Research unit on "Globalization, food and social identity in the Asia Pacific" (2011-2012)

Online publication: "Globalization, Food and Social Identities in the Asia Pacific Region"
Name of person in charge
James Farrer,
Project website



This sociological research project intends to map the cuisines of East Asia as they travel across borders. Theoretically, the project aims to make original contributions to theories of contact zones and soft power. Empirically, it uses multi-sited and cross-border ethnographic fieldwork to uncover the transnational pathways and the cultural politics of national, regional and urban cuisines. As cuisines cross borders they become site of local ethnic politics–or contact zones–and tools of the local, regional and national cultural politics of food –or culinary soft power. This proposal brings together a diverse and experienced team of ethnographic researchers to examine both levels of cultural politics.
Conventional literature closely associates cuisines with places. Our project questions this association. Increasingly, food cultures are not produced in places but between places, in transnational circuits of producers, products, ideas, capital and even customers. In particular, Asian cuisines are increasingly produced in transnational networks, including foods long associated with particular nations or localities. As Asian cuisines travel across borders, they become the focus of local and transnational cultural politics.


(1) "Traveling cuisines" as transnational cultures. Typically, we describe cuisines as national (e.g. Thai cuisine), regional (e.g. Tuscan cuisine), or local (e.g. Shanghai cuisine). Our previous research suggests that these associations of food with place are increasingly inadequate to explain the ways cuisines are made and consumed. Cuisines are increasingly produced in transnational processes and transnational pathways. In this research we examine (a) the transnational careers of food producers: chefs, kitchen and serving staff, restaurant designers and entrepreneurs (b) the transnational pathways of culinary products, such as Shanxi daoxiaomian or Malaysian laksa, (c) the globalization of consumer tastes and the growing taste for "ethnic food" in large Asian cities and (d) the impact of governments and transnational political forces, such as the "Slow Food Movement," on local and regional cuisines.

(2)Transnational cuisines as "culinary contact zones." As cuisines move across borders, our previous research suggests that spaces of food production and consumption become contact zones, or spaces of cultural friction and creativity. M.L. Pratt defines contact zones as "social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination" (1992, Imperial Eyes, 4). Building on Pratt, M. Tanaka argues that the study of "contact zones" has changed with the transition from relations of colonialism to relations of globalization, producing contact zones within major cities (Masakazu Tanaka, "A cultural anthropology of contact zones," Contact Zone: 1, 2007). Studying sites of food production and consumption – particular restaurants – as contact zones focuses our attention on power inequalities among different levels of producers, power relations between producers and consumers and also questions of relative status among cuisines themselves. Relations of power may even part of what is consumed in eating across borders. We suggest that restaurant zones in large cities in Asia, are best investigated as culinary contact zones that may be characterized by very unequal social relations within fields of production and consumption.

(3) Transnational cuisines as "culinary soft power." We also suggest that the state, and transnational social movements, play an important role in the creation and shaping of transnational pathways of cuisine. One important motive for state participation is the promotion of national, regional, or even urban "soft power" through supporting food cultures associated with a nation, region or city. Culinary soft power can be defined as the acknowledged attractiveness and appeal of food culture that adheres to a nation, region or locality. The term "culinary soft power" has been used, for example to describe, the growing popularity of Japanese cuisine globally. Asian governments seem to have become particularly conscious of national culinary soft power. With an eye on the global popularity of Japanese and Thai cuisine, the governments of Malaysia and Korea both have projects aimed at promoting the status of national cuisines abroad (see Yoshino in this project). In addition to nations, however, regions and cities also support the promotion of culinary traditions or culinary zones. And especially for cities, this promotion is not limited to exporting local foods, but also attracting star chefs. In short, we will investigate national and local governments' pursuit of "culinary soft power" as an important factor in the production of transnational pathways of cuisine. We will also investigate the impact of transnational social movements such as the "Slow Food" movement on the production of transnational cuisines.


This proposal builds on a two year collaborative research project sponsored by Sophia University's Institute of Comparative Culture and funded by the Promotion and Mutual Aid Corporation for Private Schools of Japan Academic Research Promotion Fund. That project broadly investigated the global/local linkages in the production of new food cultures in societies in the Asia/Pacific region, including the Americas and Asia. Seven project members worked with eight overseas collaborators from Asia and the Americas using ethnographic fieldwork to investigate foodways as expressions of social identity, including ethnic, regional, class and national identities. 16 ethnographic papers are included in the final publication, and have been published as an online book by the Institute of Comparative Culture.
The current proposal focuses more specifically on the question of how East Asian cuisine is being transformed through an array of transnational processes. We plan to use the methodologies of the Sociology of Culture and Transnational Ethnography to examine foodways in Asia as a transnational process, requiring a sociological investigation of producers, products, consumers, and state actors in multiple sites (M. Burawoy Global Ethnography, 2000). We have three types of questions: (1) how are local and national culinary cultures being produced within transnational pathways; (2) how do people and cultures interact in conditions of social inequality in the culinary contact zones of large cities; (3) and, how are transnational foodways shaped by cultural politics at national, regional, and transnational levels.


This research project is funded by the Japan Society for the Promotion for Research. The institute project will focus on public events related to the research project and supporting the publication of the results of the ongoing research.


We are building a long-term, research unit in globalization and food culture associated with the Institute of Comparative Culture. We have published an online book that is available here:

Online publication: "Globalization, Food and Social Identities in the Asia Pacific Region"


We have a series of three colloquia related to the food project.

Date: 2011, June 30/ Sushi and More Anyone?: Bringing Japan’s Design, Food, and Contents Approach to the Indian Market by Harry Cheng

Names of other FLA and non-FLA faculty involved

Institute Members:
James Farrer (organizer)
David Wank
Takefumi Terada
Kosaku Yoshino

Affliliated Scholars:
Akihiro Koido, Hitotsubashi University
Ikuya Sato, Hitotsubashi University
Stephanie Assmann, Akita University