Review: Research Methods in Digital Food

Research Methods in Digital Food Studies  book cover

Jonatan Leer and Stinne Gunder Strøm Krogager, eds.  Research Methods in Digital Food Studies. Routledge.  London and New York. ISBN: 978-0-367-81926-2 (hbk);ISBN: 978-0-367-81927-9 (pbk)
ISBN: 978-1-003-01084-5 (ebk) 2021.   Pp.231.

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

Jonatan Leer and Stinne Gunder Strøm Krogager have put together an excellent  collection of studies, bracketed by their informed essays, about the state of studies inf Digital Food Studies. These essays show the diverse nature of digital food research for all scholars, and particularly to anthropologists. They posit a multiplicity of perspectives and issues —textual, ethnographic, processual, and archival—for researchers to address. The editors and the contributors  see Digital Food Studies as a growing field, connecting research and food-related activism through social media, among other modalities.

The book is divided into sections in which different writers present  a comprehensive review of past thinking and case studies about specific topics.  Each chapter also suggests research approaches, do’s and don’ts, exercises in thinking about research, and ethical concerns in doing  Digital/food Research.  This review will cover each chapter so that interested researchers  become knowledgeable about the work done  and issues addressed so far.

Michelle Pollipov extends old ways of looking at the specific text of food presentations in past and present formats—print, tv, and now internet and social media—and offers new  multidisciplinary ways  of enriching analysis. In the past, cookbooks and advertisements  were the main and static forms of text. But You Tube and other online formats present new ways of formatting food and the people who present them. The chef is her brand and her  presentation is  entertainment (See, for example, Reference 1, in the Bibliography, below.)  This combination offers new perspectives and challenges in terms of analyses. Pollipov notes that there are two somewhat different research styles. There is the broad-based humanities style, which can offer interesting insights but is not methodologically rigorous.  And there is  a more narrowly based social science style, which is more methodologically rigorous and can be used in different theoretical formulations. At the end of her essay, she presents a model of researching the ever-changing world of digital food presentation—along  with a necessary addendum on the ethical considerations that must and should be involved (2021:23). 

Katrine Melgaard Kjoer  addresses the phenomenon and success of celebrity chefs on social media.  She reviews past structuralist theorists and the ways in which their different  approaches can be  used to analyze the blossoming of world-wide celebrity chefs, such as Gwyneth Paltrow.  These chefs use all aspects of social media—websites, YouTube and TV, among other forms of media.  One future post-structuralist question she suggests for  this subject is: How are digital media used in framing food as a part of contemporary celebrity brands? Which types of arenas do food advocacy anchor celebrities in, and what may be the pros and cons for celebrities to engage in this work? (2021:37).

Nicolai Jorgensgaard Graakjoer focuses on analyzing websites, particularly celebrity ones,  from a variety of perspectives, particularly feminist ones, and seeing them embedded in the larger cultural discourse.  This approach extends to the materiality of the site itself, which includes the ways in which speech and sound are utilized.  Graakjoer is particularly concerned with the different components of websites—how the different media—screenshots, videos, stills—are utilized and asks that the researcher consider their own positionality in terms of the time of researching and the appearance of the website itself.

 Thomas Mosebo Simonsen and Stinne Gunder Strøm Krogager explore the expanding world of food on YouTube research.  They suggest both qualitative and quantitative research to explore emergence of certain themes, such as gender roles for  the first and trends in the second. They see YouTube as being commercialized  and providing opportunities for people in the food field. They see  media platforms as ever evolving. Citing earlier formulations, everything now is content and data (2021:50.) They advise defining one’s research carefully and bringing  in appropriate theoretical and other methodologies for managing the data provided (2021:62.)  Even though YouTube is public, they still maintain that ethical concerns for privacy should be respected  (2021:62.)     

Tanja Schneider and Karin Eli note the enormous and increasing amount of digital data on food practices. They suggest a multi-dimensional ethnographic approach to looking at all the different players in food, from eaters to restaurants, etc. They are particularly interested in a multi-data collection approach, such as diaries and interviews.  Schneider and Eli are especially interested in how small groups of consumers can influence food politics and policy. They review their work on this activism and feature a food buying app called Buycott, which promotes food transparency and activism (2021.76.)  

 Alana Mann comprehensively  reviews the history and present state of studies of food-related digital activism through social media. She particularly focuses on hashtag activism. She sees it as an effective tool to promote social change in addressing  the needs of marginal or under-represented groups . It  is direct and interactive (2021:89.) Like the other contributors to this volume, Mann posits ”do’s and don’ts.’”

