What Sociology Can Teach Us about Thanksgiving

Sociological Insights on the Holiday

A full plate at Thanksgiving dinner symbolizes American abundance, belonging, and identity.
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Sociologists believe that the rituals practiced within any given culture serve to reaffirm that culture's most important values and beliefs. This theory dates back to founding sociologist Émile Durkheim and has been validated by countless researchers over more than a century's time. This means that by examining a ritual, we can come to understand some fundamental things about the culture in which it is practiced. So in this spirit, let's take a look at what Thanksgiving reveals about us.

The Social Importance of Family and Friends

Of course it's probably obvious to most readers that coming together to share a meal with loved ones signals how important relationships with friends and family are in our culture, which is far from a uniquely American thing. When we gather together to share in this holiday, we effectively say, "Your existence and our relationship is important to me," and in doing so, that relationship is reaffirmed and strengthened (at least in a social sense). But there are some less obvious and decidedly more interesting things going on too.

Thanksgiving Highlights Normative Gender Roles

The holiday of Thanksgiving and the rituals we practice for it reveal the gender norms of our society. In most households across the U.S. it is women and girls who will do the work of preparing, serving, and cleaning up after the Thanksgiving meal. Meanwhile, most men and boys are likely to be watching and/or playing football. Of course, neither of these activities are exclusively gendered, but they are predominantly so, especially in heterosexual settings. This means that Thanksgiving serves to reaffirm the distinct roles we believe men and women should play in society, and even what it means to be a man or a woman in our society today.

The Sociology of Eating on Thanksgiving

One of the most interesting sociological research findings about Thanksgiving comes from Melanie Wallendorf and Eric J. Arnould, who take a sociology of consumption standpoint in a study of the holiday published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 1991. Wallendorf and Arnould, along with a team of student researchers, conducted observations of Thanksgiving celebrations across the U.S., and found that the rituals of preparing food, eating it, overeating it, and how we talk about these experiences signal that Thanksgiving is really about celebrating "material abundance"—having a lot of stuff, notably food, at one's disposal. They observe that the fairly bland flavorings of Thanksgiving dishes and the heaping piles of food presented and consumed signal that it is quantity rather than quality that matters on this occasion.

Building on this in her study of competitive eating contests (yes, really!), sociologist Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson sees in the act of overeating the affirmation of abundance at the national level. Our society has so much food to spare that its citizens can engage in eating for sport (see her 2014 article in Contexts). In this light, Ferguson describes Thanksgiving as a holiday that "celebrates ritualistic overeating," which is meant to honor national abundance through consumption. As such, she declares Thanksgiving a patriotic holiday.

Thanksgiving and American Identity

Finally, in a chapter in the 2010 book The Globalization of Food, titled "The National and the Cosmopolitan in Cuisine: Constructing America through Gourmet Food Writing," sociologists Josée Johnston, Shyon Baumann, and Kate Cairns reveal that Thanksgiving plays an important role in defining and affirming American identity. Through a study of how people write about the holiday in food magazines, their research shows that eating, and especially preparing Thanksgiving, is framed as an American rite of passage. They conclude that participating in these rituals is a way to achieve and affirm one's American identity, especially for immigrants.

It turns out that Thanksgiving is about a lot more than turkey and pumpkin pie.