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Home arrow Political science arrow From Hunger to Malnutrition: The Political Economy of Scientific Knowledge in Europe, 1918-1960


Nutrition, Health and European Citizenship

Going beyond the purely economic and political perspective, whatever the viewpoint, the first half of the 20th century represented, from a social stand, a critical, contradictory and essential period in the development of the civilising process defined by Norbert Elias as one in which external social constraints proscribing behaviours gradually became internalised.[1] He suggested that, in modern Western culture, behaviour associated with the body, as is the case with nutrition and dietary habits, came to be strictly regulated. The civilising process can also be interpreted as the genesis of what Alfons Labisch described as the construction of the homo hygienicus,[2] basically an expression of the triumph of the ideals and values of urban bourgeoisies. This was therefore the breeding ground for a new concept of citizenship and the spread of civil rights, among which hunger, extreme poverty, avoidable disease, child, infant and birth-related mortality and the abandonment of children drew a universe of intolerable situations. Access to food became an implicit right.[3]

That same period also set a milestone in the cultural scene as a key factor for innovation, modernity and progress. The new bourgeois society boosted urban culture and cosmopolitanism versus the values of country living; world exhibitions were fostered in major European cities, art avant-gardes and any art movement that broke away from former conceptions and rules were worshipped, and a new model of universal citizenship was implemented. This was in contrast with the impoverished image of the rural world, one that was increasingly considered backward, non-hygienic and rude, that is to say, not very civilised, according to urban bourgeoisie standards, and unrefined.[4]

It was amidst this complex historical climate that the Interventionist State strongly emerged as a fundamental regulatory element in conflict management and stabilisation policies. Bourgeois liberalism and democratic ideals had shifted from 19th century laissez-faire attitudes that detested the State to active commitment, usually in the form of a protecting or providential State. The State, as the main guarantor and defender of the common good, appeared as an unavoidable means to implement human rights associated with new values of citizenship. The State broke through as a regulating player, controlling people’s social life to prevent abuse. It was legitimated as the warrantor of social wellbeing, regulating the economy, encouraging scientific activity and social care programmes, the construction of hygienic housing, cities and clean schools, and the design of new suburbs. The State emerged as the regulator of inequalities and the main advocate of people’s rights. As a result, Western countries developed an increasingly strong public administration that dealt with social order, including health and diet, both locally and nationally.

On the other hand, the global dimension of social, political and economic problems demanded the configuration of an international context, one usually employed as a reference for State initiatives that regulated competition between countries and staking the boundaries of the most-favoured nation principle. During the inter-war period, this international framework was focused on the League of Nations, not only to foster stabilisation policies on trade, the economy and political conflicts, but also to play a determining role in international public health and in the emergence of social medicine.23 From a sanitary perspective, a new period started following international health conferences and international meetings on hygiene and demography, tuberculosis, cancer, infant health, vaccines, vitamins and rural health. Via international organisations such as the International Health Board of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Red Cross, philanthropy became very relevant on the international health scene in terms of stimulating cooperation between countries.

New values made hunger, famine and malnutrition a visible problem to address, with multiple dimensions: political, economic, medical, scientific and environmental, affecting millions of people all over the world. Individual human rights and social stability were involved. From a social and historical perspective, nutrition and diet made up excellent ground with multiple dimensions, to explore the genesis of experimental knowledge, the social values and interests involved, as well as the transfer of knowledge and practices to public health, the economy, trade and politics. The exceptional confluence of all such factors influenced the emergence of a political economy of knowledge and actions around hunger and nutrition, the main object of analysis of this book.

  • [1] Elias, N., Uber den Prozefi der Zivilisation. Soziogenetische und psychogenetischeUntersuchungen. Erster Band. Wandlungen des Verhaltens in den weltlichenOberschichten des Abendlandes and Zweiter Band. Wandlungen der Gesellschaft.Entwurf einer Theorie der Zivilisation, Basel, Verlag Haus zum Falken, 1939(Published in English as The Civilizing Process, Vol.I. The History of Manners,Oxford, Blackwell, 1969, and The Civilizing Process, Vol.II. State Formation andCivilization, Oxford, Blackwell, 1982); Andresen, A. et al. (eds.), Citizens,Courtrooms, Crossings, Bergen, Stein Rokkan Centre for Social Studies, 2008;Barnes, D.S., The Great Stink of Paris and the Nineteenth-Century Struggle againstFilth and Germs, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
  • [2] Labisch, A., Homo Hygienicus. Gesundheit und Medizin in der Neuzeit, Frankfurt,Campus, 1992.
  • [3] Andresen, A., Barona, J.L., Cherry, S. (eds.), Making a new countryside? HealthPolicies and Practices in European History ca. 1860-1950, Frankfurt, Peter Lang,2010.
  • [4] Ibidem, pp. 15-20.
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