Critical Food Studies
- Helene A. ShugartHelene A. ShugartDepartment of Communication, University of Utah
If food studies is an inherently interdisciplinary field of enquiry, communication is central to its uptake in any scholarly context, for food is inherently relational, symbolic, and deeply cultural, a powerful discourse in its own right and imbricated in a host of other discourses. Accordingly, while food studies is a relatively new area of study within the communication discipline, scholarship in that vein has had rather seamless entrée into the broader scholarly arena and has proliferated along the same general lines of investigation that characterize the field in general.
Originally rooted in cultural anthropology, early studies of the cultural significance of food assessed how food both reflects and accomplishes social identity and status, a focus that has been sustained and expanded in more contemporary studies as relevant to how food signals and mobilizes particular identities, such as race/ethnicity, nation, class, gender, and sexuality. Matters of identity are sometimes apparent in studies of the role(s) of food in global flows, including globalization, colonization, immigration, diaspora, and tourism. Much of this scholarship also or instead takes up food in terms of production and consumption, assessing the politics, economics, and geographies of food. Endeavors in this vein, in global, national, and local contexts, examine food policies and patterns of industry and how they privilege certain interests while disenfranchising others: food safety, security, and justice feature prominently in these investigations. These motifs are reflected, as well, in scholarship that examines social movements around food that seek to disrupt or resist problematic industry and farming policies and/or practices as relevant to, for example, environmental exigencies, animal welfare, eradication of the local, and availability of and/or access to safe, healthy foods.
The mediation of food is perhaps a natural subject of study for communication scholars, ranging from representations of food in film to food packaging and advertising. The recent rise of “foodie” culture has generated a proliferation of media fare, signaled by indices ranging from the now recognized genre of “food films,” to multiple television networks devoted to food, to the rise of “celebrity chefs”; food is, moreover, an increasing presence on the Internet, proliferating especially across social media. The imaginaries of authenticity and egalitarianism and the materialities of class that frequently drive foodie culture have been the focus of much of this scholarship, and they have been further identified as figuring prominently in urban practices ranging from the establishment of farmers’ markets to gentrification.
Even within the communication discipline, food studies is a wide-ranging topic, but it is not simply a diverse subject of study for communication scholars. The inherently liminal and malleable nature of food renders it difficult if not impossible to engage or theorize in terms of conventional binaries or rifts that characterize many if not most fields, such as subject/object and self/other; perhaps most salient for the communication discipline, food denies the particularly nettlesome materiality/discursivity binary. Accordingly, food studies holds considerable promise for the field relevant to theoretical innovation and expansion.