Joseph Karisny

Educational Background: B.A. History (Michigan State University)

Major Field: Modern Europe

Minor Fields: Food & Alcohol; Comparative Empire

Research Language: French and Italian

Committee: Dr. Ronen Steinberg (Chair), Dr. Karrin Hanshew, Dr. Helen Veit, and Dr. Charles Keith

Office Hours: Tuesdays, 3-5pm or email for an appointment


While training in the broader field of Modern European history, I am specifically committed to the study of twentieth-century France. My research focuses on the politics of food and consumption; the history of public health and science; and French political culture more generally.

My dissertation – tentatively entitled “Regenerative Diets: The Politics of Food and Public Health in Interwar France” – hones in on these interests. In this project, I use food to examine two, conjoined crises in interwar Europe: the crisis of sociopolitical upheaval and the crisis of public health. Using France as a case study, I map how the two intersected: the interplay of a growing cultural pessimism and anxieties over health. To examine this, I privilege food and diet as analytical tools. My primary interest is in demonstrating how fears over French eating habits politicized public health. Doing so, I explore how the science of healthy eating and public health shaped – and were shaped by – broader fears of national decline, “biological degeneration,” and sociopolitical upheaval. Charting this dialectical relationship between French political culture and the science of health, I argue that diets attempted to heal both the physical and cultural wounds of total war.

Broaching questions of identity and biopolitics, I approach my dissertation with the eye of a political historian. I specifically conceive of diets – programmatic regimes of healthy eating deemed “scientific” – as ideologically-informed programs of population politics. My project examines how proponents of different diets attempted to create both healthy physical bodies and healthy social subjects—how interwar diets both challenged and attempted to (re)construct ideas of “Frenchness” in the aftermath of World War I. At the same time, I examine interwar French identity in a European key. Facing contemporaneous crises – and sharing similar eating anxieties – I chart how diets became a vehicle for conceptualizing France as “European.”

In a certain sense, my dissertation builds off my recently completed master’s thesis: “Feeding Aspiration, Consuming Anxiety: Food Politics and Republicanism during France’s Terrible Year.” An examination of hunger during the 1870-1 Siege of Paris, I argued that Parisians used food politics to conceptualize what France would look like – politically, socially, and culturally – after twenty years of Bonapartist rule. The subsistence crisis of the siege, I asserted, became a vehicle by which French expressed their aspirations and anxieties about France’s national future.

Ultimately, then, my work positions itself somewhere between political and food history—it examines how ideology conditions and politicizes everyday eating habits. Following this line, I am committed to analyzing the political in a broad sense—from the top-down and bottom-up.