We pride ourselves on the research coming out of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Our faculty have contributed to the breadth and depth of the discourse in their research areas. Ranging from political economy to craniofacial growth, those research areas are as diverse as the complex human endeavor our faculty strive to analyze and understand. Ultimately, their fine research aids us in understanding human behavior and relationships, the foundations of human cultures and societies, which each of our faculty explores from a distinct perspective.
Today, we meet Dr. Michaela DeSoucey, who joined the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in the 2012-2013 academic year as an Assistant Professor specializing in culture, markets, and food politics.
I grew up on Long Island, in the New York City area.
Where did you attend college and what did you study?
I went to Swarthmore College, which is a wonderful small liberal arts school near Philadelphia. I majored in sociology, anthropology, and women’s studies. I then worked and traveled for a couple of years before going to grad school at Northwestern University.
How did you discover your chosen field and when did you know it was what you wanted to pursue?
When I got to college, I decided that first semester I was only going to take classes in subjects I had never taken before. I took and loved my sociology of gender class. Swarthmore had a joint sociology and anthropology department like we do here, so my undergraduate training is both anthropological and sociological. It was learning how to think critically about the world in a way that I did not get in high school that drew me in.
What was the focus of your graduate research?
I went into Northwestern wanting to study food and culture when food was not such a hot topic as it is now. I was fascinated by how food interacts with social life in so many different ways. It’s culture, it’s markets, it’s social movements, it’s religion, it’s politics, it’s health, it’s immigration, it’s social change. My main advisor, Gary Alan Fine, was incredibly supportive. I started in 2002, and Michael Pollan’s work became very popular around 2005-2006. The documentary Food, Inc came out in 2008. My master’s thesis was on local food movements, and now it’s gotten way beyond me. It’s so big. It’s been an explosion of interest and people.
At Northwestern, I became very interested in economic sociology and the study of organizational change. I took several classes at Kellogg, the business school. There were a number of smart social scientists over there. I worked informally with several faculty there, including working on a paper about how a social movement becomes a market, looking at grass-fed beef and dairy producers. We used a cultural-sociological analysis approach to look at the structures by which the market formed out of movement values, logics, and tactics. It’s published in Administrative Science Quarterly. It was a fun project.
For my dissertation, I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I knew that I was going to do something about food, something about restaurants, something about social movements, and something about politics. Then, foie gras became a heavily discussed topic in the Chicago food scene. It seemed like just the right angle in to the areas that interested me. I conducted research in Chicago and New York, and interviewed people in other parts of the U.S. as well. And, I got to go conduct research in France! That became my dissertation, foie gras politics in the U.S. and France, which I’m now working on turning into a book. I also wrote a paper that was published in the American Sociological Review in 2010 that is a mixed methods analysis of European Union food politics, with foie gras as the ethnographic case, that introduces my concept of ‘gastronationalism.’
Where did the winds take you after you left Northwestern?
I finished up graduate school in a terrible job market. I was incredibly fortunate to be offered a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton University. Then, I came here to NC State.
What courses do you currently teach?
I am currently teaching Theories of Social Interaction. I taught Sociology of Food last spring and plan to teach that again in the future. At the graduate level, I’m teaching a Global Institutions and Markets seminar in the fall. I’m going to be teaching Principles of Sociology this spring.
Could you describe your teaching style or philosophy?
To get students involved. To get them thinking about their own lives and how their own lives are shaped, but also how history shapes our present. I do a mix of short lectures, videos, media, group work, and different assignments to get students engaged in sociological work as well as thinking.
What do you think are the most important attributes of a good instructor?
The ones who email you back. Seriously, I think a good instructor is a good communicator, is relatively available and flexible but not afraid to put her foot down when she needs to, and is someone who cares about the students as people.
What do you want students to take away from your courses?
I want them to leave the class thinking, “I had some ‘aha’ moments in that class and I think about things differently.” I want them to read things that they wouldn’t otherwise read or to become aware of the ways that they are not complete agents of their own futures.
If you could create and plan your dream course, what course would it be?
