culture

“There is a real danger of taking food too seriously. Food needs to be part of a bigger picture”
-Anthony Bourdain

As someone who writes about food, about its ability to offer a window into the daily lives and circumstances of people around the globe, Anthony Bourdain’s passing hit me particularly hard. If you haven’t seen them, his widely-acclaimed shows such as No Reservations and Parts Unknown were a kind of personal narrative meets travelogue meets food TV. They trailed the chef as he immersed himself in the culture of a place, sometimes one heavily touristed, sometimes more removed from the lives of most food media consumers, and showed us what people ate, at home, in the streets and in local restaurants. While much of food TV focuses on high end cuisine, Bourdain’s art was to show the craftsmanship behind the everyday foods of a place. He lovingly described the food’s preparation, the labor involved, and the joy people felt in coming together to consume it in a way that was palpable, even (or especially) when the foods themselves were unusual.

At their best, these shows taught us about the history and culture of particular places, and of the ways places have suffered through the ills of global capitalism and imperialism. His visit to the Congo was particularly memorable; While eating tiger fish wrapped in banana leaves, spear-caught and prepared by local fishermen, he delved into the colonial history and present-day violence that continue to devastate this natural-resource rich country. After visiting Cambodia he railed against Henry Kissinger and the American bombing campaign that killed over 250,000 people and gave rise, in part, to the murderous regime of the Khmer Rouge. In Jerusalem, he showed his lighter side, exploring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through debates over who invented falafel. But in the same episode, he shared maqluba, “upside down” chicken and rice, with a family of Palestinian farmers in Gaza, and showed the basic humanity and dignity of a people living under occupation.

Bourdain’s shows embodies the basic premise of the sociology of food. Food is deeply personal and cultural. Over twenty-five years ago Anthony Winson called it the “intimate commodity” because it provides a link between our bodies, our cultures and the global political economies and ecologies that shape how and by whom food is cultivated, distributed and consumed. Bourdain’s show focuses on what food studies scholars call gastrodiplomacy, the potential for food to bring people together, helping us to understand and sympathize with one another’s circumstances. As a theory, it embodies the old saying that “the best way to our hearts is through our stomachs.” This theory has been embraced by nations like Thailand, which has an official policy promoting the creation of Thai restaurants in order to drive tourism and boost the country’s prestige. And the foods of Mexico have been declared World Heritage Cuisines by UNESCO, the same arm of the United Nations that marks world heritage sites. Less officially, we’ve seen a wave of efforts to promote the cuisines of refugees and migrants through restaurants, supper clubs and incubators like San Francisco’s La Cocina that help immigrant chefs launch food businesses.

But food has often been and continues to be a site of violence as well. Since 1981 750,000 farms have gone out of business, resulting in widespread rural poverty and epidemic levels of suicide. Food system workers, from farms to processing plants to restaurants, are among the most poorly paid members of our society, and often rely on food assistance. The food industry is highly centralized. The few major players in each segment—think Wal-Mart for groceries or Tyson for chicken—exert tremendous power on suppliers, creating dire conditions for producers. Allegations of sexual assault pervade the food industry; there are numerous complaints against well-known chefs and a study from Human Rights Watch revealed that more than 80% of women farmworkers have experienced harassment or assault on the job, a situation so dire that these women refer to it as the “field of panties” because rape is so common. Racism is equally rampant, with people of color often confined to poorly-paid “back of the house” positions while whites make up the majority of high-end servers, sommeliers, and celebrity chefs.

More than any other celebrity chef, Bourdain understood that food is political, and used his platform to address current social issues. His outspoken support for immigrant workers throughout the food system, and for immigrants more generally, colored many of his recent columns. And as the former partner of Italian actress Asia Argento, one of the first women to publicly accuse Harvey Weinstein, Bourdain used his celebrity status to amplify the voice of the #metoo movement, a form of support that was beautifully incongruous with his hyper-masculine image. Here Bourdain embodied another of the fundamental ideas of the sociology of food, that understanding the food system is intricately interwoven with efforts to improve it.

