why i’m pro “animals and society” and think “the sociology of food” should be more central to the discipline

There, I said it. Beyond my friendship with Colin Jerolmack (“the pigeon dude”) who has guided me to respect the animals and society section, I just read Mark Bittman’s article in the NYTimes, “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler” and thought to myself, “sociologists should work more on this relationship”. The Times has been doing a series of articles on meat (Jamie Oliver’s “new goal” of  understanding why meat is cheap is less interesting than Bittman’s, but still worth a gander). I have become more and more concerned with our agricultural practices over the last five years. Some of this has nothing to do with sociology, emerging instead through my work as a chef in Madison for a food collective
organized around sustainable food. And some because of casual reading on the issue – in particular Pollan’s book which I found insightful (though the narrative voice annoyed me). Bittman’s piece makes me realize at a full sociological study can (and should!) be done on this relationship.

Perhaps it has been done and I haven’t read it. Yet it sits at the intersection of so many literatures. Political sociology (subsidies), organizational sociology (farming), consumptive practices, globalization, health, etc. It strikes me that no area is more central to our lives than food. We all have to eat every day, and an enormous amount of social organization could be understood in relation to ensuring that that happens. Animals play a key role in food (though I acknowledge to my vegetarian friends, they need not). So why not more on animals and society? And in particular, why not more work on food?

34 thoughts on “why i’m pro “animals and society” and think “the sociology of food” should be more central to the discipline”

  1. OK, but before anything else: on the A&S website, what’s that standing behind the guy? Is it supposed to be a deer or a goat? It’s too small to be a deer, right?


  2. My vote: goat. The horns are single and curved backward. More like a goat than a deer (which often go to the side and are split to have many points). Plus they’re more likely to be domesticated, like the other animals in the picture (dog, cat, pig, chicken).

    I’m not that much younger than you, Jeremy. So probably not a generational thing. Probably just my own mistake. I wonder how long the title will endure. Not long, I think (as to my knowledge is next project is distinctly not on pigeons).

    I have to do something about my blog writing. (Way too many parentheses). Odd.


  3. but maybe that’s a generational thing

    You and Shakha are too close in age for that. (He’s older than I would have thought and you’re younger than I would think so I guess if one didn’t know better.. no, even then there’s not a generation there..)

    Perhaps it has to do with strength of tie, although I would think a friend is less likely to refer to you as a dude than someone who’s not as close.


  4. My colleague Jim Lang has done some work on crops–lots of it in agricultural journals, but there’s his book: Notes of a Potato Watcher. http://www.tamu.edu/upress/BOOKS/2001/lang.htm

    And wasn’t there a spate of publications like 3 or 4 years ago on what I would call “the social history of ingredient x”? Like…
    Salt: A World History
    Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and how It Transformed Our World


  5. I’m surprised that at 29, I’m “older” than one would imagine. I always thought I was young. Time for a cognitive shift.

    Also: I just got off the phone with Colin. You are correct, Jeremy. It is always, “the pigeon guy”, never “the pigeon dude”. At least he had never heard of himself referred to as “dude” before.


  6. the dude abides
    (just not with pigeons)

    seriously though, i agree with shakha’s central point that there is a lot of potential for a sociology of food, though i’m much more interested in a consumption side than supply side version. in particular, food seems to be where the action is in terms of class markers as is wonderfully illustrated by the wailing and gnashing of teeth over WalMart’s line of bargain organic products. i recall reading in AdAge some crunchy dude griping about how they weren’t /really/ organic because they come from factory farms (without noting that this is also true of just about everything at Whole Foods). i think it’s fairly self-evident that the real complaint was that WalMart was debasing the invidious distinction organic provides for enlightened bobos, much like a more traditional snob might gripe about seeing knock-off hand bags sold at a flea market.


  7. I always thought I was young.

    I certainly did not mean to imply that 29=old!

