Initial food science fieldwork

This week, Tina and I did our first few food science field interviews. The people we’ve met, the practices we observed, and the things we learned are fascinating to say the least.

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In a broad sense, we are using at-home food experimentation as a lens to study citizen communities. We want to know how knowledge is scaffolded and transferred between these groups, what roles materials play in shaping and constraining quotidian science, and how these practices relate to bigger issues of local and global food security and sustainability.

Materials. We are interested in a wide range of quotidian food science practices, including fermenting cheese, brewing kombucha, culturing sourdough, foraging for wild edibles, pickling vegetables, or selecting for certain traits in domesticated plants. This type of work is inherently materially-oriented.

DSC_0093 DSC_0074A big part of our field research examines how materiality shapes quotidian science work, both in terms of access to the physical tools and food products, as well as the phenomenological qualities of the materials being worked with. How do practitioners acquire, appropriate, work with, and share their physical materials? How is food experimentation shaped by the human experiences of taste, smell, texture, sight, and sound of food materials?

Knowledge and expertise. Sure, some food science projects are relatively simple. But others rely on precise conditions (e.g., particular temperatures for yeasts or cheeses), complex care (e.g., “feeding” open air fermentation starters), longer-term engagements (e.g., brewing mead over the course of several weeks), or specialized local knowledge (e.g., identifying non-poisonous edibles while foraging). How are social, digital, and physical systems drawn upon to develop the expertise necessary for doing these projects? How are the unique qualities of working with foods (smell, appearance, taste, passage of time, etc.) communicated and used to troubleshoot projects?

Local issues. Even in our first few preliminary field interviews, we are finding that people do food science for a variety of complex reasons. These range from personal health and the social and cultural aspects of food making, to fulfilling human curiosity through experimentation, as well as the broader goals of finding alternatives to mass-produced, mass-packaged, standardized, processed, commercialized, and transported products. By focusing on food here in Phoenix, our project is directly engaging with the local and global issues surrounding nutrition, food culture, and food security.

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Socially-engaged research methods. I think this project is most similar to my earlier work with Nurturing Natural Sensors. That work presented an ethnographically-oriented account of how practitioners infer environmental conditions by observing living systems, as a form of quotidian environmental science. By focusing on a practice that we all participate in (preparing food), our fieldwork basically removes the distinction between “researchers” and “subjects”. We are quite literally part of the community we are studying, and I imagine we will become even more immersed in food experimentation as we learn new insights from fieldwork. This presents interesting methodological challenges. How should we, as researchers, partner with local groups to gain trust, generate knowledge, and empower the change they seek while holistically taking into account community members’ perspectives?


And yes, we have been extremely lucky to try so many new and delicious things over the past few days. Thank you!


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