Working Paper 2018-02

Eating for Taste and Eating for Change: Ethical Consumption as a High Status Practice

Emily Huddart Kennedy, Washington State University

Shyon Baumann, University of Toronto

Josée Johnston, University of Toronto

UT Sociology Working Paper No. 2018-02

March 2018

Keywords: cultural capital, food, ethical consumption

Full Article


Abstract

Under what conditions is ethical consumption a high status consumption practice? Using unique food consumption survey data on both aesthetic dispositions and ethical consumption, we investigate how these orientations to food are related. Existing research points to two relatively high cultural capital consumer identities: the ‘foodie’, who defines good taste through ‘authentic’ aesthetic standards and the ‘ethical consumer’, whose consumption is driven by moral principles. However, ethical consumption can also be practiced in inexpensive and subcultural ways that may not conform to dominant status hierarchies (e.g., freeganism, food swaps, etc.). In order to better understand the complex cultural terrain of high-status consumption, we investigate how socioeconomic status (SES) is related to foodie and ethical consumer practices and preferences. Using a k-means cluster analysis of intercept survey data from food shoppers in Toronto, we identify four distinct clusters that represent foodies, ethical consumers, and ethical foodies. Through multinomial logistic regression we find that while high SES consumers can be foodies or ethical food consumers, the highest status consumers prioritize both ethical and foodie consumer preferences. Further, we find that respondents’ reported shopping locations and meat consumption corroborate the results of the regression analyses. The highest status consumers eat in a way that conveys both culinary authenticity and morality. That is, ethical consumption can signal high status when it is simultaneously practiced with an aesthetic disposition. These results are an important addition to literature that examines how food consumption repertoires can produce and reinforce classed boundaries.


The data collection for this project was funded by an Early Researcher Award (ERA08-05-060) from the Ontario Ministry of Research to Josée Johnston.

Professors Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann featured in UTM News

Professors Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann were recently featured in an article on the UTM News Page. The article highlights their research about the food preferences of lower socioeconomic status populations. The findings of their study was published in The Journal of Consumer Culture in July 2017. Professor Johnston is a Full Professor and Professor Baumann is an Associate Professor of Sociology, both with teaching responsibilities at the UTM campus.

We have included an excerpt of the news article below.

What’s for Dinner? New study reveals how low-income diners choose what’s on their plate

Friday, October 27, 2017 – 12:44pm
Blake Eligh

A study from U of T Mississauga is shedding new light on the complex relationship between food, culture and poverty. The study by Professor Josée Johnston and Associate Professor Shyon Baumann of the Department of Sociology investigates how and why people in low socioeconomic households make the food choices they do, and features surprising results about how low-income diners view healthy eating.

Baumann and Johnston previously reported on how diners in higher socioeconomic brackets make food choices. “But relatively little attention has been paid to the taste preferences of those in lower socioeconomic groups,” Johnston says. “We had never systematically looked at low-income consumers to assess how they valued food.”

A peek at a weekly grocery bill doesn’t provide a full picture about what people would actually like to be eating, she says. “We argue that low-socioeconomic-status respondents demonstrate aesthetic preferences that are distinctly different from that of high socioeconomic status cultural consumption.”

“Our study moves beyond daily economic constraints to look at food ideals—what they describe as desirable and how they justify their preferences,” Baumann says.

Read the full article here.

Sociology of Meat

SSHRCThrough much of human history, meat has enjoyed an exceptionally prominent position in our diet. It is both an important source of protein and a cultural product with deep significance. Nonetheless, current and projected levels of meat consumption over the next several decades promise to overtax the food distribution system, push agriculture to more and greater reliance on industrial meat production practices, and exhaust valuable environmental resources.

Professor Josée Johnston and Professor Shyon Baumann have recently begun a new research project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, to study the ideas, beliefs and practices around meat consumption in North America.

They have noted that concerns around industrial-raised meat have coincided with something of a renaissance of meat as a cultural product. Even as tainted meat scandals shock consumers and firms work to allay public fears, meat plays a dominant role on upscale food menus, and butchery skills continue to confer status for chefs and home-cooks alike. Nor has the overall consumption of meat declined.

To study these trends, Johnston, Baumann and their students are scouring contemporary and historic news stories and advertisements related to the meat industry, conducting consumer focus groups, and interviewing meat producers. Despite the growing body of evidence that North American meat consumption is a social and ecological problem, meat carries powerful meanings about class, gender, ethics and taste. In some cases, meat is connected to national identity, and to masculinity.

By understanding how meat consumption is framed in public discourses, this research will help us better understand the social contexts that shape consumer choices about the meat they eat.