In his preface to Saadi Lalou’s book “Penser manger” [1
], Moscovici [2
] argues that in the postmodern era our relationship with the table, with eating, that is, with food, has been completely overturned. The author refers to a historical epoch, that of the so-called Baby Boomers and X-Generation [3
], which had a relationship with food that can be summarized by Brecht’s maxim Erst kommt das Fressen
, dann kommt die Moral
, first comes food, then comes morality. This axiom is opposed by that of the Millennials and Z-Generation [3
], for whom, on the contrary, first comes the morality, then comes the food. By subordinating food to a higher ideal of health and conscience (ethics, environment, etc.), these last two generations mentioned have seen numerous taboos emerge and consolidate: anathema about fats, sugars, starchy foods, and so on [4
]. Nothing is ruder and more harmful than eating without considering the consequences that excess or forbidden food has on weight, the chemical composition of the body, and even the country’s economy [2
]. Nutritional divulgation tries to make us eat austere and dietetic foods and condiments first, which only later are made attractive and delicious by advertising. Today we have put ourselves so well in the hands of experts, continues Moscovici, and we rely so much on doctors and advertisers that we can hardly see the loss of autonomy that comes with it because we no longer know how to eat or sleep “without their permission”. Scientific, as well as social, media continuously report new discoveries. Only a few of these discoveries become known by laypeople and discussed among friends, family, and colleagues. How scientific information taken from the media is integrated into social knowledge shows how people give a common interpretation to the unfamiliar scientific phenomena they encounter in their daily lives. The way people understand, interpret, and describe the scientific discoveries they learn about from the media and from interpersonal communication is influenced by their social representations of the object. This is the case of an important information divulged by Vytenis Andriukaitis, member of the European Union (EU) commission in charge of Health and Food Safety: “Insect producers can make a significant contribution both now and in the future to help us meet the global challenge related to protein, circular economy, and innovation. European policies offer many opportunities to grow and innovate while fully complying with EU food and feed legislation. That is key for the continuous growth and credibility of the sector” [5
As Materia and Cavallo [6
] pointed out, the world population is continuously growing, and with it, the demand for food increases. Processes such as urbanization and globalization are increasingly influencing dietary change for a considerable part of the population. The result is a constant increase in the need for high biological value proteins, the production of which represents a challenge for the future, especially considering that current production techniques (i.e., animal protein farming) not only have a significant environmental impact but also show a low level of efficiency. These techniques produce high levels of carbon dioxide, consume considerable amounts of water, and involve major waste-disposal problems [7
]. The European Parliament has indicated that the deficit in protein sources is one of Europe’s most critical problems: the Old Continent imported about 80% of its protein from other countries. Insects can be a sustainable alternative to this problem, for their efficient metabolism and their ability to transform organic waste into high-quality protein [6
]. Western countries’ interest in insects as a potential source of food has grown considerably in recent years: the high content of high-quality protein and the sustainability of the production process, compared to traditional sources, primarily meat, have contributed to increasing scientific debate on the topic. The progressive inclusion of insect-based ingredients in the human diet has attracted increasing attention as a valid alternative to overcome the major nutrition challenges the world is facing [8
]. However, a diet based on insects (or their components) entails a radical departure from Western societies’ current food traditions. Although recent research shows that consuming insects (raw or processed) provides significant benefits in terms of protein content, social acceptance is, on the contrary, very low in Western societies [9
]. However, insects and their derivatives in food products are not entirely new even in the West: products such as jams and fruit juices contain traces of them, for an estimated average per capita consumption of 250 gr/year [6
], even if a clear awareness of this is still lacking. Scholars conducted several studies to analyze consumer behavior employing insect-based foods; many of these have identified factors that may positively or negatively influence the degree of acceptance. However, there is a lack of studies aimed to identify social representations of entomophagy and their relationship to food consumption practices. The aim of the study is to explore these representations by means of the lexicon of common sense, laypeople’s dictionaries, the relationships between representations, sensory experiences, and social positioning.
The paper is organized as follows: in Section 1.1
, we described the theoretical framework of social representations (SRs) and the importance of the SRs approach to entomophagy. In Section 2
, we described the participants and sampling as well as the data analysis performed. Results are illustrated in Section 3
. The paper ends by summing up the results and describing possible future developments.
