January 30, 2020, by Lexi Earl
Using eating together to think: reflections on doing research at public mealtimes
This post is written by Marsha Smith.
Is there something special that happens when we eat together in groups?
This post looks at an emergent form of group eating initiatives and explores some ways of doing research with, and about, the customers and producers of these eating events. Community-based forms of group eating practices are trying to address serious issues of our current food culture such as the coexistence of food insecurity and food waste. In doing so, these community groups are prompting researchers such as myself to consider different ways of seeing the potential of this everyday practice to do much more than feed us. This post looks at what commensality is, why it is important and how it might generate new ways of doing research.
Group eating practices or eating and drinking together in a common social or physical setting is known as commensality in academic parlance (Chou, Kerner, and Warmind 2015). Commensality is described as a potent symbol of everyday life, marking some of our most important life transitions such as marriage or death, as well as providing structure and rhythm to our daily schedules (Brannen, O’Connell, and Mooney 2013; Valentine 1999). Commensality is common in all Western cultures and is often seen as the social ‘glue’ that strengthens family and group bonds, and as a site where social roles, norms and values are transmitted and reinforced (Bourdieu 1984; Chou, Kerner, and Warmind 2015). Indeed, not only can commensality be seen as a microcosm or an engine of social life, a recent report of eating habits in the UK stated that ‘taking the time to sit down together over a meal helps create social networks that in turn have profound effects on our physical and mental health, our happiness and wellbeing, and even our sense of purpose in life.’ (Dunbar 2016:1).
Social eating spaces
There is an emergent form of commensality which takes the sociality of the family dinner and sets it loose in ‘everyone-is-welcome’ public spaces. Social eating or public mealtime events are emerging in the East Midlands, particularly in Nottingham, and may be thought of as homemade meals eaten in public places. Here, people choose to eat together in groups, to foster new social connections and support community togetherness, and to make good use of the food surpluses supermarkets do not need. Social eating explicitly encourages the participatory aspects of commensality and offers an alternative to services such as commercial cafes or food banks that are based on eligibility and economically-mediated need. In framing social eating as a positive, public activity, a non-stigmatising approach to eating affordably in groups has been developed by communities.
In social eating spaces, the public is invited to share a meal, not as part of a festive occasion or to mark a life transition, but as a regular alternative to an evening meal which may be a takeaway, eating in restaurants or home-cooked food. Social eating spaces that are open weekly or monthly for example, to members of the public who might want to access a social meal for a variety of reasons, appear to be a pragmatic way of leveraging the power of commensality to do more than feed people.
The opportunity to share food with friends and with strangers at public mealtimes can create exciting spaces which allow us to begin thinking about the organisation and transformation of society in conjunction with the public. Commensality, or eating in groups, is the subject of much anthropological and sociological research, often viewed through an ethnographic lens in an effort to produce knowledge that is rich in cultural meanings and reflections. However, commensality has not been widely explored through empirical work on food insecurity.
In some approaches to studying society, the eating and sharing of food is also used as a means of doing research: not just by studying how and why people eat together, but by using eating together to support the creation of data.
Eschewing the regular types of research approaches such as surveying, using public mealtimes as a research resource and eating together with participants can create intimate, convivial and equalising ways of co-producing data. Additionally, current empirical research on food insecurity has tended to employ approaches that are methodologically individualist, or which focus on the individual, such as interviewing. Yet commensality is a group activity and a fundamental one at that. There is space here then, for exploring food insecurity as it is expressed through, and by, groups.
This approach opens up space to engage in group methodologies beyond the use of focus groups. For example, to go further than elicit opinions or reactions about an item or issue, but instead to endeavour to involve groups in the creation, coding and analysis of data. This co-production approach is exemplified in the methods of ‘community-based participatory research’.
It seems clear when we reflect, that commensality is a primarily social activity and that this sociality could be embraced by researchers to generate unique research opportunities. This overall approach to doing research on issues such as food insecurity with invested stakeholders rather than for them, has the potential to generate new insights and forms of knowledge that occur uniquely because of group deliberations and discussions. Additionally, I argue that groups who eat together could and should be the creators of knowledge, policies and interventions that concern them.
