food/agriculture

I just wrapped up my political sociology class for the semester. We spent a lot of time talking about conflict and polarization, reading research on why people avoid politics, the spread of political outrage, and why exactly liberals drink lattes. When we become polarized, small choices in culture and consumption—even just a cup of coffee—can become signals for political identities. 

After the liberals and lattes piece, one of my students wrote a reflection memo and mentioned a previous instructor telling them which brand of coffee to drink if they wanted to support a certain political party. This caught my attention, because (at least in the student’s recollection) the instructor was completely wrong. This led to a great discussion about corporate political donations, especially how frequent contributions often go bipartisan.

But where does your money go when you buy your morning coffee? Thanks to open-access data on political contributions, we can look at the partisan lean of the top four largest coffee chains in the United States.

Starbucks’ swing to the left is notable here, as is the rightward spike in Dunkin’s donations in the 2014 midterms. While these patterns tend to follow the standard corporate image for each, it is important to remember that even chains that lean one way still mix their donations. In midterm years like 2012 and 2014, about 20% of Starbucks’ donations went to Republicans.

One side effect of political polarization is that corporate politics don’t always follow cultural codes. For another good recent example of this, see Chick-fil-A reconsidering its donation policies.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Tis’ the season for throwing down at dinner. Every year the humor and the horror stories about Thanksgiving hit our social media feeds. This isn’t just about politics, either. Family dinners have a strong symbolic significance. When the stakes are high for a once-a-year gathering, other kinds of social conflicts are primed to play out as well.

Photo Credit: Louish Pixel, Flickr CC

But for all this talk about fighting, one thing I find really interesting as a political sociologist is just how much work people do to avoid conflict. We know from embedded studies of parent organizations and neighborhood groups that people will tie themselves up in knots to avoid talking about political issues. In some cases, people are more likely to confide in near-strangers or acquaintances than close family members. In an increasingly fraught political climate, the answer for many people might be cutting their visits short. According to research published last year Science, there is some evidence for this happening.

In the article, political scientists matched anonymous smartphone location data from over 10 million Americans to precinct-level voting data from 2016. By doing this, they could see who traveled for Thanksgiving that year and how long they stayed at dinner. People who ate in an opposing political district spent less time at dinner, about 30-50 minutes less on average. The pattern was stronger for people coming from Republican districts to dine among Democrats—they split about 50 to 70 minutes sooner. The authors also find that increased local political advertising was also associated with cut-down dinner time.

Sure, these people could be storming out before that second helping. But I think one of the less-appreciated trends in political life is that many of us are just clamming up and cutting out early to spend time elsewhere. There are many perfectly valid reasons to do this, especially if people are made to feel unwelcome or unsafe. These results suggest we could all do a little more to think about keeping people at the table.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

From music to movies and restaurants, genres are a core part of popular culture. The rules we use to classify different scenes and styles help to shape our tastes and our social identities, and so we often see people sticking to clear boundaries between what they like and what they don’t like (for example: “I’ll listen to anything but metal.”). 

But bending the rules of genre can be the quickest way to shake up expectations. Mashups were huge a few years ago. This past summer we saw “Old Town Road” push boundaries in the country music world on its way to becoming a mega-hit. Zeal & Ardor’s mix of black metal and gospel, country blues, and funk is breaking new ground in heavier music.

Blending genres can also backfire. A new fusion concept could be a hit, or it could just be confusing. Sociological research on Netflix ratings and Yelp reviews finds that people with a high preference for variety, who like to consume many different things, are not necessarily interested in atypical work that blends genres in a new or strange way.

One of the more interesting recent examples is this new gameshow concept from Hillsong—a media channel tied to the charismatic megachurch organization:

What is this show? Is it preaching? Is it a game show? Do millennials even watch prime time game shows? Don’t get me wrong, I’ll hate-watch The Masked Singer every once in a while, but the mix seems a little out of place here. Gerardo Martí makes a good point in the tweet above. This show may be a way to repackage religious messaging in a new style. Given what we know about cultural consumption, however, I wonder if this is just too risky to pull anyone in.

