle of a rigorous debate on public space in the City throughout the 20th century. One aspect of the debate revolves around sets of official City legislation, which controls the way public space is used and imposes a culinary surveillance on food vendors. This is socially contested by street vendors and members of the public who oppose such strict and arbitrary rules on uses of public space. I will draw on the practices of the Mathrakians to show how an immigrant group took hold of a professional niche that disseminated a typical American product to their own advantage without identifying with its symbolism, the purpose of which was and still is to reach their ultimate goal, to go back to Mathraki. By studying their practices I have come to recognise how an American mass-produced food, which is a national emblem, has, in practice, contributed to the materialization of their dream without impinging on their regional identity. 

Feeding fish efficiently; transnational technologies in salmon farming

Marianne E. Lien, University of Oslo

Salmon farming has emerged as an industry highly dependent on advanced research and technological innovation. The growth of the industry worldwide has provided fertile ground for applied research in biology, nutrition, genetics and engineering, either within or in close cooperation with the salmon industry. While salmon farming is a localised activity, taking place in a marine environment which can never be fully controlled, the techno-science of salmon farming is indeed a global phenomenon, enrolling researchers and practitioners in transnational networks that facilitate rapid flows of information and technological innovations worldwide. These technologies aim, for a large part, at achieving total control of the biological processes of salmon growth and procreation. 

I will focus upon feeding technologies from the perspective of the Tasmanian salmon industry. Marginal in the world market, Tasmanian salmon farmers find themselves at the receiving end of global flows of technoscience. These flows include sophisticated knowledge and technologies on feed. As they seek to install technologies that will replace human subjectivity with scientific measurements to establish the ‘moment of satiety’ among the fish, Tasmanian salmon farmers represent an intriguing case for explorations of human-animal relations, food production and transnational flows.

Auditing ‘development’: assessing the ‘success’ of genetically modified rice seeds

Martin Rew, University of Cambridge

In recent years, there has been substantial interest in the ‘anthropology of development’, treating processes of ‘development’ - particularly in terms of both international aid and State sponsored infrastructure projects - as ethnographic domains in themselves. This paper is grounded in such ethnographies, but also aims to introduce the problem of ‘audit’ into the discussion, and as the central thrust of the examination. The paper initially follows the ‘results’ of a Department for International Development (DFID)‘participatory rural development’ project in a drought prone area of Eastern India, which has attempted to introduce ‘genetically modified’ rice seeds (‘paddy’) into the area with the view to improving agricultural productivity. These ‘improved’ seeds are also introduced in tandem with ‘democratizing’ attempts to ‘alleviate poverty’ and to facilitate a culture of ‘gender and caste equality’ within the area. Given the relatively short (10 years) duration of the Project the paper shows how the Project becomes caught in the impossible position of attempting to assess the ‘impact’ of the seeds on the area as part of its overall sense of audit and accountability to the donor. In actuality, the paper attempts to show, how the assessment of ‘impact’ surrounding the seeds prompts a climate, or, following Strathern et al (2000), a ‘culture of audit’ throughout the organization, which also gives rise to further forms of moral questioning concerning Project staffs’ own personal position within competing ‘local’, national, and global agenda’s about ‘development’; both agricultural and social. 

Culture and food practices as adaptive strategies for health care in Garhwal Himalaya

Dr. Bina Saklani, H.N.B. Garhwal University

It is a well-recognized fact that worldwide nutritional problems are caused by agricultural shortages as well as cultural practices. All developmental organizations have the task of increasing food production and changing traditional food habits so as to get better nutritional advantages from available foods by imparting effective nutritional education programmes to improve food habits. However food habits are quite resistant to change, because beliefs about food, its relation to health and food choices are all culturally set at an early age .This can be achieved only by understanding food as a social institution in its total cultural context, a task for anthropologists.

The aim of this paper is to highlight the cultural patterns of nutrition for mother and child, and its effect on growth during the period of pregnancy and lactation among women of Garhwal Himalayas. The ethnographic data has been collected from a village located in in the mid-Himalayan zone of the Garhwal Himalayas. It shows that Garhwali folk ideology related to food lays more emphasis to maintaining fetal health, avoidance of child mortality and morbidity rather than the nutritional requirements of mother. Culturally sanctioned rules of food avoidance practiced by women during pregnancy and lactation lead to health problems. With the improvement of education among women in Garhwal, traditional belief patterns related to food and dietary habits are under going change.

Food allergies and ‘alternative’ nutritional advice as represented in holistic clinical practice

Ellen J. Salkeld, Wayne State University

Diet, nutrition and food choice occupy important places in disease construction in holistic medicine. This paper illustrates how a specific diagnosis of ‘food allergy’ relates to clinicians’ view of relationships between environment and patient behavior in an holistic medicine clinic. Ethnographic research with holistic physicians included clinical observation, staff interviews, patient literature analysis, holistic medicine conferences, and literature reviews. Analysis of diagnoses and subsequent therapeutic advice exemplify food allergy to be a mechanism through which clinic physicians discuss their worldview with patients. Furthermore, diagnosis and treatment is grounded in reconceptualization of relationships between individuals and environment, as envisioned by clinic physicians.  

Physicians in the study draw on negative representations of social influences on health, when building the case for food allergy diagnosis with patients. Therapeutic intervention includes reinterpretation of sources of ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ information for patients regarding health in ways suggestive of fundamentalist groups who have boundaries for their adherents between group ideals and the wider society. Food in this instance functions as a boundary object that exists concretely as a vital necessity both inside and outside clinical culture, but which adopts contrary identities according to locale.

Animal as otherness in the history of natural science

Angela Procoli, EHESS, Paris

Any analysis of animals as otherness will greatly benefit if placed in the historical context of the natural sciences. These emerge in fact in the eighteenth century, as they question the traditional cleavage between animal and man, which has always been the hallmark of man-centered vision of christianity. A novel form of scientific reasoning, based on the findings of comparative anatomy, shows that man and animal are physiologically close, and that both are included in the same chain of evolution. Natural sciences have always blurred the barriers between categories, while popular lore (that of the farmers for instance) has tended to identify animals as being quite close to the human race, although not to be merged with it (popular lore places animals in a well-defined slot, including them in a sexual hierarchy, or in a system of filiation akin to the human race). Quoting the data from field research with breeders in France (2000-2002), in the first place, and nowadays in a laboratory of animal genetics, I look into the widening gap between the "popular" view of animals and the "scientific" attitude of researchers whose work it is to genetically manufacture them. Thus recourse to the techniques of genetic engineering involves an upheaval in identity: the status of animals becomes ambiguous, as it no longer belongs to a pattern of relationships: transgenesis breaks down the border between species, cloning abolishes sexual reproduction, and filiation is blurred, since the clone is genetically identical to the animal from which a cellular nucleus has been removed. The prospect of making self into self underlines such abiding frailty in the logic of identity that thorny issues are likely to arise from the ethical standpoint whenever experiments on human beings are under consideration.