Date of Award

2016

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Advisor

Kim Hensley Owens

Abstract

My dissertation, You Are What You Eat: Understanding Food Discourse and Digitally-Mediated Identities, investigates the rhetorical nature of digital identity creation and management and the role of food discourse within these practices. According to Pierre Bourdieu (1984), “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar” (6)… and perhaps also between the delicious and the unappetizing, fast food and haute cuisine. Within this project, I use a rhetorical lens to explore digital identity constructions within the food blogging community.

This study is driven by a dual exigency: to better understand digital identity practices and the rhetorical power of food. First, this project is motivated by Sherry Turkle’s investigation into online gaming identity in Life on the Screen, and the need to understand identity-shaping practices in the rapidly changing digital realm. Studies of the blogging community often focus on the identities written on the screen. While these studies make great strides toward a more comprehensive understanding of the blogging community as it exists online, my study expands upon this research to help obtain a clearer picture of the invention and composing practices that also occur off the screen, those that create the finished product published online. And, second, it is motivated by a need to better understand the rhetorics of food as they function in everyday discourse. Rhetorical scholars have studied food rhetoric as a pedagogical tool (Bloom, 2008; Cognard-Black and Goldthwaite, 2008; Waxman, 2008) or as an isolated text (Nowacek and Nowacek, 2008; Schneider, 2008). My project extends rhetorical food studies to the places where they are most often and most richly practiced; namely, in the homes (and in the digital environments) of those who engage in the culinary arts on a daily basis. Food rhetoric is embedded with complex undertones of gender, ethnicity, socioeconomics, and moral values, which this project works to unpack.

This study is what Robert Stake (2000) refers to as a “collective case study” (437). Each case study within this project focuses on one individual food blogger and his or her daily cooking, writing, and blogging practices. Each participant took part in a number of qualitative research methods including semi-structured interviews, informal observations of blog-related activities, and weeklong reflective writing logs. I also conducted a thorough artifact analysis of each participant’s blog, coding for a variety of quantitative and qualitative factors such as number of words per post, frequency of sponsorships, and themes discussed in each post. My intention in using these diverse methods was to paint a fuller picture of the cooking and blogging practices of individual bloggers by exploring their behavior both on the screen and off.

Throughout my analysis, the concept of ethos emerges as a unifying theme. Ethos is shaped by bloggers’ decisions about self-disclosure, engagement in community-building practices, and, in some cases, attempts to monetize their blogs and navigate the tensions between food professionals and food hobbyists. Each of these individual decisions contributes to a much larger digital identity - and digital ethos - that ultimately determines how others perceive of and respond to a blogger. This project argues that ethos-building strategies differ markedly in online and offline spaces and advocates for greater awareness regarding the ways all writers rhetorically craft their identities - and ethos - online. Bloggers, composition instructors, and students can all benefit from a more intentional approach to their own digital identities and this project offers a framework for approaching this new and dynamic challenge.

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