1.1. Theoretical Framework
According to Moscovici [13
], there is a filter between us and the reality, independent of the sense organs, which has a very particular nature and which reworks information and, in doing so, “creates” the world in which we live and act. This filter is constituted by the social representations that guide us, superimpose themselves on reality, orient individuals, and that can be seen as “practices of knowledge” not subjective, but environmental, cultural, and material, therefore social. They not only have to do with our way of knowing, but they structure, create reality, and orient our behavior socially and culturally, albeit in a way that is neither univocal nor deterministic [14
Many experimental (see [15
] for a review) as well as non-experimental [16
] studies have shown that different representations of the same object can determine different behaviors. As Rouquette and Rateau [28
] recall, one does not act following what one thinks (or what one represents), but what one thinks indicates possible action. Therefore, while representations contribute to influencing individuals’ behavior, the link between behavior and representations cannot be explained by a simple theory of information: it is not because people know what they are doing that they necessarily do it. These phenomena can only be understood in the context of social interaction. The way subjects position themselves in the social space, their prior culture, and the process by which the representation has been co-constructed collectively. “In human societies, these elements are more important than ‘truth’ and often even more important than ‘facts’. In order to predict, or even modify, social behaviors, we need to know the representations of individuals as they exist in a given population, and how they function, as well as how they relate to action” [1
] (p. 5, our translation). It is the inadequate consideration of such factors that often explains the failure of nutritional reform campaigns. Complex representations allow us to make effective use of our knowledge of the world. To feed us, we need to think. To eat without poisoning ourselves, we need to make complex choices.
As in the case of any other technical-scientific concept, entomophagy is altered when it is spread to laypeople who try to make sense of new, surprising, or unusual information. The theory of social representations (SRT) deals with the processes through which technical-scientific information is integrated into common thought [29
], then contributing to the creation of the so-called “common-sense theories”. Nevertheless, the proliferation of the sciences, branches and disciplines, has determined and continues to determine a multiplication of reified/formalized universes. Events, information, theories that dwell in the reified universes must be duplicated, reproduced at a more concrete level, and transferred to those consensual universes (common sense), where it is possible to represent them. To allow this process, two mechanisms are necessary: anchoring and objectification. The former tends to “anchor” unusual ideas, reducing them to daily and family categories and images; the second affords the task of transforming abstract concepts into something concrete, almost physical. Moreover, while the anchoring allows people to transfer unusual concepts in a reference frame where it becomes possible to compare and interpret it, objectification allows the reproduction of this object among visible and tangible things; thus, the object itself becomes manageable. Therefore, we must expect, when studying representations of food, to come across not only a “total social fact” [30
] but also profound psychological mechanisms that structure the relationship life of human beings and their culture.
The social psychologist who wants to study reality as it is, and explain behavior, must, paradoxically, disregard “objective reality” and place himself from the outset in the subjective world, lived and acted by individuals. Seen from there, phenomena do not only have material or “cognitive” dimensions; emotions, sensations, and intentions are also relevant [31
]. Representational processes actively re-constructs the object; they produce (or recognize) a form in the factory of common sense. For example, think about expressions, increasingly frequent even in a home setting, such as: “My gosh, you made a starred dish!” (The term starred, refers to the evaluation system of an important gastronomic guide, which attributes from one to three stars to evaluate the best restaurants in the world. The raging of the so-called “food-porn” (the over-vision of food in our environment: billboards, bus stops, supermarket posters, TV advertisements, talent shows, and glossy magazines) has made this terminology common sense). This sentence, which seems banal, requires complex cooperation between the actors and prior knowledge of their respective roles. It is only possible thanks to a piece of shared knowledge, the common sense, which is here both in the actors’ minds, and materialized in communication supports. This knowledge and these objects have here made it possible to coordinate the activities of the guests, of the diners, of the cook, who have co-constructed in context a complex sequence of behaviors, and have thus achieved a particular occurrence of what is called a “dinner” and specifically of a “starred” dinner. This sequence seems trivial to us, but would undoubtedly surprise an outgroup participant who would be foreign to our common sense, who would not know the piece in advance like us. Everyday life is a sequence of acts that can only happen in collusion. That is obvious in cases where only a consensus between actors can produce the situation. However, it is also true of everyday acts, such as eating. In order to take part in social life, common sense must be shared. The centrality of this co-constructed and shared knowledge lets us talk about social representations (SRs).The importance of the SRs approach to the study of entomophagy lies in Moscovici’s [32
] conviction that society cannot be simplistically reduced to a source of information, but must be considered a source of meaning. People construct questions and search for answers on issues of their interest, rather than merely perceiving and processing information derived from the social context [33
]. The daily, permanent presence of food behavior, its capacity to be associated with life experiences in relationships, makes it a privileged support of social relations and cultural acts, as well as its privileged position among peoples’ issues of interest.
