Food Choice and Social Theory

“Food Choice and Social Theory” with Alan Warde

By Madeline Chera


Practice makes perfect.

This clichéd little nugget of popular wisdom is meant to inspire; parents, teachers, and coaches often present it to children as a mantra for self-improvement through repetitive activity. The proverb rests on the assumption that in doing something over and over again, not only goodness but supreme excellence is inevitable.  And this might hold true for developing skills like playing piano or catching fly balls, but what about eating? Can practice really help us consume better?

Although I did not ask him this directly, I think that British sociologist Alan Warde, a recent guest at the Sawyer Seminar, would say, “Yes.” Well, to be more honest, I think he would say, “Yes, but…” (as scholarly experts are apt to do).  Warde follows French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in using practice theory, an approach that focuses on sets of activities people perform repeatedly over time, to attempt to understand food consumption patterns on a macro-level.  While he has written about distinction and taste in the past [SIDEBAR: See this recent blog post from Gastronomica, in which Molly Watson updates Bourdieu’s graph of food preferences based on economic and cultural capital for contemporary consumers in the U.S.], Warde’s current research considers how habit, or more specifically, the Bourdieuian concept of habitus, impacts consumption and can be used to make consumption more sustainable. Central to this research are the questions Are people able to exercise choice in their food consumption practices? Do they? and If so, how and how much? These are questions we had asked many a Tuesday before Warde’s visit, but we were excited for the opportunity to learn how a sociologist would answer.

In his presentation to our seminar (and in other work), Warde argued that practice theory negotiates a middle ground between the Portfolio Model and the Behaviorist Model. Economics often presents the former, with “a sovereign individual choosing intentionally and rationally” in order to express identity and lifestyle. Meanwhile, biology and certain strains of psychology offer the latter, which reduces people to automatons, repeating the same actions completely without deliberation, until they fail. In contradistinction, practice theory focuses on praxis (which we could define here as doing, although not alienated from thinking) through long-term, embodied performances. These practices can change over time through learning, as a result of social context, and with improvisation. Rather than view people as constantly calculating the best choice based on the information in their mental portfolios, which personal experience shows to be untenable (e.g. at this point, I eat carrots and hummus for lunch everyday because that’s just what I normally do, not because I have decided anew every morning that it will be my optimum choice based on X, Y, and Z criteria), or defaulting to the view of consumer as unthinking machine, Warde’s brand of reconstructed practice theory holds that many consumptive activities are guided by habit and distraction.

Some of these arguments were familiar to us seminar participants, as one of our organizers, Richard Wilk, had discussed some of the competing models in his presentation on Consumer Culture, Economics, and Culture [link]. However, what we really wanted to know from Warde was where practice theory points to next; can practice really help us consume better?

First and foremost, Warde argued that the focus on the individual is not working, and instead suggested a theory of mind that extends beyond the brain, including an understanding of material culture (objects, space, and technologies), embodiment, social networks, and environment. He indicated some sympathy with the “Nudge” argument, presented by Thaler and Sunstein, noting that as long as there was widespread agreement on what the “good” thing was to do, the state [link to Chi-Hoon’s blog post about the soda tax?] could restrict the ability to make “bad” choices, and thus give people a bit of a nudge in their food consumption choices. However, such unanimity in defining the good is rare, and without actual restrictions, interventions that attempt to make people aware of the inconsistency with which they practice “good” choices (e.g. dietary guidelines) are of mixed success at best. Nonetheless, one possible avenue for change at the level of habitus is to appeal to distinction, lowering the prestige of “bad” consumption or consumption in general, and raising the prestige of behaving environmentally sustainably.

Warde told us that further research is needed to understand how distraction and improvisation work in light of long-term practices, to analyze practices almost as discrete entities, with their own rules and organization systems, and to learn how social networks influence practices and help people judge performances of them. While remaining modest in his predictions about our ability to change consumption patterns – it seems we are a long way off from perfection! – Warde presented to us the argument that the key to eating better is practice.

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