Bourdain’s shows explored food in its social and political contexts, offering viewers a window into worlds that often seemed far removed. He encouraged us to eat one another’s cultural foods, and to understand the lives of those who prepared them. Through food, he urged us to develop our sociological imaginations, putting individual biographies in their social and historical contexts. And while he was never preachy, his legacy urges us to get involved in the confluence of food movements, ensuring that those who feed us are treated with dignity and fairness, and are protected from sexual harassment and assault.

The Black feminist poet Audre Lorde once wrote that “it is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” Bourdain showed us that by learning the stories of one another’s foods, we can learn the histories and develop the empathy necessary to work for a better world.

Rest in Peace.

Alison Hope Alkon is associate professor of sociology and food studies at University of the Pacific. Check out her Ted talk, Food as Radical Empathy

I was absolutely devastated to hear about Anthony Bourdain’s passing.

I always saw Bourdain as more than just a celebrity chef or TV host. I saw him as one of us, a sociologist of sorts, someone deeply invested in understanding and teaching about culture and community. He had a gift for teaching us about social worlds beyond our own, and making these worlds accessible. In many ways, his work accomplished what so often we as sociologists strive to do.

Photo Credit: Adam Kuban, Flickr CC

I first read Bourdain’s memoir, Kitchen Confidential, at the age of twenty. The gritty memoir is its own ethnography of sorts, detailing the stories, experiences, and personalities working behind the sweltering heat of the kitchen line. At the time I was struggling as a first-generation, blue-collar student suddenly immersed in one of the wealthiest college campuses in the United States. Between August and May of each academic year, I attended classes with the children of CEOs and world leaders, yet come June I returned to the kitchens of a country club in western New York, quite literally serving alumni of my college. I remember reading the book thinking – though I knew it wasn’t academic sociology – “wait, you can write about these things?” These social worlds? These stories we otherwise overlook and ignore? I walked into my advisor’s office soon after, convinced I too would write such in-depth narratives about food-related subcultures. “Well,” he agreed, “you could research something like food culture or alternative food movements.” Within six months of that conversation, I had successfully secured my first research fellowship and taken on my first sociology project.

Like his writing, Bourdain’s television shows taught his audience something new about our relationships to food. Each episode of A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, and Parts Unknown, went beyond the scope of a typical celebrity chef show. He never featured the World’s Biggest Hamburger, nor did he ever critique foods as “bizarre” or “strange.” Instead, he focused on what food meant to people across the globe. Food, he taught us, and the pride attached to it, are universal.

Rather than projecting narratives or misappropriating words, he let people speak for themselves. He strived to show the way things really are and to treat people with the utmost dignity, yet was careful never to glamorize or romanticize poverty, struggle, or difference.  In one of my favorite episodes of No Reservations, Bourdain takes us through Peru, openly critiquing celebrities who have glorified the nation as a place to find peace and spiritual enlightenment:

Sting and all his buddies come down here, they’re going on and on and on and on about preserving traditional culture, right? Because that’s what we’re talking about here. But what we’re also talking about here is poverty. [It’s] backbreaking work. Isn’t it kind of patronizing to say ‘oh they’re happier, they live a simpler life closer to the soil.’ Maybe so, but it’s also a pretty hard, scrabbling, unglamorous life when you get down to it.

My parents and I met Anthony Bourdain in 2009 at a bar in Buffalo where he was filming an episode of No Reservations. My father was thrilled to tell Bourdain how much he loved the episode featuring his homeland of Colombia. It was perhaps one of the first times in my father’s 38-years in the United States that he felt like American television portrayed Colombia in a positive light, showing the beauty, resilience, and complex history of the nation rather than the images of drug wars and violence present elsewhere in depictions of the country. That night in that dive bar, Bourdain graciously spoke with my dad about how beautiful he found the country and its people. Both the episode and their conversation filled by father with immense pride, ultimately restoring some of the dignity that had been repeatedly stripped of him through years of indignant stereotypes about his home.

In the end, isn’t that what many of us sociologists are trying to do? Honor people’s stories without misusing, mistreating, or misrepresenting them?

