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Review of Jean-Pierre Poulain’s The Sociology of Food: eating and the place of food in society.

Alan Warde

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Jean-Pierre Poulain, The Sociology of Food: eating and the place of food in society. Translated by Augusta Dörr. London: Bloomsbury 2017. 288p.

Review written on 31 August 2017

1This is a translation into English of Jean-Pierre Poulain’s Sociologies de l’alimentation which was first published in 2002. It is a book that I read from cover to cover not long after it came out which, given my limitations in the manipulation of the French language, is a huge endorsement of its quality and originality. I remember that I wanted to understand first and foremost how French scholars working in the discipline of sociology thought theoretically about food and eating, but also what they knew about food habits in France. Poulain’s book was a fine avenue for pursuing my objectives and concerns.

2Evaluating The Sociology of Food is tricky because almost the whole of the text is over fifteen years old. Twelve chapters are translated without any revision. One freshly written chapter of fifteen pages has been added, not as a postscript which reflects back on the content of the book, rather as an overview of the institution of ‘food studies’. How much does this matter? If a truly classic theoretical work, it might be of little significance, but it is not quite that, for it is multifaceted, part textbook, part empirical research report and part theoretical intervention.

3The first six chapters comprising Part I provide an overview – very thorough and decidedly at the forefront of knowledge in 2002 – of some of the most important empirical evidence about development in food behaviour at the end of the 20th century. It reviews and synthesises research on the topical issues of those years: globalisation of the food supply; change in the food industries and how that affected the intersection of domestic and commercial activities; tendencies towards fragmentation of eating habits, debated in terms of gastro-anomie; the way in which issues of safety and risk generated the need to manage new anxieties; and the medicalization of eating, as health, especially obesity, captured public and scholarly attention. These chapters identified contemporary trends, supplied a great deal of new evidence, produced interesting framing concepts and distinctions (as for instance between norm and behaviour, gastro-anomie and pluralisation), and set out the parameters of debates about risk and obesity. They are liberally laced with reports of empirical research projects which Poulain and his colleagues had recently conducted – for example, on the eating habits of the elderly, and on habits and routines of French households. These chapters exhibited both strong sociological foundations and a thorough and wide-ranging interdisciplinary knowledge about how food systems were operating in the final decades of the 20th century. The trends and tendencies that Poulain describes have not ceased necessarily – food behaviour mostly changes slowly – but the evidence now looks dated. Inevitably it has little to say about topics like identity, gender, ethnicity, political mobilisation, the senses, tourism, media and celebrity which have dominated attention more recently. It would therefore not be my first port of call now for a review of research findings on food and eating.

4Part II has more exceptional and original aspects, certainly when looked at through British eyes, and it stands the test of time better. It seeks to make theoretical sense, at a higher level of generality and abstraction, of the results reported in chapters 1-6. It aims to articulate a theoretical framework and rationale for the analysis of what is known empirically. The focus is specifically sociological. The guiding premise is that there are several sociologies of food. Exposition revolves around a distinction between Durkheim’s approach, which sees eating as an autonomous social fact, and that of Marcel Mauss, who insists on eating being a total social fact. For Mauss, understanding eating requires knowledge not just of social elements but also of psychological and biological processes. Poulain sides mostly with Mauss, maintaining that the study of eating unavoidably requires inter-disciplinary knowledge, although still insisting that there is space for the culturally autonomous steering of behaviour. This, however, leaves him in something of a quandary when advancing a specific sociological framework of concepts and analyses. Another dilemma which Poulain faces head on is the relationship between scholarly understanding and practitioner knowledge. Much food research is driven by the concerns of state policy and commercial production – the gatekeepers which are unimpressed by and even suspicious of the pursuit of theoretical purity and consistency. As Poulain observes, this always militates against academic legitimacy for the field.

