The well-known actress recently published a New York Times best-seller that may make you see her as a sociologist. The Body Book: The Law of Hunger, the Science of Strength, and Other Ways to Love Your Amazing Body might not sound like the title of a sociological text, however the connections Diaz makes between societal influences and the health of Americans have sociological theories written all over them. In this post, Mediha Din analyzes health through three major sociological perspectives, with the help of Cameron Diaz’s recent publication.
Believe it or not, the actress Cameron Diaz just might be a sociologist. She seems to be using her sociological imagination (see part 1 of this series for more on that) and her work can also be seen as incorporating the three theory paradigm of sociology. This paradigm is made up of structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interaction.
These three perspectives in sociology are like three different sets of glasses. Each pair offers a different lens to look at the world through. Imagine looking towards a beach through binoculars, then a telescope, and then a magnifying glass. Each tool provides a different perspective. The three major perspectives in sociology do the same. Analyzing any aspect of society through all three perspectives can help deepen our understanding.
Cameron Diaz describes human health in her book from different angles, or perspectives. One angle she explores is how foods have been labeled in American society over the years. Each few years a new food group seems to be labeled as the enemy and a new diet trend is born. When fat was evil, large food companies brought to the market low-fat and non-fat milk, cheese, and even cookies were concocted. The sugar-free trend led to the omnipresent use of artificial sweeteners, and the low-carb craze brought about lettuce wrapped hamburgers. Gluten-free pasta, bread, and organic everything overflow from supermarket shelves. Even Oreo cookies have a package marketed as “made with organic flour and sugar!”
Symbolic interactionism is a theoretical perspective in society that focuses on labels. A symbolic interactionist sees society as the product of everyday interactions of individuals. This point of view emphasizes that:
- We attach meaning and labels to everything
- Reality is how we define it
- Group influence impacts individual beliefs and actions
How a food group is labeled can have a powerful effect on health and eating trends. Diaz also discusses how major corporations can impact our health choices. “It was also just a century ago that technology allowed companies to begin to mass-manufacture foods. Around 1910, advertisers began to encourage housewives to stop baking their own bread and save time with store-bought loaves…Kraft introduced instant, ready-mix mac and cheese, and Nescafé came out with instant coffee. In the ’50s, TV dinners replaced family meals around the table, and in the ’60s, the same decade that put fondue on the map also introduced Pop-Tarts, Weight Watchers, and diet shakes. “
Conflict theorists see society as an arena of inequality. This point of view emphasizes the importance of:
- Competition (over scarce resources)
- Inequality: Conflicts between “haves” and “have nots”
Large food corporations have the money and power (important resources) to protect their interests (profit) without much concern for health repercussions on the public. The New York Times article, The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food explains how major food companies like Pillsbury, Nabisco, Kraft, General Mills, and Coca-Cola create products that hook consumers, as well as the connection to childhood and adult obesity increases in America.
Yale University professor of psychology and public health, Kelly Brownell, states “As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco.” Investigative reporter Michael Moss’s book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” explores this concept in depth.
The structural functionalist point of view sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote stability. Looking at society from a structural functionalist point of view includes examining how something is functional (useful) and dysfunctional (not useful) for society. Diaz also employs this perspective throughout The Body Book.
When analyzing the impact of modern conveniences on our health as Americans in her book, Diaz looks at some of the functions of these changes, as well as the dysfunctions. She describes the benefit of modern conveniences as well as the downsides. “In the 1930s, the modern kitchen, which let people store food for longer and cook food without as much hassle, made convenience even more of an option…More convenience foods, less wholesome food, and suddenly everybody needs to go on a diet. Over the next decades, Americans started eating more and more processed foods and fad-dieting like crazy.”
- Read this article on food corporations: The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food. How can symbolic interactionism and conflict theory be used to analyze the Yoplait Yogurt’s success?
- Read this article on Diet Trends of The Decades. Which diet trend was most shocking? Have you ever been influenced by your peers, community, or media when it comes to healthy food choices?
- Conflict theorists are interested in competition over scarce resources. What resources does a person need access to in order to be healthy?
- Read Fooled by Food Labels. What might a symbolic interactionist or conflict theorist say about these deceptive food labels?