“I think that sometimes you should be careful about…not to…you know, expose yourself all the time on Facebook…or Instagram, like a health freak, I think. I don’t know but…yeah, sometimes you can think, ‘really, come on’…you did actually eat a pizza yesterday, you know…” (Nynne, young Danish woman, living in a provincial town).
Although everybody has to eat every day, knowing how to present your relationship with food in social contexts can be challenging as the example above illustrates. Should you only post your carrot sticks on Instagram and run the risk of being seen as a ‘health freak? Or should you post your take-away pizza on Facebook and run the risk of being seen as a ‘sloppy cook’? Shopping, cooking and eating are, on the one hand, fairly routinised activities, where preparing and eating food is taken for granted by most people, most of the time (Warde, 2016). On the other hand, food is a contested subject culturally and politically, and people will come across discourses, images, other people’s practices that often lead them to question their own food routines. The mediatisation of culture and its digitalisation and saturation into everyday life further embeds this process.
In Denmark, like so many other parts of the world, people are confronted with competing dietary advice such as ‘low carb, high fat’, ‘paleo’ and ‘new Nordic’. Thus, there is the potential that many Danes are having to question and perhaps feel obliged to, or excited by the possibility of changing their food consumption practices – perhaps with the aim of making them more healthy, more climate friendly and or more morally informed. These pressures are considered so severe, with too much information circulating, that the Danish Food Agency recently launched a campaign against what they call ‘fake news’ on healthy diets, targeting social media content about alternative dietary advice (Foedevarestyrelsen.dk, August 2018).
In this article, I seek to offer some empirical examples showing how Danes attempt to navigate and negotiate what to do about food consumption in their everyday lives, when their routines are being questioned and their food practices become explicitly morally framed. I theorise this by drawing on ideas about the normative aspect of social action.
Across a number of qualitative studies about food practices among groups of Danish consumers that I have conducted, there have been some interesting empirical similarities in how they managed different kinds of normative questioning related to their shopping, cooking and eating habits. This led me to revisit the notion of social norms. The sociological concept of ‘social norms’ has received very little attention among qualitatively-working scholars in recent years. But, in my work I have drawn on this notion and found it productive for making sense of the similarities found in the ways different social groups contested food practices across a range of everyday or mundane settings. I found two critical dimensions: the expectable and the acceptable.
I draw on a practice theoretical approach, where the practices and how they are performed are understood as the analytical units, while the individual is a crossing-point of multiple overlapping practices in everyday contexts (Reckwitz, 2002). I deliberately use the term ‘conduct’ in relation to food, because I am focusing on the normative aspects of shopping, cooking and eating practices – the mundane normativity. Even the most routinised food activities in everyday life are saturated by normative notions of how things should be done, implying some kind of social regulation of how they are to be competently and appropriately carried out (Wheeler, 2017). In other words, conduct represents what is understood as conventional within mundane practices. Media discourses about food can be seen as both affecting and being used by citizens in their everyday life negotiations of such conventionality.
There are two aspects to such conventionality (Halkier, 2017). First, how socially expectable are the particular ways of shopping, cooking and eating? Here the food enactments and negotiations are to do with the extent, the regularity and the normalisation of specific patterns of these activities. For example, to what degree can you, as a young Dane, expect to serve a take-away pizza at a get-together you are hosting? Second, how socially acceptable are particular ways of providing meals and subsequently how you eat them? Here the food enactments and negotiations are to do with the degrees of social and cultural legitimacy of specific patterns. For example, are there situations where it is not acceptable for young Danes to eat a take-away pizza?
In what follows I offer two examples of enactments of the expectable in food conduct among Danes. Both examples come from studies which investigated more so-called convenient ways of providing meals, but among Danes occupying different places across the life course. Convenience food is a contested meal practice, elsewhere, as well as in Denmark, due to its connotations with being less healthy. In contrast, meals cooked from scratch are often positioned as ‘proper’ meals. The quote below comes from a study of young (20-25 years) Danes, living in provincial towns (Halkier, 2017). Johnny, one of the young men in the study, explains that for him, convenience food has become a normal, expected part of young people’s diet:
”I tend to think that everybody does it. You know, if somebody said they didn’t, my first thought would be that they are lying…you know, it just seems to have become part of your, yeah…that it’s not a wrong thing to do, it’s as if it’s just very natural” (Johnny)
Even though Johnny concludes that convenience food is socially expected, because “everybody” eats it and therefore he categorises it as “natural”. However, he also appears to have a need to legitimize this expected practice by adding “it’s not a wrong thing to do”.
