Food is a form of communication about an individual’s identity and about this identity in the context of others. Ultimately, however, such communications occur within the broader social context. Food history can be give you information regarding how a person perceives their own food as cultural identity. Research has explored the notion of food as culture in regard to religious identity, food as social power and food as a symbolic in their culture. Research in 2023 has a focus on worldwide news with an emphasis on the meaning of meat in culture.
Food As Religious Identity
Food and family meals play a central role in the establishment of religious identity. For example, Susan Star Sered on her research in 1988, specifically on the exploring the cooking among Middle Eastern Jewish women. She argued that many of these foods embody Jewish symbols and their rituals in food preparation create a sense of holiness in the daily domestic work. Further, she argued that the women see feeding others as representing Jewish Identity tradition, law, and holiness. Preparing food, providing food, and eating food for others, therefore, becoming a medium through which holiness can be communicated within the family.
Food As Social Power
Food is also a symbol of social status. Powerful individuals eat well and are fed well by others. Food is the primal symbol of “social worth”. Early sociological writers such as Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx regarded food as an essential component of human subsistence and its absence as an illustration of inequality. Food is a social status and an illustration of social power. In parallel, food avoidance also serves to regain control over the social world. When political prisoners need to make a social statement, they may refuse to eat and initiate a hunger strike.
For example, Bobby Sands (1954-1981) was a political prisoner in Northern Ireland in the 1980’s who refused food to illustrate his political point. He was voted a member to parliament by his local constituency just before he died. Similarly, the suffragettes in the early twentieth century also turned to hunger strikes as a form of political protest over gender inequalities.
Lady Constance Lytton (1869-1923) describes how she was imprisoned along with other protesters in Liverpool for 14 days following a suffragette demonstration. In protest, she started to scratch the words “Votes for women” on her body, went on a hunger strike, and was promptly force-fed on eight occasions. Historically, the hunger strike has been employed by the socially oppressed as a means of embarrassing or humiliating those in control. Social Scientists have been regarded eating disorders as a form of hunger strike in the public realm. Food is status and honor. The presence of food represents a social power, and the denial of food is a powerful tool for regaining control over the political world.
Culture Versus Nature: The Meaning Of Meat
Food, particularly meat, signifies the relationship between people and nature. For the majority, meat is the cornerstone of a meal, and for vegetarians it is the food to be avoided. In the book, The Sociology Of Eating, they stated that meat is the most highly praised of food. It is the center around which a meal is arranged. It stands in a sense for the very idea of food itself. Meat is, to many, synonymous with ‘real’ food. Also, suggestions that for vegetarians is the range of soy based meat analogues testifies to the centrality of the concept of meat. Many customers wishing to avoid meat feel that the gap left in their habitual food system needs to fill with a direct equivalent which mimics the form or the nutritional content of meat itself.
Meat is more than just a meal, it also represents a way of life. Statistical data concerning eating habits, health risks, and the benefits of meat eating, and then integrating these data with quotes from farmers, butchers, members of the general public, and vegetarian campaigners. The central argument contended that meat eating symbolizes the civilizing of human beings. Separating ourselves from and gaining power over the natural world, people have become civilized. Studies on the development of human identity have emphasized the extent to which human beings tame, kill, and eat nature. Historians analyze how people have dominated nature and suggested that eating meat represents the essence of being human. It is central to the modern separation between nature and culture.
In the literature on hunting there is a definition of the birth of humanity simultaneously with the beginnings of skilled hunting. The progress of humanity in line with the development of more efficient hunting technology. Hunting weapons came first before weapons of war. The evidence concludes that hunting was even more significant in the evolution of modern humanity than the later development of agriculture. Civilized humans started with hunting and then agriculture leading to combat and war. We have long characterized ourselves as predators and conquerors. It is thus more civilized to hunt wild animals than to stoop to forage all bloody day for berries. The start of the hunting animals signifies the separation of humans from nature.
Bloodshed is central to the value of meat. Important in the killing, cooking and eating other animals. Harvesting the flesh provides perhaps the ultimate authentication of human superiority over the rest of nature. The spilling of blood is a motif of being a carnivore. Taking blood and flesh from another represents a life force that we add to our power when we eat both animal flesh and animal blood. We drain their lifeblood and seize their strength.
Native Americans did this act with great respect for the animals. Europeans came to North America and added a separation and disregard for animals. European morality introduced the killing of animals and spilling their blood gives human beings their control over nature. It is not only the animal which we subjugate. The many cultures represented in America have a historical link to consuming its flesh as a statement. Saying something about our control over nature with us as the masters of the world.
Which animals can and cannot be eaten? We care for our pets, give them proper names, and allow them to sleep in our home. Humans are investing so much money into pet healthcare and longevity that veterinary science has a consideration as a great financial investment in 2023. Perhaps, one day surpassing human children in the healthcare expenditures. As honorary humans, we cannot consume all kinds of pets as food. Dogs have evolved to actually look attractive to humans and therefore left to evolve over time.
Dogs have been deemed over time to be inedible over the entire world. Cultures that previously ate dogs now consider themselves too ‘civilized’ to do so. In line with this central thesis, eating some animals as meat symbolizes the civilizing of human beings.
Measuring Beliefs About the Meaning of Food
Much of the research to date describes the meaning of food using qualitative methods involving observational studies or interviews. In a recent study, a measure to quantitatively assess people’s beliefs about the meaning of food and to explore gender differences. In these beliefs and their impact on eating behavior.
The new scale consisted of 25 items with 8 sub-scales describing food and sex, emotional regulation, treat, guilt, social interaction, control over life, control over food, and family. The results showed that men have a greater endorsement the meaning of food and sexual symbolism. While women showed greater endorsement of all other sub-scales. In addition, the results showed that dieting was predicting strong beliefs about food and control and food and guilt. Body dissatisfaction was predicted by food and guilt, as well as, food and emotional regulation. The argument is that this scale either could have a use in clinical practice to assess the ways in which people with eating problems think about food. This research could also be used to assess the ways in which beliefs about the many meanings of food impact our behavior and subsequent body weight.
Food choice occurs within a complex set of meanings. Research exploring the meaning of food has defined a deep underlying classification system which is relevant across all cultures. Other research has analyzed eating as a communicative act providing a statement of the self. As an expression of social interaction and as a reflection of food as cultural identity. In particular, food constructs the self as a sexual being, in terms conflicts between guilt and pleasure and between eating and denial. In the case of restriction, used as a statement of self-control.
At the level of social interaction food can represent love and caring. Resolving conflicts of health and pleasure. Certain interactions define power relations within the family. Picture the symbolism of whom is picked to cut the turkey at the American holiday of Thanksgiving. Ultimately, however, all such meanings are embedded within their social context. Food also provides information about cultural identities. In particular, food creates a sense of religious identity, symbolizes power within a society, and delineates the cultural world from nature. These beliefs will measure in a quantifiable way and seem to relate to aspects of eating behavior.