New York University doctoral student Amy Lasater-Wille, supervised by Dr. Thomas Abercrombie, will investigate the effects of planned and targeted cultural change projects on socioeconomic hierarchies and ideas of racial difference. The research will be carried out in Lima, Peru, which has long been marked by socioeconomic differentiations predicated on ideas of racial and bodily difference. Peru is an appropriate research site because in the wake of a recent spike in rural-to-urban migration and ongoing national recovery from internal violence (1980-1992), coalitions of development, corporate, and government programs in Peru are explicitly creating new cultural and economic ties between groups once kept separate. The research examines how the practices and goals of these new institutions affect older ideas of social and economic differentiation and stratification.

To investigate these issues, the researcher will focus on changes in the area of national cuisine, which has been a site of development interventions. Research will be conducted through an ethnographic study of three locales: a culinary school for working-class youth on the outskirts of Lima; a network of professionals involved in the Peruvian Gastronomy Society; and new public, culinary festivals. Research methods will include participant observation, life history interviews, social network analysis, and the collection and examination of periodicals and texts related to Peru's cuisine and culinary industries.

Findings from this research will contribute to social science understandings of the relationship between macroeconomic change, everyday practices, and persistence of or changes in systems of social distinction. This research is also important because it investigates the social impact of economic development and public health projects that focus on cuisine as a target for intervention. Funding for this research also supports the training of a social scientist.

Project Report

This research examines the role of foodstuffs and cuisines in the transformation of socioeconomic hierarchies and ideas of racial difference in Lima, Peru. Lima, a mega-city containing nearly one-third of Peru’s population, has recently been the site of dramatic changes in connections between race, class, economic capital, and social and political influence. For centuries after the Spanish conquest, Lima was thought of as a white enclave, a relatively small port city that grew wealthy and cosmopolitan in contrast to indigenous communities in the country’s interior. In the mid- to late twentieth century, however, the imagined separation between these two segments of Peru crumbled when a series of agricultural reforms and terrorist attacks prompted massive waves of peasant migrations from the provinces to the capital. These demographic changes overwhelmed Lima’s infrastructure and in turn gave rise to new fears about crime and decay, concepts that were often connected to negative stereotypes about rural-to-urban migrants. In recent years, however, these fears have begun to recede with the emergence of an unlikely source of optimism: a booming restaurant industry. The source of jobs and tourist dollars, Lima’s celebrity chefs and culinary businesses are increasingly depicted as keys to urban development. The city’s dozens of low-cost culinary schools, accordingly, have become a means to achieving such successes. These schools promise their students, many of them the very lower-class migrants who are the subject of negative stereotypes, a relatively accessible education and the potential for international fame. As such, these schools serve as key locations for understanding how demographic and macroeconomic changes impact individuals’ daily lives as well as the social, racial, and class hierarchies in which they interact. To better understand this connection between daily life and the impact of broader social and economic change, the Co-PI conducted sixteen months of ethnographic field research (twelve months with NSF funding) in Lima, Peru, focusing particularly on long-term participant observation in two culinary schools for working- to middle-class youth. The Co-PI also conducted participant observation in culinary student homes, culinary festivals, and working-class and elite restaurants; conducted interviews with culinary students, teachers, and officials of the Peruvian Gastronomy Society; and examined current and historic periodicals and texts related to Peru’s cuisine. Preliminary results of this research indicate that culinary schools are critical sites for understanding the interplay between two of the city’s conflicting responses to rural-to-urban migrants: first, the desire to maintain a separation between "old" and "new" Lima, and second, the drive to integrate migrants within a newly diverse and cosmopolitan city. The dissertation to which this research contributes will examine how culinary students and chefs in Lima are trained in the context of this conflict to embody new ideals of Peruvian entrepreneurship while also highlighting regional-specific qualities of individual pasts and tastes. The dissertation will also analyze how culinary schools and the industries around them provide Lima’s political and economic elite with a unique means to regulate the city’s youth through education reforms, explicit governmental regulation, and differentiated access to jobs. This research contributes to knowledge in cultural anthropology by addressing discussions about the role of neoliberalism and global markets in post-colonial countries. It also traces networks of influence within and around Peru's culinary industries, contributing to knowledge about the relationship between economic capital, political power, and the ability to define and promote commodities as symbols. In addition to the Co-PI’s dissertation, this research has contributed to two forthcoming presentations at major academic conferences. It has also contributed to the training of a social scientist.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Jeffrey Mantz
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New York University
New York
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