    Regarding “pigeon guy” or “pigeon dude”, it raises an interesting point: is it better to be known for the topic as such or the sociological contribution? It seems the latter may be better, but in some cases the former may be sufficiently intriguing that it may have benefits. In this case I suspect people may be divided on that point.


  8. colonel,

    i think practically speaking the sociological contribution tends not to fit in a few syllables. what is the alternative to the “pigeon guy”? the “problematization and propriety in urban space guy”? when i was on the market i was known as the “dixie chicks guy” and i always supposed this was because it was easier to say than the “no finding of corporate censorship guy.”

    there are probably a few people where there’s a brief “contribution” name for them. for instance Granovetter would be the “weak ties guy” not the “job search guy.” however such folks are probably rare.


  9. Sure there’s a lot of potential for studies that examine consumption and production of food. But why do we need our own special sociology of it? Why wouldn’t the study of food consumption and production fit into our already well-established areas, like the sociology of culture, organizational sociology, or economic sociology?


  10. I think its a prongbuck (AKA pronghorn antelope) – funny-looking, fast-running animals that live only in western North America (Mexico to Canada, from Pacific Coast across Great Basin, Rocky Mtn region, and western prairies to western Nebraska and West Texas), kind of half-way between a deer and a “real” (African or Asian) antelope. Lots of people from East Coast and Midwest aren’t familiar with prongbuck.

    Prongbuck are the animals that are referred to in the song line, “where the deer and the antelope play”.

    I know about them because I discovered and named an extinct species of prongbuck when I was a graduate student (as a side project).


  11. Googling “sociology of food” brings up 25,000 or so hits, including a course at UC-Irvine and a text published by OUP that’s in its third edition.

    I’ve always thought of it as a Soc of Culture thing (especially when I come across anything by Jamie Oliver and his very class-based criticisms of Brit school food) but I think that my view might be a case of has hammer thinks nail.


  12. Just FYI: among many graduate students at UW, he’s “The Pigeon Dude.” I haven’t done a survey or anything, but there you go…


  13. Brayden: A point well taken. Food could be integrated into already existing disciplinary areas. However, what makes the topic interesting to me, at least, is the way in which it could be used to bridge established areas, bringing literatures to speak to one another. And few other practices sit so centrally within our everyday lives and are absolutely essential for us. The other “essential” human practices I can think of are sleeping, shitting, sex, and dying. Sex, as many of us know, is not so everyday, but of the other four perhaps the most studied (as Jeremy’s recent post indicates perhaps we’ll be hearing more and more about sex and sexuality; but I’d rather hear more about sex).

    I think this can be explained in part by the fact that sociology is a very modern discipline and while we think a lot about the importance of modern institutions (state, industrial economy, etc.) we tend to spend little time on the more basic of things (food, sex, sleep). Exceptions are of course more notable than I am acknowledge (family, culture, etc.). But if you were to ask, “what is essential for sustaining a community?” few sociologists would reply, “Food and water.” Yet without either we’d be dead far faster than, say, without a state, the family, or production.

    These things also tie together all human communities. Which is perhaps why we don’t study them as well. Few of us tend to like the old Durkheimian idea that social organization has fundamental, “normal” forms.

    All of this is to say that I maintain my initial curiosity as to why we don’t look at these things more systematically.


  14. If memory serves, Michaela DeSoucey is doing her thesis on foie gras and the construction of virtuous foods, as an ABD at Northwestern. Jeremy, you are supposed to know this, and to be promoting her work to the rest of us!


  15. There is really a large amount of work on food being done (and has been done for years) among rural sociologists, both in North America and Europe. Some is in the “soc of culture” vein, and some is more like political or economic sociology. It frustrates me that the rest of the sociology world doesn’t know this work exists, though it is understandable, since the Rural Sociological Society holds separate meetings that sometimes conflict with ASA, and rural sociology has historically been taught in separate departments because of the institutional history of land grant universities. Check the rural sociology journals (Rural Sociology, Sociologia Ruralis, Agriculture and Human Values). A lot of good work is being done on food at UC Santa Cruz, and Wisconsin and Cornell are still the places to be for soc of agriculture.


