James, A.  (1990)  'The good, the bad and the delicious: the role of confectionery in British society', in The Sociological Review, Vol 38, No 4: 366 - 85.

Eating confectionery is still very popular in Britain, surprisingly so, given the background of the rise of interest in  'natural', organic foods, body part replacements and the rise of fitness as a  'new populist body technology' (667). There has been an increasing advice to undertake healthy eating, accompanied with food scares: unhealthy eating has become defined as a social problem [almost as a moral panic, with a reference to Hall and Jefferson]. Why is the healthy eating advice not taken and applied? The consumption of confectionery is actually increasing in Britain, and remains at a high rate compared with other European countries such as Italy. Explanations lie in recognising that the diet is socially constructed and that food has important symbolic meanings, based in 'local frames of awareness'  (668, citing Geertz).

Culturally speaking, confectionery is often [officially] seen as an  'evil sprite, tempting and destructive' (669), but it offers a larger market turnover than bread [in 1988]. There has long been an anthropological interest in food, through the work of Levi-Strauss and Douglas, and it is clear that some foods are valued and others shunned. The reason for this is that food is part of a more general social classification: for example, Europeans don't eat dogs, but Asians do, but that's because Europeans see dogs as close to human. Food also plays important part in many social rituals, from sacrifices to the traditional Christmas dinner. Work on the English diet soon reveals a notion of a  'proper', that is cooked, meal, the value of red meat as opposed to white meat or vegetables, and so on (670). Work like Mennell's shows the importance of social class and gender variables in what is acceptable. Given these deep roots in culture, the diet is hard to change: in particular,  'lifestylism -- "the pathologising of typical conduct, the packaging and labelling of social behaviour according to some stereotypical perception of ways of life", is unhelpful as an educative device' (671, quoting from Rodmell and Watts). Lifestyles are not just individually chosen but rooted in social conditions. What is required instead is an analysis of the cultural significance of food, in this case  'the "mythology" of confectionery' (669, preceded by a direct reference to Barthes).

A liking for sweet stuff is common in all cultures, but sweetness is one option in a whole spectrum of tastes and preferences. There is no simple biological determinant of these preferences, but much cultural elaboration instead. The British like sweets more than the Italians, for example. Even those in the sweet industry are baffled about the high demand in Britain -- they have speculated that it is the result of increasing proportions of children, or the development of more working women who snack. However there are no simple  causes, and a more promising line is to investigate the peculiar status of confectionery as both food and non-food. This ambiguous status means that confectionery can take on a particular  'ritual significance' (673)  [just as do the third terms lying between binaries for Levi-Strauss]. Much confectionery seems to be bought on impulse, although it accounts for  '10 per cent of all food expenditure' (673). Even so, it is not seen as food, which can help make it exempt from the warnings about sugary adult food. Nor is it just junk food, since it is not worthless. Douglas has shown how different foodstuffs are structured in the course of a conventional meal, but sweets lie outside these structures altogether, not seen as part of the meal. They become therefore liminal, and thus particularly open to cultural elaboration

In the UK, chocolate was first introduced as a form of refreshment for travellers. Cocoa was initially available only to the rich, so it became first chic, and later  'raffish', associated with gatherings in chocolate houses in London (some of which went on to become famous gentlemen's clubs, like White's). These associations are complemented by a general classification of tastes too, which in Britain means 'positive qualities are attributed to the sweet and salty, with negativity surrounding that which is bitter or sour' (675). This classification is expressed in a number of metaphors about sweetness, which are often associated with feminine qualities, while men are seen as  'worth their salt': other tastes give us terms like sourpuss, sour face, sour grapes.

Sharing food has always been socially important, a special gift relationship. Special foods have taken on particular significance, and confectionery is clearly important here, with chocolates used as an introductory gift or a  'symbol of thanks' (677) Sweets are seen as extraordinary, sometimes because they are expensive luxury foods, but they are also traditional gifts at Christmas or Easter. They are particularly useful here because they are generally acceptable, and do not rely on individual knowledge of the giver or receiver: this makes them particularly suitable for partly depersonalised relationships. U.S. corporations give chocolates to their clients, for example.[But family gifts are not depersonalised?]

Advertisements for confectionery emphasise their specialness, and, supported by well-meaning dietary advice, sweets have become associated with pleasure,  'naughty but nice', offering 'death by chocolate' (679). Giving chocolates is seen as part of a seductive technique, part of the growing  'food pornography particularly for women' associated with confectionery (680, citing Coward). Consuming confectionery is seen as a form of self-indulgence, a cultural immorality. Sweets are commonly used as a reward for good behaviour by children as well, which reinforces these associations, and involves children in making a constant choice between right and wrong foods. James's own work on children show an early grasp of this  'food morality', resulting from the congruence between the cultural and linguistic associations described above. Again, advertisements play on the ambiguities involved -- it is wrong to eat between meals, which makes a Milky Way acceptable; chocolate bars contain  'goodness'; they  'help you work, rest and play' (682). [I have also seen it suggested that packaging helps here as well --  it is hard to resist an opened pack of biscuits or an opened bag of sweets].

Thus sweets represent the  'conceptually more pleasurable aspects of our food domain' (683). James's own earlier work on  'kets', the cheap mix and match sweets meant for kids, argues that these represent the antithesis and inversion of adult food values according to  'name, taste, colour and consumption experiences' (683). Adult sweets are more ambiguous, however and are not just junk food. A splendid diagram on page 684 summarises and systematises the full classification in this article -- the  'core' foods are seen as the classic meat and two vegetables, with more peripheral foods including cheese, salad, pulses, and 'health foods'. Those foods which are rendered as virtually inedible include the sour and bitter, wild berries and foreign food! Different tastes can be combined, as in alcoholic combinations of  'bitter-sweet'. Different dishes come and go in different categories over time -- thus tripe was associated with the poor and has now become a dish for the discriminating. The classifications reflect an  'implicit food morality', so that boiled cabbage or spinach are associated with low life institutional catering and settings, while some foods remain associated with the poor [James includes offal here, one of several occasions on which I wanted to ask how up-to-date this material was]. English favourites such as the sherry trifle combine all the indulgences of alcohol, cake, and other sweet components, and so are valued as especially suitable for celebration.

Overall, the range of confectionery on offer reflects in miniature the whole classificatory system: confectionery is thus not only good to eat but  'good to think with', as in Levi-Strauss  (685). Eating confectionery is liable to persist as a result, despite dietary advice -- because it is so enmeshed in social relationships.

back to key concepts