It is easy to chase atypicality today, both for media organizations and religious groups trying to retain a younger viewership and find the next big thing. For all the pressure to innovate, this trailer for SOUTHPAW shows us just how much we still rely on genre rules to figure out what to consume.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Social scientists rely on the normal distribution all the time. This classic “bell curve” shape is so important because it fits all kinds of patterns in human behavior, from measures of public opinion to scores on standardized tests.

But it can be difficult to teach the normal distribution in social statistics, because at the core it is a theory about patterns we see in the data. If you’re interested in studying people in their social worlds, it can be more helpful to see how the bell curve emerges from real world examples.

One of the best ways to illustrate this is the “Galton Board,” a desk toy that lets you watch the normal distribution emerge from a random drop of ball-bearings. Check out the video below or a slow motion gif here.

The Galton Board is cool, but I’m also always on the lookout for normal distributions “in the wild.” There are places where you can see the distribution in real patterns of social behavior, rather than simulating them in a controlled environment. My absolute favorite example comes from Ed Burmila:

The wear patterns here show exactly what we would expect a normal distribution to tell us about weightlifting. More people use the machine at a middle weight setting for the average strength, and the extreme choices are less common. Not all social behavior follows this pattern, but when we find cases that do, our techniques to analyze that behavior are fairly simple.

Another cool example is grocery shelves. Because stores like to keep popular products together and right in front of your face (the maxim is “eye level is buy level“), they tend to stock in a normally-distributed pattern with popular stuff right in the middle. We don’t necessarily see this in action until there is a big sale or a rush in an emergency. When stores can’t restock in time, you can see a kind of bell curve emerge on the empty shelves. Products that are high up or off to the side are a little less likely to be picked over.

Paul Swansen, Flickr CC

Have you seen normal distributions out in the wild? Send them my way and I might feature them in a future post!

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

In the United States, men have higher rates of life-threatening health conditions than women — including uncontrolled high blood pressure and heart disease. Recent research published in Socius shows they are also less likely than women to consider becoming vegetarian, and changing these eating habits may be important for their health and for the environment.

To learn more about meat and masculinity, Researchers Sandra Nakagawa and Chloe Hart conducted experiments to test whether a threat to masculinity influences men’s affinity to meat. In one experiment, the researchers told some men their answers from a previous gender identity survey fell in the “average female” range, while others fell into the “average male” range. The authors expected men who received “average female” results to feel like their masculinity was in question, and possibly express stronger attachment to meat on later surveys.

Men who experienced a threat to their masculinity showed more attachment to meat than those who did not experience the threat. They were also more likely to say they needed meat to feel full and were less likely to consider switching to a diet with no meat. This study shows how gendered assumptions about diet matter for how men think about maintaining their health, highlighting the standards men feel they must meet — and eat.

Allison Nobles is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota and Graduate Editor at The Society Pages. Her research primarily focuses on sexuality and gender, and their intersections with race, immigration, and law.

Those Fyre Festival documentaries were wild, weren’t they? Both movies highlighted fans’ collective glee watching the fakery play out from afar, as people with astounding amounts of disposable income fell prey to the festival’s poor execution. Who would buy all that hype, right?

The demand for exclusivity that fueled the festival is anything but fake. From Becker’s Art Worlds to Bourdieu’s Distinction, sociologists have long studied how culture industries and social capital create the tastes of the upper class. “Influencers” aren’t new, but social media makes it easier than ever to see them operate, and viral stories of high class hoaxes show this process in action.

Two great examples are these recent pranks parodying fine dining and fashion. Using a savvy social media presence, both teams were able to get a (fake) restaurant and a (fake) model a ton of buzz.

