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Food and Cancer CFP

2015 March 1
by Paul Mabrey

Call for Papers : Anthropology of Food

Food & cancer, construction of a new social issue?

edited by Patrice Cohen, Hélène Hoarau & Armelle Lorcy

This call aims examining the social and political construction of an emerging health issue, through established links between food and different kinds of cancer. This social issue is itself structured by an expanding scientific field that includes norms and ideologies of public health as well as new eating behaviors. Given the numerous social, economic, cultural and individual consequences, we invite contributors to this issue to consider the possibility that we are witnessing a new social issue in the making.

For the past thirty years, the study of links between food, nutrition and cancer has been the focus of numerous epidemiological, nutritional and medical surveys (see in particular De Thé and Hubert, 1988; WCRF and AICR, 2007). Today the subject mobilizes exceptionally active scientific networks at the international as well as national levels (see especially in France the Réseau National Alimentation Cancer Recherche – NACRe). Such study concerns both the multiple impacts of cancer and anticancer treatments on food behaviors and the role of food in relation to the development of the disease. Such surveys stimulate consensus groups and conferences on an international scale and contribute to a public health policy that is at once globalized and specific to each country (for France, cf. in particular INCA, 2009). Considering links between food and various kinds of cancer therefore indicates not only the emergence of a medical or public health issue, but also a real societal issue including multiple ramifications in social practice, both among patients suffering from cancer and in the general population.

That is why the influence of food (broadly speaking drinks, food supplements and herbal preparations, etc.) on cancer is, from this point of view, constructed scientifically as much as a risk factor as a protective (Hubert, 1991), even healing, agent. More generally, the relationship between food and cancer refers to an ambivalent view of food perceived sometimes as noxious, sometimes as beneficial. This is actually reminiscent of the classic anthropological opposition between food perceived as poison or as remedy, or the opposition healthy / unhealthy (Vigarello, 1999) to be found in representations and ordinary practices as well as in unconventional conceptions (Cohen and Legrand, 2011). While cancer can be considered as one of the major diseases of civilization, conceptions of cancer prevention through diet tend to resolve not only the disorder of uncontrolled body cells but also disorders of society and food practices considered improper. From a medical or public health question, food turns into a lever of transformation in food habits. Therefore, links between food and cancer raise many problematic issues in the fields of epidemiology and the medical sciences as well as the human and social sciences. This conjunction and questioning is what we wish to highlight in this issue.

To what extent do scientific knowledge and the ambivalence toward food pervade not only the food practices of patients and their families but also the care and nutritional advice delivered by medical and paramedical teams, and more generally the food habits of society as a whole?

We propose a focus on the links between food and cancer in order to determine if we are, indeed, confronting a new societal issue in the making. We invite authors to reflect on the following topics.

1-Food as factor of risk and prevention: a scientific, socio-cultural and political construction 

We wish to question the ways in which scientific knowledge is constructed over time and how it influences public health and scholarly conceptions of food. Historical or socio-historical approaches could be proposed to understand this emergence. Then too, the understanding of current processes could benefit from examining the roles of the principal actors (scientists, biologists, physicians, epidemiologists, nutritionists, oncologists, etc.), contexts and institutions which take part in the construction of this public health issue. Analyses of the construction of this thematic scientific field would, possibly allow identification of “arenas” of discussions, exchanges and controversies (cf. on obesity Poulain, 2009). In the same way, the process of agenda setting for public policy and public health would be a fruitful site for examination.

The following themes could be approached:

-Construction of scientific knowledge and the modalities of influence on public health (between science and policy): historic and socio-historic perspectives

-Construction of conventional and/or expert knowledge and its influence on practices and associational, community and political practice.

-Parallel construction of non-conventional concepts, in addition or even in reaction to conventional ideas.

2-Food and the cancer experience

For cancer patients, food before, during or after cancer is an inescapable topic of “the stages of cancer” (Ménoret, 1999). Indeed, the experience and treatment of cancer often involve food changes, even problems (Locher et al., 2009; Hoarau et al., 2012; Fontas et al., 2014; Lorcy, 2014), which are even worse for older patients. Depending on the different countries and care centers, ordinary care management can be offered in order to limit risks of malnutrition and infection and to better assist patients in everyday life. However, nutritional management in cancer may malfunction and not meet the expectations and needs of patients (Bell et al., 2009). Such malfunction can prompt the use of unconventional practices that involve alternative authorities (Cohen & Legrand, 2011). We aim here to bring together scientific knowledge and public health concerns with the experience of cancer by patients, their families and caregivers.

Various elements can be considered:

-The impact of public health recommendations, popularization of scientific knowledge about patients’ food habits.

-The real-life experience of patients: difficult food changes, sensory alterations, managing everyday life (food supply, meals preparation, social life, etc.)

-Conventional and unconventional care of problems and/or food changes induced by cancer and/or treatment of side effects, the relationship between the treatment proposed and public health recommendations

-The caregivers: management of chronic illness and impact on everyday life and food practices.

3-Cancer as producer of food reform(s)?

We also want to consider more generally how society and its various components have used scientific knowledge or/and representations of relations between food and cancer (Bell, 2010). Cancer has now become a major cause of morbidity. Observing the preponderance of medicalization and health in contemporary societies in addition to a moral economy (Fassin, 2009; Fassin and Eideliman, 2012) that is oriented towards a quest for health or the legitimization of social issues through health, we suggest examining the fight against cancer through food as a significant “food reform” under construction.

Thus, what is the impact of scientific knowledge and public policy on the prevention of cancers in the general diet? How do individuals take control of reforms instigated by public health agencies and governments? Areas that might be explored include:

-Definitions and modalities of appropriation of “food reform” (according to geographical units and countries)

-Vectors of food reform: circuits of production, distribution and consumption including advertising and marketing strategies, as influenced by “the will” of the dominant food reform

-Production of a new food culture: changes in food practices and cultures, construction of a new food morality, mobilization of values centered on health

-Limits of promoted food reform: divergent food reform messages, pernicious effects, role of food values and food representations unrelated to health, product accessibility, production of social inequalities, etc.

We invite potential contributors to share their work that may involve different socio-cultural contexts in various parts of the world. Contributions may be in English, French or Spanish.


Paper proposals should be sent before March 20th, 2015 at the latest and should include an abstract of 12 lines maximum accompanied by a maximum of 10 keywords. Proposals should present the title of the article, research question, the field studied, the methodology and the main results obtained. They should also include name, first name, status, institutional affiliation and e-mail of the author or co-authors.

Please send proposals to all three of the following addresses:

Answers will be given to the authors from April 20th, 2015. 

Full papers should be sent before September 15th, 2015 at the latest.

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