Consumed with modernity and 'tradition': Food, women, and ethnicity in changing urban Malaysia

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Susan Snow Wadley


Food, Women, Ethnicity, Malaysia, Urban communities

Subject Categories

Anthropology | Arts and Humanities | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Social and Cultural Anthropology | Women's Studies


With Malaysia becoming increasingly absorbed into the global economy, there has been a greater consumption of mass-produced commodities, particularly among its growing middle classes given rising incomes as the economy expands. Some theorists conclude that an increase in the consumption of mass-produced commodities will inevitably give rise to greater social and cultural homogenization across the world. Here, 'native' traditions are threatened when cultural and social distinctions distinguishing varying people groups begin to gradually disappear. This dissertation argues that social and cultural distinctions, as expressed through ethnic as well as religious, and gender identities, need not be eliminated. Paradoxically, as may be deduced from the Malaysian example, the very global symbols that transcend ethnic and national differences have been deployed to heighten and perpetuate cultural values. These symbols include mass-produced or convenience foods. As such, this ethnography demonstrates that commodity consumption is about social relationships and the assertion of culture.

Asserting culture means that social groups perceive their identities to be paramount. In Malaysia where government policy focuses on decreasing poverty among Malays and, thus, privileging them over other groups, circumscribing Malay identity determines whoever possesses access to economic resources. Since the definition of Malay identity is problematic, Islam has been appropriated to mark Malayness, separating this group from non-Malays. In Islam, diets mark social identity. Since global foods are subject to religious dietary rules, their consumption allows for an assertion of ethnic identity.

In spite of globalization, the ethnographic evidence here shows that food continues to mark difference. Here, homogenization occurs but to a lesser extent than we might expect. What does occur is that modern foods serve to highlight new social distinctions, as expressed through class status, in addition to maintaining the old differences that existed prior to these foods being incorporated into local diets.

Cultural values are sustained in another context linked to food. Despite women taking on wage employment, for many of them traditional notions of their symbolic connection to food continue and, as such, cooking creates their gender identity. It can be argued, therefore, that women's engagement in domestic food matters is not a reflection of their subordinate relationship to men. Rather, when women cook, they do not perceive this task to create gender inequality. Instead they see their role in food as complementary to what men do in the household.


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