How our social environment, social identity and demographic characteristics may influence food consumption

The following essay will focus on the connection between food consumption and people’s social environment for example is a working class family more likely to eat more filling foods than a middle class family who for whatever reason have more time and taste when it comes to food consumption. The way in which people consume food these days has changed greatly; this essay will explore the vast differences that occur depending on their location, social identity and demographic characteristics.

Using Bourdieu’s theory which looks at the relationship between social positions food tastes and that people’s food consumption is linked directly to their economic capital. Bourdieu’s theory illustrates how a person’s social identity, environment and demographic characteristics influence their food consumption.

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There are many ways in which food consumption may be influenced and they are usually instilled in the population as a young child by parents or siblings. These influences play a huge part in developing tastes and acceptance of social environment and culture people find themselves living in. For example, a child living in a rundown council estate from a working class family would not recognise exotic foods as an everyday food such as lobster or salmon whereas a child from a middle class family would be more inclined to eat these items as Bourdieu mentions in habitus that people are more inclined to act in certain ways (Bourdieu, 1991). This example shows the great influence parents have on socialisation from a very young age. Another factor that plays a part in taste and consumption is that the higher classes will always attempt to create or invent new foods to keep their class that step higher than the working class as their tastes change to copy the higher classes.

The socialisation theory also plays a part in a person’s food tastes such as their education this was focused on by Oygard (2000) which stated that “Cultural capital (e.g. education) – perceptions and behaviours are embodied in individuals because they have grown up in a special milieu. Food tastes are thus a product of the conditions in which individuals have grown up” (Oygard, 2000, 161).

In contrast to the economists Bourdieu did not see consumers as similar apart from the economic capital but argued that a link between a person’s social position and food tastes actually existed. This can also be linked to how the middle classes respect their own body more than lower classes that simply see the body as a machine; they see food as a means to an end (Oygard, 2000). The lower classes also have a taste for sweet foods which is obviously passed down from generation to generation creating a “norm”. This links well to the point of the higher classes respect their bodies so perceive that people with an overweight body indulge in sweetness and unhealthy foods, which is seen as working class. The taste for unsweetened involves denial and virtue which are particularly middle class traits ( Nancarrow, C, British Food Journal, Volume 103, Number 5, p348-357).

The vision of an overweight body was not always seen as a bad thing, back in the early nineteenth century a large or “tubby” figure was seen as a sign of prosperity and wealth. These people were seen as being able to afford the luxuries and proper nourishment that others could not. So what changed? It was not until the population became able to feed itself properly and sustain supply chains of food that the upper classes changed their ways, so that a thin healthy body was more appropriate with their social class.

A working class family disregard their health and body shape in order to experience the enjoyment of feeling full, “a taste of necessity” which comes from a lack of choice in the home relating to their limited economic capital. The idea of taste is a middle class concept as they have much more freedom of choice which the lower classes do not have. This is as Bourdieu stated “A taste for what they are anyway condemned to, the pretext for a class racism which associates the populace with everything heavy, thick and fat” (Bourdieu, 1984, Cited in the British Food Journal, Volume 103, Number 5, Year 2001, p351).

The female of the species is also more inclined to eat healthier food than men and tend to influence the younger generations food consumption by controlling their intake such as lunchboxes. This would reflect more in a middle class family where the mother would influence the whole families food consumption so the children of this family would eat healthier and continue to experience food as a lifestyle, unlike the children of a working class family that due to their economic capital would struggle to afford such luxuries so settle for sweet and filling foods. The reason the mothers have so much influence on the children’s intake is that the male mentality for anything light and healthy simply rebels against that sort of lifestyle so they are controlled by the female of the household,

In relation to a person’s food consumption and their demographics, this is an area that change’s with age as their economic capital and tastes change. This is another area that links into childhood as the influences and behaviour learnt in the early stages of development continue into adulthood. This may be one of the causes of child obesity in the United Kingdom but can it be related to areas of deprivation, this was a study carried out in the Liverpool area by Trevor Dummer amongst others from John Moores University in 2005. This study looked at if overweight and obesity in 9-10 year olds in Liverpool relates to deprivation or electoral ward. The study found that although there were a high percentage of children that are overweight or obese it did not directly correlate to an area of deprivation in Liverpool. What it did find was that the areas with the highest deprivation such as Speke did not actually have a high prevalence of overweight or obesity with only 15.3% of boys and 19.5% of girls. (Dummer, T, 2005, Is overweight and obesity in 9-10 year old children in Liverpool related to deprivation and/or electoral ward). This is in direct contrast to a study that was carried out in Plymouth which found a high number of children aged 9-14 in the highest deprives areas were overweight or obese. Overall from these studies a conclusion that can be drawn is that a person’s weight does not directly relate to their geographical location as it varies across the country.

In looking at the varying differences across the country in how deprivation relates to obesity it has not been proved to exist in all areas so the only thing that can be taken from this is that, what are the influences that alter the different areas and why is there not a uniform affect. This can only be down to the different influences that incline the children to eat what they do, whether that be their parents, peers, siblings or simply their social environment is it norm for them to follow certain eating habits.

In conclusion it is evident that food consumption has many influencing factors from many different areas of a person’s life and although the community people live in can promote healthy eating, it is down to the individual to decide what influences make them inclined to behave in a certain manner.