1.2. Aims and Research Questions
“It is not enough that a food is good to eat, it must also be good to think about it”. This sentence by the famous anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss [34
] sums up perfectly the situation of today’s consumer-eater who lives in an anxiety-provoking context linked to several phenomena. Some of them are related to our omnivorous nature, others to various characteristics of modern food (distance from the origin of our food, contradictory scientific opinions, sometimes aggressive advertising), and others still to our difficulty in thinking about significant problems of complexity. In addition to this anxiety-provoking context, there are religious food bans, cultural reticence in each country, and ethical considerations. Feeding the planet in the future will, therefore, require that, in addition to the quantitative and qualitative aspects, all consumers should also have the opportunity to find food that is “good to think about”. The aim of the research here presented is to understand if it is “good to think about” insects as food, in other words, which are the social representations of entomophagy co-constructed and circulating in our cultural context.
The framework of social representation as formalized through the structural approach [35
], assumes that not all the elements of a social representation have the same importance. Some are essential, others less so, others are insignificant. What is essential, if one wants to identify, understand, and modify a representation, is to recognize its organization, the hierarchy of the elements that constitute it, and the relationships they have with each other. Every representation is organized around a central core, which constitutes its fundamental element since it determines its meaning and structure. The central nucleus is a subset of the representation. An element is central when it is qualitatively and not quantitatively relevant. In other words, when it gives meaning to the representation. Around the central nucleus, the peripheral elements are organized. They constitute most of the constituent of a representation and its most accessible dimension. These elements are directly related to the central core and reflect the opinions, attitudes, and beliefs that concern the object. The central core theory [36
] has an essential methodological consequence: a social representation study is, first and foremost, looking for its structural elements.
Jean-Claude Abric [37
] affirms that we should consider social representations as an organized set of information, opinions, attitudes, and beliefs relating to a given object. Socially produced, they are strongly influenced by the values corresponding to the socio-ideological system and the group’s history that conveyed them, for which they constitute an essential element of the worldview. Even more impressive is the definition and the methodological implication that the author derives from his definition. Being “organized sets” all representations have two components: a content and a structure. In this perspective, to study a social representation means, first of all, to find the principal elements of this structure. The knowledge of the content is not sufficient. The organization of this content gives meaning to the whole representation: two identical contents can correspond to two different symbolic universes and, consequently, subtend two distinct social representations. Many studies have identified gender and age as relevant factors affecting individuals’ willingness to eat insect-based food [11
]. For this reason, we hypothesized the existence of different representations of entomophagy in distinct generational categories and between the distinct genders.
Starting from these premises, the present contribution mainly aims at studying the social representation of entomophagy in the structural approach, which means discovering the constitutive elements of its structure (central core and peripheral schemes) and its content (opinions, attitudes, intentions, and generative processes).
The following research questions summarize the core proposals:
Do groups of participants belonging to different social categories (gender and generation) produce different entomophagy representations?
Which are the more and the less shared contents of the social representation of entomophagy circulating in our socio-cultural context?
Agreeing with Levi-Strauss [34
], we chose foods not as good to eat but good to think about. Therefore, we can ask ourselves: what is good to think about what we eat? What if we eat insects?
This paper was entirely devoted to trying to answer these questions attempting to understand what people think when they think of eating insects. In other words, which naïve theories they co-construct thinking about insects as food; definitively, which social representations of entomophagy are circulating in our social context.
It is worth noting that our hypothesis to find different social representations in the four subgroups of participants involved in the study was not verified. It seems to us we encountered such a particular typology of social representation that Moscovici [32
] defined as agonal. He distinguishes among: closed/hegemonic SRs, characterized by representational elements uniformly distributed and shared throughout the whole population; agonal/critical/polemical SRs, characterized by representational elements approximately similar in the entire population, but with meanings determined by differing and even contrasting values; open/emancipated SRs, characterized by representational elements distributed among the various subgroups of a population so that it is necessary to bring them together to find out their coherence.
