Anthropologies #22: Reflections on Food in Food Research

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the Anthropologies #22 series.

The second installment of the anthropologies issue on food comes from Zofia Boni, a food anthropologist. Boni’s PhD (SOAS) focused on food and children and the negotiations regarding feeding and eating in Warsaw. Currently, she is a visiting researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. Her new research project focuses on the social dynamics of childhood obesity in Poland. –R.A.

Food is an intrinsic element of all anthropological research. Sharing food can be an ice breaker; it can provide a context or an opportunity for the conversations with your interlocutors, it provides insights into their lives and often means that “you are in!” or at least you are getting closer.

In the case of anthropology of food, however, food becomes particularly important as it is placed at the heart of the research. What happens when food is not only a research tool which facilitates interactions, but also becomes the object of the research? How can we actually study something so ephemeral? And what happens when we eat it and therefore embody the object of our research? What sort of implications does it have for the researchers and the researched? What sort of tensions or connections does it create? Though anthropologists reflect on those issues, the centrality of food and its importance for many anthropological encounters, to a large extent, stays implicit. This essay aims to inspire the discussion about the role and place of food in anthropological research on food.

David Sutton considers the role of food in research by describing how he was warned that his manhood might be questioned if he keeps his vegetarian diet while conducting research in Greece. He uses his vegetarian practices and Kalymnians’ reactions to them to explore their culture (1997). In a similar way, Samantha Hurn recalls being a vegan while studying foxhunting and farming in Wales and how this provided her with insights into their culture (2013). Both authors show that eating differently while doing fieldwork was simultaneously challenging and revealing. It was difficult to fit in, to become a part of the group and to keep a chosen diet. However, it also provoked fascinating reactions which illuminated a lot about people’s expectations, values and norms. Persistently challenging what people know as good food – not eating meat, for example – can bring wonderfully insightful responses.

The role of food in food research is equally interesting to consider when the researcher’s food habits do not necessarily challenge her interlocutors’ food rules. That has been my case.

In my research I focus on the process of feeding children in Warsaw and the multiple negotiations this entails. In 2012 – 2013, over the period of 12 months I studied families and primary schools, other state institutions and non-governmental organizations, food companies and media. I was interested in the relations between these different social actors, in people’s ideas about feeding children and in their practices. Food, evidently, played an important role in these relations. And therefore an important part of my research became investigating and consuming the food itself. I ate meals with the families and in school canteens, and consumed food that is considered to be children’s food (mainly sweets, that is). I bought various food products sold in school shops in order to try them and to find out what the fuss was about (see Boni 2014). Moreover, I was often offered food by children, as the ethnographic vignette below demonstrates:

The break was almost coming to an end. I left the canteen and wondered around the school corridors. Two second graders, Zuzia and Wojtek, approached me. Apparently they had been looking for me. They wanted to show me what they were given as dessert today: a version of a Kinder Surprise, with chocolate and a small toy. Well, that’s a treat I thought to myself. It turned out they wanted to share the chocolate with me. I was astonished! They shared their most precious gift with me. We sat on the bench and chatted while eating the chocolate. [Field notes, 23rd April 2013, translated from Polish]

Sweets were often forbidden by parents or teachers, so the fact that children shared it with me meant that they trusted me and, to some extent, accepted me. Food not only facilitated my interactions with children, it also created a special connection between us. The chocolate signaled the fact that I have been invited to peek into their culture. They not only shared food with me, but, more importantly, allowed me to participate in their resistance practices. Together, we were doing something naughty (see James 1979).

Even though we ate the same food, I had no idea what sort of taste and bodily sensations did it provide for my interlocutors. My sensations were different than theirs. And yet the experience was shared. I have not eaten this sort of food for quite a long time, while they were familiar with it and they introduced me to it. It also allowed me to bond with children, even if it evoked different experiences for each of us. In some instances my impressions might have been similar to theirs, for example chocolate evoked pleasure. In others it was different. For example a Shock chewing gum, which for them was mainly about fun because of the fuzzy sensations and the sweet and sour flavor combinations it provided, for me was a sentimental reminder of my own childhood.

Some of the sweets, to me, tasted awful: extreme sweetness; many surprising flavors which do not resemble any known foods; the unexpected combinations of sweet and sour enriched by the sensations of dissolving in your mouth; and the distinctive aftertaste of chemicals and sugar (see photo 1). And yet, I have tried these unknown and strange foods in an attempt to understand better the tribe that consumes them. Whenever I was offered one of these, I ate it. Food that we ate together created a sense of comradery and strengthened our social bond. It influenced the relations between us, making children the more knowledgeable ones in that interaction. It allowed me to taste what children ate and learn about their food practices and choices, about their social world. I have started to learn about children’s food.

photo 1_zboni
Photo 1. Sweets bought in a school shop. Photo by Katarzyna Boni.

Another food experience I had in schools, which again proved the importance of food in my research, was eating meals in the school canteen. When I accepted an invitation to eat meals in the school canteen, I did not expect that I would receive a full bowl of soup (e.g. tomato or borscht) and an enormous second dish (usually meat with potatoes and other vegetables, see photo 2) around noon. On each of the days I was in the canteen, despite my requests, I have always received “an adult portion”. The cooks sometimes joked that I had to give them back an empty plate, although this was not a joke for me. Of course the generous portions were a gesture of fondness and acceptance on the part of cooks. I was invited to eat what they prepared and that was a very important social interaction. So I complied with what was expected from me. I fulfilled the role of the guest. However, there was a cost. As I am not used to eating so much during lunchtime, my stomach bulged and I overate. My daily food pattern has changed completely.

