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Book reviews 2020

Towards a sociological theory of eating: a review of Alan Warde's The Practice of Eating

Jean-Pierre Poulain

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Alan Warde. 2016, The practice of eating. Cambridge : Polity. 220 p.

1Alan Warde’s aim in writing this book is to show how the academic discourse on food and its links to consumption, health and sustainable development has been "colonized" by two approaches: on the one hand, theories of rational choice which focus on decision-making and, on the other hand, culturalist perspectives regarding choices and practices seen as the expression of "cultural styles". With his "theory of practice", Warde intends to enter the field outside the frames of the dominant rational choice and culturalist theories and establish a (new) theory of eating. Moreover, he considers that the empirical field of diet studies, because of its very complexity, is particularly well suited to the development of a general theory. The Practice of Eating both seeks to contribute to the sociology of food literature and to make a useful theoretical proposition in other fields of sociology, including consumption.

2A Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester, Alan Warde is one of the leading figures in the sociology of consumption and food in the English-speaking world. For several decades, he has travelled this intellectual terrain: publishing books and articles; organizing events; leading research networks; and bringing different linguistic and paradigmatic universes into dialogue. In this go-between position, he has become one of the few food sociologists to extend his influence simultaneously to the English-speaking, French-speaking and Spanish-speaking academic worlds. In this book, his reflections since the beginning of his career have been brought together and reorganized. Hence, it marks a change of regime from his former theorizing efforts and, in a sense, is a culmination of them. The man has tact and his touch of British humor enriches his reflections. He never uses jargon or resorts to simplification. But to understand Alan Warde, the student, listener or reader will have to go part of the way to meet him.

3For the French-speaking public, on first reading The Practice of Eating leaves a slightly contradictory feeling; it is both exciting and disconcerting. When he references French authors, to some extent the ideas seem familiar, but the discourse sometimes gives the impression of taking the opposite stance to certain established positions. So, in order to see the contribution of this work, we need to try to understand its place on the epistemological chessboard.

What is this book?

4This book gathers several articles published by Warde between 2005 and 2014. Some of these have already achieved substantial academic recognition. For example, Warde’s article "Consumption and theories of practice" (2005) had, by June 2019, more than 2,400 citations on Google Scholar. But the book is more than an assemblage of his "famous" texts; some articles have been more or less rewritten, and then put together in a new architecture which give to understand the scientific ambition of more than one decade of work. While it may enter the category of "career-end books”, whose main virtue is to show the author's contribution, this book is more than a simple agglomeration of the stages of Warde’s intellectual career. In fact, it represents a new theoretical advance, and as such constitutes an important step in the history of the way to think about food from the social sciences.

5The Practice of Eating is organized into six chapters, framed by an introduction and a conclusion. The first chapter sets out the aims of the book. Many sociologists have labored to remove epistemological obstacles to the development of sociological thinking on food, and the author himself has contributed to this endeavor during his career, that is by seeking to establish the conditions for its legitimate inclusion in the intellectual space of sociology. Here, Warde takes a step outside this task by asking less about the question of inclusion, and more about what forms the theorization of food should take. In accordance with that, he gives us additional angles of approach. He asks: "Why has the extensive work on the sociology of food not produced a theory of eating?” This is the organizing question of his project, and his answer, given the socio-historical conditions for the emergence of this sociological objective, is constructed around a focus on three obstacles to this.

6The first obstacle is that what is "sociological" in relation to food issues has come to be defined from the point of view of risk managers or public health and market administrators. Once a certain degree of recognition had been granted to food sociologists (roughly speaking, after the time of the mad cow crisis), their academic discourse frequently took place within an emergency context. In crisis situations, the authorities invited them to contribute their expertise, saying: “Please come and help us understand this.” or “How do we communicate with the general public?" Although they were given a role in the problem, it left food sociologists with little room for theorizing.

7The second obstacle to the theoretical development of the sociology of food is due to the multidisciplinary nature of the object of enquiry, which makes a strong backing from one discipline difficult. The paradox is that the interdisciplinary nature of the research is identified as “necessary” and "relevant" by private and public bodies able to fund research as well as for the academic authorities. Because sociological studies of food are often a response to requests and social concerns that are expressed in terms of health, safety and sustainability, they situate sociologists in a dialogue with public health, nutrition, marketing, economics, ecology, that are contexts and disciplines in which a “weakly sociologized” vision of the actors dominates. In other words, they are not seen as “social actors” and their mutual interaction is not understood. At this stage, the sociology of practices would permit sociologists to extricate themselves from this “defensive stance” that they have been so often forced to adopt a more descriptive attitude, beyond a "service" sociology which attempts to answer questions formulated by non-sociologists.

