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Course Information

Instructor Info:Alan Goodman
Office Extension x5372
TA Info:Elana Brown
Sarah Brewer
Lauren Deutsch
Term: 2014S
Meeting Info: Tuesday Thursday
10:30 AM - 11:50 AM Cole Science Center 333
10:30 AM - 11:50 AM Cole Science Center 333

Overview and Course Objectives

The anthropology of food and nutrition is a relatively new field of study, some thirty years old, which examines cultural and biological processes through the lenses of food and its constituent nutrients.   Key questions concern how resources become culturally defined and made into foods and how food and nutrition come to have biology, ecological, evolutionary, and sociopolitical consequences.  In other words, food and nutrition, key resources and powerful symbolic actors, are the nexus for thinking about interrelationships among ecological, evolutionary, human biological and sociopolitical processes.  What are the forces that determine what is edible, food availability, consumption patterns and the consequences of consumption?  The first objective of this course is to provide an introduction to this exciting and highly interdisciplinary area of study.

The main questions that we address concern eating patterns and behaviors: Why do we eat what we eat?  Clearly, we eat foods for sociocultural reasons and we need to eat foods for biological reasons.  Food is derived from the environment, and woven into our social structures and belief systems.  Food also contains nutrients (and other biochemically active substances) which fuel cells and allows us to function -- grow, work, resist disease, think and live. 

Food is both good to eat and good to think (Claude Levi-Strauss).

How do the social and the biological interact, for better or worse, and help to explain food behaviors?  How did our digestive system evolve and why might fast foods and high fructose corn syrup exacerbate an epidemic of obesity and diabetes?  How do we think about such diverse foods and eating behaviors such as cannibalism and Coca-Cola consumption, locally produced bread and kitchen gardens, eco-kosher and the Slow Foods Movement, the Atkins diet and genetically modified foods (GM foods)?  Questions and problems about eating patterns and biosocial interactions are the central foci of the growing field of nutritional anthropology, and this course.

We know a great deal about protein-energy malnutrition,

almost everything in fact, except what causes it, how to prevent it,

and what it costs society not to do so. (Doris Calloway)

As we sit in class, much of the world's population continues to suffer from the "silent epidemic" of under-nutrition. About ten million children die each year from complications of undernutrition, about 100 children will die while you read this page, and as many as 70% of the world's population chronically suffers from some degree of undernutrition.  This problem is ecologically and biologically rooted, and is equally linked to politics and economics.  Anthropology is one way to connect the political-economic with local issues of ecology, and to see how change is generated and affects individuals and communities.  A second objective of this course is to provide a sense of the silent epidemic of persistent hunger and malnutrition, and as Calloway notes in the quote above, what causes it, what are its consequences, and how to prevent it.  How does malnutrition differ in Holyoke, Mass. from Highland Mexico?  What are the health consequences of the globalization of diets? How is it that enduring undernutrition persists along with a growing pandemic of overnutrition and obesity in such an interconnected world?  What can international nutrition contribute?  What can an anthropological perspective contribute?

Course Structure and Requirements:

Students are required to be active members of this course.  Showing up for class is not sufficient: those who are not contributing actively will be dropped from the course.  Classes will be a mix of mini-lectures, labs for learning basic methods, discussions and debates. 

Grades and evaluations will be based on class participation, as well as:

  • Completion of assigned readings and participation in class discussions (20%)
  • Write-up of 2 lab exercises: 1) on personal dietary consumption and 2) anthropometric nutritional assessment (10% each).
  • Two Papers: (1) A historical or ethnographic study of a food or food system (20%) and (2) An analysis of a nutritional problem or controversy (rough draft and final paper; 40%). 

Please Note:

 Late Papers will not be accepted. 

Failure to hand papers in on time is grounds for dropping students.

Paper 1 – What Food Tells Us?  Focus on a crop, food or dish of your choice.  Research and write about how the food item came to be (where, when, how), its nutritional value, history (social, economic, political), role in globalization, and symbolism and/or meaning.  Alternatively you might study a local food producer, vendor or other group involved in the production and distribution of food.  The topic selected must be cleared with the instructor.  Paper length =~5-8 pages.  Due 3/13.  

Paper 2 –Nutrition Problems and Solutions.  The two largest nutrition problems today sitting side by side are, paradoxically, undernutrition and overnutrition.  In this paper, focus and write about a nutritional problem.  To write an effective paper, you will need to be very specific and focused.  Don’t write about global obesity.  Rather, take on a topic like the etiology of vitamin A deficiency in Highland Guatemala.  Be sure to consider both sociopolitical and biological aspects.  As above, the topic selected must be cleared with the instructor.  A draft (with complete bibliography) is Due 4/1 and the final paper, ~ 7-10 pages, Due 4/29.


The majority of the readings for this course come from Nutritional Anthropology: Biocultural Perspectives on Food and Nutrition (DL Dufour, AH Goodman, GH Pelto; 2012; Oxford U. Press).  These and other short pieces are available on the course website as PDF files. The book can also be purchased through a variety of booksellers.  In addition, we will read Growing Up in a Developing Community(A Chavez and C Martinez, 1979, INN: Mexico).  Growing Up is on the course website as a PDF.