Around the dinner table: constructing commensality within the family. An ethnographic approach of the conditions, forms and effects of everyday mealtimes in Lyon and Adelaide

Author: Fairley Le Moal

Le Moal, Fairley, 2023 Around the dinner table: constructing commensality within the family. An ethnographic approach of the conditions, forms and effects of everyday mealtimes in Lyon and Adelaide, Flinders University, College of Nursing and Health Sciences

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Everyday family mealtimes are promoted by public health authorities, the media and private organisations (in France and in many Anglo-Saxon countries, such as in Australia) for various health, wellbeing and social benefits. Parents and especially mothers also commonly describe eating together regularly as a norm they try to live up to. Nevertheless, we know little about the various dimensions according to which everyday family mealtimes unfold. Most of the research is based on interviews and mainly on the voice of mothers. In some studies, French family practices are compared to those in Anglo-Saxon cultures, but this is mainly with households in North America.

This thesis is based on an in-person ethnography with 10 families in Lyon (France) and on a digital ethnography with four families in Adelaide (Australia). The participating households were mostly situated in middle class positions, with some upper-class families and had from one to five children aged four to 12 years. The results came from observations of 42 mealtimes, 33 of which were in-person. Semi-directive interviews were also conducted with the fathers and mothers and with most of the children.

The family mealtimes observed unfolded according to various health norms, which related to the satisfaction of satiety and the control of the eating rhythm. Parents strived to socialise children to the sharing of a healthy and varied diet, in a synchronised manner. The health equation of commensality depended on children’s age, their needs and eating capacities as well as it varied according to socially differentiated apprehensions of children’s taste.

These preoccupations around health identified at mealtimes stretched out to the conversations taking place, which revolved around various family norms. The parents tried to get children to talk about their daytime activities to make sure their lifestyle away from home was adequately healthy (in dietary terms but also concerning children’s wellbeing, educational development, and social life). The parents were witnessed trying to create a collective conscience of the family by recalling past activities and sharing their individual experiences, as well as talking about future family projects (Berger and Kellner 1964). As with food socialisation, the children were seen showing resistance by engaging in conversations on their own terms and temporality, sometimes even refusing to participate (Goffman 1981). The mealtimes examined in this study tended to reproduce conjugal and generational hierarchical relationships. The way communication unfolded reinforced the fathers as custodians of parental authority and the mothers as guardians of egalitarian relationships between siblings and of family cohesion (Singly 1996).

Conviviality appeared as another imperative during the observed mealtimes – in Lyon and in Adelaide – and was associated with a significant amount of ‘emotion work’ based on multiple ‘feeling rules’ (Hochschild 1983) produced by parents and children. While most of the fathers occupied a central role by performing humour, the mothers were mostly in charge of repairing the emotional atmosphere when ‘interferences’ arose, such as the demonstration of negative and intense emotions. Performing conviviality, in the context of this fieldwork, sometimes contradicted other central dimensions relating to children’s food socialisation to healthy diets and was also reported and observed in Adelaide.

The results compel us to rethink larger scale research on commensality and the importance given to information collected through indirect methods rather than through direct observation. Further research should also investigate practices of lower socio-economic groups as well as develop a deeper cultural comparison perspective.

Keywords: Family mealtime, commensality, conviviality, norms, practices, interactions, emotions, socialisation, ethnography

Subject: Health Sciences thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2023
School: College of Nursing and Health Sciences
Supervisor: Professor John Coveney