Class Profile: Anthro course applies fieldwork to food culture

ANTH 288: Anthropology of Food focuses on the cultural, social and physical implications of food in present societies.

According to visiting assistant professor of geography and anthropology Brian Marks, anthropology is the study of the diverse ways of being human, with an objective of “understanding the ways in which we’re all the same, and in which we’re all connected.” Anthropology of Food, therefore, addresses how different cultures understand food as both a universal human need and as something that has various particular cultural meanings.

The class drew a wide variety of students in their freshman to senior years and from beyond the anthropology department, including biochemistry, Spanish and English majors.

“I’ve got a lot of different perspectives,” Marks said. “It drew a wide cross section of the whole college.”

The class is structured around readings, with three main texts including Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals by Hal Herzog. The class is discussion format and, according to Marks, “It’s been a very lively course with a lot of student interaction.”

Anthropology of Food: The Social Dynamics of Food Security by Johan Pottier is an applied anthropology book used to structure one of two major paper assignments throughout the course. Students pick one of seven chapters in the book, all about food security, conduct research on the social scientific literature and journalistic approaches to the topic after 1999 and write a paper on real-world events related to that topic. Topics that can be addressed include famine, land access and divisions of labor in food production, especially in regard to gender.

The second major paper is a fieldwork research paper for which students choose a topic and do a very small-scale anthropological fieldwork exercise.

“People have already written their prospectus for what they’re going to do for the semester and a lot of people are interested in talking about CAS, either working for them or living in the dorms,” Marks said.

Other students plan on writing about the transition from living on campus to living off campus and how that can affect diet, food habits and nutrition. Two students are contacting their families in the Middle East and Mexico, to write about international food and the culture of food.

“What I want students to take away from the class is a nuanced appreciation of the differences among people,” Marks said. “To recognize that there are real differences in, among, and between cultures in how we relate to food but that there are important converging themes that all of us share in how we sustain ourselves.”