Taste as a social sense: rethinking taste as a cultural activity

This article outlines what it means to see taste as a social sense, that means as an activity related to socio-cultural context, rather than as an individual matter of internal reflection. Though culture in the science of taste is recognized as an influential parameter, it is often mentioned as the black box, leaving it open to determine exactly how culture impacts taste, and vice versa, and often representing the taster as a passive recipient of multiple factors related to the local cuisine and culinary traditions. By moving the attention from taste as a physiological stimulus–response of individuals to tasting as a shared cultural activity, it is possible to recognize the taster as a reflexive actor that communicates, performs, manipulates, senses, changes and embodies taste—rather than passively perceives a certain experience of food. The paper unfolds this anthropological approach to taste and outlines some of its methodological implications: to map different strategies of sharing the experience of eating, and to pay attention to the context of these tasting practices. It is proposed that different taste activities can be analysed through the same theoretical lens, namely as sharing practices that generates and maintains a cultural understanding of the meaning of taste.

Taste as a social sense

We eat together. Although there is a constant worry that the sociality of the meal is disappearing, this is rather a myth than reality [1]. Commensality is still highly valued across cultures, even though this value is distributed differently [2]. But stating that eating is a social activity does not in itself explain how taste becomes social or culture becomes taste. As it is not the actual substance of the food that you are sharing, it is still individual what you put into your mouth, what you chew, ingest and perceive. This could lead to the argument that to analyse taste as a cultural phenomenon means, primary, to explore how individuals interpret symbolic meanings of food, e.g. the aesthetic judgement of quality in the Kantian way [3], or how the eater interpret food taboos, definitions and cultural schemes of food rules related to different cultures [4]. But there is still a missing link in explaining how this symbolism becomes a habit or a certain taste preference. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has an influential contribution to this with his concept of lifestyle[5] stressing the need to focus not only on ideas and discursive models but also on practice. He explains taste preferences (both the aesthetic judgements and the food choice/other types of consumption) as linked to the distribution of cultural, social and economic capital, and the learning of these preferences as a consequence of social practice [6]. This practice generates a habitus, he argues, that guides our choices more or less unconscious. But it leaves us with a rather passive actor [7] and do not enable us to study how one can change taste preferences [8]. Nevertheless it encourages us to see taste as a social sense, as a shared judgement, learned by actively doing taste rather that passively inheriting it from ‘culture’ [9].

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