University of Sussex
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From agriculture to arteries: a sociological-relational analysis of the food industry, diet, health and class

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posted on 2023-06-08, 15:07 authored by Carolyn Mahoney
This thesis challenges accounts of individual choice and responsibility where food consumption is concerned, beginning with a critique of government policies to address the health effects of over-consumption of food. Whilst research from psychology and economics has acknowledged the role of habit and automaticity in some behaviours, including eating, the resulting theory of behavioural economics and its operationalisation as ‘nudge’ theory does not directly address class differences. I argue that sociological analysis can do so, and discuss the trajectory of social class in social theory in recent decades, bringing together the insights of several theorists to challenge both Giddens’s concept of reflexivity and postmodern notions of consumerism as an equalising force. I demonstrate that social theory can provide a solid underpinning to behavioural economics, and at the same time show the weakness of its policy applications to healthy eating. Given the relative inattention to the structures that shape dietary ‘choices’, in comparison to the study of behaviour, this thesis examines the nature of the food supply and traces how the food industry develops, markets and sites food, and the ways in which it engages, often interactively, with a highly segmented society. The production and targeted supply of processed foods of varying quality contributes to problematic food consumption, particularly among those of lower social status. This phenomenon is further evidenced by an epidemiological review outlining the food-health-class link. Subsequently, I conduct the first sociological analysis of food industry texts (representing food science, product development and marketing), revealing how actors within these disciplines articulate their role, function and concerns regarding current practice. A critique of marketing emerges from both practitioners and marketing academics, and I apply this and an expanded sociological critique to the role of the food supply in diet-related ill health, in which a social gradient is strongly apparent.


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  • Sociology and Criminology Theses

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  • doctoral

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  • eng


University of Sussex

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