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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

Social units

Another important facet of the strategy of cultural food research is the social unit of inquiry, which is crucial to the anthropologist. Much nutritional research focuses on asking individuals about their actual or ideal food behaviour. Two assumptions seem to be taken for granted: (a) that the individual controls his/her own food intake, and (b) that the individual is representative of a particular group based on ethnicity, class and/or locality, or status that is related to age and sex. While ultimately we ask questions of individuals, anthropologists are more likely to focus on the household as the unit of analysis, since the household is the locus of so many food decisions.

Also we are interested in determining the degree of shared communal patterning and the processes of social transmission in different sizes and types of social units. For example, it is often assumed that a macro-cuisine, such as Jewish dietary laws, exists at the social level of a major religion, tribe, or nation. One knows nothing about whether or how actual communities (localized networks of interacting households linked by kinship and friendship) hold, transmit, and reinforce these beliefs. More is known about ideal macro-cultural beliefs than their actual operation in communities. Even if there are common staples and sets of common seasonal, ritual, work, and leisure cycles in a nation or region, there are still variations that necessitate the investigation of local community differences, as Laderman illustrates for Malaysian communities (1981a,b). Knutsson and Selinus (1970) also illustrate that knowledge of a macrocultural taboo cannot lead to the assumption of universal practice or logically derived dysfunctional effects. In their study, they showed that knowledge of the periodicity and duration of Ethiopian fasting patterns as a macro-cultural phenomenon was not sufficient for understanding real nutritional implications. By collecting actual intake records in both rural and urban households, inter-community variation as well as compensating patterns were discovered.

In urban-industrial, market-dependent settings where environmental constraints are less significant and the variety of food available is great, socially mediated meaning imbued in food becomes even more important in the process of social differentiation and peer-group social transmission. Modern industrial macro-cuisine is a mass phenomenon, electronically purveyed, but we do not know to what extent these mass rules and models are used or shared by people in peer groups based on kinship, ethnicity, and class.

Researchers have also found it useful to investigate intra-community variations in food use, particularly in relation to socio-economic levels. For example, Bennett (1942) found that patterned economic and ethnic subcommunities existed in a small farming region; Jerome (1979) found subcommunity differences based on differences in economic adaptations in a group of urban immigrants with common (rural) backgrounds; DeWalt (1979) found that material and educational factors made a difference in a small Mexican village; and Goode, Theophano, and Curtis (1984) found that the degree to which households were socially embedded in the local community was related to variation in food behaviour.

When dealing with cultural food systems, it is necessary to specify clearly and differentiate between three social unit levels: the supra-local macro-cuisine, the community or peer-group pattern, and systematic subcommunity differences manifested in different types of households.