8The third obstacle is the widely shared idea that the food chain is structured from upstream (production) to downstream (consumption) and that consumption results from production. In other words, it is assumed that people eat what nature offers them and, in the case of modern societies, what the supply chains are capable of delivering. This is the dominant view in political thinking, in the world of public health, among those who manage research and indeed, among a significant portion of actors in the food chain itself.

9These three points would constitute epistemological obstacles. They would explain the "theoretical gap" and the "criticisms" made by certain sociological circles. Warde, in order to deploy its sociological theory of eating, proposes a reversal of perspective, "starting from the act of consumption", and affirms the need for deep disciplinary anchoring.

10Once the overall context is raised to this level, the book elaborates its arguments. The second chapter presents Warde’s underpinning theory: the theory of practice. It distinguishes the Bourdieusian legacy (with its focus on practices, habitus and incorporation) and what has subsequently come to be designated, following Theodore Schatzki, Karin Knorr-Cetina and Eike von Savigny (2001), as the Practice Turn ("the turning point of practice”). Warde tries to articulate and integrate these two slightly different traditions. Here the French reader is confronted with issues of vocabulary, translation and intellectual traditions.

11With a nod to Durkheim, the third chapter is entitled "Basic Forms of Eating." Many sociologists, when endeavoring to establish a new field, have had the temptation to use a title incorporating "the forms of ...". Warde surrenders to this temptation with obvious pleasure. The chapter begins with a Sahlins-Bourdieu opposition, the first scholar advancing the view that practices are a result of cultural styles, and the second, of social positions. The following is a list of the multiple social rules which organise the social event that is a meal and which participate, by means of the articulation between them, in its "orchestration”: Which foods are appropriate for which meals? Within the same meal, which foods are suitable in combination? In what chronological order should they appear?

12Warde’s concept of orchestration puts a new and welcome focus on the multitude of adjustments made and conventions that exist before and beyond the conscious awareness of eaters, and which make social events such as meals possible.

13The fourth chapter continues the exploration of this "orchestration" by identifying social conventions on a larger scale, from the numerous rules of coordination, for instance the synchronization of schedules and activities, that make possible cooking and eating together, up to the nutritional frameworks which, promoted through public health policies and political agendas, periodically transform the background to normative systems of eating.

14In the fifth chapter, Warde contrasts the reading grid, which sees human nutrition as the consequence of a deliberative and decision-making process, with a conception of action resulting both from logical decisions and from the implementation of habits and routines. Finally, the last part develops a "theory of practice" applied to "eating out", one of the author's favorite fields.

15In summary, The practice of eating constructs the critique of food understood as the result of 'deliberation'. It highlights the social 'habituation' and 'orchestration' of eating practices. Eaters are actors largely over-determined by social conditioning and practices, embedded in habits, routines and action scenarios. Their implementation largely escapes conscious decisions and is part of social coordination phenomena. The strength of this book is its contribution to extricate food sociology’s discourse from its habitual critical stance, as exemplified by the approach: "Public health sees this or does not see that...", in other words, to help the food sociologist switch to a more positive descriptive approach and hence make more visible what is within the shadow of the dominant frame and give people a new category for thinking about food in another way (Holm 2003).

