Department of Management

Hand to mouth eating practices: An exploratory study in the US and India

Research output: Contribution to conferencePosterResearchpeer-review

  • Polymeros Chrysochou
  • Søren Askegaard, Univ Southern Denmark, University of Southern Denmark, Denmark
In 2012 Oprah Winfrey on a trip to India she visited an Indian family for a traditional dinner. Naïve as she was, she said, “I heard some Indian people still eat with their hands” (Prakash, 2012). That statement led to some harsh criticism from Indian communities, since eating with hands is a custom exercised in several Indian households. A preliminary online survey confirmed the existence profound cultural differences in this practice. We recruited 402 participants in India (males 71.1%; Mage = 30.7; SDage =7.7) and 404 in the US (males 49.0%; Mage = 37.3; SDage =10.4). Our results showed that whereas 48.0% of the participants in India used their hands when eating at home, in the US 2.7% of the respondents stated the same. There were also highly significant differences in terms of believing that eating with hands makes food taste better and makes eating more enjoyable with Indians far more consenting. Participants in India also agreed more that when feeling comfortable they prefer to eat with their hands. On the other hand, participants in the US agree more that eating with hands is not hygienic, is a bad practice and is not socially acceptable. The only difference not found between participants in the two countries was whether or not eating with your hands is an unhealthy practice These highly significant differences concerning a particular cultural practice together with the fact that almost one-third of humans in the planet (notably in South Asia, Middle East and Africa) regularly eat with their hands, and the whole world did so long before utensils became popular (Cornelius, 2009) underline how eating with ones hands is a practice deeply engrained in socio-historical sets of culinary norms and values (Fischler, 1990), that infer deeply rooted cultural meanings. While eating with your hands is obviously a “technique of the body” (Mauss 1973 [1935]), the practice of eating with one’s hand is absent from classical anthropology of the senses (e.g. Howes 1991). “Fingers do not taste”, as it is stated in the only anthropological source on this practice we have been able to locate (Mann et al 2011). However, the emerging physiological studies of food underline that we use all our senses when tasting (e.g. Mouritsen 2017) and this indicates the necessity of going beyond the palate when assessing taste. Various sources relate the practice of eating with ones hands with several benefits (Kompalli, 2015; Shahid, 2015), including more contemporary elements from the Western food discourses such as promoting mindful eating, improving taste of food, and preventing humans from binge eating (Shahid, 2015). Although such arguments are mainly anecdotal and are not scientifically substantiated, they form an increasingly significant in the discursive reasoning behind the cultural practice, linking it to contemporary health regimes. While the Oprah Winfrey incident already indicates a moralization of this practice, classifying it as somehow “culturally backwards”, the emergence of a relation to contemporary food and health policies points to the emergence of a moral counter-narrative. This potentially situates the practice of eating with your hands in a contemporary battlefield of various market agents concerning the policing and moralizing of food (Askegaard et al 2014). This ongoing study represents an attempt to open up for such an exploration. More specifically, we explore consumer understandings behind the practice of eating with hands in India and the US, with the aim to understand the cultural meaning system pertaining to this practice in these two contexts. Methodologically, it is done through interviews and observational studies in these two cultural contexts. As the data collection is ongoing, we are not able to specify the data set more at this point. Our preliminary findings provide evidence that consumers have systematic cross-cultural differences as regards to eating with hands. Such an understanding can help to provide new insights also in contemporary food cultures and habits and thereby contribute with significant knowledge for the current policing of food that for better and for worse permeate contemporary society (e.g. Chrysochou, Askegaard, Grunert, & Kristensen, 2010). Furthermore, we would like to provide some reflections on this practice as a change element in the current development of food cultures, both more historically since several of the indulging foods that dominate the Western Cultures (and not only), are those that can be eaten with our hands (e.g. pizza, burgers, ice cream, snacks) and since, as indicated, we see growing evidence of its inscription in contemporary health regimes.
Original languageEnglish
Publication year29 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - 29 Jun 2018
EventConsumer Culture Theory Conference 2018 - Odense, Denmark
Duration: 28 Jun 20181 Jul 2018


ConferenceConsumer Culture Theory Conference 2018
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