Choice Across the Disciplines

By Roberta Saccone

What is choice? It may depend on who you ask and how they were trained. Does our discipline limit the ways in which we think about choice, or offer a broader array of alternatives? Do disciplines from science to social sciences and the humanities basically all want the same thing? Can these various domains intersect or bridge? How we understand the fundamental divides in the way science is practiced may help us move forward.

Looking at choice through the broad lens of food studies brings together scholars across different disciplines. The wide-array of viewpoints in our seminar to date suggests a dire need for collaboration.  Our own Dr. Richard Wilk (, Provost Professor of Anthropology, addressed how perspectives from diverse fields can be applied to the study of food choice.

Wilk sees theory as operating at three different levels: individual, social, and cultural (also referred to as economic, social, and anthropological/selfish, social and moral in Wilk’s  Altruism and Self-Interest: Toward an Anthropological Theory of Decision Making (1993)).   He proposed “meta-theories and meta-paradigms” as a viable amalgamation of research methodologies.

In Wilk’s article, The limits of discipline: Towards interdisciplinary food studies (2012), he asks scholars to examine their most basic and essential assumptions that guide their disciplines’ approaches and methodologies in practice.  The question of the role of behavior in choice theories seem to depend on the most basic of beliefs among science and social science (or the divide that is felt when referred to as hard or soft science). He proposes collaboration, and better understanding of one another, so that  more comprehensive “meta-theories” and “meta-paradigms” can guide the present-day challenges related to food.
Can the concept of synergy be applied to developing multidisciplinary approaches to understand choice, tease-apart decision-making, and carry-out solutions to current-day and future food issues? Could our narrow, more limited scopes of practice leave out key missing parts?

We often find that disciplines not only carry their own ways of thinking, but also their own vocabularies.  Words such as compliance and self-efficacy are intrinsic to food research that views choice with behavioral or autonomous components, while it is thought of as contrived to others.  Research seeking to change behavior can be looked out through completely different lenses among disciplines and can even thought of as inherently necessary or completely immoral.  Could this be what Dr. Wilk’s The limits of discipline (2012) calls  ‘deeply embedded and normalized or absorbed’ in our ways of knowing and practice? What about hybrid-disciplines (political economics, biomedical marketing) that may seem more pliable?  Can they help set the stage for future progress or do they alienate the purists in their chosen fields?
In an era of increasingly divisive political climates, building bridges both academic and political seems of paramount importance.  In Dr. Wilk’s words,  ”[t]he study of food choice presents an unprecedented opportunity to build a point of contact where different disciplines truly engage.” A small step forward, perhaps, in a much larger project.

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