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Scientist at Work: Richard Wilk

Currently the key witness in a high profile land rights case before the Belizean Supreme Court, director of Indiana University Department of Anthropology's new booming Food Studies Program, and knee-deep in a collaborative grant designed to permanently imprint the role of sustainability on teaching at the Bloomington campus, you could say Richard Wilk's plate is full.

For Wilk -- a professor of anthropology and gender studies and an acknowledged foodie who appreciates a rural Central American roadside taco stand as much as a New York City four-star restaurant -- he wouldn't have his plate any other way.

Wilk image

Photo by Chris Meyer

Anthropology and Gender Studies Professor Richard Wilk, above, said response to IU's new Food Studies Program has been "phenomenol," with more than 30 Ph.D. applicants from around the world in the program's second year.

Print-Quality Photo

"Has material civilization spun out of control, becoming too fast for our own well-being and that of the planet?" asks the latest book edited by Wilk, this time under the title Time, Consumption and Everyday Life, with co-editors Frank Trentmann and Elizabeth Shove.

It's a question Wilk consistently explores in a body of work encompassing more than 125 papers and book chapters, a textbook in economic anthropology and a number of edited volumes, where titles run from Consuming Ourselves to Death and Morals and Metaphors: The Meaning of Consumption to Fast Food/Slow Food and Home Cooking in the Global Village.

His work has moved from the cultural anthropology of farming and families (The Household Economy: Reconsidering the Domestic Mode of Production) to consumer culture and sustainable consumption. It has delved into peripheral topics like television, beauty pageants and energy consumption (Miss Universe, the Olmec, and the Valley of Oaxca), and efforts are now also being directed to a book in progress about modern masculinity.

For Wilk, it may be a case of the right person in the right place at the right time: Disjointed food systems around the world, a university campus centered in a community with a nationally-recognized farm-to-family market center and an international buzz on sustainability that is resonating both on-campus and off.

And the proof is there.

Here's his feedback on the new Food Studies Program:

"So far, the response from prospective graduate students has been quite phenomenal. The first year we did not advertise, but we still had 15 applicants. Last year we had over 30 applications from Ph.D. candidates around the world -- many had already built careers in food service, in community food organizations, and other food-related positions but were eager to pursue a higher degree. Our department has few financial resources to support graduate students, so many people we would have liked to accept could not come for financial reasons. The pool was amazingly varied -- including people with undergraduate degrees in religious studies, dance and chemistry among many others."

Then an update on the Sustainability and Environmental Literacy Leadership Award he received with Peter Todd in the School of Informatics from the IU Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty and Academic Affairs:

"Right now we are concentrating on bringing together the people from all over the university, including food service, who are interested in food and sustainability issues so we can meet and get to know one another -- we have all been scattered around, often without much contact with colleagues who share our interests. The first real visible result will be a conference we're putting together for Jan. 22-24 that will bring in two nationally known speakers -- Joel Salatin and Gary Nabhan."

Wilk believes the time is right for redesigning food studies, in a way that requires an interdisciplinary approach focusing on the whole, and not, as has been the case in the past, the social scientist's forte of niche exploration.

"Think of a meal. Right now, the production of the food for the meal is studied by agronomists, marketers and food scientists. The actual preparation of the food might be studied by chefs, home economists and maybe a cultural anthropologist. When the food is taken from the kitchen and put on the table, it becomes the subject of family sociologists. Then when people put it in their mouths and start to chew, it is the property of nutritionists. Disposing of the waste is studied by industrial ecologists," he explained.

"Nobody studies the meal itself as a whole thing. It is cut up into little pieces by portioning it out to a bunch of different specialists who never really talk to one another," he said. "All we are trying to do is to put back the pieces, to see how food connects many aspects of human life."

That's a very different way of approaching social science. "Instead of hacking life up into specialized bits, we want to see the connections," Wilk said.

"We have to do this, because the way we have been doing things leads to all kinds of contradictions -- producing vast amounts of food efficiently, but at the same time making people obese, for example. This also requires from us a very different kind of moral conscience because when you are just focused on one task, you can always pass the buck on to someone else -- 'my job is just to see that food is safe' or 'we are just giving people what they want.' Looking at the whole system is much more difficult, because you will see how a lot of perfectly reasonable people making decisions with the best intentions can still lead to a result which is bad for people, society and the planet."

Good intentions, at least in the view of the Belizean government with respect to economic development, has led to bad results for the people of the Kekchi and Mopan Maya villages in Belize, according to Wilk. He's been conducting research and writing about Belize culture for more than three decades and it was that work that led him to be called as the only expert witness in a Belizean Supreme Court case this summer pitting local residents against the government, which wants corporate logging, mining and agriculture interests to have access to their traditional land.

"My own book, published back in the late 1980s, has been used by government to support this case, since in that book I do document many instances where Kekchi and Mopan people did migrate into Belize from neighboring areas of Guatemala," Wilk explained. "But in the intervening years we have done a lot more research, and now we know that many of those people were coming back to areas they had previously been driven away from. In addition, the immigrants intermarried with people who had never left. So the question of whether or not someone is 'indigenous' turns out to be complicated, and it raises tough issues because anthropology itself has been changing the way it views indigenous cultures."

Wilk holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Arizona. He has taught at the University of California Berkeley, University of California Santa Cruz, New Mexico State University, and University College London. He has held fellowships at Gothenburg University and the University of London. His research in Belize, the United States and West Africa has been supported by three Fulbright fellowships and grants from the National Science Foundation and other organizations, including IU.