‘More than food’: Using the lens of commensality to understand the practices of The Nottingham Social Eating Network

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    People eat together in many different places, at many different events, and through many different stages of their lives. Commensality, or ‘eating at the same table’, is an omnipresent manifestation of human sociality. But despite the perennial human need to eat in groups, the practices of commensality vary widely. In the UK context food insecurity coexists with food wastage and a concomitant rise in loneliness, fast and ready meals is creating conditions which make it ever more challenging for people to eat, eat well, and to eat together.

    However, in the UK commensality is currently undergoing a transformation as a range of new ‘social eating initiatives’ emerge dedicated to creating new, shared eating practices. But as yet there is limited empirical work which places the individual consumption of surplus food back into the social context of commensality or which addresses how participants forge experiences of value through their engagement in these practices.

    This thesis addresses this gap in the literature through a practice theories-informed approach, looking at ‘social eating initiatives’ not as an aggregate of individual consumer behaviours, nor as solely a reaction to austerity politics, but as form of group, commensal practice manifested through complex arrangements of materials, competencies and meanings. The thesis also synthesises a number of distinctive but related concepts to create a ‘more than food’ lens with which to examine the value that ‘social eating initiative’ participants ascribe to these mealtimes.

    The Nottingham Social Eating Network, the case study for this thesis, is demonstrated to be a site of these ‘more than food’ practices. This informal network is composed of 17 self-identified ‘social eating initiatives’ which offer a low-cost, paid-for, ‘surplus’ meal offer, which is consumed at a public, shared mealtime. Through a range of qualitative research methods, the thesis demonstrates how these initiatives create multiple points of pleasure, participation and contribution. They are of value to participants because they counter the alienating and individualising tendencies of the current milieu to construct group cohesion. Participants identify eating together, helping out and socialising as crucial and vital aspects of their social eating activities and these are analysed within the thesis as practices which restructure commensality, which enable alimentary contribution, and which can also be understood of as being composed of interlinking performances of care. The results contribute towards the advancement of commensal scholarship and have important implications for including commensality in public health and food policy debates. The thesis findings demonstrate why practices of commensal participation are both about much ‘more than food’ and can shape behaviours around much ‘more than food’, making group eating together activities a key lever of social change.

    Date of AwardMar 2022
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SupervisorDavid Bek (Supervisor), Kevin Broughton (Supervisor), Adrian Evans (Supervisor), Luke Owen (Supervisor) & Lopamudra Saxena (Supervisor)

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