The second example I offer here comes from a study about Danish families who subscribe to a meal box scheme (1) (Jackson et al, 2018). Although the quote below is about a quite different kind of food conduct than that discussed by Johnny, Hanne seems to also perceive a form of meal provisioning as socially expected nowadays:
“Yesterday, we had pasta. No, we had that thing from the meal-box, but then I changed it a little bit. It was brisket with squash, carrots and tomatoes, and then with macaroni on the side. And then it actually said, it had to be raw, but then I thought that Peter [the son], he is not so super enthusiastic about the raw stuff, so we just threw everything together in the pan and then mixed it, and put the brisket in. Then it became more ratatouille-ish, and then brisket and macaroni “(Hanne).
In accounting for the process of cooking the day before, Hanne shows that the expectation is to adapt the family meals to the different tastes of the various family members, no matter how the providers of the meal box scheme have initially conceived of the recipes.
As the quote from Johnny suggested, young Danes must negotiate how socially acceptable convenience food might be. The following example comes from a focus group discussion among young women:
Ingrid: “This one, this is only okay when you’re alone.”
Several women at the same time: “It’s hash-mash.” (2)
Ingrid: “Ready-made hash-mash. It’s…”
Ingrid: “It’s a no-go.”
The apparently indignant contributions into the discussion about when you can eat this particular dish did not leave much doubt about the social legitimacy of eating frozen, ready-made hash mash. This is a socially unacceptable food conduct.
I argue that the kind of food conduct that becomes constructed as unacceptable or only partially acceptable tells us a lot about what counts as legitimate food practices. Even in an era where more families are choosing more convenient forms of food, many work hard to legitimise their use of convenience food. Here Gro explains that despite subscribing to a meal box scheme – it can be socially acceptable because:
“I can have a good conscience because I know that someone has reflected upon this [the contents of the meal box], and that it’s okay. And that it’s organic and that it’s good and that it’s green, and yes, that it’s okay.” (Gro)
Gro manages to say “okay” twice in a short space of time, which suggests she is working hard to legitimise this practice. She explains how the meal box scheme helps her ‘live up to’ a number of normative demands on modern family food, such as sustainability and quality.
In offering up these few empirical examples, I have attempted to illuminate how conventionality in practice theory might be more concretely conceptualised to investigate the intermingling of the routinized and the discursively contested. Food consumption and practices of provisioning, cooking and eating offer important examples of how consumption generated by everyday practices are not only highly routinised, but are also continuously discursively questioned through the multiple messages being promoted within the media, through families, across generations and within social groups. All these, sometimes contradicting and at times overwhelming articulations of socially expectable and acceptable practices affects the everyday enactment and regulation of ‘proper’ food conduct.
(1) Meal box schemes is a food service scheme, where the consumer digitally orders a box for a particular number of persons and number of meals. The box is delivered to the home address with pre-measured amounts of food stuffs and a step-by-step recipe for each of the meals.
(2)‘Hash-mash’ is a traditional Danish way of using left-overs – throwing everything into a pan and warming it up together, like the English ‘bubble and squeak’ or the Swedish ‘pyt i panna’
Foedevarestyrelsen.dk, August 2018: https://www.foedevarestyrelsen.dk/Nyheder/Aktuelt/Sider/Nyheder_2018/Regeringen_vil_oplyse_for_bedre_madvaner.aspx.
Halkier (2017). Normalising convenience food? The expectable and acceptable places of convenient food in everyday life among young Danes, Food, Culture & Society, 20, 133-51.
Jackson, P., Brembeck, B., Everts, J., Fuentes, M., Halkier, B., Hertz, F.D., Meah, A., Viehoff, V. and Wenzl, C. (2018). Reframing convenience food, London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Reckwitz, A. (2002). ‘Toward a Theory of Social Practices. A Development in Culturalist Theorizing’, European Journal of Social Theory, 5, 243-63.
Warde, A. (2016). The practice of eating. Cambridge, Polity.
Wheeler, K. (2017). ‘The moral economy of ready-made food’, The British Journal of Sociology, 68, 1-22.
Bente Halkier is professor at Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and her research focuses on food and contested consumption in everyday life. She is currently leading a research council funded project, ’Proper’ food under economic constraints: Gendered food practices and dietary health among socioeconomically disadvantaged. She has published on contested food consumption in e.g. Critical Public Health; Journal of Consumer Culture and Public Understanding of Science.