Sociology on the Menu: An Invitation to the Study of Food and Society. Alan Beardsworth and Teresa Keil. London: Routledge, 1997. 277 pp.

Virginia Visconti (

In Sociology on the Menu, Beardsworth and Keil explore the social and cultural dynamics of food and eating. The authors' primary aim is to introduce the reader to the main themes of the literature regarding these topics. To this end, the text is divided into the following parts: the social dimensions of the food system; the social organization of eating; food, health and well-being; and patterns of preference and avoidance. The authors' review of the literature draws upon an extensive body of empirical studies and theoretical analyses, which are critically examined for the insight they provide into the nutritional and symbolic dimensions of food consumption. Indeed, it is the authors' contention that "when humans eat, they eat with the mind as much as with the mouth" (53).

Eager to reach a diverse readership, the authors begin with a brief overview of the origins of human subsistence. Here, they refer to studies that link the possession of a large brain with a high-energy requirement and the consumption of a diet rich in nutrients. However, the authors argue against biological determinism, claiming that such "imperatives do not determine nutritional endeavors and choice, rather they set a framework within which they are played out" (16). Moving to a discussion of how humans have obtained food, the authors note the greater emphasis that many studies have placed upon hunting over gathering as an influence upon human evolution. They indicate that the shift from foraging to agriculture is associated with the reorganization of social relationships; an increase in the impact upon the natural environment, labor, population density, and warfare; and a decrease in dietary standards. Rejecting the view of the emergence of agriculture as an intentional domestication of crops, the authors embrace those studies that posit a co-evolution between humans and particular species of plants.

The next topic pursued is the development of the modern food system, which is compared with the traditional food system in terms of production, distribution, consumption, and beliefs. Although the authors qualify this comparison by admitting that these processes are not easily separated and that traditional societies are not identical to one another, they do not fully explicate their distinction between "traditional" and "modern." This is especially problematic given that much of the proceeding discussion relies upon this traditional/modern duality. (Incidentally, much of what passes for modern culture relates to studies of the US and UK alone.) Nevertheless, within the modern food system, production is described as large-scale, highly specialized, industrialized, and de-localized. Distribution is international and access to goods and services is governed by money and markets. Both food and choice are available to those consumers who can pay, but tension exists between those who believe in human domination of nature and those who challenge such a view. Despite the advantages offered by the modern food system, the authors deny that it represents unadulterated progress. Instead, they claim "the modern food system is not a neutral organization of food production and distribution but a political system which benefits some nations more than others" (42).

Turning to sociological perspectives on food and eating, the authors sketch the functionalist, structuralist, and develpmental approaches to theorizing about the food system. They locate themselves among developmentalists, who lend primacy to the dynamics of social change, and further delineate their position by insisting that consumption is not limited to nutrients but rather includes gustatory experiences themselves and their associated meanings and symbols. Through a process of nutritional socialization, individuals learn not only what is edible but also appropriate preparation techniques; appropriate combinations of foods; and the conventions which govern when, where, and with whom an individual may eat. Each individual has a nutritional career, which relates to how nutritional practices and preferences change throughout one's life.

As "those sets of principles which guide the selection of aliments [items deemed edible] from the available totality" (67), the menu figures prominently in consumption choices. There are traditional, rational, convenience, economy, hedonistic, and moral menus, each corresponding to a different goal such as the maximization of gustatory pleasure or the minimization of cost. Furthermore, menu differentiation is evident among different groups of individuals within a population defined in terms of age, class, gender, etc. The authors also point out the possibility of menu pluralism understood as "a situation in which many alternative schemes to structure food choice and eating patterns are on offer" (68).

The authors identify food as "a powerful symbolic resource for the expression of patterns of social differentiation" (52). Within the family, for example, women continue to play a primary role in the planning, preparation, and provision of meals but do not necessarily exercise much authority in relation to food. The authors refer to a number of studies in which women's domestic routines are essentially dictated by the demands of other members of the household. Purchasing decisions, for instance, often reflect a husband's rather than a wife's food preferences. Of even greater significance is the extent to which a woman's food preparation and serving are deemed female duties. In some situations, failure to fulfill this obligation may result in violence. Indeed, argue the authors, "not only are food and food-related domestic arrangements central features of family functioning, they may also play a crucial role in family breakdown" (85).

With respect to socio-economic differentiation, those with less money to spend on food cope with financial adversity in a number of ways. In order to stretch their food dollars, they shop more frequently (i.e., shop one day at a time), shop at local discount stores, and buy processed and frozen foods. Under these circumstances, women frequently shop alone and enforce commensality (i.e., insist that family members eat the same thing at the same time). Importantly, the fear of being looked upon as "nutritionally deviant" compels families "to maintain conventional eating patterns," which help them preserve "a sense that they are still in touch with the mainstream of consumer culture" (94).