In retrospect, maybe Bourdain influenced my path towards sociology. At the very least, he created a bridge between what I knew – food service – and what I wanted to know – the rest of the world. In our classrooms we strive to teach our students how to make these connections. Bourdain made them for us with ease, dignity, and humility.

Caty Taborda-Whitt is a Ford fellow and sociology PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include embodiment, health, culture, and inequalities.

One major part of introducing students to sociology is getting to the “this is water” lesson: the idea that our default experiences of social life are often strange and worthy of examining. This can be challenging, because the default is often boring or difficult to grasp, but asking the right questions is a good start (with some potentially hilarious results).

Take this one: what does English sound like to a non-native speaker? For students who grew up speaking it, this is almost like one of those Zen koans that you can’t quite wrap your head around. If you intuitively know what the language means, it is difficult to separate that meaning from the raw sounds.

That’s why I love this video from Italian pop singer Adriano Celentano. The whole thing is gibberish written to imitate how English slang sounds to people who don’t speak it.


Another example to get class going with a laugh is the 1990s video game Fighting Baseball for the SNES. Released in Japan, the game didn’t have the licensing to use real players’ names, so they used names that sounded close enough. A list of some of the names still bounces around the internet:

The popular idea of the Uncanny Valley in horror and science fiction works really well for languages, too. The funny (and sometimes unsettling) feelings we get when we watch imitations of our default assumptions fall short is a great way to get students thinking about how much work goes into our social world in the first place.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

When I was eight, my brother and I built a card house. He was obsessed with collecting baseball cards and had amassed thousands, taking up nearly every available corner of his childhood bedroom. After watching a particularly gripping episode of The Brady Bunch, in which Marsha and Greg settled a dispute by building a card house, we decided to stack the cards in our favor and build. Forty-eight hours later a seven-foot monstrosity emerged…and it was glorious.

I told this story to a group of friends as I ran a stack of paper coasters through my fingers. We were attending Oktoberfest 2017 in a rural university town in the Midwest. They collectively decided I should flex my childhood skills and construct a coaster card house. Supplies were in abundance and time was no constraint. 

I began to construct. Four levels in, people around us began to take notice; a few snapped pictures. Six levels in, people began to stop, actively take pictures, and inquire as to my progress and motivation. Eight stories in, a small crowd emerged. Everyone remained cordial and polite. At this point it became clear that I was too short to continue building. In solidarity, one of my friends stood on a chair to encourage the build. We built the last three levels together, atop chairs, in the middle of the convention center. 

Where inquires had been friendly in the early stages of building, the mood soon turned. The moment chairs were used to facilitate the building process was the moment nearly everyone in attendance began to take notice. As the final tier went up, objects began flying at my head. Although women remained cordial throughout, a fraction of the men in the crowd began to become more and more aggressive. Whispers of  “I bet you $50 that you can’t knock it down” or “I’ll give you $20 if you go knock it down” were heard throughout.  A man chatted with my husband, criticizing the structural integrity of the house and offering insight as to how his house would be better…if he were the one building. Finally, a group of very aggressive men began circling like vultures. One man chucked empty plastic cups from a few tables away. The card house was complete for a total of 2-minutes before it fell. The life of the tower ended as such: 

Man: “Would you be mad if someone knocked it down?”

Me: “I’m the one who built it so I’m the one who gets to knock it down.”

Man: “What? You’re going to knock it down?”

The man proceeded to punch the right side of the structure; a quarter of the house fell. Before he could strike again, I stretched out my arms knocking down the remainder. A small curtsey followed, as if to say thank you for watching my performance. There was a mixture of cheers and boos. Cheers, I imagine from those who sat in nearby tables watching my progress throughout the night. Boos, I imagine, from those who were denied the pleasure of knocking down the structure themselves.

As an academic it is difficult to remove my everyday experiences from research analysis.  Likewise, as a gender scholar the aggression displayed by these men was particularly alarming. In an era of #metoo, we often speak of toxic masculinity as enacting masculine expectations through dominance, and even violence. We see men in power, typically white men, abuse this very power to justify sexual advances and sexual assault. We even see men justify mass shootings and attacks based on their perceived subordination and the denial of their patriarchal rights.