  16. Oh, and I’m teaching a course called Food, Farms & Famine next year. I’ll be happy to share the syllabus once it is ready (say, sometime next fall).


  17. Peter: Correct. I was so distracted by the “pigeon guy” versus “pigeon dude” debate that I missed the opportunity to promote DeSoucey. She’s very bright, and I’m confident she will be known widely as “the foie gras woman” when her time on the market comes.


  18. Interesting topics and as akphd notes there is tons of great work on food/agriculture, etc. here at Wisconsin though yes mostly being done over in “Rural Sociology.” Talk to my cohort-mate Danielle Berman who does work in Russia, e.g., a paper of hers titled, “The Taste of Pace: How Fast Food restaurant chains transform Russia’s agrifood system.” But then there is also work elsewhere which may be more what you have in mind such as Gary Alan Fine’s (a self-proclaimed foodie I believe) ethnographic work; “Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work” (University of California Press, 1996); and “Morel Tales: The Culture of Mushrooming” (Harvard University Press, 1998). There is also work in medical sociology on feeding tubes and something like the “social construction of eating” as I recall (sorry I don’t have any cites for that just a recollection of papers past). Hope that helps!

    As for Animals and Society, just seeing the new line of products at my local pet store such as the “Pet-A-Roo Front Style Pet Carrier” (yes, a baby backpack type thing for small dogs) and the “Just Pet All-Terrain Pet Strollers” (yes, joggers and strollers for your small pets) is pretty dissertation worthy as far as I’m concerned! (“Do you know how to select the pet stroller that is just right for your and your pet’s needs?” the copy reads). Veeeerrrrryyyy interesting.


  19. AK – I’d love the syllabus. You seem to know everything I don’t. Which is a lot! The thing about Rural Sociology that always struck me as odd was that a lot of the area isn’t really about rural life. Or at least rural life as I imagine it (think some pastoral scene from “The Prelude”). One look at the feed lot on the front of Bittman’s article makes one realize just how far we are from that. So a point well taken. I need to read more rural sociology journals.

    As for Fine (a fellow blogger), his work strikes me as more about cultural taste and less about how food is important to our communities. Mitch Duneier has been trying to convince me to write a book on New York kitchens. Getting a job as a cook in a high end place, then as a waiter (stuff I’ve done before, working through school) and then again at someplace more “normal”. I’m thinking about it…


  20. Jeremy – that will be foie gras girl — better alliteration (why can’t we spell check comments?)

    I think of DeSoucey’s I think of it as the construction of new rights and use of law to regulate normative orders previously unregulated. And, the story of a social movement’s decision to turn to law versus some other technique. But that’s just me. I see law everywhere.


  21. shakha – speaking of promoting our graduate students (a la “foie gras girl” from Northwestern), isn’t there a grad student in sociology at Columbia who has been doing ethnographic work in kitchens in NY? I don’t remember the theoretical or conceptual focus of her work, though…


  22. sara – that’s very possible. I don’t know that many grad students yet. Which says much more about me than it does them. I’ve been hiding trying to get my work done. But I’ll try and find this person! Thanks for the heads up?


  23. Of course! I think she works with Peter Bearman. Though, I could just think this because I so often meet interesting people in Peter’s office!


  24. shaka & sara: Isil Celimli.

    also, a fine student with an 07 ph.d. from rutgers:

    Vanina Leschziner, Cultural Creation: The Creation of Culture and the Culture of Creation. A Sociological Analysis in the Culinary Sphere. (Karen Cerulo, John L. Martin, Paul McLean, Ann Mische)


  25. Yes, Isil is doing her work in urban soc, and the bifurcated labor market between line cooks and higher status chefs. She’s worked with Peter and Sudhir, afaik, though I’m on leave at the moment (otherwise I’d promote her more directly and assuredly).