Photo 2_zboni
Photo 2. Meal served in a school canteen. Photo by the author.

Eating meals in the school canteen was a way to engage in participant observation, or observant participation as Loic Wacquant (2011) calls it. After all, I did not want to repeat the situation from the Kitchen Stories, where a researcher sits on a high chair and from beneath the ceiling observes how his subject eats and notes it down. I did make notes. But I also ate what children ate and could not only observe, but also participate in the canteen life. I used food as a topic and a tool. I tasted the canteen food, which has many, often negative, connotations in Poland. I have recognized some of the tastes which brought me back to my childhood memories and discovered others.

Food mediated in my relations with cooks who prepared it; with food supervisors, who were often the ones who invited me to eat; with teachers, with whom I often shared the table in the canteen. Food also connected me with children, even though I did not sit at the tables with them, as initially planned. Not only did I eat what they ate, I also often unintentionally assumed the role of a child. I picked at the food, I tried to hide the uneaten pieces of meat under the potatoes and I strategically chose the time to return my plate, so that nobody would see which one was actually mine and that I had left some of the meal uneaten for that would be unacceptable (though I would not be sent back to my seat to finish eating, as children were). At times, when I was not particularly hungry, had special dinner plans, or when something I did not like was served, I strategically avoided the canteen at certain hours, in the same way that some children do. Only after some time I realized that my behavior was similar to children’s. They employed similar tactics to avoid eating in the school canteen. They experienced much greater control and discipline expressed through and with food and used food in their resistance practices. Unknowingly and with the means of food, I learned a lot about adults – children relations in the canteen, about children’s experiences and about the multiple roles that food played in that context.

These different experiences I had with food in primary schools in Warsaw completed each other and the food, which was at the basis of these encounters, played an important role in my research. This certainly shaped my understanding of children’s food practices and feeding – eating negotiations. Food was a topic of many conversations I had. Food provided a way for me to comprehend children’s and adults’ practices. Food allowed me to better grasp the tensions between adults and children. Food was a way to facilitate my interactions. Food influenced my positionality and the relations with my interlocutors. Food brought back some memories. Food, in the end, influenced my own practices. Suffice to say, not only did I gain weight, I also have never in my life had so many dental caries and cavities as during my fieldwork.

When the researcher eats the food prepared or given to her, her research object in a way becomes the researcher, as the food is digested. The object becomes the subject as Annemarie Mol explains (2008). It does create a curious connection between the researcher and the researched (food and people) that is worth exploring. My experience with school food and its subsequent effects on my own eating habits (and perhaps my dental health), incites reflection on whether anthropologists should accept all the food that is offered to them as a way of immersing themselves into the field and experiencing their research object? Or is it a better strategy, as enacted by Sutton and Hurn, to keep to your own diet and see what sort of responses it evokes? It might be worth having a more explicit discussion about food as another aspect of our positionality in the field that must be negotiated.

Anthropologists and other social scientists rarely study the food itself. We rather study people’s practices and narratives, the social norms and cultural customs, ideas about food or related sensual experiences. I myself looked at the multiple feeding – eating relations and negotiations. Some researchers, however, look at the living organisms which create food, such as bacteria, and ascribe agency to food (e.g. West 2013, Tsing 2014). These are certainly exciting and innovative projects, which move us further in our understanding of food and its multiple connections with people. But it is still worth exploring the ways in which food is used in social relations during research, both by us and by our interlocutors; how it shapes our positionality and how we and our interlocutors react to it, bodily and mentally. Food certainly provided another layer to my research.



Bent Hamer, dir. 2003. Kitchen Stories (org. Salmer fra kjøkkenet). 95 min. BOB Film Sweden AB. Bulbul Films. Svenska Filminstitutet (SFI).

Boni, Zofia. 2014. Contested Interactions: School Shops, Children and Food in Warsaw. International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food 21 (3): 309 – 325. Available from:

Hurn, Samantha. 2013. Confessions of a vegan anthropologist: Exploring the trans-biopolitics of eating in the field. In Why We Eat, How We Eat: Contemporary Encounters Between Foods and Bodies. Anna Lavis and Emma-Jane Abbots, eds. Pp: 219 – 236. London: Ashgate Publishing.

James, Allison. 1979. Confections, Concoctions and Conceptions. Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 10 (2): 83 – 95.

Mol, Annemarie. 2008. I Eat an Apple. On Theorizing Subjectivities. Subjectivity 22: 28 – 37. DOI: 10.1057/sub.2008.2. Available from:

Sutton, David. 1997. The Vegetarian Anthropologist. Anthropology Today 13 (1): 5 – 8.

Tsing, Anna. 2014. Strathern Beyond the Human: Testimony of a Spore. Theory, Culture and Society 31 (2/3): 221 – 241.

Wacquant, Loic. 2011. Habitus as Topic and Tool: Reflections on Becoming a Prizefighter. Qualitative Research in Psychology 8: 81 – 92. DOI: 10.1080/14780887.2010.544176.

West, Harry G. 2013. Thinking Like a Cheese: Towards an Ecological Understanding of the Reproduction of Knowledge in Contemporary Artisan Cheesemaking. In: Understanding Cultural Transmission in Anthropology: A Critical Synthesis. Ellen Roy Stephen Lycett and  Sarah Johns, eds. Pp: 320 – 345. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

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Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.