Tania Lewis sees  that digital food research on food activism means going out into the diverse social environments in which her informants are engaging. It is a more comprehensive approach. Following earlier theorists and researchers in media and cultural studies, she expands their approaches by looking at how people do social practice (2021: 104.)  The new food researcher her/himself must use both previously used research methods and equipment and new equipment, such as coming in with camera and cell phone (2021:108.)   Ethically, she argues for a continuing involvement between informant and researcher in data collection and focus (2021:109.)

Meghan Lynch and Kerry Chamberlain propose complex methodologies for researching the food blogosphere: For researchers interested in in-depth interpretative analyses of food blogs, we recommend the research methodology known as netnography (also known as “cyber-ethnography,” “webnography,” and “virtual ethnography”), a methodology that involves adapting ethnographic practice and includes such methods as textual analysis …to the online world (2021: 115.)”   Two types of blogs are  addressed in terms of issues on which to focus—healthy living blogs and weight loss blogs. The first suggests a focus  on social supports; the second notes especially that this involves women and that the researcher should keep gender issues in mind (2021:116-7.)

Camilla Vasquez and Alice Chik explore the changing world of restaurant reviews. Predigital reviews were either by  professional reviewers or commercial companies. The increasing pace of digitalization has allowed new players into the system, including the restaurants themselves and  consumers.  There are good and bad aspects  to this change. More consumers can give their impression of the facility;  more consumers and restaurants can “game” the system as well, one way or another (2021:126.)   The great magnitude of restaurant reviews itself presents research problems and should be considered. So, too, should cultural issues, such as the language used, the cultural background of the reviewer, and the whole issue of  what is “authenticity” in food (2021:As elsewhere, researchers should respect privacy. Vasquez and Chik point the researcher to the Association of Internet Researchers (AOIR) as a resource for ethical research in this area (see Reference 2 in Bibliography, below. and (2021:138.)

 Jonatan Leer proposes that digital media  be even further involved  in action research  (AR), not only textual analysis: “The ambition of AR was, through context-specific interventions, to answer concrete questions relevant to the citizens in question. Also, the researcher should not just observe and evaluate projects and write a report on how that might be done differently. The researcher should collaborate with the people who are part of the context being studied. The ambition is to collectively find durable solutions. Thus, the core values in the knowledge generation process in AR are collaboration, democracy, sharing, experimentation, relevance, and applicability. (2021: 165.) Such research should be many-sided, considerate, and inclusive, where  the researcher should not claim to have all the answers (2021: 173.) 

Fabio Parasecoli looks at the way in which social media feature material culture in terms of their presentations of various aspects of the food world. What is used for cooking, for example? How are kitchens organized? What kinds of materials are used to plate and serve? How  does  food-related material culture so featured  provide a window into the larger culture? Paraspeckle reminds us to  be considerate of ethical issues and to check with our Institutional Review Boards to assure compliance and sensitivity (2021: 187.)

Rachel Kent reviews the challenges of doing consumption and usage of food and drink using digital tracking as well as self-tracking. Digital media and digital devices allow a person to record what  s/he consumes in ways more extensively and accurately than ever before. Moreover, many of these same devices enable a person to review her/his health-related issues both privately and through communication with appropriate health personnel, such as their primary care physician (PCP.)   She suggests multiple interviewing, self-reports, and collecting both online and offline data. Kent then argues for this to be seen in an ethnographic context, that is, not just the data collected but the ways in which the person assimilates and understands those data. One example is on how particular usage makes the informant feel about self (2021: 15 3.) Her recommendations in terms of ethics require even closer attention and monitoring and support for informants (2021:156-157.)  These and other ethical considerations will be addressed further, below.

Caroline Nyvang explores the uses of archived material on the Web. She sees this as a rich resource of past personal and historical material about food practices. Archived material poses data problems in terms of completeness and representativeness. Researchers should be alert to  these issues. Nyvang raises necessary ethical issues about violations of people’s privacy and about  getting permission from  posters regarding posting when doing archival research (2021:197.)

In her Afterword, Deborah Lupton sees a lively and exciting future for food studies. In reviewing the field of food cultural studies, she sees that researchers are beginning to integrate both human and non-human mechanisms to focus on the blossoming of digital food (as well as other areas.)  She posts that there will be many new ways of entry into digital food-related research. Explicit in her recommendations is a multi-disciplinary, multi-media, approach. That would involve big computing ass one modality. In her final words, at least for the present, she looks to her own experimentation:

      “ In my Vitalities Lab, we have been experimenting with design- and arts-based methods which offer alternative approaches to social inquiry. These include zine making, drawing and mapping, and using creative writing prompts to stimulate people’s thinking around research topics. These approaches have the potential to engender imaginaries, affects, memories, and speculations about food and its futures. When applied to digital food cultures, they can operate to emphasise [sic] the materiality of digital media and the entanglements between humans and nonhumans (organic and technological) as images, words, sounds, physical experiences, and sensations are mediated and remediated, shared, and spread. (2021:223.)”

