Anthropology Reading Journal Series II

Anthropology Reading Journal Series II 
IX. Monday, November 7: Food, Culture, and Power I

The second half of our semester was spent reading about Food, Culture and Power and the roles they play in ethnographic research. These readings nicely led us into understanding wider themes presented on globalization and understanding the concept of flow – which were the next set of papers discussed in this journal series.

Reading #1: Allison, Anne. “Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch Box as Ideological State Apparatus” Anthro Qrtly 64(4): 195-208.

Allison’s paper, Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch Box as Ideological State Apparatus, introduces the obento – a lunch box that is prepared by Japanese mothers. She argues that the creation of obentos creates ideological and gendered meanings that reflect the culture and values of both the mother and child. Allison claims that, “the food is coded as a cultural and aesthetic apparatus in Japan,” framing her argument along the lines of anthropologist Althusser’s concept of Ideological state apparatus (1971).

To support her argument, Allison gives her audience background on her own experience while in Japan, as a mother who also had to produce obentos for her child who was attending nursery school in Tokyo. She observed that Japanese mothers are often inundated with commercial literature on obento-making which point out how the obento must be structured, arranged, cut, eaten and packaged. These properties serve to reflect and reveal qualities about both mother and child. Food therefore becomes an element of Japanese aesthetic – preparation becomes a key and guiding principle of Japanese cuisine. If the food is prepared in a way that is appealing, the child will eat it. This message seems to hold deeper meaning to the widely-manipulated idea of Japanese conformity. On a surface level, Allison’s paper reveals that food and its preparation in Japan inform behavior.

Like other countries, Japan has an education system that teaches and guides students on how to behave both in school and in the real world. Allison argues that within Japan this is presented differently from Western culture because the ideology that gets conveyed is not the same as in other countries. For example, in the US, mothers do not have the same stressors about how to prepare lunch for their nursery school-aged children, as it does not necessarily reflect upon mother and child in the same ways.

Though there may be embarrassment or humiliation associated with the overall behavior of a child in the US, a child’s behavior does not necessarily become the sole factor that determines his/her career as an adult. In Japan however, Allison argues the opposite, stating that children learn less about language and culture and more on how to become a Japanese student – learning how to behave, how to brush one’s teeth, how to walk in line, for example. These are not the same imperatives for nursery schools as in the US. The nursery school which a child attends does not necessarily determine the career in which he/she finds herself as an adult.

Allison‘s paper conveys many meanings for mother and child in the construction of Japanese obentos. By utilizing Althusser’s framework regarding the Ideological Apparatus, she imparts to the reader how food can be the apparatus for ideological communication, whether profoundly or superficially. Reflexively, she draws on her experiences with her son and their time spent in Tokyo as fieldwork to further cement her theory.

In the section, Nursery School and Appropriation of Obento, she relates a story of a time when her son’s Japanese teacher commented to her that he was able to successfully follow in line and conform to daily school routines, completely ignoring what Allison believed to be more valuable lessons from attending school – curriculum-related tasks on language and culture. To me, this example linked the embodiment of Japanese cultural aesthetic – uniformity. Perhaps due to my own Asian heritage, I am biased in relating to Allison’s observations as I’ve often understood and was subjected to this type of ideology in my own upbringing, meaning that expectations on behavior can be culturally-ingrained. Citing examples such as this, as well as detailed descriptions on how obentos are constructed and composed, Allison paints a picture of “constructed motherhood”, reinforcing her claims of obentos standing in as ideological apparatus for broader state (in this case Japanese) memes.

Reading #2: Levi-Struass, Claude. “The Culinary Triangle.”In Google Books.

In The Culinary Triangle, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss discusses food theory within a semantic culinary triangle, similar to pre-existing linguistic triangles. Levi-Strauss proposes that food, like language, sits on a universal framework that allows people to judge and assess a culture through its cuisine. This culinary triangle involves three ways of cooking – boiling, roasting, and smoking. Within this larger triangle sits a smaller triangle of cooked, raw, and rotted/rotten foods, the actual categories of the food’s inherent properties. In this smaller triangle the foods can travel to varying degrees through the categories in which they are prepared; for example, being grilled or steamed, not-quite-boiled or smoked.

By citing how different cultures cook and prepare their foods as examples, Levi-Strauss argues for a specific case of semantics, in which cooking represents the language that reflects a society’s structure. This approach to food can be likened to several theoretical lenses we’ve been exposed to in our Ethnology class, that of the sensory approach, embodiment, and structuralism. First, the sensory approach, self-evidencing through food’s connection to taste, allows the anthropologist to assess a culture through its cooking preferences and tastes. Next, embodiment can be seen through the mode in which a culture produces or packages its food; how does food represent or embody a culture’s aesthetic or ideology? An example of this can be found in my previous review of Allison’s Japanese Mothers and Obentos, in which Allison argued that the obento was an apparatus which Japanese culture and society could use and manipulate to impress ideology on a person. Finally, Levi-Strauss’ methodology reflects a structural approach in his understanding of a culture’s food as representing only a segment, though an important one, of the larger society. This semantic vocabulary of cooking that he proposes offers another avenue through which the anthropologist can situate a given culture. Levi-Strauss successfully supports his claims in the advantages of a culinary triangle as a tool for understanding a culture.

Reading #3: Meneley, Anne. “Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Slow Food”. Anthropologica 46(2):165-176.