The theory of practice from the perspective of French sociology

16The difficulty for readers of The Practice of Eating who are accustomed to Francophone sociological traditions begins with its title. The expression "the theory of practice" sounds familiar to them but does not seem to refer to any organized body of theory. They continue with the claims of inheritance. First there is Pierre Bourdieu’s - the theory of practice (1972) and distinction (1979) - and its articulation, which does not seem to go without saying with the current known as the 'Turn of practices' (Schatzki et al. 2001). To put it simply, this second tradition emphasises the practical nature of action, linking human activities to an unreflected level. It distances itself from the various postures that promote reflexive attitudes, and thus brings implicit skills to the forefront of analysis. For this school of thought, social practices are characterised by three properties: (1) they are framed by a set of rules, social norms, prescriptions for the way of doing things; (2) they carry meanings; (3) they are inscribed in structures of meaning which go beyond them and cover the objectives, the aims of the action, by assigning them to emotional universes deemed acceptable by the actors. Such a position, therefore, does not negate the meaning ascribed by the actors to their actions, but deliberately chooses to start from practices, which are more or less collective, and not from the meaning that the actors attribute to them, or even from the justifications they might produce for their actions. This consists in considering practices as 'blocks of activities', 'skills' and meanings linked by routines. The examples given by Schatzki are quite diverse, since social life 'consists of a wide variety of practices, such as negotiation, cooking, banking, leisure or political, religious and educational practices' (Schatzki 2002: 70). Warde notably proposes to consider this integration from three main angles: meanings, procedures and commitments.

17The conclusions of this book and the figure of the eater that emerges from it are not far removed from what can be read in the writings of several food specialists. What changes is on the side of claimed legacies and theoretical justifications. From this point of view, one of the qualities, and not the least, of this book is to invite the reader to an epistemological work on the foundations of social science approaches to food.

18For the purposes of this review, we will focus on the three obstacles identified by Warde to the theorising of food by the social sciences. Other questions, such as the link between food and identity or the extent and configuration of the decision-making space, may also give rise to discussion. Let us return to the three obstacles. The first is Bourdieu's place in the sociology of food, the second is the question of multidisciplinarity and the third is the reversal towards the downstream, in this case towards the act of consumption.

Theories and practice (s): Bourdieu as seen from the perspective of Anglo-Saxon academia

19Over fifteen years ago, during a seminar of the ENCAFE (European Network for Comparative Analysis on Food and Eating) working group, Warde presented what would later become his article "Consumption and theories of practice" (Warde, 2005). Even if, at the time, his viewpoint of investing significance in the routines and the self-reliance mobilized by eating practices was widely accepted, his reference to Bourdieu's theory of practice, with its “dated” structuralist roots, surprised and somewhat confused the section of the audience familiar with French-speaking sociology. In France, within the attention paid to Bourdieu’s work, La distinction dominates. Considered to be a seminal work, this book presents the theory of habitus. The status of A theory of practice is less prestigious, due in part by the ups and downs of structuralism; even if its empirical ethnographic contents have resisted the passage of time, its analysis seem somewhat dated.

20However, beyond the consensus on the significance of the theory of habitus, ("perceptual and interpretative structure"), one of the most successful attempts to articulate the nexus between social position, taste and individual preferences, La distinction, as a sociology of tastes, has given rise to certain reservations. For some, this book has been an obstacle to the sociologisation of gastronomy. Reduced to the avatars of the process of distinction (copying and distancing), gastronomy disappears behind the relations of domination and the games of differentiation between elites and rising classes. The affirmation of the autonomy of popular tastes dissolves what might remain of gastronomy by returning it to the rank of bourgeois futility (Poulain 2006; Zancanaro 2019). In a literature review that dates from before Warde’s book was released, French scholars pointed out one of the difficulties of blending Bourdieu and Schatzki. The “plasticity” that the “theory of practice” [version turn of practices] offers “probably favoured its diffusion in the Anglo-Saxon context”. However, “it constitutes […] an obstacle to its engagement by French researchers from the field of consumption, closer to the Bourdieusian filiations” (Dubuisson-Quellier and Plessz, 2013: 5).

  • 1 Forms of collaboration that François de Singly meticulously described (Singly 1998).

21Bourdieu’s work has long been a source of inspiration for Warde. As seen from the United Kingdom, the quarrels and controversies between temple guardians, dissidents or rejected disciples, late converts, for whom scientific issues and life stories intermingle and result both from the conditions of an extraordinary academic output and unusual forms of collaboration1, for Warde, such quarrels and controversies are an insignificant background. He escapes the games of power and servility which, in the shadow cast by the great man, saturate the little "French sociological world”. Thus, his book offers a calm, positive and distanciated gaze. From then on, he subtly disentangles from what comes with the spirit of the times, from the tribute paid to the structuralism of the 1970s, and from what constituted heuristic propositions. In his article for the Dictionnaire des cultures alimentaires that he devoted to Bourdieu - whom he describes as "the most eminent world sociologist of the last quarter of the 20th century" - Warde writes: "Despite all these criticisms, the contribution of Pierre Bourdieu to understand food consumption in our modern societies and the effects of social structure on taste was significant. His intellectual legacy is still far from exhausted.” (Warde 2018: 212)

