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Modernity and taste: a study of food, culture and identity in Istanbul

Kesimoglu, A. (2018). Modernity and taste: a study of food, culture and identity in Istanbul. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City, University of London)


This thesis studies the operationalization of culture in Turkish society using sociality of food and eating as its operational laboratory. It is primarily interested in the construction of taste and the organization of social practices in light of Turkey’s complicated socio-cultural constitution, its contested identities and nation state formation, as well as socio-political transitions. Bringing these interconnected elements together, the thesis is interested in deciphering the mechanisms behind the construction of taste in Turkey and the making of social identities in an ever-changing society.

In this regard, the thesis works within the ambit of Bourdieusian theories of culture and aims to present an innovative mode of approaching taste and identity that goes beyond the more conventional static ordering and stratification of culture. Rather, the thesis explores the contradictory positionings that characterize everyday lives of individuals in Turkey (more specifically Istanbul), which can manifest themselves clearly in their food cultures. Food facilitates a unique insight into the active making and remaking of cultural distinctions and identity, since food is about sociality, practice and organization, formality and commensality; and as this thesis will also argue, it also extends to notions of cosmopolitanism, modernity, tradition and authenticity. The thesis uses food as an informative lens to challenge prior manifestations of social positioning based on stable cultural and economic markers of identity. Instead, the thesis identifies expressions of shifting markers and currents of thoughts and attitudes, in particular contrasting accounts of modernity and tradition, as they relate to how individuals distinguish themselves amidst social change in wider society.

The unique findings of the thesis manifest that indeed taste is a complex matter; markers of taste are not necessarily static or stable. As this thesis will highlight, Turkish individuals deploy a situational logic in their practices, which can also manifest itself as an incongruous use of the modern and traditional together. The situational logic behind taste echoes and reaffirms Bourdieu’s theory of the fields; each field has its own ‘general laws’ and ‘specific properties that are peculiar to that field’ (Bourdieu, 1993b: 72, italics in original). This finding alone falls contrary to many works in the literature, which envision a static field of social practices, and supports this thesis’ main argument; food cultures (or cultures for the same matter) are contextual. The unique, non-Western Turkish case study also presents a rather unorthodox showcase of mixed practices across different classes, challenging the notion that class alone can account for differences in social practices. Focusing on lived experiences and evident tensions in social practice, the thesis argues that social positions are a highly fluid matter.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
Departments: Doctoral Theses
School of Policy & Global Affairs > Sociology & Criminology
School of Policy & Global Affairs > School of Policy & Global Affairs Doctoral Theses
[thumbnail of Kesimoglu, Aysegul_Redacted.pdf] Text - Accepted Version
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