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close this bookResearch Methods in Nutritional Anthropology (United Nations University, 1989, 201 p.)
close this folder5. Cultural patterning and group-shared rules in the study of food intake
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentMethods for studying cultural rules for food use
View the documentResearch techniques
View the documentSocial units
View the documentFood choices: a process of many phases
View the documentLevels and units of analysis
Open this folder and view contentsA comprehensive interview approach to food patterning
View the documentConclusion


This chapter focuses on the system of rules for organizing food intake and the predominant methodological approaches to the study of such cultural patterning. Cultural rules for food use are not limited to lists of avoidances (taboos) and preferences. These rules are more accurately characterized as group-shared systems of ideas about organizing food items into dishes and meals that ultimately influence the timing, order, and quantity of intake. Moreover. such ideas are constantly negotiated. They are communicated, reinforced and modified over time through interaction in meaningful social units (households and communities).

In most cultures there are rules for combining, segregating and sequencing foods. For example, the well-known Jewish rules of kashruth proscribe the mixing of flesh and dairy animal products in a single dish or food event. This is a segregation rule. Examples of pattern rules for combining foods can be found in many American dish patterns such as peanut butter and jelly or hot dogs and beans. Many cuisines have such prescriptive rules for combining their basic carbohydrate staple with a particular type of accompaniment.

In Richards' classic study of the Bemba in Africa (1939), the staple grain was considered incomplete without the relish (vegetable accompaniment). If a woman was too tired to collect the ingredients for the relish, she did not make any meal at all because she could not serve the staple alone. We will discuss several of these cuisine rules below.

Sequencing rules prohibit or prescribe the order in which foods can be eaten through time. European cuisines pay specific attention to the order of sweet and savoury foods. Sweet foods are eaten at the beginning or end of a meal or as an unstressed relish with main dish. The presentation of types of dishes can also be constrained by sequencing rules that do not allow soup to follow the main course or dessert to precede it.

Cultural rules for food use also involve the association of particular food items, prepared dishes, and types of meals with particular social events, times, places, and social contexts. The type of dish or type of menu will depend on the social occasion, the time of day, the place, and the group who are eating together.

The Importance of Studying Food-pattern Rules

Why is it important to study food-pattern rules? The major contribution of such studies is not only to describe what people eat but also to understand why. Cultural rules for patterning food intake are neither simple to list nor invariable in their operation. Like most aspects of culture, such socially shared understandings contribute to, but do not determine, choice. To identify the social mechanisms for maintaining pattern rules and to understand their range, variability, and conditional nature, it is necessary actually to study domestic and peer-group interaction.

Another reason for studying shared cultural rules influencing food intake is to understand the process of change in food systems. Often, a food system can have strongly internalized rules for assigning food items to particular individuals or events or segregating and combining foods into dishes that are restricted in use. Attempts to introduce new items into a food system are likely to fail unless there is an understanding of the rules for composing dishes out of individual foods or meals out of dishes. The acceptability of a new food may be improved if the item can be structurally integrated into a culturally familiar dish or made analogous to an old food by manipulating colour, texture, shape, or whichever sensory attribute defines the essence of the food. Understanding pattern rules can help us to comprehend how change is likely to occur and may be useful in planning interventions as well as in forseeing the unintended consequences of systemic changes in production and marketing.