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Introduction: Food Cultures and Spaces

Gilles Fumey, Peter Jackson and Pierre Raffard
Introduction : Cultures alimentaires et territoires

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1“Food culture” has become a key notion in the European social sciences since the beginning of the 2000s. While anthropologists and sociologists consider food as a “total social fact” (Mauss), historians have broadened the term by connecting it to an accumulation of layers and ruptures in history and geographers have insisted that food is a system of identity distinction based on distances and interconnections. Although these approaches have enabled the field of food studies to be structured, it is now necessary to discuss them no longer from inherited disciplinary frameworks, but rather through global themes which have appeared in public debates about food including such notions as safety, abundance generating new pathologies (obesity, degenerative illnesses), the spread of the industrial model, new kinds of social protest, discourse and practice about food quality, identity assertions and heritage, transmissions… the list is almost unlimited.

Beyond the Established Divisions

2This issue of Anthropology of Food aims to define theoretical and conceptual frameworks about food culture, assessing the idea that such a notion offers a common basis for researchers in the social sciences. Thus, the introductive interview with researchers belonging to different fields – history for Peter Scholliers, anthropology for Richard Wilk and Amy Trubek – is both a diagnosis and a logbook.

3The discussion points out a dual questioning: today, with the transformations of our foodways and the importance taken by new actors within the food chains, it has become necessary to wonder what eating means, but also how these new social configurations can be studied. While food never stops becoming more complex and geographical scales being intertwined, the established disciplinary divisions are giving way to a more reflexive and global approach.

4Determining food for thought is one thing, implementing them is another. Manouk Borzakian, Gilles Fumey and Pierre Raffard’s article recounts the history of francophone researches dedicated to the spatial dimension of food and proposes a critical epistemology of a field which still struggles to get rid of inherited positions and methods. For the authors, the categorization of food geography as a subclass of cultural geography is an illusion: it is less the recognition of the inputs of the cultural turn than the result of a fragmented and distorted vision of the notion of culture. A deconstruction of objectivistic and essentialist ideas is needed in order to integrate the contemporary paradigms which structure the social sciences today.

5Besides, these two articles insist on the evolutions proper to food. The recognition of a globalized food culture built by so-called globalized companies, influenced by foodways born in cities and hectic lifestyles, has enabled the theorization of a new type of social dynamics. Admittedly, eschatological discourses can find the disappearance of ancient agricultural and food models regrettable, but paradoxically these globalized dynamics have revived them and increased consumers’ awareness. Indeed, the suspicion created by sanitized brands, deterritorialised products and ubiquitous foodstuffs has increased consumers’ need to redefine spatial boundaries which can allow local foodways to be reinforced.

6From these outstandingly geographical transformations a new paradigm has emerged insisting on the obsolescence of traditional approaches in favor of a multi-scalar analysis. Considering the local market of Catania in Sicilia, Brigida Marovelli endeavors to show how the permanent back and forth – both concrete and abstract – between geographical scales defines individual and collective identities. Based on an in-depth ethnographic study, the article examines two main aspects: the market's display and its system of food classification and the perception of the landscape through the narratives of market vendors and buyers. To address the apparent contradictions in this complex system of meanings, Brigida Marovelli shows that the use of space within the market informs a distinctive cosmology, in which the landscape constitutes the main local organizing principle.

Food(s) and Mobility

7Despite an explicit mention in the call, few proposals addressed the role of migrations in ancient or contemporary food reconfigurations. This lack may appear surprising as migratory phenomena between North and South, but also within the North and the South, have played a considerable part in setting up both new ethnic and universal food codes.

8While there is no article about migration, Marion Vicart and Olivier Wathelet’s paper focuses on the ambivalent role of mobility in the construction of daily supply and consumption strategies. The authors show that this relation is dual: on one hand, the food choices are built up through visits to several places; on the other hand, decisions about food shape these families’ spatial behaviors. Thus, as a symbol of this dialectic relation, the case-study of drive-in restaurants enables an understanding of the close dependence between food choices and mobility called “consum-motor” practices by the authors.

9So, the question arises: how can the idea that humans are rational consumers be deconstructed? Indeed, there is evidence that their choices take into account various elements such as environment, health, quality, seasonality, social justice, pleasure, social interactions, price, etc. Food products have therefore become unusual objects, in the sense that they can only be found in the midst of an extremely varied offer. The food industry’s difficulties in creating new systems which could combine both abundance and the ethical acceptance of its excesses show that consumerist and judicial institutions, despite their fundamental role, still struggle to understand the complexity of consumer behavior.

A Two-tier World Food Geography

10How can the model based on abundance be mentioned without talking about its counterpoint, food shortage and malnutrition? The increasing power of humanitarian organizations in the management of food crisis allows for a better understanding of how food plays a geopolitical role throughout the different regions of the world. As the latest manifestation of an idealistic food power, food security is used by rich countries to control the world’s food by subsidizing part of the production, the surplus of which is sent to developing countries.

11Through the case of Ready to Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) in Niger, Jean-François Caremel and Nina Issaley analyze the gap between the technical and nutritional answer elaborated in the North by public research and the agro-food industry to struggle against malnutrition and the negotiations of their status, access and use strategies by concerned populations. In a rush to find common and standardized solutions able to adapt to different national and local situations, agencies and companies encounter local food cultures. For the authors, it is “through a singular form of innovation based on the personal uses they have of the RUTF [that] consumers question their own position of passivity created by the therapeutic relationship.

To Be Continued?

12While terms such as FoodTech, food innovation or Food 2.0 have come out both in the media and in academia, Richard C. Delerins analyzes the singularities of a new trend considered by some observers as a new food revolution. From cow’s milk without cows to mayonnaise without eggs, the overview described by anthropologists questions the legitimacy of these innovations as much as the definition of what eating will mean.

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Electronic reference

Gilles Fumey, Peter Jackson and Pierre Raffard, « Introduction: Food Cultures and Spaces », Anthropology of food [Online], 11 | 2016, Online since 01 November 2016, connection on 29 November 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the authors

Gilles Fumey

Université Paris-Sorbonne et ISCC-CNRS – UMS 3665, 

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Peter Jackson

University of Sheffield,

Pierre Raffard

İzmir Ekonomi Üniversitesi et ISCC-CNRS – UMS 3665,

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Licence Creative Commons
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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