Review: The Agency of Eating

Erica Zurawski

Emma-Jayne Abbots. The Agency of Eating: Mediation, Food and the Body. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. ix, 192 pp.

In The Agency of Eating, Emma-Jayne Abbots undertakes the burdensome task of challenging scholarly notions about eating and the ways it can be studied. In her dense theoretical foray into the processes of consumption, Abbots seeks to unite the eater, food, and knowledge to demonstrate the entanglement of matter and meaning-making. By doing so, she makes a strong case for expanding the boundaries of interdisciplinary food studies scholarship by reconsidering the practice of eating through the relation between the feeling body and the politics of food. Even though the path she traces to make her argument is complex, she consistently holds one simple idea at the fore: that food should be treated as food.

Abbots builds on her own ethnographic research in Jima, Ecuador, in tandem with other ethnographic and autobiographical accounts to articulate the relation between eater, food, and knowledge through two specific processes: bounded vitalism and bio-authorial construction. Through these processes, she demonstrates the agency of food and of the eater’s body in the making of matter and meaning within all aspects of eating. She intentionally focuses on the estranged and seemingly benign places where people eat to exemplify just how fruitful this methodology can be.

In chapter two, she examines her own ethnographic experience of eating cuy, or roasted guinea pig, in Jima, Ecuador, to demonstrate the material embodiment of proximity and kinship through symbolically-charged food. In chapter three, she further studies the embodiment process at play through the consumption of cuy, this time within the context of migrant eating experiences. This contrast between chapter two and chapter three allows Abbots to articulate the capacity for food to simultaneously distance and re-root, construct and deconstruct, assimilate and differentiate. This dialectic alone exemplifies her complex perspective. Through the migrant experience, she reveals that eating can function to build meaning for an individual in the present but can also collapse time and space.

Abbots turns to local food festivals, heritage food, and nationalized food in chapter four, continuing her study of how food creates proximity and distance by focusing on its ability to create bonds of kinship between bodies. Chapter five proposes a more political approach to global and alternative food. In this chapter, Abbots emphasizes that the study of eating practices and processes is critical to demonstrate the inherently political nature of bodily experiences. Finally, chapter six continues to engage with the political potential of food through the frame of GMOs and organic food debates. This chapter neatly solidifies her point regarding the ability for eating and the body to have agency in social and political change.

As this book aims to condense diverse theoretical influences, it should be understood as a set of building blocks, rather than as a completed edifice. For that reason, the book will be most beneficial to those interested in the potential avenues by which methodological approaches to eating, food, and knowledge can generate significant shifts in thinking and conceptualizing our world. Abbots’s methodology, recounted through her own experiences, offers an intriguing and potent case study for anyone conducting ethnographic research. It is worth mentioning that this book does not attempt to be a comprehensive and complete examination of all the potential applications of its methodological and theoretical contributions. In fact, it leaves room for developing some of the categories that the author does not address.

In my opinion, the absence of discussion regarding theorizations of difference or systems of oppression was quite jarring, but at the same time, Abbots repeatedly references the areas and ways in which her contribution can be expanded. For this reason, I found The Agency of Eating to be an earnest call to action, rather than a be-all-end-all opus. Abbots’s own words succinctly capture this necessary consideration: “Productive conversations take place at the very edges of disciplines and theoretical schools, and that it is in exploring these jagged intersections that we can pry open new possibilities and new ways of thinking…Acknowledging the multifaceted character of food…requires a fluid approach that involves stitching elements of seemingly estranged perspectives together to better account for food’s myriad dimensions” (5).

Abbots’s book provides researchers with an abundance of potential avenues to integrate into their work. I undoubtedly will be returning to this text in my own interdisciplinary research and engage anew with the questions that it summons. If there is but one thing to take away from Abbots’s work, it is the potential that a focus on the emotive body holds for the future of food studies, grounded in the fact that food is food and should be treated as such.


Erica Zurawski is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research traces the genealogy of food justice movements and looks to situate food justice organizing within their unique historical, geographic, political, and social convergences to better understand the manifestations of power, oppression, resistance, and contestation. She tweets @OnTheTableBlog.