In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Food

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Encyclopedias
  • Library Collections
  • Journals
  • Food Markets and Food Nations

Sociology Food
Michaela DeSoucey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0072


Food studies as a distinct field within sociology has seen extensive interest and growth. Previously, studies of food production and consumption typically fell under the purview of research on health, agrarian studies, development sociology, agricultural economy, or social anthropology. Rural and natural resource sociologists especially have long emphasized the management and impacts of food production systems in their work. In classical tomes food was typically mentioned as an example of social classification or of social problems rather than a distinct object of study. Since the 1980s sociologists’ attention to how food strengthens social ties; marks social and cultural differences; and is integrated into social organizational forms, ranging from households to empires, has grown. Early-21st-century interest in food by both researchers and the larger public follows heightened awareness of the global character of markets and politics, concerns with health and safety, and the ways cooking and dining out have become fodder for media spectacle. Today sociologists of food display considerable diversity in their theoretical approaches, research methods, and empirical foci. Sociologists draw upon both classic and contemporary sociological theorists to study food’s production, distribution, and consumption as well as how food and eating are integrated into social institutions, systems, and networks. Topically, sociologists contribute to research on inequality and stratification, culture, family, markets, politics and power, identity, status, social movements, migration, labor and work, health, the environment, and globalization. Sociological work on food in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is characterized by two overlapping threads: food systems (derived in part from scholarship on agricultural production and applied extension as well as environmental, developmental, and rural sociology) and food politics, identity, and culture (which reveals social anthropological and cultural-historical undertones). Both are nested in the emerging interdisciplinary research field of food studies, which has gained greater institutional footholds at universities in Europe and Australia than in the United States and Canada (but this may be changing). Sociologists working across the two threads examine issues of food and inequality, trade, labor, power, capital, culture, and technological innovation. This article maps out social science research and theorizing on what we eat, how we produce and procure food, who benefits, with whom we eat, what we think about food, and how food fits with contemporary social life.

General Overviews

The 1980s and 1990s saw the publication of several landmark works (in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia) providing overviews of food and eating as specifically sociological topics of inquiry. Early British volumes, such as Murcott 1983 and Beardsworth and Keil 1996, draw from microsociological subfields, such as gender and interactionist perspectives, and they focus on the social and cultural meanings of everyday food experiences. Caplan 1997 incorporates health considerations into these experiences. Warde 1997 uses changing trends in food practices to examine cultural theories of taste and consumption. Maurer and Sobal 1995 and McIntosh 1996 filter food issues through the lenses of social constructionism and social problems. Coveney 2006 analyzes food meanings in relation to theories of governance and the state. More recently, Reaktion Books (distributed in the United States through the University of Chicago Press) created a very useful series, called Edible, that comprises dozens of short scholarly and nicely illustrated books on the global histories of single-subject food items.

  • Beardsworth, Alan, and Teresa Keil. 1996. Sociology on the menu: An invitation to the study of food and society. London: Routledge.

    Highlights social organization, forces, and mechanisms within the food system (with an empirical focus on Great Britain) from production to consumption. Chapters stress relationships with age/gender, family, class, health and body image, anxiety over food scares and safety, and related policy issues. A useful text for undergraduate courses.

  • Caplan, Pat, ed. 1997. Food, health, and identity. London: Routledge.

    Unique compilation of fieldwork findings by sociologists and anthropologists on food practices in the British context. Contributes to knowledge of health-related aspects of food and social identity.

  • Coveney, John. 2006. Food, morals, and meaning: The pleasure and anxiety of eating. 2d ed. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203967355

    Uses a Foucauldian analysis to examine notions of governmentality in the rationalization of food choices, diet, nutrition, and guilt. This edition adds discussion of national and international moral panics about obesity. Originally published in 2000.

  • Maurer, Donna, and Jeffery Sobal, eds. 1995. Eating agendas: Food and nutrition as social problems. Social Problems and Social Issues. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

    A valuable international compilation of issues of food and nutrition from a social constructionist/social problems perspective. Chapters highlight the quantity of food people eat or to which they have access, problems associated with the qualities of these foods (such as concerns over contamination or meat eating), and issues related to the food industry and government policies.

  • McIntosh, W. Alex. 1996. Sociologies of food and nutrition. Environment, Development, and Public Policy: Public Policy and Social Services. New York: Plenum.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4899-1385-2

    An early and important book focused on nutrition as a social fact, meaning a community-based concept or value that constrains behavior. Emphasis is on nutrition’s relationship to class and social change at the macro level of the state (using World Bank and United Nations data). The conclusion attends to theoretical questions in studying food and nutrition as social problems.

  • Murcott, Anne, ed. 1983. The sociology of food and eating: Essays on the sociological significance of food. Gower International Library of Research and Practice. Aldershot, UK: Gower.

    Offers an introductory essay that discusses the sociological significance of researching large-scale food production separately from food and eating. Useful empirical chapters on research conducted in Great Britain on vegetarianism, agribusiness and industry, household and family, the morality of diet and food choices, food during pregnancy, men’s cooking, working-class mothers’ views on food and health, and wedding meals.

  • Reaktion Books Edible Series. Edited by Andrew Smith.

    A series of illustrated books that offers reference materials on the global history and culture of individual food and drink items. Examples by social scientists include avocados, barbecue, honey, and pie.

  • Warde, Alan. 1997. Consumption, food, and taste: Culinary antinomies and commodity culture. London: SAGE.

    A theoretically dense book on how taste is expressed through consumption using food habits and expenditure patterns in late-20th-century Great Britain as lenses. The “cultural antimonies” of the subtitle are meaning-based oppositions (such as economy versus extravagance) used in making and representing food choices in both commercial and informal venues.

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