Beyond language and discourse: A bodily engaged and relational approach to bio food

by | Aug 18, 2023

Home 9 Food consumption ideas&research 9 Beyond language and discourse: A bodily engaged and relational approach to bio food

To really understand food and our relation with it, I argue that food and people have to be seen and taken as an inseparable pair. The human-food relation does not allow us to reduce food to a sociocultural thing, representations or symbols and food’s impact to shaping only our bodies and not also our selves. I do not simply attempt to analyse food as if it existed ‘out there’ in a sociocultural world as a thing we can ‘follow’, and from which we can simply ‘read’ broader sociocultural implications. Food is a human product, and so does not exist on its own. Investigating (bio) food through people means that my research is truly anthropological. My approach goes beyond language and discourse to the body and could then be called a bodily engaged and relational approach.

My own approach to food

What food represents, stands for or means for us cannot be attributed to food a priori, but emerges from our concrete bodily relation with it. Therefore, it is vital to focus on this relation and how it is played out, lived, experienced, managed, organized, understood and so on. Since this relation is not given, one cannot dismiss any of the established approaches as outdated or irrelevant, or absolutize one of them. Openness and ‘free mind’ are necessary conditions to being ‘sensitive’ to new perspectives and categories (Glaser 2004), and to seeing how unpredictably, contradictorily or paradoxically differences can be combined and integrated.

Limitations of the established approaches

I do not examine (bio) food and people’s relation with it through the lens of one of the established theoretical approaches. My approach is not really structuralist because I do not overlook change, process and flow, and do not describe only the static and constant patterns in food and food habits and practices (Lalonde 1992, Lupton 1996). Unlike functional structuralist approaches, I do not look at food as an instrument that helps to maintain and organize social norms and institutions, or as a medium through which societies and cultures can be seen and explained.

Food and food practices cannot be simply ‘seen’, as Levi-Strauss argued, as a language based on the binary oppositions between nature and culture, the raw and the cooked or food and non-food (Lupton 1996). Similarly, Mary Douglas’ attempts to decipher meal in order to uncover how the structure and patterns of social events and relationships are encoded in it are insufficient to really understand food. Food is not just a code through which we order our social relations (Lalonde 1992). Even though critical structuralist approaches emphasize social inequality and power relations far more than functional structuralist approaches, they both ‘tend to be somewhat essentialist, assigning a single meaning to food-as-text without fully acknowledging the dynamic, highly contextual and often contradictory meanings around foodstuffs’ (Lupton 1996:12).

Poststructuralist approaches try to avoid the essentialism of structuralism by stressing the dynamic process of discourses and practices and the plurality of meanings. This is what Deborah Lupton does in her book Food, the Body and the Self, when she explores ‘the changeable and contextual nature of meaning, taking a social constructionist approach to understand the ways in which preferences for food develop and are reproduced as sociocultural phenomena’ (1996:12). Drawing on the discursive production of sociocultural meaning of food and food practices, social constructionists like Lupton, see food, food practices and bodily experiences, feelings and knowledges linked to them mainly as produced, constructed or mediated by society and culture, and, ultimately, the subjectivity as produced mainly through or by discourse.    

Although poststructuralists criticize structuralists for quite overlooking change, agency or lived experience (Lalonde 1992, Lupton 1996, Mennell 1985), they too limit food, food practices and their embodied experiences and knowledges to language or text that can be read, interpreted and deconstructed (Basu 2016), and, in doing so, reduce them to their socially produced discursiveness. In other words, they separate the symbolic and the embodied, and see and explain practices, experiences and knowledges not in their bodiliness and as embodied, but as formed, expressed or represented through discourse

Beyond language and discourse

However, it is possible to see food, the self, the body, society and culture as interrelated without approaching food, the self and the body only in sociocultural terms. The materiality (physicality) of the body does not allow us to reduce it to a sociocultural product, images or representations. Therefore, I argue that to not only really understand experience and knowledge as bodily but also human relation with food, one has to go beyond language and discourse to the body – the living physical organism through which we perceive, experience, know and act upon the world – and begin from our embodied condition.