In our case, representational subdimensions are comparable in the entire sample, but with meanings defined by some divergent beliefs, elements visible only at a deeper level of qualitative, hermeneutical observation of the data. All representational structures gravitate around the same central core Disgust. Nevertheless, peripheral elements, the ones influenced by respondents’ social practices, gave crucial additional information to understand the real meaning every group attribute to representation. For Millennial females, the imagined sensation of something Crunchy in the mouth plays an important role. Effectively, the exoskeleton of insects has a significant influence on the texture. Insects are crunchy, and sounds accompanying their eating resemble the sound of crackers. Some of these participants, to the preliminary question that allowed access to filling in the questionnaire (related to the knowledge of the object of the representation “insects as food”), replied that they had even tasted it, although not making frequent use of it. Males of the same generational group, on the contrary, attributed higher importance to the nutritional properties of “insects as food”, balancing the sensation of Disgust with the idea of the source of Proteins. The same connection resulted important also for X-Generation females. Nevertheless, these women and much more men belonging this generation assigned a central role to the belief that insects, even if edible, are Dirty/Impure. According to previous studies (see [11
] more or less all the described representational structures are embedded by the idea of insects as dirty and dangerous. This argument about the issue of cleanliness and its link to the concept of purity, according to Rochira [48
] call upon the notion of ‘basic thémata’ introduced by Ivana Markovà [49
] (p. 213) who considered that interrelation the lintel which maintains “physical distancing from disgusting people, protection and preservation of the social order”. Thémata is a notion initially proposed by Holton [50
] and reworked by Moscovici and Vignaux [51
]. The thémata constitute a set of general conceptions, of force-ideas, deeply anchored in a group’s collective memory. They imply dyads or triads of oppositional notions, making it possible to explain the formation of real strands of thought and the emergence of certain social controversies. They seem to have a generative and normative power in forming a representation, shaping the new information on those already existing. In Moscovici’s opinion [14
] thémata are “bits” of knowledge or shared beliefs. Clear/dirty and pure/impure belongs to this particular symbolic categories deeply rooted in collective imagination that, as pointed out by Speltini and Passini [52
], give rise to intense emotional reactions of either attraction or repulsion towards impure and dirty persons/groups, thus legitimizing prejudice, discrimination, and social exclusion. So, even if laypeople’s entire discourse on entomophagy is full of antinomies, suspicion/trust, natural/artificial, enjoyment/necessity, it seems that dirty/clean and pure/impure play the most generative role in the social construction of the studied representations. In this way, we, too, could explain the profound nature of disgust through contamination. Participants in this research tend to have a stereotyped and undifferentiated perception of insects as impure. Partially because of intergroup discrimination, mostly because, according to Verneau et al. [11
] (p. 31) also in this case “the association of some insects with feces and decaying matter could have led to psychological contamination of all insects, making the entire category disgusting”.
That is a destiny that common sense does not attribute only to insects. As reminded by Debucquet et al. [53
] historians analyzed the importance of the beliefs associated with red meat considered disgusting, when bloody, because it was “still alive”. Other research on the perception of food germs has shown that blood in red meat is still nowadays perceived as risky because of the survival of the belief in “spontaneous generation” among laypeople. Similarly, many non-consumers are disgusted by oysters because of their appearance as something alive and viscous. Some scholars [53
] identified these two physical characteristics, alive and viscous, as the most common and most potent sources of disgust. Many consumers easily eat fresh, live oysters thanks to their culture, which considers suitable these specific sensory characteristics and, above all, by classifying them as luxury and rare food. Ingesting oysters, or escargot or caviar, for example, means eating positive symbols, desirable “worlds”, which strongly reduce the sense of disgust. In other words, the social representations associated with some “disgusting” food by consumers identifying in it classy, sophisticated, and healthy food, “helps” its consumption [55
]. The time has probably come to work for “insects as food” to become the escargot, caviar, and oysters of the 21st century. The first step could be to dismantle those fundamental representational dimensions generated by cultural anchors and objectification in the other by itself, i.e., in the Orientals and the poor.
Our interviewees found a clear strategy to cope with the “entomophagy risk” by placing it somewhere else, far away from us, in Other_Countries such as India, China, etc. A strategy of distancing the problem which is also confirmed by frequent and transversal references to culture.
In the case of opinions and beliefs about insects as food, participants in the research show a precise application of “cognitive polyphasia” [13
]. Different, and sometimes competing, bits of knowledge are used to give sense to the social reality. These different and frequently contradictory ways of thinking, meaning, and practices are argued to co-exist because they feature situated knowledge. That is, each mode of knowledge is linked to the context of its production. Thus, inconsistencies are accommodated, as each representation is argued to be locally consistent [58
]. For this reason, the same people who adopted coping strategies such as collocating entomophagy in other countries and cultures, classifying it as a poor eating habit, and so on, show specific technical competences regarding insect farming and production strategies that allow their transformation into food. Despite this reified knowledge, they recur in parallel to consensual explanations, showing strong prejudices about insects’ healthiness as food. Therefore, an oscillation is typical of that specific representational process called cognitive polyphasia that, among our participants, we also saw in the swinging between scientific knowledge linked to insects as the protein bank of the future and objectifications in dust, slime, dirt, feces, etc. Controversial issues give rise to polemical social representations.
