SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Anthropology of Food: Diet, Society and Environment

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 1

Food and eating are fundamental to human life and health and play profound roles in the construction of social bodies, from families and kinship groups to religious groups and states. Further, food mediates our relationships with non-human beings and surroundings. In this module, we emphasise that our reliance on food for nutritional sustenance is inseperable from food's social, cultural and ecological dimensions. As such, the transformation of food habits and food systems are a central part of human experiences and world histories. We explore cultural diversities and historical change in food production and distribution, eating, cooking and sharing, recycling and wasting, and the classifying, celebrating and prohibiting of food and drink. In the fist four weeks we explore classic anthropological approaches to food classification, sharing and provisioning and the relationship between diet and adaptation, highlighting the relevance of these classic topics for contemporary debates and contexts. In the following six weeks, we trace the emergence of the global food system and its implications for dietary health, nutritional inequalties, food safety and environment. Through this module, students will acquire a critical understanding of anthropological perspectives on food, diets and the global food system.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

  1. Understand the role of eating in creating social ties and divisions.
  2. Analyse how and why humans classify foods and prohibit potentially edible substances.
  3. Appreciate the array of means by which humans have met their food needs over time, including gathering, hunting, herding, fishing and cultivating.
  4. Understand how human dietary behaviour has adapted to external cicumstances.
  5. Understand the historical processes and stages by which food production has been industrialised.
  6. Analyse the roles of states and markets in shaping food production and consumption.
  7. Understand the concept of 'supply chain capitalism' and its role in the global food system
  8. Critically analyse the concept of 'nutrition transition'.
  9. Understand the social dynamics of food anxieties and food safety regulation.
  10. Appreciate the environmental consequences of the intensifcation of food production and global food trade.

Scope and syllabus

Topics to be covered in the course:

  • Commensality
  • Prohibitions and Classifications
  • Farmers and Others
  • Human Evolution, Diet and Adaptation
  • The Industrialisation of Agriculture
  • Agriculture and the State
  • Supermarkets, Supply Chains and Cheap Food
  • The Nutrition Transition
  • Food Fears and Food Safety
  • Food, Sustainability and Climate

Method of assessment

  • AS1: x2 Reading response paper (500 words) - 20%
  • AS2: x2 Reading response paper (500 words)- 20%
  • AS3: x1 Essay (2000 words) - 50%
  • Seminar participation - 10%

Suggested reading

Klein, Jakob A. and James L. Watson (eds) (2016) The Handbook of Food and Anthropology. London: Bloomsbury.

Appadurai, Arjun (1981) ‘Gastro-politics in Hindu South Asia’, American Ethnologist, 8 (3): 494-511.

Brody, Hugh (2001) The Other Side of Eden: Hunter-Gatherers, Farmers and the Shaping of the World. London: Faber and Faber.

Wiley, Andrea S. (2011) Re-imagining Milk. New York: Routledge.

Mintz, Sidney (1985) Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin.

Staples, James and Jakob A. Klein (eds) (2017) Consumer and Consumed: Humans and Animals in Globalising Food Systems. Special Issue of Ethnos, 82 (2): 252-276.

Friedmann, Harriet (1990) ‘The origins of third world food dependence, in Henry Bernstein et al. (eds), The Food Question: Profits Versus People. New York: Monthly Review Press, pp. 13-31.

Tsing, Anna (2009) ‘Supply Chains and the Human Condition’, Rethinking Marxism 21 (2), 148-176.

Yates-Doerr, Emily (2015) The Weight of Obesity: Hunger and Global Health in Postwar Guatemala. Oakland: University of California Press.

Kinchy, Abby (2012) Seeds, Science and Struggle: The Global Politics of Transgenic Crops. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules