What’s the difference between a fad and a trend? How is the passing craze for cupcakes relevant to knowledge in the human sciences? A light story on food fads raises some general knowledge questions. My friend and co-author Mimi Bick has sent me a link to a podcast and a personal story, both of which use entertaining ways to connect everyday social and economic responses to the larger questions of how we study human beings.


In Q the podcast, Jian Ghomeshi interviews David Sax, who writes on food culture in North America. They talk (18 minutes) about why and how certain foods capture the imagination and the market in contemporary North America:  The Tastemakers:  Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue.   (It’s interesting to note their “all” and “everyone” statements as they speak of a context where everyone has access to restaurants…and to food.)


I ate sushi for the first time in what then was an expensive restaurant in downtown Montreal. If you remember from your visits there, it was either on Crescent Street, de la Montagne or Drummond.  It must have been in the early 80s. My friend Debbie took me there and eating sushi was a crazy experience.  Raw fish! The thought wasn’t too appetizing but we sat at the bar and it was so neat and pretty and it felt sophisticated.   That green stuff on the side — it was like a hit of cocaine straight to the nose.  I was wowed.    

 Twenty-five or thirty years later sushi is an inexpensive fast-food in every neighborhood in Santiago, Chile.   You can buy trays of it in the supermarket or even at the gas station’s convenience store.   A few years ago I had to take my son to the emergency room as he was violently ill with what turned out to be for the doctors an easily distinguishable intoxication from sushi he ate at school (a classmate´s mum brought it in for some celebration).   A conversation and a blood test was sufficient for the doctor to determine this.  What happened in the intervening years? 


The following 6 questions hover at a level of generality still close to the focusing idea of trends:

  • What is the difference between a “fad” and a “trend”? Is there a “tipping point” and if there is, what determines it? What defines a “trend”?
  • What is a trend or (trend estimation) in business and economics and in natural and social science research?
  • What does a trend mean, mathematically speaking?
  • According to some, a “trend” is identified when three points on a graph relate to each other in a particular way, for example they incrementally ascend or descend.  What assumptions about data collection does this entail?
  • What are the implications of a trend, broadly speaking, for culture and cultural change?
  • How do technologies assist us in the identification of trends and likewise push forward their development from fad-status?

This final question, at greater abstraction and removal from the focusing idea of trends, lifts to the level of the open and general knowledge question that would be expected of a TOK presentation:

  • How are generalizations about human behaviour established and justified in the human sciences?

We start with cupcakes and sushi, and end with an area of knowledge.