The sociology of food is a soft science related to anthropology and agriculture that studies the relationship of human societies and their food consumption habits. What types and amounts of food people eat and how it is prepared as well as their attitudes toward it can be defining characteristics of a given culture. Relationships between people and the producers of their food are often indicators of their respective roles in society.
One significant question in the field of sociology of food in the 21st century is the coexistence of malnutrition and obesity in the modern world. These two extremes represent significant power differentials that exist both within individual cultures and worldwide. People's attitudes toward these differences also reflect their cultural values. For instance, in some societies in the global South, obesity is seen as a mark of high status, as an obese person is likely rich enough to afford good food and perform manual labor. In many Western societies, however, obesity is seen as shameful.
Sociology of food scholars emphasize that the foods people enjoy or are willing to eat are also largely a matter of cultural values. Hindus, for example, consider cows sacred and therefore do not eat beef. Although there is no explicit religious prohibition against it, most Westerners will not eat dog meat. This unspoken taboo indicates an implicit understanding about animals in general: Some animals are food, while others are pets or even members of the family.
The settings in which food is eaten also contribute to its meaning in society. A popular Kenyan proverb says, "Eating is brotherhood," indicating the importance in that culture of hospitality and common meals in forming and solidifying relationships. Likewise, the family dinner of American society is a symbol of familial unity.
Who participates in communal meals is also an indication of power relationships, which is another area of interest in the sociology of food. Families who have chefs or other household help, for instance, do not usually invite their help to eat with them. On the other hand, other workers, such as nannies or au pairs, may occupy a middle ground between family and non-family and be invited to share in meals.