Yet toxic masculinity also exits on a smaller scale, in their everyday social worlds. Hegemonic masculinity is a more apt description for this destructive behavior, rather than outright violent behavior, as hegemonic masculinity describes a system of cultural meanings that gives men power — it is embedded in everything from religious doctrines, to wage structures, to mass media. As men learn hegemonic expectations by way of popular culture—from Humphrey Bogart to John Wayne—one cannot help but think of the famous line from the hyper-masculine Fight Club (1999), “I just wanted to destroy something beautiful.”

Power over women through hegemonic masculinity may best explain the actions of the men at Ocktoberfest. Alcohol consumption at the event allowed men greater freedom to justify their destructive behavior. Daring one another to physically remove a product of female labor, and their surprise at a woman’s choice to knock the tower down herself, are both in line with this type of power over women through the destruction of something “beautiful”.

Physical violence is not always a key feature of hegemonic masculinity (Connell 1987: 184). When we view toxic masculinity on a smaller scale, away from mass shootings and other high-profile tragedies, we find a form of masculinity that embraces aggression and destruction in our everyday social worlds, but is often excused as being innocent or unworthy of discussion.

Sandra Loughrin is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Her research areas include gender, sexuality, race, and age.

Major policy issues like gun control often require massive social and institutional changes, but many of these issues also have underlying cultural assumptions that make the status quo seem normal. By following smaller changes in the way people think about issues, we can see gradual adjustments in our culture that ultimately make the big changes more plausible.

Photo Credit: Emojipedia

For example, today’s gun debate even drills down to the little cartoons on your phone. There’s a whole process for proposing and reviewing new emoji, but different platforms have their own control over how they design the cartoons in coordination with the formal standards. Last week, Twitter pointed me to a recent report from Emojipedia about platform updates to the contested “pistol” emoji, moving from a cartoon revolver to a water pistol:

In an update to the original post, all major vendors have committed to this design change for “cross-platform compatibility.”

There are a couple ways to look at this change from a sociological angle. You could tell a story about change from the bottom-up, through social movements like the March For Our Lives, calling for gun reform in the wake of mass shootings. These movements are drawing attention to the way guns permeate American culture, and their public visibility makes smaller choices about the representation of guns more contentious. Apple didn’t comment directly on the intentions behind the redesign when it came out, but it has weighed in on the politics of emoji design in the past.

You could also tell a story about change from the top-down, where large tech companies have looked to copy Apple’s innovation for consistency in a contentious and uncertain political climate (sociologists call this “institutional isomorphism”). In the diagram, you can see how Apple’s early redesign provided an alternative framework for other companies to take up later on, just like Google and Microsoft adopted the dominant pistol design in earlier years.

Either way, if you favor common sense gun reform, redesigning emojis is obviously not enough. But cases like this help us understand how larger shifts in social norms are made up of many smaller changes that challenge the status quo.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Originally Posted at TSP Discoveries

Whether we wear stilettos or flats, jeans or dress clothes, our clothing can allow or deny us access to certain social spaces, like a nightclub. Yet, institutional dress codes that dictate who can and cannot wear certain items of clothing target some marginalized communities more than others. For example, recent reports of bouncers denying Black patrons from nightclubs prompted Reuben A Buford May and Pat Rubio Goldsmith to test whether urban nightclubs in Texas deny entrance for Black and Latino men through discriminatory dress code policies.

Photo Credit: Bruce Turner, Flickr CC

For the study, recently published in Sociology of Race and EthnicityThe authors recruited six men between the ages of 21 and 23. They selected three pairs of men by race — White, Black, and Latino — to attend 53 urban nightclubs in Dallas, Houston, and Austin. Each pair shared similar racial, socioeconomic, and physical characteristics. One individual from each pair dressed as a “conformist,” wearing Ralph Lauren polos, casual shoes, and nice jeans that adhered to the club’s dress code. The other individual dressed in stereotypically urban dress, wearing “sneakers, blue jean pants, colored T-shirt, hoodie, and a long necklace with a medallion.” The authors categorized an interaction as discrimination if a bouncer denied a patron entrance based on his dress or if the bouncer enforced particular dress code rules, such as telling a patron to tuck in their necklace. Each pair attended the same nightclub at peak hours three to ten minutes apart. The researchers exchanged text messages with each pair to document any denials or accommodations.

