Human complex, ambiguous and uncertain relation with food

by | Aug 20, 2023

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To understand today’s complexity of food and human complicated relation with food, we need to start from human nature concerning food, that is, biologically determined mechanisms, tendencies and behaviours which determine our relation with food. Only then we can fully and correctly understand and see why our relation to food is so complicated, unstable, dubious and ambiguous.

Paradoxes and contradictions in our relation with food

In this blog, I analyse Claude’s Fischler’s ideas developed in his two articles Food habits, social change and the nature/culture dilemma (1980) and Food, self, identity (1988).  He proposes some very insightful ideas illuminating human relation with food and modern food crisis. Although written in the 80s, his ideas seem to resonate today even more. Fischler tries to understand basic features of human multidimensional relation with food on the individual (psychological), as well as the collective (sociocultural) level. To really understand food and our relation with it, one cannot reduce food only to its material or symbolic properties, or see our relation with it in either only physiological and affective (emotional) terms or only in the sociocultural ones. In fact, one needs to take all of them, and see how they are played out in such a relation.

There are inherent paradoxes and contradictions in our relation with food, which play a significant role in our complex modern food situation. The most fundamental paradox springs from the fact that Homo sapiens is an omnivore. Following Paul Rozin, Fischler (1988) agrees that human omnivorousness leads to an ambivalence about food. On the one hand, omnivorousness implies freedom, independence and adaptability to different foods, diets, environments and their changes.

We are free to eat any food. But, on the other hand, we depend on a variety of foods, which can be confusing and also constraining. This contradiction leads to a conflict or tension between neophobia, which is characterized by conservatism, fear of unknown food or resistance to change, and neophilia, which is about openness to new foods, novelty and change. Rozin aptly named this phenomenon the ‘omnivore’s paradox’.  According to Fischler (1988), this paradox, that is, a tension between contradictory character of our omnivorous nature and the distrust towards new foods give rise to an anxiety.

To deal with and overcome the paradox and the accompanying anxiety, Fischler argues that ‘man has not only biological programmings or regulating mechanisms but also highly sophisticated cognitive competences and culturally constructed practices and representations’ (Fischler 1988:279). One’s relation with food should be regulated and safeguarded by not only what Cannon (1963b) calls the ‘wisdom of the body’, that is, ‘a physiological capacity to maintain steady states in the organism’ (Fischler 1980:938), but also by the ‘wisdom of culture’, namely a set of culturally transmitted practices – culinary or other –  which tend to correct some nutritional imbalance’ (1980:938). However, it seems that these ‘wisdoms’ have been disrupted and challenged. 

Breakdown of the established food patterns, habits and traditions

According to Fischler, there has been a ‘breakdown of the ‘fit’ between human biology and the environment’ (1980:942). For instance, the overconsumption of sugar and overweight are two instances which make this obvious. The imbalance between how much food we need and how much we (are offered and encouraged to) consume, speaks for the fact that we live in a world that is not aligned with our nutritional needs, and works against the body. But this is so because the ‘wisdom of culture’ has been challenged as well. In Fischler’s view, ‘the recent evolution of cultural patterns with regard to food and eating in contemporary urban industrial societies shows that the upsetting of the nutritional balance seems to be related, not just to cultural patterns as such, but rather to a crisis of cultural patterns’ (1980:944). The established sociocultural patterns regarding food and food practices do not work anymore.

More specifically, culinary orders such as cuisine or gastronomy and rules, norms and meanings surrounding them, have been detached or even eroded from people’s daily lives, and thus do not really determine and steer people’s relation with food. Fischler diagnoses ‘in the mainstream of Western, urban, industrial societies, a process of disaggregation and disintegration affecting the social dimension of eating habits and the cultural framework shaping them’ (1980:947). As a consequence, we face a crisis of gastronomy (‘gastro-anomy’), namely ‘a lack of accepted, valid cultural references and a proliferation of contradictory, inconsistent pressures’ (1980:948). We are ‘bombarded’ by different, often contradictory ideas concerning food and what is good for us to eat, which is to a great extent nourished by food industry and advertising.

Changing food landscape

Given that food and food practices are interconnected with culture and society, the sociality of food practices has changed because social relations have changed. But food itself also affects the sociality of food practices. For instance, snacks are type of food which can be eaten basically anywhere and anytime. They are not really subjected to any food etiquette. This is also why they make eating more of an individual than a social matter (Fischler 1980). Indeed, food itself has undergone a process of ‘liberalization’ when it has been quite freed from ecological (seasonal) and local constraints, and is not really dominated or governed by (local) sociocultural patterns and rules.

Due to technology and technological and digital products such as mobile phone or social media, not only all kind of foodstuffs but also ideas and discourses around them are disseminated, and so come to exist along, or in a sense get mixed with the existing food styles, cuisines and gastronomies. This also means that one can be confronted with contradictory and misleading ideas concerning foodstuffs, and lack clear and unambiguous sociocultural cues and reliable criteria concerning food. One can then easily feel uncertain about the constitution (composition), selection or categorization of food(stuffs) (Lupton 1996).

The uncertainty, opaqueness or ambiguity regarding food is further supported by the fact that most people do not produce their food, and the majority of food on the market is to a lesser or greater extent industrially produced, or is produced with the help of industrially manufactured products. Indeed, technology has significantly diminished direct human involvement in food production. Industrially produced food lacks human element, authenticity, particularity and, indeed, identity.

Hence, according to Fischler, industrialized and processed food is not a guarantee of symbolic purity but rather a source of danger when ‘the peril we fear in our food is no longer biological corruption or putrefaction but rather chemical additives, trace elements or excessive processing’ (1980:946). Above all, this food seems materially unsafe. One of my interlocutors expressed this idea quite straightforwardly when she said: ‘Food companies are putting ‘rubbish’ in our food and we need to go back to ‘clean’ food, like our grandparents were used to’ (email correspondence). This is perhaps why we do not classify food as pure–impure anymore but rather as natural (healthy) – ‘artificial’ (unhealthy).

However, a focus on food should not start from any given classification or categorization of food, food practices and their changes. About all, such a focus should not be embedded in any generalized and simplified division and categorization of food. Yet this does not mean to question or belittle the importance of food classification and categorization. In fact, these are crucial abilities, for they directly affect and determine food selection and incorporation. In fact, the complexity of food identification, classification and selection we face seems to be one of the main causes of food uncertainty and confusion.

The follow-up blog The Complexity of Food Identification, Classification and Selection can be found here

My other food consumption ideas and research 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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