Classifying Taste

A Genealogy of Taste in Alternative Food Networks

Stefan Wahlen and Jessica Duncan


In contemporary society, classifications of “good” food are closely intertwined with taste, and hence serve as markers of social distinction. Indeed, food and eating is inherently social, with food serving as a marker for, and in, social relations, and with particular tastes associated to particular social groups. Much of the literature on food and taste suggests that classifications of “good” food emerge from, and are defended by, elite actors seeking to maintain levels of distinction. In this paper we interrogate this assumption by exploring how taste and food are also constructed and contested through the discourses of specific cultural players. We are especially interested in players in the field of alternative food networks. In approaching this research, we do not seek to understand taste as a product of culture, but are interested in the extent to which specific cultural players contribute to ever changing classifications of “good” food, thus how actors in alternative food networks classify taste with regard to food.
Alternative food networks contribute to classifying taste of food and eating at the levels of the self (e.g. consumers), of production (e.g. farmers), as well as the level of food policy (e.g. certification). As such, we argue that these players are active in the creation of normative classifications of food (e.g. good food) that extend beyond their networks. The classifications and contestations of cultural players in alternative food networks can accordingly be considered in processes of moralizing and politicizing food and taste. The resulting classifications serve as empirical examples how these moralities and processes of politicization unravel.
Applying a genealogical approach, we deconstruct how different discourses emerging from alternative food networks contribute to understandings and classifications of taste. We analyse empirical examples from Germany and the UK which serve to highlight how the classification of “good” food has historically developed so as to shed light on the assumptions and implications of contemporary classifications. In selecting our cases we address the critique that many alternative food networks are often inherently elitist. Further, given that many alternative food networks do not have good food as a key objective (Slow Food being the obvious exception), we are able to examine how the discourses of alternative food networks that are not explicitly about good food (e.g. local, environmental, fair trade, low waste) serve to influence societal classifications of what makes good food. In doing so we contribute to contemporary discussions on food and distinction propelling taste as central concept.