Learning to Live With Food Allergies: Negotiating Risk and Appropriating Expertise in Consumption Practices
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This thesis presents a sociological framework for understanding food allergy. Food allergy is increasingly appearing on policy and media platforms in contemporary Western societies. Debates have emerged about the prevalence of food allergy and also about the “rights” of those experiencing food allergies in a number of public and private spheres. Food allergy is a specifically social phenomenon, emerging as a consequence of modernization processes. Additionally, the allergy “zone” is comprised of a number of actors and agents including the institutions of medicine, pharmaceutical companies, politicians, governments, lay actors and an array of medical technologies. Despite being an issue of major sociological significance, few empirical studies have explored the everyday experience of food allergy. Therefore, in order to understand the lived experience of food allergy, I construct a conceptual framework which draws upon theories of risk and social governance, the sociology of consumption and sociological studies of science and embodiment. These literatures shed important light upon how individuals negotiate and (de)construct the risks associated with their conditions. Drawing on data acquired from eight in-depth interviews with those who identify as food allergic, I argue food allergy need be understood as a form and practice of consumption. Thus, far from being passive subjects, this approach characterises individuals as being embodied and reflexive agents who actively deconstruct notions of risk and recurrently engage in practices of “edgework”. These actors negotiate the medical and scientific parameters of their conditions as well as the parameters and demands of consumer culture. Whilst these theoretical and conceptual frameworks are useful for understanding the experience of food allergy, I recommend further studies of food allergy acknowledge the diversity of actors/institutions involved in the discursive production and circulation of information about food allergy; specifically homeopathic and alternative practitioners and organizations. Additionally, I argue that future studies of allergy must acknowledge the fundamentally embodied experience of the condition and the consequences this has for its definition and experience. For the purposes of future studies of food allergy, I also suggest it would be worthwhile to further explore the ways in which individuals who experience food allergies and intolerances are enrolled and participate in biopolitical regimes.