Group eating practices such as the ones unfolding in social eating spaces challenge the idea that food is ‘merely something inert on the plate’ and instead convey how ‘influential, symbolic, powerful and transformative food can be’ (Coveney 2013:2). Eating in groups is a social activity that involves resources, equipment, timings and rhythms, and arrangements of spaces, as well as sequences and timings of behaviour; all of which contribute towards the setting and reinforcing of social customs. Social eating spaces are rich sites of sociological interest that have the potential to offer up novel ways for producers and consumers to participate in consumer research that can be used to shape services and strategic plans. Of course, we have other precedents for using food and group eating practices as a research resource (see, for example, Burges Watson 2016 on using specialist food experiences for engaging with cancer-survivors, or Pettinger 2017 on engaging with ‘harder to reach’ service-users).
Community-based participatory research
Now we may consider how using public mealtimes to engage in research might fit into a methodological approach called ‘community-based participatory research’ (Westfall et al. 2006) which is used by community groups to create and test their service-provision, as well as by academics such as myself.
Social eating creates and facilitates a special type of research experience that immerses researchers in the intersections between the domestic and social worlds, between the producing and recording of data, and this changes the power dynamic between researcher and researched. It became apparent, through my experiences of social eating spaces, that whilst I was recognised as an academic, the research environment created through a shared meal diminished the difference between researcher and participant.
However, using group eating practices as a research resource within community-based participatory research approaches has not been widely explored. So, what is community-based participatory research? And how can eating together be used in community-based and influenced research?
Food and the eating of food can facilitate one of the creative kinds of empirical research that are described as ‘community-based participatory research’ (CBPR). CBPR moves beyond ‘traditional research approaches that assume a phenomenon may be separated from its context for purposes of study’ (Holkup et al. 2004:162). CBPR in its commitment to involve communities in the research process, may employ a diverse and creative methodological approach to better understand complex problems and find solutions or points of intervention for participants, using both logic and systematic thinking as well as intuition and imagination (Heck et al. 2018). Sociology is the study of the development, function and structure of society and the study of problems within society. Community-based participatory research can be understood as a practical synthesis between community work and sociology.
CBPR is particularly useful for ‘applied research that seeks to understand people’s engagements with objects, systems and services, better engage publics and other stakeholders, work towards social change, and identify and intervene in futures’ (Lupton 2017:1). CBPR centres the creative, ground-up processes intended to ensure interventions and services fulfil their intended aims and produce their intended impacts. What is also useful in this approach is the curious, open nature of the process where problems and failures are embraced and positioned as further opportunities to refine and redevelop services.
Through close attention to, and involvement with, users and their ideas, skills, habits, desires or plans, a range of entry points for transforming social practices emerges. Using public eating spaces to engage participants creates a focus for, and rhythm to, dialogue. Sharing food with participants creates convivial conditions where emotions are stirred, reminiscences are recollected and where new relationships can begin to form. Community ‘design’ approaches are primarily practice-oriented; focusing on how social processes are enacted, how they emerge, change and are performed, so food and eating could form part of a researcher tool-kit, offering creative ways of stimulating the production of answers to researchers’ questions.
The rhythmic dialoguing over dinner creates space for data to assemble, and it creates an emotional and affective environment that is different from conventional interviewing. Eating food together creates a special type of conversational, participatory research environment. It creates new ways for researchers and participants to relate to each other as co-producers of knowledge. Participants immersed in that special environment develop connections alongside researchers according to their priorities and interests rather than pre-determined research agendas.
Eating food together as a form of CBPR offers an alternative approach to interaction beyond the tendency of researchers to report insights about participants rather than treat participants as co-producers of knowledge. Even more than this, the CBPR approach takes the rich insights gained through ethnographic and participant observation research and adds a practical dimension of user-involvement. It takes eating together to be a creative ‘material’ that plays an essential part in the shaping of new services. The power of commensality is not positioned as the backdrop to research, but it is highlighted as a force that can potentially transform services and the social structures they are part of. To paraphrase Levi-Strauss (1962), research methods using commensality as a resource are useful to researchers, not just because they are good to eat, but because they are good to think.
Marsha Smith has ten years’ experience working in award-winning community food initiatives. She contends that public meals at mealtimes, using surplus foods are a response to food insecurity and food wastage, but may also be understood as a new form of commensality, or group eating practice. Marsha is currently undertaking a PhD in social eating at Coventry University, she is a Visiting Fellow at Nottingham Trent University and an academic advisor to FoodHall in Sheffield.
Some of the material used in this post was originally published on the Coventry University CURB blog.
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