Consume This! Eating for Taste and Eating for Change

In our April blog, Emily Huddart Kennedy, Shyon Baumann and Josée Johnston explore the intersection of status, ethics and aesthetics in relation to food preferences, and provide a fascinating prompt for a ‘cultural capital 2.0’ research programme for the sociology of consumption.

—Jennifer Smith Maguire (Section Chair)

foodies picture

Consume This! Cultural Capital 2.0? Eating for Taste and Eating for Change

By Emily Huddart Kennedy, Shyon Baumann and Josée Johnston

In July 2018, the three of us enjoyed a meal together at one of the most-talked-about restaurants in Victoria, Canada. At each course, our wholesome and down-to-earth server brought us small portions of artfully-prepared plates that were explicitly and implicitly presented as local, artisanal and ethically-sourced. Each course was delicious—and minimal! At the end of the meal, Shyon joked how it was fitting that the restaurant’s odd name meant “Hungry” in the local patois.

Farm-to-table restaurants are now a staple of the fine-dining scene in restaurants across North America, Europe, and Australia. Boasting local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients, diners here can enjoy a carefully crafted meal created by a renowned chef. But what’s more, they can also enjoy the feeling that they are helping local farmers practice organic agriculture, and that the meat they eat has been raised humanely.

In the world of fine-dining, this attention to the ethical credibility of ingredients marks a turning point. Although conscientious eaters have been drawn to vegan and vegetarian cafés since the 1960s, ethical eating only recently earned gourmet cachet. What does this mean for sociologists who study consumption? Early on in this project, we were inspired by the work of Carfagna and colleagues.

The authors refine the concept of an “eco-habitus”, which builds from Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus, the embodied orientation we develop in line with our place in the social hierarchy. The eco-habitus captures the idea that those with considerable cultural capital are increasingly drawn to ethical consumption choices, like hybrid cars, eco-friendly cleaners and Ocean Wise seafood. In other words, the taste preferences of high cultural capital consumers seem to be oriented to products that contribute to social justice and ecological sustainability.

But many practices that convey a commitment to justice and sustainability seem at odds with high status. Freeganism, which involves recovering waste from restaurant and grocery store dumpsters, is free and more counter-culture than high-culture. Eating a basic vegetarian diet (substituting meat for low-cost bean and legumes), can be relatively affordable, and isn’t necessarily high-status either. Until recently, gourmet discourse routinely mocked vegetarians for their pleasure-denying ways. What kind of brown-rice eating ascetic denies themselves pork belly or pancetta? The question we ask in this paper is under what conditions is ethical eating a high-status practice?

Josée designed a survey to measure people’s food preferences and social status. The food preference questions captured an aesthetic orientation to food (e.g., I know about the latest food trends and hottest restaurants) and an ethical orientation (e.g., My food choices are making a positive difference to environmental quality). To measure social status, we asked survey respondents questions about their income, educational attainment, employment status, and occupation. Graduate students stood in front of a variety of grocery stores (e.g., premium stores like Whole Foods, discount stores like No Frills, and regular stores like Safeway) and farmers’ markets, and encouraged 1200 people to fill out the survey. We were able to do our analysis on a sample of 828 respondents who were not missing any data for our key measures.

To answer our research question, we began by conducting a k-means cluster analysis, which is used to find groups of similar cases. We used our questions about aesthetic and ethical orientations to food to identify four groups of food shoppers:

  1. One group, that we call Neither Ethical nor Foodie, score very low on items measuring both an aesthetic and an ethical orientation.
  2. The second group, Foodies, score highly on items capturing an aesthetic preference, like, “I seek out foods from different ethnicities and cultures” and low on items capturing an ethical orientation, like “I trust the organic label”.
  3. The third group, Ethical Eaters, score consistently low on the aesthetic orientation items, and high on the ethical orientation items.
  4. The last group, Ethical Foodies, score highest on almost all aesthetic items and also on the majority of the items measuring an ethical orientation.

The cluster analysis shows us that there are segments of food consumers who approach the culinary world with distinct preferences. But it doesn’t tell us anything about social status. To address that question, we conducted multinomial logistic regression analyses. Our results are quite striking: compared to the “Neither” category (which we treat as the reference group), all other categories have higher status. Foodies have significantly higher occupational prestige and are almost four times more likely than the Neither group to have a college diploma. Patterns are similar for Ethical Eaters, though they have significantly lower incomes.

