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Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Anthropological approaches to agriculture, food and nutrition

Course Code:
15PANH053
Unit value:
0.5
Year of study:
Year 1 or Year 2
Taught in:
Term 2

In this course, we investigate the stark disparities in nutritional well-being around the world, and seek to understand in what ways agricultural systems of food production have played a role. Much of the food that we eat has undergone multiple transformations, travelled substantial distances, passed through different hands, and been subject to a host of laws, institutions and interventions. We shall investigate these links and the relationships between them. We will also consider in what ways agricultural systems have contributed both to hunger and to increasing rates of obesity and other diet-related diseases, while viewing these contemporary trends in the light of a much longer history of human biological change and adaptation dating back as far as the Palaeolithic period.  Taking a critical perspective, we treat nutrition not only as the process by which bodies are nourished and sustained, but also as a set of ideas that influences how people think and behave, that is taken up and used by individuals, policy-makers and private industry to educate, to persuade, to sell products, or to influence behaviour.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

Upon completion of the course, students should recognize, understand, and/or appreciate the following:

  • Nutrition both as a set of biological processes and as a culturally and historically specific body of knowledge
  • Major dietary changes in human history, and the role of biological adaptation and social/cultural factors in influencing these changes
  • Nutrition science as the subject of educational campaigns, and the outcomes of nutrition education
  • Factors affecting food consumption and nutrition of small-holder farmers, including the shift from subsistence to commercial farming
  • The influence of nutrition science on agricultural and health policy in the era of global public health
  • Intersection of scientific knowledge and public policy in relation to issues of nutrition
  • Contribution of agricultural production and the food industry to major contemporary trends of both hunger and over-consumption

Students should be aware of the principal actors and agents in the phenomena outlined above.
Students should know where to find information on the above topics, whether books, scholarly journals, popular media, or websites.

Students should be able to identify key debates on the above issues and express informed positions of their own.

Scope and syllabus

Week 1. History of nutrition:

This unit will address the historical development of nutrition concepts, and will consider what is meant by ‘nutrition’ and how this meaning has changed over time. The idea of nutrition as a cultural discourse is introduced.

Week 2. The “Mediterranean diet”: 

Following an epidemiological study in 1970, the cuisine of certain populations of southern Europe was publicised for containing numerous items identified as beneficial against heart disease. Using this as a case study, we ask whether there is such a thing as an optimal diet and consider the factors that might support or challenge this idea.

Week 3. Human evolution and diet: 

This week, we explore the evolution of human diet over a wide historical span beginning with the paleolithic period. Key questions: What were the earliest human beings eating, and how does this compare to modern diets? What, if anything, can we learn from the dietary behaviour of our ancestors?

Week 4.  Biological adaptation and social change: 

In this unit, we consider recent dietary transitions in relation to longer processes of historical change and adaptation. Key questions: How has human dietary behaviour adapted to external circumstances? How do we account for both adaptive and maladaptive responses to nutritional constraints or excess? How do biology and culture intersect over time?

Week 5. The distribution of malnutrition in an unequal world:
This week we investigate the significant disparities in nutritional well-being around the world, with a focus on the uneven geographical spread of under- and over- nutrition. We explore a range of factors - historical, social, economic and ecological - that contribute to this spatial and demographic variation.

Week 6. Reading Week

Week 7. Agriculture, livelihoods and nutrition:
This week, we explore the various links between agriculture and nutrition, with a focus on small-scale farmers. We look in particular at whether commercialization of agriculture improves or reduces farmers’ access to nutritious foods, and assess the various factors that may influence this scenario, including intra-household distribution, diverse livelihoods, and changing food prices.

Week 8: Agriculture and health: the gender link:
There are multiple ways in which gender emerges as a key link between agriculture and health. For example, women’s contributions to farming may enhance their control over which foods enter the home. Thereafter, women’s central role in deciding what is eaten and how it is prepared may provide a direct link to child nutrition. Commercial agriculture and wage labouring remain essential sources of income around the globe, and women who have access to these incomes are likely to be motivated by their children’s nutritional well-being when making spending decisions. There may also be a range of factors – economic, cultural, ecological or political – that limit both women’s and men’s capacities in particular contexts.

Week 9: Changing anthropological approaches to agriculture and nutrition:
In this unit, we engage with Audrey Richards’ classic anthropological text on nutrition among the Bemba of Northern Rhodesia (present day Zambia) alongside a restudy of the same area published more than fifty years later. How and why have anthropologists treated the relationship between agriculture and nutrition differently? How has anthropological knowledge about nutrition been constructed alongside, even as part of, a wider set of colonial agendas?

Week 10. Knowledge, authority and education:
Continuing the discussion from Week 9, this unit will look at how the rise of “nutrition science” has created new conditions of authority and expert knowledge, and how this knowledge has been used to support government interventions or to influence public moral discourse in a variety of historical and geographical settings. We look at whether and when attempts to educate people about nutrition ‘work’, and examine the types of narratives they draw upon and intercept. We also explore ways in which agricultural knowledge is generated and appropriated, and the implications of this for food systems and human health.

Week 11. Agricultural policy and the food industry:
This week, we ask whether under- and over- nutrition have been caused by the production of food, or by its distribution. We look at how production has been altered by agricultural policy and what its effect has been on nutrition. We explore the role of the food industry – including the advertising, marketing, and sale of foods and the dominance of particular sectors/corporations within the food industry – in influencing the desirability and availability of different foods, and the patterns of food distribution that result from this. Finally, we critically assess possible agricultural interventions for improved nutrition, and ask what are the opportunities and obstacles for achieving these.

Method of assessment

30% of the course mark derives from weekly reading response papers and contributions to seminar discussions; the remaining 70% of the mark is based upon a 2-hour exam.