A Taste of Inequality: Food’s Symbolic Value across the Socioeconomic Spectrum

Priya Fielding-Singh

Sociological Science, August 10, 2017
DOI 10.15195/v4.a17

Abstract

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Scholars commonly account for dietary disparities across socioeconomic status (SES) using structural explanations that highlight differences in individuals’ wealth, income, or location. These explanations emphasize food’s material value. But food also carries symbolic value. This article shows how food’s symbolic value helps drive dietary disparities. In-depth interviews with 160 parents and adolescents and 80 hours of observations with four families demonstrate how a family’s socioeconomic position in part shapes the meanings that parents attach to food. These differing meanings contribute to distinct feeding strategies across the socioeconomic spectrum: whereas low-SES parents use food to buffer against deprivation, high-SES parents provision food to fulfill classed values around health and parenting. The findings suggest that an understanding of how families’ material circumstances shape food’s symbolic value is critical to fully account for dietary differences across SES.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Priya Fielding-Singh: Department of Sociology, Department of Sociology, Stanford University
Email: priyafs@stanford.edu

Acknowledgements: This research was supported by Stanford University’s Vice Provost for Graduate Education and the Department of Sociology. I thank Tomás Jiménez, Michelle Jackson, Doug McAdam, Jeremy Freese, Christopher Gardner, Marianne Cooper, Caitlin Daniel, Kristine Kilanski, Aliya Rao, Melissa Abad, Jennifer Wang, Anshuman Sahoo, Adrienne Frech, and the students in my course, “The Social Determinants of Health,” for their constructive feedback on various drafts of this article. I am grateful to my collaborators at Hillview Central High School as well as to the families who participated in this research and shared their insights and experiences.

  • Citation:Fielding-Singh, Priya. 2017. “A Taste of Inequality: Food’s Symbolic Value across the Socioeconomic Spectrum.” Sociological Science 4: 424-448.
  • Received: June 15, 2017
  • Accepted: July 2, 2017
  • Editors: Mario Small
  • DOI: 10.15195/v4.a17

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