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New Faculty: Cultural Anthropologist Barbara Bonnekessen, Feb. 19, 2008

Dr. Barbara Bonnekessen

by Valerie Kimble

SOCORRO, N.M., Feb. 19, 2008 – Dr. Barbara Bonnekessen was intrigued with the idea of teaching at a science and engineering research university, and equally amazed that it lacked faculty in the social studies.

“I checked out the school on its website, and saw there was no anthropologist, no sociologist,” she said. “I thought, ‘Those poor people – I must help them.’”

Bonnekessen is now the resident social scientist at New Mexico Tech since arriving on campus last fall as an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities.

This semester, she is teaching a course in “Food and Culture,” along with courses called “Anthropology of Sex and Gender” and “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology,” which probably will become a department mainstay. In time, she would like to add a methods course and one in social science theory.

Bonnekessen described the 22 students in the Food and Culture course as wonderful, and very engaged. “They know how to do literature research, and give me interesting papers to read,” she said. “I’m having a great time.”

The course is the result of a conversation between Bonnekessen and Dr. Sue Dunston, associate professor of Humanities, about The Globalization of Nothing by George Ritzer, a modern social theorist.

Ritzer discusses globalization and consumerism, concepts Bonnekessen explores in the course through a cultural focus on food, from the domestication of plants and animals to colonial issues and the exploitation of workers.

A study of food and culture inevitably would include mention of the fast-food industry and its icon, the McDonald’s franchise, which has restaurants in more than 120 countries.

Bonnekessen’s students are delving into the field by watching “Super-Size Me,” a 2004 documentary, and through research and discussion on the franchise phenomenon and its cultural fallout.

For example, said Bonnekessen, Americans expect quick delivery from the ubiquitous restaurants and also eat quickly, as opposed to Chinese diners who may consume Big Macs, but eat them slowly, as is their custom.

“McDonald’s has become a social space, a place for people to gather,” she said, recalling pulling into a golden arches facility on I-35 between Missouri and Iowa, to discover a Bingo game in progress, primarily among older men and women.

Food also is associated with ethnicity, from certain prescribed foods for American 4th of July gatherings with its grilled burgers and hot dogs, to the traditional Thanksgiving turkey; and with religious taboos (meatless Fridays for Catholics) and ideas about gender (“men eat steak, women eat salads”).

However, said Bonnekessen, the most invisible part of the food consumption chain is the worker who toils in the fields to raise the vegetables, and who slaughters the animals that eventually wind up as dinner fare.

If time allows, the food and culture class will watch “Soylent Green,” the 1973 sci-fi film that depicts the fictional future of 2022 where overpopulation is wreaking havoc on the food chain.

In the movie, women are part of the rented furniture in the homes of the rich, which touches on a major theme of Bonnekessen’s research – that of right-wing women’s organizations, which claim to represent views of a broad base of women.

Bonnekessen moved to Socorro from the University of Missouri at Kansas City, where she spent 12 years. She received a the equivalent of a bachelor of arts at the Institute for Ancient American Languages and Cultures at the University of Hamburg in her native Germany. Bonnekessen has a master of science degree in sociology and anthropology from Purdue University, and earned her doctorate in cultural anthropology from the University of Kansas.

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