Anne Meneley’s article, Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Slow Food, discusses the link between the Slow Food movement, which is a grassroots movement that seeks to promote traditional and natural cuisine in lieu of fast food commercialism and extra virgin olive oil. Meneley argues that extra virgin olive oil is linked to the Slow Food movement by its production and that it has come to reflect a constructed concept of taste. She situates olive oil in a global context and describes how its production “can move across borders, in the company of diverse cultural and class assumptions and practices” (p.165). She uses several examples of producers of extra virgin olive oil to denote artisanal production and illustrate how the producers create a trendy perception of olive oil, in effect appealing and linking itself to the Slow Food movement.

An important point that Meneley highlights is that creating such a unified and locally-produced aesthetic (the trendiness of the product) informs its local identity. For example, Tuscany is famed for its artist community and its vineyards; therefore any product associated with the region is held in high regard and assumed to be of a similar quality. This creates a perception of taste or identity which then becomes viewed as a distinctive type of food associated with both the Slow Food movement and high artisanal food production. The identity of the producers becomes embedded in the product.

In general, Meneley’s article highlights how commodifying food can influence perceptions of that particular food and its link to a specific food movement. However, at times throughout her discourse, it seemed that the added section in which she spoke about the artisanal olive oil producers did nothing to strengthen her claims and served only to add descriptive flair. A discussion of the negative effects, in a globalized context, of linking food movements like Slow Food to her discourse on how identity and production are related could have better supported her case. For example, she could have cited more food movements associated with particular foods to give a broader understanding of the historic importance of food’s global context as well as the particular food itself.

Reading #4: Mintz, Sidney and Christine DuBois. The Anthropology of Food and Eating. 

Sidney Mintz and Christine DuBois’s article, The Anthropology of Food and Eating, gives a historical account of how food has been chronicled in the history of anthropology writing. The reading offers little more than a historical summary, though it does highlight the essential fact that “food – being utterly essential to human existence” is valuable to “advancing anthropological theory” (p.99). The authors continue with an overview of food anthropology’s first historical accounts by discussing anthropologists such as Garrick Mallery, Franz Boas and Claude Levi-Strauss and their attempts at food writing and description. The initial accounts by these earlier authors were used as bases to build upon and illuminate societal processes and symbolic values within a culture.

What they make apparent is that the anthropology of food is always linked to globalization, through food’s production and consumption. One example of this is Mintz’s own research into sugar as a single commodity and substance.

After discussing the classic ethnographies written by early anthropologists, Mintz and DuBois talk about the late 1990’s and the topic of food and its relationship to social change. Foods become associated with economic and political changes and reflect movements on the larger society. Dietary shifts are highlighted with regards to the connection with how food is advertised and characterized. For example, Chinese migrant diets and how they can influence diets in the countries which they move to.

What I found most interesting was the authors’ section on Food Insecurity. This section examines food in relation to gender inequality, rural class polarization and how the constraints of small food markets raise misgivings on the political uses of food. For example, the authors write, “to what extent have capitalistic relations of agriculture evolved? When should local famine relief initiatives be prioritized over state initiatives?” (p.106). Also of interest is their section titled, Eating and Ritual, which discusses how eating food can bind people through shared experience.

Overall, the authors don’t offer an argument or claim; rather they describe and highlight the importance of food in anthropology. They conclude with analysis of trends that have increased the awareness of food, especially globalization, the affluence of Western societies, and the inclusiveness of US society.

Reading #5: Sahlins, Marshall. “La Pensee Bourgeoise”. In Culture and Practical Reason.

Sahlins’ article, La Pensee Bourgeoise, or Bourgeoise Thought, argues the idea that production is really based on a symbolic exchange value system, meaning that the structure of the economy is really a cultural design of people and goods, rather than a function of economic supply and demand. To further cement this theory, Sahlins situates this perspective in the Marxist principle that production is “a definite form of activity of individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part”. (Marx and Engels, 1965) Sahlins believed that people create objects for given social subjects and that an object must have symbolic value otherwise it would not complete itself as a product. Production, in effect, is a cultural intention; a result of the practical logic of materialism.

By correlating this idea of the symbolic exchange value system, Sahlins moves on to give us an example of horses and dogs and the taboos placed on them in Western society regarding their edibility. He relates how both horse and dog flesh meet the nutritional requirements for consumption placed on other meats in Western culture but have always been met with rejection as a feasible product for consumption. He reasons that this is due to the cultural relation of the species to Western society. The dog is man’s best friend. By viewing certain animals as family, man changes the perception of their relationship from object to kin. Sahlins writes, “It is this symbolic logic which organizes demand.” Thus, social values are placed on types of meat and cuts to reveal a totemic order through which differences in social structure appear. For example, poorer people buying cheaper cuts because they are socially inferior and have lesser means.

Overall, the first half of Sahlins argument provides a clear understanding between the cultural construct of production, the social perception linked to it, and how people attribute a symbolic exchange with objects to change and transform their value. However, it is the second half of his argument that reads less clearly, in which Sahlins discusses fashion very briefly and with lesser concrete examples for clarity in explaining his theories on symbolic values. Though the overall message that production arises out of culture is made, there is no closing summary to further support his claims. Instead, Sahlins ends his paper with a somewhat confusing and tangential concept of clothes and particular social meanings that deviates from his previous examples of food taboo and meaning.

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