The interesting thing about these vides is how some of the humor rings hollow. It can be funny to see people chasing the next big trend get duped, but the fields they are mocking thrive on this exact kind of creativity and salesmanship. Taking the perspective of researchers like Bourdieu and others reminds us that taste is not objective, and it isn’t naturally tied to any basic level of effort or craft. At the end of the day, these pranksters still put together a “creative” look and restaurant experience, and so it is hard to tell whether they are making an effective parody, or just exploring and studying the basic rules of the game in the culture industry. Still, these videos are a fun excuse to think about how what it takes to cultivate “cool.”Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

The pictures, of course, went viral. Donald Trump serving fast food, still in the box, to the college champion Clemson University football team. The cardboard containers and paper wrappers were artfully stacked on silver platters alongside ornate candelabras and embossed napkins and served on a formal table beneath a gold-framed portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

Sure the juxtaposition was glaring, and the media, the twitterverse, and the late night talk shows had a field day poking fun at the President’s seeming lack of class. The Washington Post headline quoted Patrick Guaschino, who accused the president of turning the “white house into a White Castle.” Comedian W. Kamau Bell joked that a white house staffer, “choking through tears [would say] ‘I guess we could use the Lincoln gravy boats for the McNugget sauces.’” My personal favorite meme photoshopped Ronald McDonald in place of the president.

These reactions also teach us something important about social class and “good taste.” Pierre Bourdieu famously wrote that “taste classifies the classifier (1984, 6),” and this insight has become essential to understanding contemporary American food cultures. In Discriminating Taste (2017), S. Margo Finn argues that the increasing fascination with “good food,” including trends toward the local, organic and artisanal, and the condemnation of fast and processed foods, are way for people to perform elite status. In a similar take on Foodies, Joseé Johnston and Shylo Baumann write that many foodies enjoy everything from high brow cuisine to street food, but often only enjoy fast food ironically (2010, 2012). And Julie Guthman (2011) and Charlotte Biltekoff (2013) offer contemporary and historical accounts of the ways that more affluent Americans have looked down on the food cultures and (always constrained) food choices of working class and immigrant groups as a way to boost their own cultural status and displace their own cultural anxieties.

Trump isn’t the only person who highlights our assumptions about food and social class. In an article that was just published in American Studies, media scholar Emily J. H. Contois examines Guy Fieri’s take on American food culture, arguing that he uses “unpretentious” foods, as well as his own bleach-tipped, tattooed presentation of self, to create a populist image that “speaks directly to eaters who oppose culinary elites and who experience a sense of disenfranchisement regarding their own sociocultural status.” Examining Fieri’s work offers a “method for considering the most recent rise of populist sentiment in the United States” (2018, 156). Her analysis aligns nicely with comedian Seth Meyers’ Late Night joke, which, playing on the fact that Trump said Burger Kings (plural) that, “had he lost the election, The Burger Kings would have been the name of the food show he would have co-hosted with Guy Fieri.”

Despite his own elite background, Trump has something of a masterful ability to appeal to white working class tastes, and to mobilize that group in opposition to political progressives who might actually work to improve their lives and livelihoods. Working class foods like burgers are part of the habitus through which these sort of Trump voters define themselves. To those who love fast food, serving it to football players might read like an embrace of their ways of being over the so-called cultural elites who (they believe) look down on them. Mocking Trump for this lends credence to this belief.

There is no shortage of reasons to object to fast food— land use and environmental degradation, worker exploitation, low pay, and the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands—and, of course, there are no shortage of reasons to object to Trump’s behavior. But when we mock fast food culture out of context, we ignore the fact that many people have cultural attachments to these foods, and through them, tell themselves stories about who they are and what they believe in. As sociologists, I hope we can hear and empathize with those stories, rather than dismiss them.

Recommended Readings:

Baumann, Shyon and Joseé Johnston. 2012. “Democracy vs. Distinction in Omnivorous Food Culture. Sociologica. 2: 1-12.

Biltekoff, Charlotte. 2013. Eating Right in America. Chapel Hill, NC: Duke.

Bordieu, Pierre. 1987. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Contois, Emily J. H. 2018. “Welcome to Flavortown: Guy Fieri’s Populist American Food Culture.” American Studies. 57(3): 143-157.

Guthman, Julie. 2011. Weighing In. Berkeley: UC Press.

Johnston, Josee and Shyon Baumann. Foodies. NY: Routledge.

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

“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