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Scholars’ Conversations: Michaela DeSoucey, The Moral Politics of Food Risks and Responsibilities
By Nino Bariola
I had the amazing opportunity to talk to Michaela DeSoucey, Associate Professor at North Carolina State University and current chair of the Consumers and Consumption section. Her book Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food (Princeton UP, 2016) won the 2017 Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book in the Sociology of Culture from the ASA Culture Section, the 2016 Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award from the ASA Consumers & Consumption Section, and the 2017 Gourmand World Cookbooks Award in the Culinary History category. We talked about her book and more recent work that analyses the history and cultural politics around peanut allergy to theorize the moralities of food- and consumption-related risks.
Nino: You know I am not alone in considering your book an excellent contribution—it won the awards from the ASA Culture section and from our very own Consumers and Consumption section. How do you see it fitting with current and classic consumption research?
Michaela: I’ve been always interested not just in how people spend money, but also how they think about the market as a possible vehicle for change. So, inspired by classic works about consumer society, the politics of consumption has always been a driving force for me. I started in graduate school out researching alternative food movements—local food, slow food, organic food, and grass-fed meat—to think about how people were using meshing movements and market opportunities, as well as using everyday practices to promote their virtues in particular ways.
In my book, I push this perspective forward by creating a theoretical model of what I call gastropolitics, which is at the interplay of political sociology, economic sociology, and social movements studies, all within a circle of culture. To my mind, gastropolitics does not just imply political fights about food. Rather, I see it as conflicts, both large and small, over food practices that get branded as social problems and that enmesh state systems of law and regulation, markets, and social movements. It’s fighting about food in particular ways and using particular cultural strategies and venues to change people’s ideas. Foods are tools in these processes: materially, discursively, and symbolically. That seems to be what people have especially liked about the book.
Nino: In sociological literature, consumption and production are often conceived as separate processes: Economic sociologists tend to focus on production, and consumption scholars center on, well, consumption dynamics, including, for example, the ways in which buying something becomes a means to build a specific kind of identity. In your book, consumption and production are theorized as interconnected processes…
Michaela: Yes, that’s right. I think food is a great way to open up the connections between production and consumption. Processes of food production have become visible in ways that making automobiles or refrigerators are not necessarily. Fashion too. Food and fashion are industries where the work of production has turned more visible. For example, Claudio Benzecry’s recent work traces how a shoe is produced globally, from design in one place to production in another and worn in yet another. While writing my dissertation, I also read a lot in the commodity chains literature, which makes these connections and also considers the intermediary steps and actors—all the organizations and people that are in the middle, who are themselves producers and consumers. There’s also a great deal of new research about how consumers produce value for companies through things like online review systems, what is called co-production or prosumption. In that sense, I see production and consumption as interactive and constitutive.
Nino: Speaking of food…Food has had this weird standing in sociology as an object of study, don’t you think? There is not a long tradition of food sociology as there is in history or anthropology…
Michaela: That’s absolutely right. Rural sociologists have long emphasized the impacts of industrial agriculture in their work. But recently, there’s been extensive sociological interest in food in other subfields. I’m teaching a graduate seminar on food this spring that I haven’t taught since 2017, and my syllabus is full of amazing new books that came out in just the last few years from sociologists and related scholars. So far, my students have loved Alyshia Gálvez’s Eating NAFTA and Andrew Deener’s The Problem with Feeding Cities.
Nino: Could you tell us a bit about the work you’ve done since the book was published?
Michaela: I’ve worked on a few papers about different topics related to consumption. For example, I published a paper in Poetics, along with Michael Elliot and Vaughn Schmutz, in a special issue on “global tastes” about how some cultural objects that originate in particular times and places become classified as transnationally valued forms of cultural heritage—processes we theorize as instances of “rationalized authenticity.” The cases we analyzed and compared were tango from Argentina and Uruguay, acupuncture from China, and a music education program called Kodály from Hungary. I enjoyed getting to write about “Dancing with the Stars” in an academic article. Most recently, I published a paper in Organization Studies with several coauthors from management programs using the case of craft beer to add nuance to organizational theories of consumer evaluation, category-spanning, and authenticity norms.
