Social Science blog

9 posts from April 2013

03 April 2013

Food and fear

What do the British Library's collections offer to those interested in examining issues around food, fear and risk?

A recent news story about 'dangerous' triangular flapjacks (!) which have been banned in an Essex school prompted me to think about the different ways that foods can be perceived to be risky, and to the varying degrees of proportion in how we respond to risks around food.

Risky foods and food scares (in varying extremes) seem to be constantly in the news, ranging from large-scale cases of contamination - such as the horsemeat scandal - to daily stories about the possible threats and benefits of consuming too much, or too little, of a particular food type. Our cultural obsession with the potential dangers of too much/too little food, contamination through eating (though additives and suspect ingredients which might make us ill, destroy our health, ruin our beauty or make us age etc.) can be seen beyond the news stories we see everyday. Indeed, we probably all remember literary examples of dangerous foods from the stories we read as children (from Snow White's poisoned apple, to other examples of tempting foods as a currency of evil such as Edmund's Turkish delight in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). In the academic realm, managing risk to children through diet and nutrition is a huge topic across the disciplines and is a major subject for many of the cohort and longitudinal studies as well as being explored by research groups such as Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent.

  Feedingbottle

  Public Domain Mark The 'Frances' Regulated Feeding Bottle, 1981. Evan.6704 

The British Library's collections are of particular value to those seeking to examine and understand changes in social and cultural practices. For example, the Library's collections enable a historical examination of changes in knowledge and culture around feeding, especially in relation to children and families. These show that managing risk and promoting health through carefully planned diets and feeding schedules are not new concerns. The Library's collections include many child reading manuals from the 1850s onwards, such as:

Baker, Benson (1880) ‘Milk for Babes:’ How to Feed an Infant. London: Bailliere, Tindall & Cox. 

Bull, William (1890) How Shall I Feed My Infant? Hints and Suggestions Valuable to Those in Charge of Children. London: Dodds. 

Doctor. (1898) Baby Feeding: A Doctor’s Advice to Mothers on the Rearing and Management of Infants. Bristol: John Wright & Co. 

Like many people, I am always drawn to the accounts about health, risk and food that appear in newspapers. I'm constantly thinking about our family's food (and navigating our different food allergies!) and am fascinated by how risks around food are communicated, perceived and managed by individuals and families. The sociology of risk and 'risk culture' has become a useful tool for framing these discussions and I have found on the British Library's Ethos service numerous PhD theses which examine food risk from this perspective. The first couple of examples that the search engine pulls up are:

Coulson, Neil Stewart.(2000) Concepts of healthy eating and perception of food related risks in children and adolescents. University of Exeter.

Shaw, Alison.(2000) What are 'they' doing to our food?: expert and lay understandings of food risks. University of Bristol.

With my family's allergies to think about, I've found that the access the British Library provides to scientific papers exploring the causes, effects and management of food allergies an invaluable way of reading around the subject and understanding 'risks' in a way that enables my ability to make informed decisions as a parent. I'm not sure that the journals will have much to say about the hazards of the triangular flapjack…but still I feel confident enough to leave these at the very bottom of my own list of food-related risks.

This post was written by Sarah Evans and any views expressed are her own.