According to demographic forecasts, the world’s population will reach nine to ten billion by 2050. One of the central issues related to population growth is nutrition and the impact of food oversupply. These developments also present great challenges to research. A basic research project supported by the Austrian Science Fund FWF is now set to add a new take on the problem from the perspective of development sociology. Using Vietnam as a case study, researchers from the University of Vienna investigate the changes in global eating patterns and examine the meanings people nowadays assign to food and their “consuming” bodies.
Gaining an empirical understanding
After years of war and food shortages, Vietnam is currently experiencing an upsurge in food diversity and a boom in modern eating culture and eating trends, as observed worldwide, particularly in urban areas. “Eating is increasingly seen as an expression of quality of life, lifestyle and a question of affinity”, explains Judith Ehlert from the Department of Development Studies at the University of Vienna. The sociologist has just started out on her three-year FWF project “A Body-Political Approach to the Study of Food”. With her team, she explores the societal impact of changes in eating culture. “The field of food is like a magnifying glass which will help us understand larger-scale societal change processes in Vietnam, but also worldwide”, is how Ehlert describes the aim of the project.
Questions of field research
The project has a clear urban focus with the research conducted in Ho-Chi-Minh City, a metropolis with a population of 7.1 million. There, the scientists from the University of Vienna collect data over a period of about a year. In the process they conduct interviews with experts from a variety of fields such as the media, gastronomy, medicine or dietology. Interviews with focus groups from the general population are designed to provide answers to questions surrounding the issues of eating and age, gender, social affiliation, body concepts and beauty ideals.
Eating connects people, or does it?
Vietnam is of particular interest for science because the country has not been available for research – especially ethnographic research – for a long time. In addition it is currently confronted with significant changes. It was only in the mid-1980s that Vietnam opened itself up to a market economy. Much later, in 2007, the country joined the World Trade Organisation. Ehlert notes that in the case of Vietnam one obvious question must be the extent to which eating, body and lifestyle practices contribute to the identity-building of the emerging middle class and to what extent they contribute overall to social differentiation.
Social distinction, body concepts and beauty ideals
“Even back in colonial times, a thriving child made a difference in terms of social class. Today, well-fed offspring remain evidence of the parents being able to afford enough food. This being said, children are often ‘overfed’”, says Ehlert pointing to problematic health consequences. At the same time, Vietnam has a flourishing slimming and dieting industry, where western and Asian beauty ideals are combined. Bleaching creams are designed to lighten up the skin, and the male ideal of a muscular body can be attained by implanting an artificial ‘six-pack’. “All of these ideals, rules and even culinary gender-related principles are currently under re-negotiation”, notes the sociologist and gives an example: “Prior to the 1980s, public ‘eating places’ were male dominated. While these gender boundaries are becoming less strict, certain socially ascribed roles persist. Men prefer their coffee strong, bitter and black, while women go for iced coffee with thick, creamy evaporated milk, a drink with female connotations.”
Judith Ehlert is a Post-Doc in the field of Development Sociology at the Department of Development Studies at the University of Vienna. Prior to this position, the sociologist was a researcher at the Centre for Development Research, Department of Political and Cultural Change of Bonn University. Specialised in development sociology, Ehlert’s research focuses on food, body and beauty ideals, the environment and social spaces.