    She was also, for me, a rockstar TA.


  26. “The thing about Rural Sociology that always struck me as odd was that a lot of the area isn’t really about rural life. Or at least rural life as I imagine it.”

    I think this is among the reasons why a lot of rural soc departments are changing their names. Many rural sociologists (though by no means all) study food and agriculture – but we know very well that these are not uniquely “rural” problems (also, the very definition of “rurality” is hotly debated – see Michael Bell’s work on this).

    Personally, I would love it if ASA had a food and agriculture section and more people in “regular” soc did work on these topics. I agree that food and ag can (and should) be studied within existing areas of the discipline – but I like the idea of connecting insights from cultural, political, economic, organizational (etc.) sociology around a particular topic. I’d say that’s the model for many of the other ASA sections, like the science, knowledge and technology section, or the environment section.


  27. hi all,
    Yes, I’m a lurker – thanks for the promotion above! Rather than go by foiegrasgirl for the blogging world, I’m choosing for to masquerade as foodgirl, as I think my work speaks to all sorts of food issues, politics, and contentiousness in the world.

    I too think the “sociology of food” should be more central to the discipline, and I for one aim to get it there. Hopefully. The intersection of literatures mentioned in the original post is EXACTLY what I think my work is about. My dissertation is about the foie gras controversies in the US and France and looks at the nexus of movements, markets, and the state in defining morality and virtue. My other project was about ‘virtuous food’ movements – the connections and disjunctures between local food, organic food, and the Slow Food movement. (Grad student question – are we allowed to plug our stuff here? If so, read on…) That turned into a book chapter that is coming out next year in an edited volume: The Globalization of Food, edited by David Inglis (the editor of the new Cultural Sociology journal), and I’ve collaborated with two great folks at Kellogg (the business school) for an article on the grass-fed beef movement as the creation of a market out of a movement (forthcoming in ASQ).

    Food studies is growing as a discipline – there is a fabulous listserv – ASFS, run out of NYU, which has the only Food Studies PhD program in the country. Indiana University has a degree program associated with their anthropology department, and there are food studies people lurking around the country – they are smart and involved people who bridge disciplinary boundaries. It is much bigger a discipline, in its own right, in Europe and Australia (and they have better funding opportunities to study food, as well), but it is exploding in this country as well. No ASA section yet, though (I think that Consumers, Consumption, and Commodities should get one first).

    I’m happy to answer more questions about what is happening in the food studies world, people, conferences, listservs and websites, journals (we have several journals), books (there’s a huge amount of information already available, and more coming every year).



  28. I agree that food should be a primary focus for sociologists. Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, & Steel” should be required reading. It is really about food. And you might consider showing disk #1 of Guns, Germs, & Steel to Introductory students. The Video is done by National Geographic Society and is very good. Disk #2 could be used in any course that includes war, weapons, or technology as a theme. And disk #3 is perfect for any course dealing with diseases and health.


  29. sociosam: I liked Diamond’s books a lot and got into reading all of them and think that Collapse is also a stunning book. The video is pretty good, worth watching, but people should be warned that the way things get framed in the video ends up playing more to western sensibilities and stereotypes than the books do, as well as oversimplifying the argument. I squirmed some times watching the videos as they deployed images and assumptions that Diamond went to some pains to address and counter in the books. There’s more risk of reinforcing “primitive savage” kinds of ideas from the videos. It’s been a while and I can’t pull up lots of examples, although I stumbled across a huge debate about the book in anthropology blogs. One specific critique: the sketch of the conquest of the Inca (in both book and video) omits a lot of the broader context about political conflicts within the Inca empire and the extent to which there was continuing resistance to the Spanish after the first big victory. I’m relying a lot on Charles Mann’s 1491, which summarizes recent scholarship in this. The short version is that germs were much more important than guns or steel or literacy (which Diamond stresses). Not a reason not to use the videos, because they are good, but they are not perfect.


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