The attitudinal component of the studied representation confirms this convergent heterodoxy. In the chosen framework, attitude does not merely identify a set of particular and heteronomous opinions or answers, but a mechanism capable of actively imposing order on these opinions and answers. In other words, it performs a regulatory function, allowing subjects to make a selection within their cognitive and emotional universe. The behavior is not its most immediate concrete manifestation, even if, when it manifests itself, its content and value are exact. The predictivity of behavior from an attitude, anyhow, is a very controversial issue, which also finds some theorists of social representations dissenting (see [62
] for a review). They—and we are among them—consider attitudes as one of the components of a representation and believe that the genesis of behavior has a probabilistic, multi-determined, and virtual status within the SRT. Moving back to the research results, it is clear that the attitude toward entomophagy is overall negative, but some intergroup differences are worth noting. Millennials showed a slight openness to food novelties, even envisaging the possibility of accepting indirect entomophagy.
According to Kouřimská and Adámková [63
], sensory properties are significant criteria accompanying the consumption of edible insects. The taste and flavor of insects are very different and affected by pheromones occurring at the insect’s surface that could be washed off by rinsing. Chitin and exoskeleton also influence the organoleptic composition, but cooking insects gives them the taste of added ingredients, i.e., sugar, salt, or spices. Cooking and conservation methods also affect the color of edible insects. All this information, nevertheless, is not already common sense. For this reason, one of the aims of this study was to identify the generative process of anchoring, in this case, a sensory-taste anchoring, to understand which kind of anticipatory sensations people use to take its decision of eating or avoiding “insects as food”. In some way, we obliged participants to activate this process by stimulating their imagination and, to the best of our knowledge, it is something that has never happened in the study of social representations, always studied as products, less as processes [64
Results, in this case, offer an exciting perspective. Succulence is the most disturbing and harmful sensation shared by all Millennials. Females belonging to this subgroup are specifically disturbed by the imagined Greasiness-Unctuosity and males do not tolerate the Bitter tendency and Persistence in the taste of the imagined insect dish. Among this generation of interviewees, Sapidity and Sweet are the less disturbing shared sensations. However, the Sweet tendency characterized the projective reactions of millennial females and Spiciness the male ones. Concerning X-Generation’s participants, it is interesting to note that for these people, also, Succulence is the most disturbing and damaging sensation shared. In this subgroup, however, Bitter tendency characterizes females’ imagined worst sensation and Acidity, Greasiness-Unctuosity, and Persistence the male ones. No shared sensation resulted in this subgroup where females better tolerate Sapidity’ and males Spiciness and Sweet of the imagined dish. These data could help who are searching for the sensory characteristics of “insects as food” that should be avoided and which ones should be used, for example, as marketing strategies to promote entomophagy. In general, we are convinced that it is necessary to take entomophagic discourses out of their status of “esoteric curiosity” to make them an object of study with its own cultural specificity that needs to be much more stressed.
What we commonly call “eating behavior” summarizes, in synthetic terms, an immense field of passions and knowledge, rules, and signs that occupy our imagination. Anthropologists have been more vigorously interested in the subject, especially in the so-called primitive cultures, more rarely the sociologists, while social psychology of socio-constructivist orientation has remained in a refuge. The difficulty is not in noticing this refuge, but in explaining its persistence. When we see the extent of industrial and economic investment and, even more so, the place that everything related to cooking, food occupies in daily conversation, in the publication of books, and mass communication, we wonder why the psychology of social knowledge has retreated from it, or perhaps put it at a distance. Nevertheless, there is no other field of social life in which the values, ideas, or words of a human group manifest themselves, with greater resonance, most intimately and directly, than that of food. We hope that the originality of the current research can reside, first of all, in its theme: drawing the outlines of the socio-cultural psychology of eating behavior called “entomophagy”. That was its project, and, whatever the judgment on the method or concepts used, it remains its ambition. Combining a socio-constructivist perspective on entomophagy and a functionalist approach to sensations (even if imagined) may provide a comprehensive and promising theoretical framework for the study of the role of immaterial imaging in the study of social representations, in particular of anchoring process, involving relevant consequences for the research methodologies and instruments used to investigate these phenomena.
Limitations and Future Developments
This study has limitations, indeed. The most important is perhaps the convenient nature of the sample and its relatively small size. The research process here proposed could also be applied across a wider geographic area to understand the social representations of entomophagy throughout Italy and further identify regional and contextual influences. Comparisons between North–South, city–province, and center–periphery might be fruitfully explored by future research. Future work could also address whether residential area [65
] influences the relationships between interviewees and insects as food. Finally, with the aim of developing a model of the problem [66
], it might be useful to introduce additional indicators, considering not only subjective perceptions and self-reported evaluations [67
], but also objective environmental data [69
], in order to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of the timely topic addressed in the paper.