I am hoping to teach a course on the sociology of culture, at either the graduate and/or undergraduate level. I would also like to teach a course on consumption and economic lives.
What are some of your favorite assignments for students?
In my food class, students do interviews. We read about the invisible work of care work and food provision and taking care of your family’s food needs and habits. Many of them choose to interview their mothers and that is always an eye-opening experience for the student. I joke that my class is going to be their mom’s favorite class that they’ve ever taken. In the theory class, I like my breaching experiment assignment, where they have to break a social norm and then write about it and share it with the class. I want to actually get them involved in the material.
Can you tell us about your current research interests?
Currently, I’m turning my dissertation into a book and that is project number one on the list.
I’ve also just finished a side project with a friend on business-to-business advertising in the food industry. What we found is that a lot of the rhetoric around healthy, natural, good food that consumers are seeing in the 21st century is in fact trickling down into these companies and their ingredient ads. The article we wrote was just accepted by the Journal of Cultural Economy.
I am also in the process of starting a couple of new projects. One is with people in the Food, Nutrition, and Bioprocessing department here at NC State on breast milk donation. It’s really just getting started. I’m also working on something with a friend and colleague on theorizing risk and the responsibility of social institutions in relation to peanut allergy. And I’m working on a project with two other wonderful colleagues who are both in business schools on resource partitioning theory and the craft beer industry. We’re just getting started with that as well.
Can you tell me about the theoretical framework you’re developing?
A couple of the projects are dealing with questions about risk and consumption in the 21st century, how individual-level risk and institutions interweave together, or not. It is about culture and ideas, but it is also about markets and politics.
What research methodology do you use most?
Qualitative methods – ethnography, interviews, content and language analysis, case studies.
Is there a subject in the field that you wish you knew more about?
I wish I knew more about public policy and law. I wish I had taken more political science classes in undergrad and graduate school. That includes more international relations type of work, like European Union studies. I only know what I know from reading, going to lots of talks, and talking to people.
What is the most significant or exciting piece of scholarship that you’ve read in the past year?
There’s a special issue of Poetics that came out recently on new methods in cultural sociology using something called topic modeling, which is very computer science-based in terms of taking big databases of text and doing analysis of them to show themes across them. It’s very exciting and I wish I knew more about it.
There are so many books and articles coming out now about food. It’s becoming very exciting in terms of the amount and quality of what’s coming out, and it’s hard to keep up. A new book that I can’t wait to read is by food historian Rachel Laudan called Cuisine and Empire. I’m very excited to dive into it. I’m excited to think about how cuisine has changed historically based on political rule, power, and empire, and how different ingredients, dishes, and trends move around the globe.
There’s also a lot more interest and work being doing on the intersection of social movements and markets and I’m very excited about that professionally. That work looks at how social movements affect markets, shape markets, and become markets, and how collective action in people has affected the ways that capital-driven enterprises operate.
Do you have any words of wisdom for young scholars trying to chart a career path for themselves?
It’s tough out there. I would encourage students to follow their interests but also to think strategically about what their options and skills are in terms of careers and jobs. These skills and interests can be applied in a lot of ways.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
The colleagues. I feel very fortunate to have such smart, interesting, and fun colleagues and a real support system among junior faculty here.
Do you have a favorite place? It can be anywhere in the world.
Kinnikinnick Farm. It’s an organic farm in Caledonia, Illinois. It is a magic place. And Fire Island, which is a national seashore near where I grew up. And southwest France.
What are some of your guilty pleasure television shows?
Chopped. Top Chef. And my other guilty pleasure that’s not TV is playing Scrabble.
Do you have any free-time activities that you enjoy?
Spending time with my family. Cooking. In graduate school, I volunteered at a weekly farmers market, and that was great fun. Now, going to farmers markets, and to flea markets and vintage shops, looking for treasures.
We’d like to thank Dr. DeSoucey for her time and participation. If you’d like to contact her to discuss her research, you can find her information here: Faculty Listing – Dr. Michaela DeSoucey.
Until next time,