Importantly, the Ethical Foodies, who value aesthetic and ethical foods, have higher occupational prestige, are six times likelier to earn over $100,000 (our highest income category), and are over six times more likely to have a graduate degree. The ethical foodies are distinctly more elite than all other groups on these standard measures of social status. So, to answer our research question, ethical food consumption acts as a high-status practice when it is combined with an aesthetic orientation.

To corroborate this finding, we also wanted to see if there are any differences where people buy food across the four clusters. Do these four groups tend to shops in places that reflect the differences between them? The answer was yes. We found that Ethical Foodies are least likely to get food at a discount grocery store or fast food restaurant and most likely to procure food from a farmers’ market, premium grocery store, or home garden.

The strong associations between the Ethical Foodies cluster and our measures of status suggest there is evidence of a new variety of cultural capital — or what Michaela DeSoucey jokingly described as “Cultural Capital 2.0”, when we presented this paper at the 2018 Consumers and Consumption Mini-Conference. The term Cultural Capital 2.0 nicely captures our argument that while high cultural capital consumers in Bourdieu’s French sample were likely primarily motivated by aesthetic taste preferences, ethical considerations may now be equally important in defining the contours of distinction in the domain of food consumption.

How generalizable are these patterns to other domains of consumption? Or, in other words, does Cultural Capital 2.0 also shape tastes in music, art, clothing, architecture, and so on? Anecdotally, we see considerable evidence that many people are drawn toward consumer experiences that deliver aesthetic sophistication alongside moral commitments. For instance, we see evidence of cultural capital 2.0 in architecture, where high-status designs showcase beautiful structures built with the latest energy-saving green-technologies and certified wood products. The wine world has also seen the emergence of a new field of high-status wines that are sustainable, biodynamic and delicious. We would love to see future scholarship exploring whether the people most wedded to sustainable, socially-just choices are also high-status individuals who seek “only the best” in various consumer domains.

Our data contains a striking irony: the richest, most privileged in society seem best positioned to present themselves as culturally sophisticated – and ethical. They appreciate the finer things in life (e.g., artisanal butter!), and they also care about helping other people and the planet (e.g., artisanal butter sourced from a local, grass-fed dairy operation). (Of course, social elites do not have a monopoly on refined tastes, but they do have the cultural and economic capital to advance their own tastes as the benchmark for refinement.)

So what is the transformative power of a cultural capital 2.0? On one hand, as scholars like Laura J. Miller have demonstrated, many environmental and social justice movements throughout history have contained relatively privileged people – people who have fought to make the world a better, more humane, less toxic place. It would be simplistic (and unnecessarily fatalistic) to discount the political possibilities for an emerging eco-habitus.

But, if we view our data through the lens of Bourdieusian cultural analysis – or Gramscian hegemonic common-sense – it seems that wealth and power are working to give a cultural and moral glow to those at the top of the socio-economic pyramid. The striking contrast to this privileged high-end eater is a low-income mother (who we have interviewed in other research), who feels unable to even get enough food on the table – let alone meet standards for serving an eco-friendly, gourmet meal.

This report is based on our article, “Eating for Taste and Eating for Change: Ethical Consumption as a High-Status Practice.”

 Sources:

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1983. “The field of cultural production, or: The economic world reversed.” Poetics 12(4-5): 311-356.

Carfagna, Lindsay B, Emilie A. Dubois, Connor Fitzmaurice, Monique Y. Ouimette, Juliet B. Schor, Margaret Willis, and Thomas Laidley. 2014. “An Emerging Eco-Habitus: The Reconfiguration of High Cultural Capital Practices among Ethical Consumers.” Journal of Consumer Culture 14(2):158–78.

Gramsci, Antonio. 2011. Prison Notebooks, Volumes 1, 2, & 3. Edited and translated by Joseph A. Buttigieg and Antonio Callari. New York: Columbia University Press.

Miller, Laura J. 2017. Building Nature’s Market: The Business and Politics of Natural Foods. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

About the Authors

Emily Huddart Kennedy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at The University of British Columbia.

Shyon Baumann is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto.

Josée Johnston is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto.

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