5Reviewing the theories of sociologists and anthropologists, mostly French, provides Poulain with a canvass upon which debates, controversies and differences could be mapped. I have always liked the chart which places the theoretical proclivities of prominent scholars along two dimensions, one from invariant universalism to developmentalism, the other by the degree to which food is treated as an autonomous social fact (p.170). Part II also includes my particular favourite chapter about the singularity of gastronomy in France. Poulain offers a schematic but intricate account of why gastronomy arose in France, is ineradicably French, and has had such popular impact on the sense of French identity. He argues that its origins can be found ‘in gastronomy’s emancipation from academic thought, in the social dynamics of distinction, in the quest for taste as a vector of culinary creativity, and finally in Catholic ethics.’ (p.197)

6That chapter immediately precedes Poulain’s programmatic suggestions for a ‘socio-anthropology’ of food which revolves around the concept of ‘the food social space’. This space – which is both physical and mental – comprises a number of elements which include ‘the “edible” space’ (what social groups consider acceptable to eat), the food system (or modes of provision), the culinary space (of the kitchen and its social relationships), the space of food habits (how to eat), the rhythm of time, and the social differentiation of space. It reads as a catalogue of factors underlying the immense variation in what people in different places and at different times have chosen to eat. Its logic underpins Poulain’s vision for a socio-anthropology of food which ‘focuses on the way in which cultures and societies inhabit and organize the liberated space left by the physical functioning of the human digestive system, and by the methods used by man to exploit the resources provided by the natural environment, or those that can be produced with the biophysical and climatic conditions existing in the biotope. By entering that liberated zone, the social domain plays its part in constructing identities and in the socialization of the body. However, the socio-anthropology of food has an equal interest in the interactions that take place between the biological, ecological and social factors.’ (p.219) Such interactions he approaches by attending to matters of scale, in terms of different levels of analysis, the macro-, meso- and micro-social and a biological substratum. Different processes operate at each level, although whether that means that different theories are relevant to each is not entirely clear. Described as a tool for the study of food patterns, this is a very grand project implying the simultaneous explanation of a vast range of phenomena.

7The final and new chapter is rather disappointing. It gives no indication of whether Poulain has changed his mind about any of the book’s claims, nor what might require further amplification in the light of the proliferation of the seriously good scholarship on food which has emerged subsequently. Instead it is a rather blunt account of the development of food studies as a body of knowledge and research. Poulain finds the sources of food studies in the cultural studies tradition which emerged from Birmingham in the 1970s, was colonised by American literary scholarship, and then used as a popular resource for a cultural approaches to food and eating as elements of everyday life. This evolution, he says, has spawned five rather disparate avenues of inquiry with one the continuation of the scholarly socio-anthropological tradition, another a mix of history and geography, also scholarly, then veering away towards practitioner or vocational knowledge about hospitality and tourism, nutritional medicine, and agriculture and agronomy. Food studies is thus a potpourri of inputs from many disciplines which covers a common set of topics but without any theoretical coherence. The evidence for this scenario is, incidentally, the distribution and form of masters courses promoted under the rubric of ‘food studies’. Neat insights punctuate the chapter and it serves as a check list of what is contained under the umbrella. However, it does nothing to move theory forward or to clarify the relationship between disciplines and inter-disciplinarity.

8The book was a major achievement at the time of its initial publication and it has continuing relevance in its insistence on the importance, against the odds and the lessons of history, of making theoretical advances on the strength of multi-disciplinary research. Theoretically, it is open, undogmatic, generous and curious in relation to alternative approaches. Its virtues include its desire for rigorous explanation based on mixed methods and its compendious pluri-disciplinary knowledge. Another merit is its extension beyond the preoccupations of the contemporary West by considering the origins of dietary variation in other societies. It also stands as a record of how relatively advanced French scholarship was in this field in 2000, which Poulain perhaps underestimates. Read in 2017, it draws attention to unresolved issues like the possibility of theoretical synthesis, the role of theory in practice, the challenge of theoretical compatibility across disciplines, and how to integrate multi-disciplinary knowledge. Threads for addressing such key questions suffuse Part II in its aspirations for a theoretically sophisticated sociology of food. It is a pity that the book was not translated long ago, for it is an impressive work, but given its form its significance has unavoidably waned with the passage of time.

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Electronic reference

Alan Warde, « Review of Jean-Pierre Poulain’s The Sociology of Food: eating and the place of food in society. », Anthropology of food [Online], Book-reviews: winter 2019-20, Online since 25 November 2019, connection on 28 February 2020. URL :

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Alan Warde

Professor of Sociology, University of Manchester;

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Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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