Every student in the Sociology PhD program at the University of Toronto completes the Research Practicum course in their second year. This course involves each student working directly on a research project with a faculty member through the various stages of research and writing while also meeting with other graduate students in the course to tackle the hurdles of clarifying, strengthening, and sharpening one’s ideas in a journal-length research article. In this series, we highlight the practicum papers that went on to become published articles, and the students who wrote them.
Oleschuk, Merin. “Foodies of Colour: Authenticity and Exoticism in Omnivorous Food Culture”. Cultural Sociology. 2016 doi: 10.1177/1749975516668709
Merin entered the PhD program knowing that she wanted to work with Professors Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann on research related to the sociology of food. Intrigued by their research on Foodies (2007; 2015) which builds on omnivorous cultural theory and highlights the persistence of inequalities within gourmet food culture despite its increasing democratization, Merin was curious about the ethno-racial inequalities that are embedded in foods being seen as “authentic” and/or “exotic.” This curiosity marked the genesis of her practicum paper.
Merin enrolled in the Research Practicum in 2013 and immediately set out to collect the data she needed for the paper. Her background in anthropology, working within the areas of ethnicity and food, provided her with the substantive knowledge and methodological skills needed to carry out the research. The data collection consisted of conducting 20 semi-structured qualitative interviews with foodies of colour in Toronto. She then analyzed these interviews alongside five additional interviews with foodies of colour that were shared with her from work done for one of Professor Johnston’s related research projects.
Merin’s analysis finds that the frames of “authenticity” and “exoticism” each possess the potential both to encourage cross-cultural understanding and to essentialize or exacerbate ethno-cultural difference. Study participants in this project drew from foodie discourse to determine what they considered “good food”, but they also critiqued it for perpetuating ethno-racial inequalities, such as by making them feel tokenized or “Othered” in the process. On an individual level, participants’ own ethno-racial identities provided them with greater access to cultural capital because they had (or were perceived to have) ties to foods that foodies often valorized – others often looked to them to pass judgement on a food’s “authenticity” or have insider knowledge into the “exotic.” In her paper, Merin stresses that this does not mean, however, that the frames of “authenticity” and “exoticism” necessarily disrupt the racial and economic ideological structures propping them up. Ultimately, the endowment of cultural capital in foodie culture is still attained through economic privilege and at the expense of reinforcing stereotypes that sustain ethno-racial inequalities.
While writing her paper, Merin received valuable feedback from her practicum supervisors, Josée Johnston, Monica Boyd, Ann Mullen, Ronit Divonitzer, and Phil Goodman as well as fellow students in her cohort. Merin particularly appreciates that the format of the practicum gave her practice presenting her paper orally in front of the group, and gave her insight into questions that the research commonly raises. Merin then submitted and presented a draft of the paper for presentation at the American Sociological Association and Canadian Sociological Association annual meetings that year. Feedback from these presentations helped to further refine the paper for publication. She submitted the paper to Cultural Sociology the following year, and it was accepted for publication. The practicum process ultimately provided Merin with the valuable opportunity to publish a sole authored paper early in her program.
By now, Merin has completed her coursework and is working on a dissertation that she has titled Health and Cooking in Value and Practice: A Mixed Methods Study of Food in Family Life. While still in the general area of sociology of food, the dissertation project charts a slightly different course from the one taken in this paper. In general, her dissertation examines the relationship between peoples’ values and practices when cooking at home, particularly within a context where home cooking is advocated as a key strategy for promoting family health. She uses diverse qualitative and quantitative research methods to explore how and why people cook what they do, while taking into account that the meaning of cooking varies across social positions such as gender, class, and race/ethnicity.