Consuming Materialities

Dr Emma-Jayne Abbots

This innovative theoretical project brings together political economy and medical anthropological approaches to explore the ways ‘things’ – and the networks of relations in which they are embedded – are assembled, disassembled and reassembled through acts of consumption and ingestion. Building on a supposition that each act of consumption both generates and ruptures networks of social relations, the project draws on, but goes beyond phenomenological approaches, technologies of the self and discussions of the post-human. It looks to map out and better understand ways in which encounters between diverse materialities, agencies and socialities are made manifest through everyday processes of drawing objects, ideas and relations into bodies. The project’s initial focus was eating, but this has now broadened to explore other ways in which the body’s boundaries are ruptured, established and made (de)material as it moves through, and consumes, the world around it.

Funding applications are in preparation for:

  • AHRC
  • ESRC
  • Leverhulme Trust

To date, Consuming Materialities has resulted in two edited collections (Abbots and Lavis 2013; Abbots, Lavis and Attala forthcoming), an international conference, and an established research network and involvement in a range of public engagement events.

(with A. Lavis) (eds.), Why We Eat, How We Eat: Contemporary Encounters Between Foods and Bodies, Aldershot: Ashgate.2013   

Why We Eat, How We Eat maps new terrains in thinking about relations between bodies and foods. With the central premise that food is both symbolic and material, the volume explores the intersections of current critical debates regarding how individuals eat and why they eat. Through a wide-ranging series of case studies it examines how foods and bodies both haphazardly encounter, and actively engage with, one another in ways that are simultaneously material, social, and political. The aim and uniqueness of this volume is therefore the creation of a multidisciplinary dialogue through which to produce new understandings of these encounters that may be invisible to more established paradigms. In so doing, Why We Eat, How We Eat concomitantly employs eating as a tool - a novel way of looking - while also drawing attention to the term 'eating' itself, and to the multiple ways in which it can be constituted. The volume asks what eating is - what it performs and silences, what it produces and destroys, and what it makes present and absent. It thereby traces the webs of relations and multiple scales in which eating bodies are entangled; in diverse and innovative ways, contributors demonstrate that eating draws into relationships people, places and objects that may never tangibly meet, and show how these relations are made and unmade with every mouthful. By illuminating these contemporary encounters, Why We Eat, How We Eat offers an empirically grounded richness that extends previous approaches to foods and bodies.

 (with B. Coles) ‘Horsemeat-Gate: The Production of a Neoliberal ‘Scandal’  in Food, Culture and Society 16 (2013)

Academic and lay debates about food variously articulate the ways in which contemporary food provisioning systems are inherently problematic and unstable. Drawing evidence from the seeming prevalence of adulteration scandals, moral panics and other food crises, these debates reproduce a set of entangled moral discourses about food, its consumption and production. Within these discourses, ideological lines are drawn, and particular types of consumers (typically poor and working class), particular types of producers (those that produce for the agri-industrial food complex) and particular types of retailers (typically "budget" and "corporate" supermarkets) are vilified as the loci of all that is supposedly wrong with food. Missing, however, is a more nuanced social and cultural reading that unpacks these discourses and analyses failings within food through multiple lenses such as class, social deprivation, and their multi-scaler geographical implications. Using the recent horsemeat scandals that dominated headlines in spring 2013, the purpose of this commentary is to unpack and disentangle these discourses of food. We argue that "what is wrong with food" is less related to its systems of provision, but rather more the ways its various agents are discursively cast and subsequently moralized as perpetrators of a globalized and industrial food system.