Another paper I’ve been working on is becoming what I think will be my next big project. Since writing my book, I’ve thinking more about risk, responsibility, and morality in terms of food and consumption. I’ve been now working on a paper with a collaborator using these ideas focusing on social responses to peanut allergy. One thing I find really interesting about a research project is to look for things that have contradictions within or backlash to them. I think the backlash means there’s something deeper going on about culture and morality, about the ways people categorize and classify objects, events, other people.
The plan would be to do something similar to what I did with foie gras: Take a contested object and then study it from every angle—What are families of peanut allergy kids doing; what organizations like schools and daycares and restaurants doing; what is happening with medical research and clinical trials to treat allergic people, etc.
Nino: And, as you were saying, why there’s backlash against any sort of regulatory measure?
Michaela: Yes, over whose responsibility is it when you have a health condition like this. Why do some people think “Even if your kid might die, I should have the right to bring cupcakes for my child’s birthday”? Where is the empathy for other people’s situations? Whose responsibility is it to keep people safe and how does that change over time? These are all politics of consumption issues because at the end of the day, it’s about what we put in our bodies and what we don’t, what we purchase, what we don’t. But this also leads to many other interesting questions that have lots to tell us about how the world is working right now.
Nino: This type of backlash sounds like an incredibly relevant research topic given how are things going with COVID-19…
Michaela: Yes, totally. I see the parallel with social distancing and mask-wearing so clearly. Why is it that something that is a minor inconvenience to one person gets politically constructed as an infringement on that person’s rights?
Nino: Will we see any articles from this new project in the near future?
Michaela: The first part of the project is currently under review at a journal. It’s about the politics of peanuts and peanut restrictions on airplanes. Miranda Waggoner, my coauthor, and I presented the first version of this a couple of years ago at ASA on Consumers & Consumption section panel. It’s always good for students to keep in mind that conference presentations can (and should!) become publishable papers. The interesting thing about airplanes is that traditionally there has been a cultural-cognitive association between airplanes and peanut consumption—baseball stadiums and airplanes are seen by many Americans as physical spaces where eating peanuts is conventional. And there’s other literature that uses airplanes as settings for studying risk, so our work draws on that too. I think the topic of allergy is incredibly interesting as it gets into issues of health, responsibility, and politics, and there are so many analogous issues out there that consumption scholars should be following.
Nino: What books and articles have been particularly influential to your work?
Michaela: The books that really got me going were Marjorie DeVault’s Feeding the Family and was Marion Nestle’s Food Politics, which was published when I began graduate school. I think I associate the work of learning to be someone who studies food with Food Politics, especially—thinking about how policies delineate what is available to consumers, about the role of lobbying and corporations behind the scenes of everyday life, etc. Viviana Zelizer’s work about how economic processes are cultural processes and influence consumption and politics of consumption has also been a crucial influence. Getting to spend two years at Princeton, and having conversations with her about my work, was phenomenal and essential for what my book became.
Then there are non-academic food books that I’ve loved and constantly go back to, like Ruth Reichl’s memoirs, especially Tender at the Bone, and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which were hugely influential in terms of doing my dissertation fieldwork on food and thinking about kitchens and cooking and chefs. And, I will also admit that my bedtime reading has often involved cookbooks.
For the risk and responsibility work I’ve been doing, I am revisiting anthropologist Mary Douglas’ work. I love revisiting classics in light of new projects and thinking about all they have to offer. Douglas’ work has been just so important. I also go back over and over again to Sidney Mintz’s well-known Sweetness and Power, and I always find implications for what’s going on today. This is kind of work that I want to do.
About the interviewer:
Nino Bariola is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology and a Graduate Fellow of the Urban Ethnography Lab at The University of Texas at Austin. His interests include food and environmental justice, gender and racial inequalities in the workplace, and political corruption. Bariola’s research appears in American Behavioral Scientist, Conservation Biology, and other academic journals and books.
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