Black men were denied entrance into nightclubs 11.3 percent of the time (six times), while White and Latino men were both denied entry 5.7 percent of the time (three times). Bouncers claimed the Black patrons were denied entry because of their clothing, despite allowing similarly dressed White and Latino men to enter. Even when bouncers did not deny entrance, they demanded that patrons tuck in their necklaces to accommodate nightclub policy. This occurred two times for Black men, three times for Latino men, and one time for White men. Overall, Black men encountered more discriminatory experiences from nightclub bouncers, highlighting how institutions continue to police Black bodies through seemingly race-neutral rules and regulations.

Amber Joy is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her current research interests include punishment, sexual violence and the intersections of race, gender, age, and sexuality. Her work examines how state institutions construct youth victimization.

The first nice weekend after a long, cold winter in the Twin Cities is serious business. A few years ago some local diners joined the celebration with a serious indulgence: the boozy milkshake.

When talking with a friend of mine from the Deep South about these milkshakes, she replied, “oh, a bushwhacker! We had those all the time in college.” This wasn’t the first time she had dropped southern slang that was new to me, so off to Google I went.

According to Merriam-Webster, “to bushwhack” means to attack suddenly and unexpectedly, as one would expect the alcohol in a milkshake to sneak up on you. The cocktail is a Nashville staple, but the origins trace back to the Virgin Islands in the 1970s.

Photo Credit: Beebe Bourque, Flickr CC
Photo Credit: Like_the_Grand_Canyon, Flickr CC

Here’s the part where the history takes a sordid turn: “Bushwhacker” was apparently also the nickname for guerrilla fighters in the Confederacy during the Civil War who would carry out attacks in rural areas (see, for example, the Lawrence Massacre). To be clear, I don’t know and don’t mean to suggest this had a direct influence in the naming of the cocktail. Still, the coincidence reminded me of the famous, and famously offensive, drinking reference to conflict in Northern Ireland.

Battle of Lawrence, Wikimedia Commons

When sociologists talk about concepts like “cultural appropriation,” we often jump to clear examples with a direct connection to inequality and oppression like racist halloween costumes or ripoff products—cases where it is pretty easy to look at the object in question and ask, “didn’t they think about this for more than thirty seconds?”

Cases like the bushwhacker raise different, more complicated questions about how societies remember history. Even if the cocktail today had nothing to do with the Confederacy, the weight of that history starts to haunt the name once you know it. I think many people would be put off by such playful references to modern insurgent groups like ISIS. Then again, as Joseph Gusfield shows, drinking is a morally charged activity in American society. It is interesting to see how the deviance of drinking dovetails with bawdy, irreverent, or offensive references to other historical and social events. Can you think of other drinks with similar sordid references? It’s not all sex on the beach!

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

More social scientists are pointing out that the computer algorithms that run so much of our lives have our human, social biases baked in. This has serious consequences for determining who gets credit, who gets parole, and all kinds of other important life opportunities.

It also has some sillier consequences.

Last week NPR host Sam Sanders tweeted about his Spotify recommendations:

Others quickly chimed in with screenshots of their own. Here are some of my mixes:

The program has clearly learned to suggest music based on established listening patterns and norms from music genres. Sociologists know that music tastes are a way we build communities and signal our identities to others, and the music industry reinforces these boundaries in their marketing, especially along racial lines.

These patterns highlight a core sociological point that social boundaries large and small emerge from our behavior even when nobody is trying to exclude anyone. Algorithms accelerate this process by the sheer number of interactions they can watch at any given time. It is important to remembers the stakes of these design quirks when talking about new technology. After all, if biased results come out, the program probably learned it from watching us!

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.