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What do you think of when you see or smell your favorite food? On one hand the sight or smell of that food might trigger hunger, or even a memory of the last time you shared that meal with a loved one. The point is, the smell or sight of our favorite food would trigger a different thought or feeling in each of us. This is an example of Semiotics. Semiotics is defined as "anything that can stand for something else." Roland Barthes was one of Europe's most renowned theorists of semiology. Barthes believed that in order to generate a complete sign, there were two parts that have to work together. These two parts are known as the signifier and the signified. A good example of this is your favorite food you thought of earlier, it would act as a signifier, and the thought that came to your head when thinking of this food would act as the signified. Together they create a sign. This is just a simple example of a complete sign.
In her book Semiotics and Communication: Signs, Codes, Cultures, Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz describes the wide use of food as signs, and also as social codes. The reason foods are so useful as signs and social codes is because they are separable, easily adaptive to new environments, and it is not difficult to cook, or eat for that matter. Food is a major part of our daily lives, Not only for survival, but it plays a substantial social role in our lives. We will look deeper into the semiotics of food, how food is used as identity markers, and also the role that foods play in social change in our lives. First let us start with the semiotics of food.
Food as Semiotics
Food is very accessible. Therefore, it has been one of the top choices used in explaining semiotic theory. An important contributor to the semiotics of food is Mary Douglas. She applied her assumptions of semiotics of food as a social code. Douglas and her assistant generated a hierarchical description of the events when people take food. This description is listed below.
1. Food Event-- it is the most general; it refers to an occasion when food is taken, without prejudice
as to whether it constitutes a meal or not.
2. Structured Events-- this refers to social occasions that have been thoroughly organized.
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3. Meal-- this is when food is taken as part of a structured event.
4. Snacks these are unstructured food events in which there are more than one food item
Food as Identity Markers
The most significant function of food that Leeds-Hurwitz includes in her article is that "food serves as an indicator of social identity, from region to ethnicity, from class to age or gender(Leeds-Hurwitz, 90). With this characteristic function of foods one can indicate particular identities with either the absence or presence of it to make a deliberate statement about one's identity. For example, deliberately eating only man made food products to protest cruelty to animals. Food conveys information about many things. Some of them include: ethnicity, social class, and relationship status. These are three of the most popular.
The first is that food indicates ethnicity. This is because different ethnicities, families, and social groups tend to eat foods that are alike. Someone could indicate a family of Italian ethnicity by observing what they eat at meals.
When looking at social class every single food can be a signifier of wealth. A great example of this is Caviar of course! What is signified by Caviar is Wealth!
And finally, when looking at relationships, food can serve as an indicator as to whether you are starting a relationship, or ending one. For example, if a girl was trying to impress her new boyfriend, she might try to cook him a wonderful meal to win his affections.
Food and Social Change
Why Are Foods Among the Last Identity Markers to Be Abandoned?
This is one of the last points that Leeds-Hurwitz addresses in her article. As Kalcik pointed out, "foodways seem particularly resistant to change...because the earliest-formed layers of culture, such as foodways, are the last to erode"(Leeds-Hurwitz, 97). A recent example of this would be when Coca Cola changed their original recipe of their cola. The public did not embrace the new taste. Even though the new taste had proven to be successful in blind taste tests it caused change and it called attention to itself. Therefore, the general public strongly objected to this change because they could not associate this new "Coke" with the one they were used to.
While addressing the issues of food as semiotics, food as identity markers, and the final point of food and social change addressed in Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz article on Food As Sign And Code I have become more interested in the area of semiotics. I hope that I have successfully explained the article, and the theory of semiology. I believe that applying semiotics to such things as food, clothing, ect. gives the theory a more interesting twist.
Leeds-Hurwitz, Wendy. Semiotics and Communication: Signs, Codes, Cultures. pp.83-104.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Hillsdale, NJ. 1993
Griffin, Em. A First Look at Communication Theory. 3rd Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.