22How is the theorising work influenced by the scientific and cultural context in which the researcher lives and works? From this point of view, this book demonstrates that being at a distance from the biographical "burdens", has enabled him to dare theoretical combinations, read as relevant, at least for part of the scientific community. It is undoubtedly this "good" distance that allowed him to envisage the connection between a sociology of social positions and an approach that includes the meaning associated with the practices, a marriage that may seem more or less incongruous to some.

Reversal of perspective

23The proposed reversal of perspective consists of rejecting the vision of a food chain driven by upstream, by production, and shifting the focus downstream, to consumption. At first reading, this proposal is surprising, since this argument contributed to the emergence of the study of food by social scientists. In the Anglo-Saxon world, this theoretical proposal can be credited to Mary Douglas (1972, 1984) whose focus on the meal was the entry point. Ann Murcott (1983), Mennell, Murcott & Van Otterloo (1992), and Alex McIntosh (1996) helped establish the territory of food studies. Alan Beardsworth and Teresa Keil (1990) viewed this entry from downstream as one of the main causes of its emergence. In the French-speaking world, Léo Moulin (1967) was the pioneer. By the end of the 1970s, many French sociologists and anthropologists from different theoretical currents had chosen to reverse the perspective toward the downstream (de Garine 1979; Fischler 1979; Hubert 1984; Grignon 1980; Herpin 1980; Lambert 1985; Poulain 1985; Corbeau 1997) taking care to distinguish the "consumer" in the economic sense (the one who buys), from the “eater ". Between economic consumption and food consumption, a series of steps (cooking, designing the meal and determining participants in the sharing of meals) add several layers of interaction and sources of social differentiation. The cooking and partaking of meals are social events. This has led to the birth of a "sociology of eaters" (Fischler 1990; Lambert 1984; Corbeau 1992; Poulain 2002, Hubert et al. 2007).

24The substitution of the concept of "consumer" for that of "eater" has made it possible to break away from the approach in terms of cost/benefit calculations that is dominant in economics, nutritional sciences and public health. This current is careful to distinguish itself from the economic approach where the question of rationality in finality dominates, by introducing rationality in value and routinisation (Corbeau & Poulain 2002; Asher 2005).

25Corbeau's concept of "eating chain" breaks with the top-down vision, by placing the eaters at the centre of the arena surrounded by the actors concerned with food (Corbeau 1992). Even contemporary rural sociology differs from the top-down reading, which was dominant during the second half of the twentieth century. It has taken note of the demographic decline of the agricultural world (Mendras 1967) and the transformation of the rural space in connection with the territories (Hervieu & Viard 2001; Hervieu & Purseigle 2013).

26Warde, in fact, proposes a double movement: the first on food practices and the second towards sociological fields that look at consumption. For more than twenty years, focus on consumption has helped to legitimise the sociological view of market activities, to produce a marketing metatheory and to transform the understanding of the 'client' or 'consumer' (Callon 1998; Cochoy 1999 and 2002; Dubuisson Quellier 1999; Steiner & Vatin 2009). With the development of economic sociology, the consumer approach can today be seen as a path to 'sociologising the issues'. These alliances and connections between fields are relevant, but also carry the risk of a loss of legibility. This is why Warde has the ambition to pose food not as a place of indexation, but as an empirical space which, in connection with economic sociology, is capable of facilitating theory building at the general level.

Disciplinary focus

27That strong disciplinary roots are a prerequisite for interdisciplinary dialogue is a widely shared position. It can even be seen as a condition for its success. Disciplinary centering is intended to escape the dispersion and "superficiality" that result from the multidisciplinary approach. However, because of its complex nature, human food is also confronted with risks of dispersion within sociology itself. In many fields of this discipline, it can easily become a place of indexing, but it can also dissolve into problematic frameworks in which it is only one element among others. This is the paradox of the invisibility of this object, at the same time almost everywhere present, but never at the centre of the focus, before the emergence of the sociologies of food (Poulain 2002).