In other words, it means to start from our lifeworld, which, as defined by Husserl, refers to ‘the unquestioned, practical, historically conditioned, pretheoretical, and familiar world of our everyday lives’ (Desjarlais&Throop 2011:91). Indeed, lifeworld, of which food and the body are part, is something we daily live and experience but also tend to take for granted and not to reflect on. Since lifeworld is pretheoretical, namely not really articulated, my aim is to zoom in on how bio food appears in it.

Body as the foundation and the starting point

Given that one lives ‘in’ and ‘through’ the body, my research starts with the body. The body points to the fundamental existential fact, criterion and condition, namely that one is an embodied being (Marcel 1952, 1968, 1969). The body is the ground of one’s being or existence one has to build on because from or through it bodily experience and knowledge emerge. Yet to start and remain connected to the body does not mean to resort to a kind of solipsism, and so limit everything to the subjective or individual. Lifeworld is not a fixed subjective realm, but ‘a dynamic, shifting and intersubjectively constituted existential reality that results from the ways that we are geared into the world by means of our particular situatedness as existential, practical and historical beings’ (Desjarlais&Throop 2011:91).

Similarly, through the notion of ‘somatic modes of attention’, Csordas shows that we are not only detached individual bodies, but also bodily interconnected with others. He sees such modes as ‘culturally elaborated ways of attending to and with one’s body in surroundings that include the embodied presence of others’ (1993:138). This means that not only the personal, subjective or individual is not really detached from the interpersonal, intersubjective[1] or social, but also that neither of them is a disembodied realm that is ‘out there’ to be ‘encountered’ and grasped. Collectiveness, intersubjectivity or sociality should be seen as intercorporeality[2] – ‘as a mode of collective presence in the world’ (Csordas 2008:117).

Seeing the body as the foundation for analysing human relation with food, I do not mean to reduce this relation to its physical dimensions, and food to something that is either good (healthy) or bad (unhealthy) for the body. In other words, I do not approach food from the nutritional or sociobiological perspective (Lupton 1996). I certainly do not see food merely as something that affects the body, and so is either beneficial or detrimental to its health, functioning and development.

Food, the body and the self shaping each other

Bridging this approach with sociocultural approaches, I see the physiological or material dimensions as inextricably intertwined with the symbolic (Lupton 1996). To link these approaches means to see how food physically shapes the body and the self, and also how people shape it in its material and sociocultural forms. Sociocultural meanings and representations around food and food practices have more than just a symbolic, that is, representational or substitute function. The symbolic has a physical impact on the body and the self.  It cannot be limited to meanings –  sociocultural or other.

For people food exists to the extent they bodily engage with it. Therefore, to really understand and know food and experiences and knowledges linked to it, one has to focus on people’s direct[3] bodily engagement or relation with it. Bodily engagement with food through different activities and practices gives rise to contingent forms of embodiment that always escape complete symbolization and discourse (Lock&Farquhar 2007). This means that one has to go beyond language and discourse.

[1] Ingold contrasts intersubjectivity (2014) and interaction (2013) with correspondence. However, the contrast between them is not only unclear, but also appears rather ‘artificial’.  The features he applies to correspondence can also be applied to intersubjectivity and interaction. They too can be seen as ‘always in the making’ (2014:389) or as sentient movements in real time (2013). Rather than contrasting and dividing these terms, it appears more productive to subsume correspondence under intersubjectivity and interaction, for they are more common terms.

[2] I see intersubjectivity, intercorporeality or any kind of sociality as existing only between human bodies. Even if it is true that one is bodily ‘open’ and so ‘more than one body’, unlike Emma J. Roe (2006), I do not apply ‘intercorporeality’ also to human bodily relations with things. First of all, human body and ‘thing body’ are fundamentally different. Second, one relates differently to a thing than to a human body. To treat them the same way means to degrade humans, and simultaneously anthropomorphise or ‘humanize’ things.

[3] By ‘direct’ I mean unmediated by any medium such as language (e.g. what one hears or read about food), observation, the internet or any technological device.


Other thesis blogs can be found here

This blog is a slightly adapted part of my thesis What is your relation with food like?: Examining the embodied relation between people and bio food in Belgium (Master of Social and Cultural Anthropology); References available upon request.


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