Editor’s Letter, Fall 2015

from Gastronomica 15:3

This issue of Gastronomica presents a diverse collection of pieces that are meant to enlighten, provoke, and inspire. Above all, these are pieces that start with conventional wisdom about food, food studies, and food scholars, and then present alternatives that challenge how we think about food and practice food research.

We begin with Harry West and Celia Plender’s interview with Professor James C. Scott. This interview resulted from Professor Scott’s meeting with food studies graduate students during his December 2014 visit to SOAS’s Food Studies Centre, where he delivered the SOAS/Gastronomica Distinguished Lecture. In this interview, Professor Scott discusses his own intellectual history and sheds light on the evolution of certain of his ideas that have been most formative for scholars, including food scholars.

The theme of backstories and alternative histories continues in the articles by Kyle Bladow and Cindy Ott. By delving into California’s dairying history, Bladow considers the other “milk” industry—that of almonds and almond milk—and its place within the symbolic imaginaries associated with milk in American culture. Turning our attention to the American Midwest, Ott carefully examines the phenomenon of urban gardens and why the mythology associated with urban gardens has not necessarily played out in reality for those who are expected to inhabit the spaces colonized by those gardens. Both of these articles challenge us to rethink conventional wisdom about fundamental American food cultures.

This provocation to rethink expectations is intrinsic to the special conversation on “Commercial Collaboration” that is featured in this issue. Initiated by Professor Peter Jackson, this collection of articles focuses on the proverbial elephant in the room for food studies scholarship: How do scholars conduct research on, in, and even with commercial partners? This conversation emerged from a panel at the 2014 Association for the Study of Food and Society meetings, held at the University of Vermont. The panel attracted a sizable audience, many of whom were interested, for both personal and professional reasons, in bridging the academic/commercial divide. One of the most revealing and troubling insights that emerged from the discussion during the panel was a prevailing sense that these were two separate worlds and that the academic world had done little to prepare scholars to “cross over,” either to work with or to understand the “foreign land” of the corporate institution.

That conversation and the enthusiasm for continued discussion led to the special series of articles featured here. Peter Jackson, David Evans, Polly Russell, and Monica Truninger are social scientists who have worked with commercial partners in various guises, and they reflect here on the different dimensions of what an industry-facing academic world might look like, including some of its challenges and opportunities. These articles are followed by a series of critical commentaries from scholars and professionals who work in different positions within the academic/commercial configuration.

This conversation is not meant to provide all of the answers and preemptively end what requires a much larger, more expansive discussion. Rather, these pieces are meant to start a longer conversation that is not just timely and necessary, but also surprisingly overdue.

In my own experience as a scholar of food, one of the things that I have found both most fascinating and most frustrating about food research is the prevailing perception that there are two distinct camps of people: those who work in the commercial sector and those who work in the academic sector. When scholars have engaged the commercial world, it has most often been to criticize it as a corrupt sector that privileges profit over health, safety, taste, and ethical principles and practices. Academics who venture into the commercial world somehow become suspect and even tainted by accusations that their objectivity has been compromised and that they are selling out their research subjects and intellectual integrity by colluding with big business. Meanwhile, when practitioners in the commercial world have engaged academics, such interactions have prompted questions about why scholars focus so heavily on minutiae without relating it to the real world of consumer concerns, demands, and realities. Of particular concern is the reliance of scholars on arcane jargon that does little to explain, more to obscure, and even more to distance the scholarly world from the real world of actual consumers.

Of course these are gross simplifications, but they are persistently pervasive and have profoundly shaped food studies research within and across the academic and commercial sectors. When I first began ethnographic research in Russia in the early 1990s, I found corporate institutions like McDonald’s to be a fascinating ethnographic lens through which to understand the profound political and economic changes that were taking place across the country and affecting the most intimate spaces of people’s everyday lives. Yet I, like many other anthropologists who were studying global corporations at that time, found myself criticized for not doing “pure” anthropological research. This was surprising, since the study of institutions, and of economic and cultural institutions in particular, has been a long-standing tradition within anthropology and social sciences more generally. Why would a global corporation be any different from any other corporate entity as an ethnographic object, except perhaps in scale? Certainly, any corporate entity was composed of particular social structures, ideologies, rituals, and cultural objects. And more to the point, if my Russian friends and acquaintances were going to McDonald’s, was it not incumbent on me, as a good ethnographer, to follow them and try to find out what was going on? In other words, I treated McDonald’s like a village and sought to discover and understand the rituals and beliefs of its inhabitants, a classic anthropological move for field research.

Over the past twenty years, studies of corporate entities have increased within anthropology, but there is still a puzzling reluctance to go “deep” and treat them as authentic ethnographic objects. This holds true not just for anthropology but for food studies as well, where critical but objective studies of food corporations remain woefully lacking.

Divisions between the academic and the commercial have not necessarily been as rigid in other scholarly fields, especially food sciences, where much longer and more flexible histories of scholarly collaborations across the academic/commercial spectrum are evident, and the concern that academics are “selling out” is less prevalent. While there are certainly questions about ethics and objectivity that come up in working relationships between scientists in the academic and commercial sectors, there is nonetheless a stronger, or at least more visible, commitment to scientific inquiry as a shared intellectual value and project.

Perhaps more significantly, from the perspective of the academic world, the commercial world offers different opportunities. For our students, most of whom will not follow the traditional academic pathway to a university professorship, their professional reality will likely entail work for a commercial institution. We should prepare them for the different realities of this world to aid in their future professional and intellectual success. At the same time, commercial institutions can offer different ways of approaching questions, methods, and even field sites. In my own experience doing consulting work for several food corporations, I have learned new techniques for research and analysis that I am now incorporating in my own work. I have also gained terrific new colleagues who provide a different perspective on food, anthropology, and business that has enhanced and complicated my own research and ideas.

But to do this requires listening to one another and engaging one another through respectful conversation and debate. It also requires learning more about one another’s “languages” and reference points, as well as deciphering different ways of doing research. In many respects, the academic and commercial sectors are, in fact, different worlds governed by different logics about scale, tempo, demand, and data. But they are not separate worlds that can never be traversed. In that vein, I hope that you find this conversation and the preliminary points of debate raised here to be a productive step in a new direction for thinking about food research.