Several  issues and topics that should  have been addressed either wholly or more fully  are the digitalization of all aspects of the food chain, including the refashioning of many restaurants into more customer and worker friendly formats (see, for example, Reference  3, in Bibliography, below.)

One consequence of digitalization that affects consumers is the creation of a digital divide—that is, who  has access to and can use computers  effectively. Supermarkets such as Safeway and restaurants such as  Kentucky Fried Chicken post on-line coupons or offers that are not available in newspapers. For example,  I have seen a supermarket employee spend a  half hour helping/teaching a senior citizen install and use a store app. A digital divide  separates the  market. Kiosk ordering in restaurants  do  the same. This divide may extend to people with certain kinds of limitations as well, both income and disabilities.  In addition, digitalization should be  linked to changes in the labor force in restaurants and in suppliers (See, for example , , Reference 4., in Bibliography, below.)

 Various  contributors, above, note that ethnographic approaches should be followed in terms of digital food use. That should be complemented as well by any ethnography in general where food is likely to be subject to digitalization. An interesting program on Australia Broadcasting Company on the impact of digitalization on working from home and the place of food in the new work model suggests this (See Reference 5, in Bibliography, below.)

Several contributors , above, mentioned archived and social media displays of food. Museums have been getting into digitalization in general  and also in the “food” business in terms of social media and online exhibits  (see, for example, Honeysett 2020: 32-36) and, exemplary  online  food  exhibits, such as in the Museum of Food and Drink site in New York: (See Reference 6 in Bibliography, below.)

One should also not underestimate various space agencies’ contribution to  digitalization and food, as, for example, NASA’s continuing work in this area (See Reference 7, in Bibliography, below.)

Lastly, but not finally, research should focus on digitalization and food for specific populations, such as people with various kinds of disabilities, such as developmental disabilities (see, for example, Reference 8, in Bibliography, below)  and seniors (See Reference 9, in Bibliography, below.)

In terms of ethical issues , all the contributors have  addressed  important considerations, such as privacy, and occasionally the disclosure of personal health information. Some  have noted  that exceptional care should be given  to specific populations. Leer, for example, notes that parents should be asked  to give consent when studies involve interviewing their children  (2021: 174.)  The same should hold true for people who cannot easily give consent, such as  people with  dementia.

Furthermore, exceptional care should be exercised to prevent unnecessary disclosure, even for historical studies. One issue that is not  addressed and should be  is: what is the researcher’s obligation  to remain neutral when an informant is doing something that the researcher consider considers destructive in terms of personal food intake or in terms of political activism online ?  IRBs  (Institutional Review Boards) should make sure these concerns are included.

This book is well-written and resourced. It is especially useful for researchers in the field, graduate and upper division students in  the social sciences, health science, media studies, gender studies, economics, and business.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Articles

2020   Honeysett, Nik, The Digital Awakening. Museum. Nov-Dec. (pp.32—35.)

Web Sites

2021

Reference 5  

https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/rearvision/out-of-the-office%E2%80%94from-telecommuting-to-working-from-home/13575458

(Accessed Nov. 18, 2921)

2021

Reference 2

aoir.org/reports/ethics2.pdf

(Accessed Nov. 18, 2021)

n.d.

Reference  4

modernrestaurantmanagement.com/how-a-digital-workplace-supports-restaurants-through-disruption(Accessed Nov. 18, 2021.)

Reference  7

n.d.

https://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/apollo-to-the-moon/online/astronaut-life/food-in-space.cfm

(Accessed Nov. 18, 2021)

2021

Reference 3

https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescommunicationscouncil/2021/09/23/three-super-sized-digital-changes-to-the-restaurant-industry-that-could-be-here-to-stay/?sh=286b659776ec

(Accessed Nov. 18, 2021)

2021

Reference 9

https://www.grocerydive.com/news/grocers-look-to-help-seniors-bridge-the-digital-shopping-divide/598168/

(Accessed Nov. 18, 2021)

2021

Reference 8

https://www.lookcookandeat.com/) (Accessed Nov. 18, 2021)

2021

Reference 6 

  https://www.mofad.org/ (Accessed Nov. 18, 2021))

2021

Reference 1

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/10/18/the-evolution-of-an-empire-at-momofuku-ssam-bar

(Accessed Nov. 18, 2021)

Review: Research Methods in Digital Food