Bittersweet: living with sugar and kin in contemporary Scotland
This thesis explores sugar consumption and kin-making in a north Edinburgh neighbourhood, and shows that sugar is central to processes of social relatedness. I argue that sugar reveals the meaning of kinship in Scotland, and that experiences of kinship reveal the material and symbolic potentialities of sugar. During 13 months of fieldwork in primary schools, homes and community groups, I traced the values and meanings attributed to sugar, and its role in processes of socialisation. Sugar poses ethical problems. It is marked out as by educational and medical institutions as publicly bad – for individual health and bodies. Yet sugar is also marked out as privately good – for social bonding, for indexing intimacy, for recognition, compensation, and for marking out the meanings of particular times, spaces, types of relationship, and the kind of authority that infuses them. Perhaps above all, sugar stands in for instances of care and particular kinds of (dangerous?) pleasure. How people and institutions resolve the ethical problems sugar poses in their everyday relationships tells us about these relationships, about the contested place of pleasure, and notions of responsibility. This thesis is split into two parts. Part one examines sugar ‘in public’, and moves outwards from schools and medical institutions towards the home. Part two explores sugar ‘at home’, and examines the gendered nature of parenting, as well as other kinds of homes – those of grandparents for example. Both sections overlap in showing that public and private are not given but brought into being, with sugar used to generate and negotiate boundaries between the two. We see values of home brought into school – through home-baking – to mark out practices of care in school, and public health values that travel homewards. I theorise sugar as a substance of relatedness, which reveals kinship in Scotland as processual. Sugar reveals perceptions of children, and relationships with children, as fragile, and highlights the primacy of the bounded nuclear family home as the ideal site of good kinship and successful growing of children – even as kinship in Scotland unfolds in many places and possible configurations. I use the term ‘living with sugar’ to challenge conceptions of sugar consumption as an individual choice. In showing the pervasiveness of sugar in its many forms and negative messages about sugar in this environment, I argue that sugar’s constant structural availability – and its status as a less-than-good moral option – can be rethought as a condition of life for those bringing up children. This framing of sugar as bad, yet safe to consume in moderation, expands the value attributed to sugar, increasing its specialness and the pleasures it enables. As diet becomes an arena in which good kinship can be evaluated, the management of sugar in children’s diets can become burdensome for parents – an effort often distributed along gendered lines. The common-sense, yet ambiguous, notions of balance and moderation, presented as a relatively straightforward ‘choice’, sets up many parents (especially mothers) for feelings of failure.