Food, cultural studies, and popular culture

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Cultural studies, an academic field that developed from the late 1950s, aims to understand contemporary cultures by examining their internal dynamics, their everyday performances, and their media representations, including expressions of popular and mass culture. Grounded in Marxian and post-structuralist critical theory, cultural studies explores how meaning is generated, disseminated, reproduced, negotiated, and resisted through values, beliefs, symbols, practices, institutions, as well as economic, social, and political structures within a given culture. Acknowledging the fluidity and constant transformation of its object of study, especially under the acceleration imparted by technological innovations and globalization, cultural studies critiques any a priori hierarchies imposed on the various facets of a culture, based on aesthetic, moral, or historical values, which the discipline actually considers as part of what needs to be analyzed as expression of class and other social dynamics (Simon, 1999; Swirski, 2005). Popular culture is sometimes referred to as mainstream culture, or that which is popular withthe masses, and its study is at times considered as a subfield resulting from the combination of cultural studies and communication studies. However, for the purpose of this article, popular culture is defined as the totality of ideas, values, representations, material items, practices, social relations, organizations, institutions, and other phenomena that are conceived, produced, distributed, and consumed within a market-and consumption-influenced environment, with or without the specific economic goal of reaping a profit. This definition both includes the mainstream and all possible alternative or oppositional subcultures, as well as the dynamics through which the mainstream is established, opposed, and constantly evolving. For example, specific subgroups in a society may develop their own forms of expression, through which they may directly or indirectly criticize and oppose the mainstream. Yet, by so doing they inherentlyengage with it, often fueling the interest of the very cultural apparatuses that they initially aimed to undermine. As a consequence, aspects of their subculture may eventually be taken out of context, absorbed, and used in mainstream popular culture. Cultural studies shares many common elements with food studies, which promotes andpractices the analysis of cultural, social, and political issues concerning the production, distribution, representation, and consumption of food. However, they differ mainly in that while cultural studies has historically focused on specific communities and subcultures, exploring expressions and practices among which food might or might not be featured, food studies concentrates its attention on food in its material, representational, and symbolic aspects as they unfold across societies, communities, and subcultures. The presence of food in everyday life is pervasive, permeating popular culture as a relevantmarker of power, cultural capital, class, gender, ethnicity, and religion, which both cultural and food studies recognize as crucial. Consequently, both disciplines are well equipped to examine lived food experiences, including recipes, food-related traditions, cooking techniques, even daily shopping, in their relations with power structures such as the food industry, marketing and advertising firms, political lobbies, academic institutions, and media. Food studies and cultural studies share a keen interest in the fraught and complex connec-tions between lived bodies, imagined realities, and structures of power built around food. Both disciplines acknowledge that not only the material aspects of individual and communal practices, but also desires, fantasies, fears, and dreams coagulating around and in the body, deeply influence our development as individual subjects and as members of all kinds of social formations. However, the ubiquitous nature of the cultural elements relating to food makes their ideological and political relevance almost invisible, buried in the supposedly natural and self-evident fabric of everyday life. Meanwhile, our own flesh becomes fuel for all kinds of cultural battles among different visions of personhood, family, society, polity, and economics. Employing cultural studies’ political sensibilities, its attention for lived experiences, and its critical approach towards cultural hierarchies, food studies can provide an accessible analytical framework to achieve a deeper comprehension of twenty-first-century globalized post-industrial societies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationRoutledge International Handbook of Food Studies
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages8
ISBN (Electronic)9781136741661
ISBN (Print)9780415782647
StatePublished - Jan 1 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Medicine


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