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The ethnic identity of cacao

Unpublished essay from my postgraduate studies in anthropology researching ceremonial cacao. I share my essays to track my growth and evolution through my research process and writing but also to inspire other academics at different stages of the journey. I have currently completed my Bachelor of Arts double majoring in psych and social anthropology and am currently working on my Masters of Arts Social Anthropology.

Essay submitted: 19/01/2023


Cacao ceremonies have been trending since the global 2020 Covid 19 pandemics (Walsh, 2021) creating a new social space for individuals seeking to connect with other like-minded new age spiritualists. The consumption and marketing of cacao has become mainstream and merging into white western upper-class society as a new way of authentically expressing yourself but has cultural appropriation and inequal power relationships in this commodity chain.

In this essay I will explore how ceremonial cacao is connected to the production of ethnic identity. I will argue following Bourdieu that the consumption of cacao creates inequalities between the consumers and the producers of cacao in the field (ceremonies), these inequalities are created by our individual contributions by our positions in the field and the identities we are seeking and creating by consuming ceremonial cacao which then effect the wider social context.

In this essay I will discuss Bourdieu's framework and his key concepts, I then look at how cacao shapes ethnic and class identities and the cultural capital we gain, the field of ceremonies in detail and power struggles that happen within the field.

Theory framework

Pierre Bourdieu's theory framework brings interesting and powerful insight to the research of food and identity, his theories give us a way to explore not only the way we interact in a wider social context creating social inequality through the connection and power of food but he also presents an interesting argument and reasoning to how we as individuals fit into the wider social context by our own connections and not just that as the structure and power of the state or society, that it is the individual agents that actually make up the inequalities and powers within society.

Bourdieu's theory features four key concepts to which we can analyze food and identity: capital, habitus, symbolic power, and fields (Riley, 2017).

Habitus is a set of dispositions and tastes that is established before an individual enters society but the produced behavior that is in the habitus reproduces (Riley, 2017) and affirms the position that agent occupies, the habitus presents different class positions. Habitus is a not a determined one, as things around and in the habitus change, this will change the field and also the habitus or tastes we have will evolve (Mahar et al, 1990), individuals can change their own habitus as they enter the many fields they identify with.

Capital simply refers to resources, in Bourdieu's theory he identifies these as economics -your income, social – your relationships and cultural capital – cultural objects and experiences. (Riley, 2017).

Fields are locations in which social power plays and inequalities take place. Bourdieu argues that actors can be a part of many fields and play distinct roles and positions in each field depending on the habitus and capital.

Symbolic power talks about relationships and the power plays that take place within each field.

Bourdieu's framework presents interesting findings in relation to ceremonial cacao and the relation between food and identity through the consumption of this commodity, we can look through the lens of this theory and see that it's much more than just a religious ritual, that many other factors have led up to this ritual and consumption and Bourdieu's theory offers rational for the consumption and how it represents the ethnicity, class and capital attained by users of cacao as we will see when we discuss further in the essay.

Ethnic & Class Identity associated with ceremonial cacao

Ethnicity and class identity go side by side in the research of ceremonial cacao consumption, however it seems as if the ethnic identity is more obvious than class identity and that class identity may even be follow on because of the identity of the consumer to cacao, like Eriksen says ethnicity is to do with the classification of people and relationships within that group (Eriksen, 1997). Ethnicity is also all about power and the accumulation of cultural capital, which ties us back in with Bourdieu and cultural capital. Ethnicity will play a big part in what people consume, why people have particular tastes in what they consume but more importantly the bigger reasons why, the power it symbolizes. As we will discuss in the essay ethnicity, identity and food can also symbolize appropriation of another cultures practice or food resource as a power symbol, capitalism, and cultural colonization (Massey University, 2022). Ethnicity and food show us in society, who we are, what class we belong too and if I belong here or not, it is a representation on how we should respond to each other, and if we belong or resonate to the same place. Ethnicity also plays a huge part in social equality within these groups as we see with cacao the accumulation cultural capital is more important than the ethics of who is producing the cacao, the identity of belonging to this ethnic class or in Bourdieu's term, field is more important than what happens outside the field, because ethnicity at the core of it is much more than race as many would assume it is connected with action, politics and power (Massey University, 2022).The ethnic fields we belong too or even our classes within those fields are our ethnic identifications whether we are consciously aware of it, ethnicity is more concerned with the identity of “us” (Eriksen, 1997), meaning is a central characteristic of social life (Stryker & Stryker, 2016) and ethnicity and class helps us to define and make meaning of this, through the consumption of food individuals identify themselves and groups they identify with (Dixon, 1999), food represents where we come from, a symbol of our core beliefs and also an identifying factor of our status in society both socially and economically and our cultural capital.

The field of cacao ceremonies

The cacao plant has a long history of only being consumed by the elite, throughout the commodification and recent increased use of ceremonial cacao due to the rise in modern new age spirituality practices trending on social media we have seen an increase in cultural appropriation on indigenous rituals, practices and foods creating a widespread of repression of indigenous practices (Jones, 2022) creating inequal power and further cultural colonization (Massey University, 2022) to indigenous people globally.

