College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Sociologists Study how our Relationship with Food Shapes our Society

It is a well-worn adage: “You are what you eat.” Two sociologists are studying our relationship with food—what we eat, when we eat, where we eat and more.

Sociology professors Elise Lake (left) and Minjoo Oh recently co-authored a segment called "The Sociology of Food and Eating" in 21st Century Sociology: A Reference Handbook.

Dr. Elise Lake (left) and Dr. Minjoo Oh

Elise Lake and Minjoo Oh co-authored “The Sociology of Food and Eating,” which recently appeared in 21st Century Sociology: A Reference Handbook (Sage, 2006). According to Lake and Oh, the sociology of food is an emerging branch of sociology, and their chapter on food is the first of its kind in an important disciplinary handbook.

Many fascinating questions arise in the study of the sociology of food. Why do men barbecue more than women? How does the marketing of high-quality, heat-and-serve “restaurant-style” meals in the frozen foods section change our cooking and eating habits? And how does the ever-increasing availability of Mexican and Asian cuisine at grocery stores reflect a demographic shift?

“When I joined the faculty here in 1989, most students would cringe if you mentioned sushi, and you probably had to go to Memphis to actually get it,” Lake said. “Now students can eat sushi every day of the week right here in the Student Union. How did that happen?”

Oh concentrates on social identity and food, including how food reflects the construction of identity and is used to make distinctions between groups of people.

“Perhaps one day you eat sushi, and later that day you eat a gigantic French dessert and then a few days later a traditional Thanksgiving dinner,” Oh said. “But what happens to your identity? What does this say about how we construct ourselves and who we are?”Earlier this year, Lake was awarded a grant from the UM Office of Research and Sponsored Programs for her project “From Fed to Fat,” in which she investigates federal agricultural policies and links to American obesity. For example, the USDA purchases commodities as a means of supporting agribusiness; these commodities are then donated to support the National School Lunch Program. Critics question whether the kinds of foods donated may encourage school districts to serve meals that foster childhood obesity. 

“The government has taken a stance that weight is an individual responsibility,” she said. “They tend to ignore the broader forces and competing interests that influence what foods are available and cheap to eat.”

Lake teaches a class on the sociology of food in which her students look at the social, cultural, economic and political aspects of food, such as the fast-food industry and its effects on how we distribute and eat food.

“My students think of their favorite foods as matters of family tradition or personal taste,” Lake said. “But family traditions depend on social class, race/ethnic background and economic circumstances. ‘Personal taste’ may reflect one’s susceptibility to marketing. By studying the food system, students learn to think about the implications of what and how they eat.”