28Before delving deeper into the analysis of the issues at stake in this disciplinary 'centering', it is worth recalling the decisive role played by reflection in the organisation of disciplines in the history of the thematisation of food in France (Poulain & Corbeau 2012). The first theses were written in the wake of both Edgar Morin in sociology, and Georges Condominas in ethnology, two authors who have made important contributions to the question of interdisciplinarity (Morin 1990; Condominas 1980). It should also be borne in mind that French sociology has, since its origins, been marked by a double tradition. The first one, that of the "social fact" embodied by Emile Durkheim delineates the object sociology in a strict epistemological space of causality ("the cause of one social fact is to be sought in another social fact"). The second, that of the "total social fact", represented by Marcel Mauss assumes that certain objects, including food, go beyond this definition and considers the analysis of connections with the surrounding disciplinary areas as part of the sociological project. If we add to this the multi-paradigmatic character of sociology, the question of disciplinary anchoring becomes more complex.

29A typology of sociological approaches is possible in the space of tension between two continua: the first one extending from the focus on the "social fact" to the multidisciplinary approach and the second continuum, from a focus on change at one end to permanence at the other end. Several “approaches” emerge from this “epistemological space”. We can investigate within the perimeter defined by the issues of inequality, gender, hierarchy, social class (Aymard, Grignon and Sabban 1993; Gojard, Lhuissier and Régnier 2006; Cardon, Depecker and Plessz 2019) or broaden the field by establishing a dialogue with related disciplines (Fischler 1990; Maurer & Sobal, 1995,Ward, Coveney and Henderson 2010; Germov & Williams 2008; Dupuy 2013; Fournier, 2016; Fournier & Poulain 2016; Tibère, 2016; Saint Pol 2017, Fourat and Lepiller, 2017.). The pluralization in the title "Sociologies de l’alimentation" acknowledges the irreducibility of these postures, as well as their complementarity (Poulain 2002). Disciplinary rooted said we… yes! but in which epistemological tradition(s), which paradigm(s), which problematic(s)?

30Warde invites to make a connection with the field of economic sociology, a space where he is already active and productive (Warde 2017). This proposal is a pro domo argument, a tailor-made suit. He promotes it from his own path and will be more than happy to read his next theoretical suggestions. But will all currents in the sociology of food recognise themselves in this invitation to theorise at the crossroads of their paths with those of economic sociology? How can those who have invested years in creating the conditions for a dialogue between the social sciences and health sciences (including nutrition) or ecology, not be afraid of seeing food disappear behind market issues? Even if these markets are controversial...

Towards a theory of eating?

31Warde supports the idea that eating practices should be approached as originating less as a result of decision-making but rather as commonplace, routine and incorporated skills. His perspective is based on the concept of habitus, which emphasises the incorporation of social influences and its capacity to (re)produce social practices. He highlights the fact that our eating behaviours are most often rash, unconscious and habitual. He concludes that human food cannot be thought as the result of conscious choices. This perspective invites us to look at routines, incorporated practices, temporalities, habits, as both the main determinants and levers for action. In adopting this perspective, Warde helps to extract food from the fictions that hypertrophise decision and, in doing so, helps to “sociologise” the approach to food. But can we wipe out the space of decision-making with the stroke of a pen? Even if many elements of the practice of eating escape a focus on the decision process, the count can never be zero. Without considering the decision dimension, how shall we think of the social movements that beset contemporary food? Boycott strategies? Conversions to vegetarianism (Lamine 2008) or “selective eating” (Fischler 2006)?

32If these ideas are not entirely new, this book gives them legitimacy by drawing threads from various traditions together, with sometimes “watertight” contours. Its great merit is that it shows, less through critical arguments than in a "positive" and systematic manner, the largely unthought character of eating practices. He recalls the complex assemblies, routines and scenarios that work at the "self-evident" level. Because it has achieved that, this book will be a landmark.

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1 Forms of collaboration that François de Singly meticulously described (Singly 1998).

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Electronic reference

Jean-Pierre Poulain, Towards a sociological theory of eating: a review of Alan Warde's The Practice of EatingAnthropology of food [Online], Book reviews, Online since 04 October 2020, connection on 03 October 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Jean-Pierre Poulain

ISTHIA, Université Toulouse (France), CERTOP UMR-CNRS 5044 ; Chair of “Food Studies: Food, Cultures and Health”, Taylor’s University (Malaysia),

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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