There is still some controversy about the origin and domestication of cacao, signs and history of cacao date back roughly 1500 years ago pre-colonial period (Motamayor et al, 2002) consumed in feasting, burials mainly by elites (Washburn et al, 2011), cacao was one of the ancient Maya’s most prized plant (St Jean, 2020) and treated as a valuable trading commodity between the elite. Cacao represented high status in society (Windelspecht, 2016).

I have found for the field that we will discuss in this essay, ceremonies, is a fairly new and modern mainstream practice, which became a famed ritual by Keith Wilson who claimed to have the spirit of the cacao plant speak to him in a meditation, once word spread of his ceremonies (Walsh, 2020) and then the rise of new age spirituality spreading on social media platforms during the 2020 worldwide covid pandemics, ceremonial cacao became a mainstream commodity and the classification of this group identity was formed and relationships in this group formed (Eriksen, 1997) around this time creating in Bourdieu's terms the field of ceremonies.

Meaning is a central characteristic of social life and an important aspect of culture (Stryker & Stryker, 2016) and we see during the 2020 pandemic that worldwide more and more people began to seek new meaning and connection as the world we all knew both individually and collectively changed, I believe that this is where people began to create in Bourdieu’s terms new habitus as we were all collectively exposed to new information, practices and ideas within the online realms. The social structures we once identified with were no longer and as humans we naturally seek new structures, new identities, new places of connecting, creating new habitus where we could create new social structures (Power, 1999) and practices.

Cacao ceremonies have meaning behind the ritual purpose and structures of social and ethnic power inequality. The production and marketing of cacao ceremonies reproduces disturbing colonial dynamics (Walsh, 2021) we see that the commodification of not only the cacao plant but also of a ritual connected to indigenous practices being appropriated and used for the meaning of connection distinctively by upper-middle class white western world, this highlighting the distinction that comes with consuming cacao, which defines our social position (Hsu, 2005) within the field, within society (Massey University, 2022). The consumption of cacao is very distinct and reconfirms one as a member of that culture (Allison, 1991), the ethnic identity associated with ceremonial cacao.

In ceremony together whether it be online virtual ceremonies or in-person ceremonies it is where individuals in this field of ceremonies come together and can exercise their connected habitus, create the connection they are desiring especially during the present time where things globally are so unsure, they can share fundamental cultural values (Massey University, 2022) that define and connect their cultural similarities but I also believe that cacao ceremonies is place where you can gain cultural capital, that capital is a cultural experience, spiritual ritual that seems worldly and a one of a kind experience that is not the normal in white western societies, creating cultural capital. Some people will attend ceremony as a one off, an experience, something to tick off the bucket list and others will attend regularly or even begin holding their own and both of these accruing cultural capital and asserting their cultural and ethnic power by the amount of capital accrued in this field which creates distinctions of social positions within the field and defined habitus.

The reproduction of social and ethnic inequality

Cacao ceremonies reproduce and create high individual and group cultural capital, during this process the consumers and users of cacao idolize the plant, the ritual and the connection within the field between those in the positions of cacao consumption in the field, they do not often think about the producers of cacao, the indigenous farmers who are underpaid cultivating the cacao in order for the social positions and capital to continue growing in this field it's important that an alienation of the farmers and the consumers (Jones, 2022) continues on.

This field is defined by cultural similarities (Massey University, 2022), that being the connection is cacao and the field being ceremonies with the scale of positions within the fields being farmers, consumers, facilitators, distributors, state. The power dynamics sees the farmers position at the bottom of the list and the state at the very top, we can see distinct identification between the positions. With the popularity of cacao ceremonies growing and becoming mainstream after the pandemic the desire and needs for this field has grown and expanded, this creates more inequality with social power as the consumer is more concerned with the cultural capital gained from the commodity. Consuming cacao is about the food itself but more the experience that comes along with it and the identification of being spiritual, the drinking of cacao is a mark of belonging (Power, 1999). The more cacao you consume, the more ceremonies you attend the more your position scales up and the more cultural capital you gain within this field and a higher social status of power and recognition. The general consumers of cacao in this field I believe bring the most to this field in regard to the reproduction of social inequality as the act of consumption itself keeps the demand for it and the production chain alive.

Analysis using Bourdieu's theory

Using Bourdieu's theory, we see that this field, ceremonies play a wider role in the field of power, ceremonies contribute to the capitalist economy and the commodification and cultural colonization of indigenous rituals and practices. The structure of the relationships within this field allows the capitalist production to take place, keeping alienation between the consumer and the producers, and an identifiable inequality of social power and capital between the different agents within this field. The field allows for agents who seek cultural capital as a habitus already formed prior or as a disposition due to the pandemic, the field of ceremonies allows them to gain this capital here and to connect and create relationships with others who share similar beliefs creating an ethnic identity and position for themselves within this field.


In this essay I have argued that the consumption of cacao creates distinct ethnic identities and class distinctions using Bourdieu's frameworks. I have presented my analysis with Bourdieu's framework breaking down and showing how the fields (ceremonies) play a much bigger role in society than just the ceremonies, the contribute and reproduce capitalism and cultural colonization on a wide scale. The field creates a place where people can come together consuming cacao and creating or reaffirming the ethnic and class identity they associate with it, contributing to the field and the reproduction of cacao because the demand is there, continuing the inequal balance of power.


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Hsu, C. 2005. ‘A Taste of “Modernity”: Working in a Western Restaurant in Market Socialist China’. Ethnography 6. Sage: 543–65.

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