Sugar, Hegemony, and Power in British Culture: A State of Flux | Ricardo A. Pascual


        This paper, based on Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power (1985), was originally submitted as a requirement for the ANT-285W Concepts & Methods in Cultural Anthropology course taught by Dr. Michelle Parsons during the Spring 2015. Drawing on a historical materialist approach to sucrose, hegemony, and power in British culture found in Mintz’s Sweetness and Power, I argue that the increased availability of sucrose, from a scarce luxury to an everyday necessity in the British mainland by the nineteenth-century, maintained an overall hegemony in a shifted capitalistic society, which not only constrained but also empowered different social actors. While this paper emphasizes the influences of sucrose in the cultural and socioeconomic context of nineteenth century Britain, it also illustrates how analysis of material goods through a historical materialist approach expounds the mesh between individuals and institutions in a ‘globalizing’ world.



        In a ‘globalizing’ world, anthropology analyzes microculture systems to delineate the larger impacts on political-economic trends on a wider, therefore, global scale. Most notably a ‘globalizing’ sentiment was felt during the seventeenth century with an increased dependency on slave-based industries from the European colonies in the Caribbean to mainland Europe in tropical trade commodities, such as: coffee, tea, and sucrose. Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power illustrates the delicate interplay, even dialectical, between the production of sucrose- the technical name of sugar, in the colonies to its exportation and presence in Britain. Furthermore, Mintz provides rich evidence for the indelible economical, political, and cultural transformations the accessibility of sugar facilitated in the British mainland. This paper argues that the increased availability of sucrose, as a material artifact, in Britain, served to maintain overall hegemony that not only constrained but also empowered different social actors in a shifting capitalistic stratified society.

        In Sweetness and Power, Mintz offers a historical materialist approach to illustrate the increased production of sucrose extracted from sugarcane. Originally, sucrose served as a “rarity, a medicine, a spice, coming from afar, traded for but not produced,” because the extraction of sucrose from sugarcane was not fully known, water dependent, labor intensive, costly to extract, store, and ship, and required large and ample plots of land. However, overseas agricultural experiments, such as plantations in large tracts of land in the colonial region of the West Indies, created proper circumstances that eventuated the creation of “agro-industrial complexes,” which was instrumental in the successful rise of capitalism to European states. Kottak (2014) defines capitalism as an “economic system(s) that favors private ownership of the means of production… (by) competitive markets, capital accumulation, and personal finance.” Increasingly, these plantations led to politically and socially stratified complex systems of exchange: Africa- providing slave labor, the West Indies- producing and exporting sugar, and Europe- regulating, and consuming sugar. Moreover, with the advent of systems of exchange that surged among the colonies and Africa, people were increasingly interlinked and mutually dependent in the sugar trade between the New and Old World.

        Therefore, the ability of social actors to produce, purchase, and consume sugar allowed the product to become a material artifact, a term described by Atkinson (2015) as “Elements in systems of use… goods endowed with meaning.” Sugar, an ‘element’ in the ‘system’ is culturally defined. This interpretation allows sugar to take on various meanings to different people. Since the availability of sugar was limited to the production in the Caribbean and subjected by the metropolis in Britain, only a select few had access to it throughout Europe. The nobility increasingly used sugar because it was “desirable and expensive,” so it could represent wealth when used as decoration pieces and aesthetically pleasing decoration “subtleties” that transformed to “message-bearing objects that could be used to make a special point,” in other words, a symbol of power. However, the social interactions based on sugar were ostensibly challenged by the end of the sixteenth century with the increasing use of sugar among those that were neither noble nor wealthy. Mintz describes this through the use of sugar in recipes in “Partridge’s classic sixteenth-century cook book,” which would have potentially been accessible to many people in Britain. While sugar originally functioned as a luxury only available to those who could afford it; notwithstanding, in a few hundred years, sugar became inextricably connected and ingrained as a necessity throughout British culture.

        To argue the interconnected role between the production of sugar and availability to the masses, Mintz relies on an “outside” and “inside” approach. An “outside” approach depends on myriad external factors: “place of sucrose in the history of colonies, commerce, political intrigue, the making of policy and law.” Meanwhile, an “inside” approach surveys the “meanings people gave to sugar… determined… as by those who made the product available.” In an “outside” approach we conclude that sucrose, by the eighteenth century, had become a profitable business due to efficient mass production practices. This created a ripple effect that increased availability of sugar to the industrial working class that would not have had the opportunity to purchase it before. Upon further analysis, we find that “outside” and “inside” meanings are not exclusively deterministic relationships. Rather, these forces work together cohesively, and each process is limited by the influential roles their social actors partake in. The reality of the working class was embedded in the socio-economic system, which determined the living conditions and their daily actions. However, an increased surplus of sugar production due to alternative sources of sugar such as beets produced in Europe led to cheaper prices that empowered working classes who re-defined sugar from a symbolic icon of power to one of mass consumption. Notwithstanding, this new role of sugar constrained the working class due to “outside” forces that, in light of shifting economic contexts, changed the meaning of sugar from an icon of prosperity to a food of caloric importance.

        All in all, there is little doubt that the increased consumption of sugar in Europe transformed British culture. Individuals in Britain played the roles of social actors by transforming the ephemeral cultural contexts on the meaning of sugar, Interestingly, we do observe a flux of attitudes in modern day for example, current debates in developed countries on the nutritional consequences of a high-sugar diet, and an increased market competition between sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and non-caloric sweeteners. By offering a disparate perspective to the history on the dialectical interaction between sugar and British culture, Mintz intended “to shape an anthropology of the present.”  Analyzing commodities or material goods through a historical and materialist discourse allows us to understand the delicate interplay between individuals and institutions. Regardless, anthropologists face the increasingly difficult task of analyzing global patterns in terms of anthropological discourses through traditional fields methods. Therefore, they must be attentive to a plethora of factors that act in microcultures, which may latently influence global processes to have a true, accurate representation of an “anthropology of the present.”



Atkinson, Paul

  2015 For Ethnography. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Kottak, Conrad

  2014 Cultural Anthropology. New York City: McGraw Hill Companies.

Mintz, Sidney

  1985 Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin Group Inc.

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