As the authors shift to eating out, they make a point of distinguishing between the reciprocal and commercial bases of such an activity. On the one hand, the exchange of food within a context of social obligation builds social solidarity. On the other hand, when food is part of a commercial transaction, no such obligation exists. That eating out should have become commercialized is attributed to a complex array of factors, including the breakdown of traditional social relationships, the growth of towns and cities, industrialization, and the separation of home and work. Initially, eating out on a commercial basis was a matter of necessity for those who were far removed from kin. However, eating away from home is now a matter of choice as well. As service work in the new restaurants and hotels burgeoned, the quality of the interaction between those providing a service and those consuming it became an object of attention for employers who sought to intervene in the dress, speech, behavior, and training of workers in order to ensure the quality of the product offered. Significantly, the scripted nature of these interactions challenges the view that dining out actually increases participation in the sociality of life.

Beginning with traditional perspectives on the links between diet and health, the authors locate the logic of consumption choices in the hot-cold categorizations of foods. Accordingly, the choice of a "hot" or "cold" food item is determined by the purpose of consumption, the identity of the consumer, and the other edible items with which the food will be combined. The necessity for maintaining a balance among all of these components of consumption is paramount. Modern views, reflecting a Cartesian conception of the body as machine, are described as highly rationalized and systematic. As this perspective took hold, interest in the eating patterns of the poor and government intervention in the food system grew. Despite the pervasiveness of the modern view, the authors single out the health food movement as an example of a perspective similar to traditional modes of belief about diet and health in that it promises "to provide individuals with a sense that they can influence their own health for the better by means of choice and practice which they feel they personally can control and comprehend" (149). As such, it poses a challenge to the commercial food system.

Food risks, anxieties, and scares associated with shortages and contamination highlight the paradoxical nature of food. Three paradoxes fuel the anxiety and ambivalence with which individuals approach food and eating: gustatory, health, and moral. The first concerns the pleasure and displeasure or discomfort derived from eating. The second focuses on the necessity of food for survival along with the introduction of harmful entities into the body. Finally, the third recognizes that in sustaining the life of one organism the provision of food entails the death of other organisms. Traditional cultures cope with these paradoxes through "flavor principles" governing the combination of food items and alternative views of animals (e.g., animals are sufficiently different from humans to justify their consumption or animals willingly allow themselves to be preyed upon). However, because the modern food system lacks the supportive networks of the traditional system, individuals "have to make nutritional decisions in a kind of cultural vacuum, unrestrained by limitations of season and locality" (161). One response to this "nutritional normlessness" is brand loyalty. As the authors explain, "recognized brands provide a sense of familiarity and reassurance in terms of the quality and safety of the products to which they are attached" (169). By reducing the risk of consumption, brands contribute to the "reconstruction of food confidence."

The authors note a further paradox: along with an abundant food supply comes the motivation to control the quantity of nutrients absorbed. Considering the prevalence of eating disorders among young, white, middle to upper class women in the US, for instance, the authors dwell upon research which suggests that such disorders represent social problems not amenable to solutions geared toward to the individual alone. Moreover, in rejecting food, individuals assure themselves that they are exercising control over some portion of their lives. The themes of resistance and control surface again in the authors' exploration of vegetarianism and the meanings of meat. Although meat possesses important nutritional and symbolic properties, there are many meat taboos and prohibitions in traditional and modern cultures. Some relate the rejection of meat to expressions of disapproval or contempt for those peoples or cultures that consume the meat product. Additionally, rejection may function as a means for emphasizing a group's collective identity. Others insist that meat prohibitions are essentially pragmatic, reflecting hygienic interests, for example. However, the rejection of red meat, in particular, is on the rise in modern cultures and this may be linked to changing perceptions about the desirability of human domination over nature, which renders meat eating a powerful expression of such authority.

While vegetarianism may be understood as a critique of the conventional social order, there are other motives for its adoption. These include a concern about animal suffering or the amount of natural resources used in the production of meat. Additionally, individuals may find meat to be an object of disgust or judge it to be a hazardous food substance, leading them to purge themselves of the item in pursuit of a pure, uncorrupted body. To their credit, the authors are sensitive to the disjunction between the considerations which lead individuals to make particular choices and the arguments they offer retrospectively to justify their decisions. Thus, the authors are not content to explain the rise of vegetarianism strictly in terms of the motives and rhetoric of vegetarianism. Instead, they suggest that the growing appeal of vegetarianism may be related to, among other things, changing perceptions of the link between diet and health or feminist views of meat as a symbol of patriarchy.


Clearly, the authors cover a great deal of ground in their review of the literature, which ends with a somewhat less thorough examination of sugar and confectionery. The authors offer an intriguing introduction to the sociology of food and eating and acquaint the reader with a number of empirical studies and theoretical analyses that shape debates within the field. They not only discuss the results of the relevant research, but they also describe the methodology of each study presented, permitting the reader to assess, to some degree, the validity of the work. While the authors should be commended for their own critical engagement with the research presented, there is a distinct lack of ethnographic evidence which could be used to challenge the primarily survey and interview data provided by the studies examined. To be sure, the reader gets much in the way of what people have to say about their patterns of consumption but far less about their actual behavior.