Brockport Sociology

Professors Guptill and Copelton Publish a New Textbook in Food Studies

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Professors Amy Guptill and Denise Copelton recently collaborated in producing a new textbook within the growing, interdisciplinary field of Food Studies–Food & Society: Principles and Paradoxes (Polity, 2013).  We asked them to answer a few questions about what motivated the project and how they’re planning on using it in Sociology courses at Brockport.  Read the discussion for their thoughts on this exciting new text for the field.

1. What initially inspired you to collaborate on a textbook in food studies?  Why did you think this book needed to be written?

Amy: In teaching the course, it’s been a struggle to find academic readings that are accessible and interesting to students who are studying the sociology of food for the first time. Most of them are written for an audience that is already familiar with major concepts and findings. Instead, I’ve often relied on popular books like Michael Pollan’s bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which are interesting but do not provide any conceptual foundation. When Denise invited me to collaborate with her and Betsy Lucal on a textbook for Polity, I was excited to create something that undergrads could dig into. The marketing research we did for the book proposal confirmed our impression that existing student-focused texts were out of date or too narrowly focused on just one aspect of the field, like culture. We wanted to produce a more comprehensive introduction that integrates ideas about culture and structure with engaging case-studies.

Denise: Several years ago Betsy Lucal and I compiled a syllabi set on the Sociology of Food through the American Sociological Association’s Teaching Resources Center. While working on that, we realized that there was a real need for a comprehensive textbook on sociology of food as there was no current text then available. A few months later, Polity approached us about doing such a book and it took off from there.

2. Give us an example of each of your favorite sections in the book?  Which bits were you most passionate about including and why?

Denise: I am really proud of the book as a whole, so it is difficult to identify select sections as my favorites. However, I think students will respond especially well to the sections on restaurant work. Both students and instructors will find many ways to connect issues discussed in the chapter on restaurants and restaurant workers to contemporary media portrayals such as Kitchen Nightmares and Bar Rescue. That strikes me as one of the text’s real strengths. We intentionally wrote the book with undergraduates in mind and the conversational tone we used in writing helps to blend solid sociological insight, for example about how race, gender and class privilege are built into the dining out experience as well as the hierarchy of the restaurant, with readable examples drawn from popular culture.

Amy: I was most passionate about integrating diversity and social inequality within every section of the book. A lot of food writing (indeed, a lot of sociology) treats middle-class white Americans as the norm and everyone else as some exotic “other.” We wanted to provide a more accurate depiction of the diversity of food practices. For example, our account of the industrialization of agriculture includes a discussion about how the image of the modern farmer as white and male contributed to the marginalization of women farmers and farmers of color. Similarly, our section about the so-called obesity epidemic discusses how proponents of the fat acceptance movement dispute the assumptions about body size that seem to underlie the mainstream public health perspective on the issue. It’s an area of difference and inequality that a lot of people haven’t thought about before.

3. Food studies seems to have popularly exploded as an area of interest.  Do you agree with this? And if so, what do you think accounts for this transformation and is it something you address in the book?

Amy: Interest in food has grown hugely in both higher education and in popular culture at large. More and more universities are establishing food studies programs, which shows that it is not just a fad. Food studies will have an enduring role in learning and scholarship. I think the growth of food studies reflects how food is essential to so many other concerns. Our own trio illustrates this. I came to food studies through work on agriculture and rural development, Denise through the sociology of health and medicine, and Betsy through her interests in gender and media. In the food studies conferences I attend, I meet geographers, nutritionists, development scholars, agronomists, historians, economists, ecologists, anthropologists, social movement scholars, city planners, and philosophers in addition to social justice advocates. Everyone cares about good food, however they define it, and people in many fields are increasingly discovering how we can address fundamental issues in society and environment by changing how we produce, process, transport, and consume food.

Denise: As Amy notes, food studies is truly a burgeoning interdisciplinary field.  It is perhaps the interdisciplinary nature of food studies that accounts for its growing popularity among academics. But food is also a central concern to non-academics, and the growing interest in healthier, more socially responsible, and environmentally sustainable food systems among consumers is evidence of this. Food movements are springing up everywhere, whether they focus on organics, slow food, GMOs (genetically-modified organisms), vegetarianism or changing some other significant facet of food systems. We address many of these issues in the final chapter of the text.

4. What else do you want people to know about your book? (here we’re thinking about how it’s organized, how it can be used in classrooms, or anything else that you want to write about).

Denise: As the subtitle suggests, we’ve organized each chapter of the book around some central paradox. For instance, chapter 6 focuses on the high cost of cheap food through an examination of the industrialization of food systems, while chapter 4 examines the paradox of how nutritious or healthy food is often hard to stomach. Each chapter’s opening case study introduces the paradox animating that chapter. For example, the chapter on food and health opens with a discussion of the marketing of fad diets like Kellogg’s Special K Diet. These opening case studies draw readers in and through class discussions both instructors and students can apply issues developed more fully in the chapter to the opening case.

Amy: We think of the book as a living document. We’ve started a blog at foodandsocietyblog.wordpress.com and a Facebook page. In those venues we hope to coalesce thoughts and conversations about emerging issues in food and society. If we’re fortunate enough to do a future edition of the book, we can use that compilation to inform the updated text. We wrote the book with the classroom in mind; these other venues extend the invitation to the feast to our fellow instructors, graduates of these courses, and anyone else who wants to make sense of the complexities and contradictions in food.

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