Verslag: Amsterdam Symposium on the History of Food – Food, Hunger and Conflict
The second edition of the Amsterdam Symposium on the History of Food focused on the relationship between food, hunger and conflict from a historical point of view. The Symposium applied an innovative approach that transcended the known political economy analyses of this relationship and it delved into the social construction of hunger instead. When was hunger defined as a problem (political, economic or social), who defined it as such and why? The Symposium thus investigated processes of meaning-making in relation to hunger and it did so from different angles.
The programme gathered papers on scientific demarcations of hunger, on hunger as a weapon (starvation politics in Nazi concentration camps, and force feeding in the twentieth century), on colonial hunger (food availability on a nineteenth-century coffee plantation, and famines and famine relief in colonial Indonesia), on solutions for hunger (food riots from early modern Europe until today, and domestic relief in Amsterdam during World War I), and on representations of hunger (famine bread in eighteenth-century France, Spain’s hunger culture, and Victorian representations of the Irish famine).
Notwithstanding the geographical, chronological and thematic diversity that surfaced from the variety of papers, the common thread tying the conference together consisted of a concept that was not always explicitly mentioned. In all case studies, the relationship between food, hunger and conflict emanated from aspects of power.
On the one hand, hunger was a means to exert power by political and economic elites. Whether nineteenth-century plantation owners limited food availability to make labourers work harder, or twentieth-century Dutch colonial government initiated famine relief in Indonesia, or Nazi commanders used food rations to avoid revolt in the concentration camps, the construction of hunger ensured the demarcation of power. However, both construction and demarcation did not remain unquestioned as hunger also entailed empowerment from below.
On the other hand, hunger was not always accepted by the hungry community. Food riots throughout history have challenged and even overthrown official authorities, domestic relief during World War II enabled the self-organization of hunger, and food refusal in prison during the twentieth century served as a protest against official bodies. Hunger thus entailed an empowerment from below that either consisted of an ideological dimension (revolt against elites) or a physical one (coping strategies in terms of access to food).
To conclude, I argue that the social construction of hunger comprised a negotiation whereby interested actors gave meaning to the notion according to their ideology and motivation. The meaning could either contribute to power exertion or to empowerment from below and resulted in a dynamic understanding of what hunger was.
Anneke Geyzen (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)