Something Fishy: Connections, Disconnections, and Food

Rahul Ganguly

How we experience food is a manifestation of the social milieu we inhabit; it is something that both sets us apart and brings us together. One of the first ideas that I learnt as a sociology undergraduate was C.W. Mills (1959) seminal concept of the “sociological imagination” which teaches us to not understand events in isolation, but rather to seek to understand social relationships such as that between individual biography and history. As I carry out ethnographic research on food habits and the idea of edibility in my hometown Kolkata, India this idea kept coming back to me in a strange way.

When one thinks of eating one often thinks of it in terms of individual and idiosyncratic tastes, preferences, and so on. People can articulate their personality or defining characteristics in terms of their food “choices,” so to speak. It is important, therefore, to rethink whether eating indeed is something so “personal,” or whether a “sociological imagination” might take us further. Do people like or dislike similar things? Do people feel the same emotions towards similar kinds of food? Is there something about taste that makes present a collective identity? These are the kinds of questions that spring to my mind as I conducted by research in Kolkata.

In West Bengal, fish is a big part of people’s daily diets. However, in the course of my fieldwork, a few people I spoke to told me that the reason they did not eat fish is because they were disgusted by its texture. One of my respondents, a 24 year old woman, tells me, “what causes the greatest revulsion in me is the macher tel [oily part of the fish]. The very look of it causes me to want to throw up and that’s why I’ve never been able to eat fish.” Another respondent, a man in his 70s, tells me that “fish eating was a regular affair since my childhood but I personally found it very difficult to eat fish unless it was fried very well and made crisp. The slimy feeling… You know right? That made it very difficult for me to eat fish because it would make my skin crawl.” Echoing similar feelings another respondent tells me “I only like to eat fish fry or prawns… Now they are very expensive so I don’t eat them much but apart from that I don’t like any other kinds of fish… Actually it’s not even about liking. I am not able to eat it. The soft, slimy nature of fish makes me feel very weird and just by looking at that slimy part I imagine how disgusting it may well smell and taste.”

These are just a few excerpts expressing why people – unknown to each other and from different social locations in terms of age, gender and apparent social location – chose not to eat fish. It’s difficult to not see the overlaps. This brought to my mind the sociological category of habitus developed by the French theorist Pierre Bourdieu (1984). In Bourdieu’s (1984) formulation, habitus is intimately tied to the idea of a kind of ‘social unconscious’; the capacity for tastes and social action to shaped by one’s class and structural position. The findings here speak to this idea.

Despite other differences such as gender, age, specific geographical location and so on, why did some persisting similarities of taste emerge? Does it require us to be sensitive to class as a factor of consumption capable of generating a relationship between habitus and taste? While not submitting to an ahistorical and transcendental idea of class, do we need to rethink class as a form of belonging organised around consumption, including, of course food. This can help us understand better what might be happening in this fishy example.

Look at what comes up again and again: “slimy”, “oily”, “disgust” and so on. While this sample is by no means enough to generate any kind of theory about how a transcendental dislike for fish emerges, it does make us think of certain sociological questions. Firstly, although eating is a deeply individual and personal activity at one level, at another level it relates to a notion of edibility that cannot be reduced to the individual (see Jean Pierre Poulain’s blog in this series on cultural definitions of edibility). There are socially generated archetypes of “qualities” of food items – such as the slimy nature of fish oil – that are not value neutral judgements. They associate these items with the inedible. Secondly, while these social judgements are discursively constructed, they do not inhabit the universe of pure discourse. They are capable of generating, and in fact do generate, material impacts on the people eating to the point of causing physical repulsion.

This shows us that in the realm of  food, just like in so many other realms, the affective and the discursive, or the physical and the mental, do not stand apart but exist in a continuous relationship with each other. In the context of music, Sukanya Sarbadhikary (2015) argues that Vaishnava soundscapes (a Hindu religious denomination largely in West Bengal, India), which are both external and internal to the body, are both culturally structured and experienced at the most intensely affective, material levels. Scholars such as Nancy Scheper Hughes (1987) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (2010) too have called for the need to move beyond the Cartesian mind-body duality and engage with far more immanent conceptions of experience. Such arguments help us to think of the idea of food as one that is a material-semiotic complex, irreducible to either.

To conclude I would like to share another excerpt. My respondent tells me “I can’t eat khicdi [a sort of dish made with rice, lentils and vegetables] because the colour and the feel of it reminds me of vomit. It absolutely disgusts me and I have tried many times but I can’t eat it.” Here again we see what I written about in this blog. Where does the negative association of vomit and colour and texture come from? Both from a socially-produced idea of vomit as an aberration, and from the internalisation of that idea to the extent that it is a tangible, personal sensation. The texture of food, involving sense – mediated through sight, smell, touch, taste and so on – is “biological” and “cultural.” Although I did not want to end on such an unpleasant note, understandings of food connect – and sometimes divide – us all.

Rahul Ganguly has completed an MA in Sociology from Presidency University, Kolkata and at present is preparing for a PhD. His research interests range from primarily the relationship between ethnicity and political geography to sociology of sports and sociology of food. That aside he enjoys watching and playing football and spending his time reading whatever he can.

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