Dr Stefan Kesting discusses how can commensality foster a feeling of belonging for university staff and students?
Dr Stefan Kesting discusses how can commensality foster a feeling of belonging for university staff and students?
Why is a feeling of belonging to their university relevant for students?
The reason is that our set strategic goals will not work without it. Launching our university strategy our VC professor Simone Buitendijk clearly states that:
“It is based on three over-arching themes – community, culture and impact:
A community of staff and students within the university, the wider region and beyond – including our alumni.
A culture in which collective endeavour is central, and which is focused on collaboration rather than competition.
And impact, through a relentless focus on decreasing local and global inequality” (Buitendijk, 2021).
In my mind, the first two themes community and culture cannot work without a sense of belonging by staff and students to the University of Leeds as “their” community. Moreover, the role of students as members of our scholarly community is explicitly stated in the educational pillar of our strategy:
“In education we will review our curriculum and make it student-centred, digitally enhanced and interactive, while treating our students as true partners and co-creators, preparing them well for the global jobs market in the process” (Buitendijk, 2021).
Without a sense of belonging to our community, students will not engage to become “true partners and co-creators” in our educational efforts.
Note, that my value statement of linking emotional belonging to a community to personal (here educational) success is rooted in communitarianism. Relying on his strictly self-interested, utilitarian rational Human Capital Theory, a neoclassical economist like Nobel laureate Gary Becker (1993) would probably shake his head and claim that educational attainment has nothing to do with emotions or belonging to a community, but is instead an investment into human capital for future yield in the labour market based on a cool cost-benefit calculation.
However, in criticising this economic paradigm, communitarian sociologist Amitai Etzioni claims: “The I’s need a We to be” (Etzioni, 1990, p. 9) meaning that as individuals, we develop our values and goals in life (including educational ones) based on and in response to the communities we live in. This relationship between the individual and his or her communities is not strictly rational, but to a large extend emotional. It is based on a social bond – a sense of belonging. There are also quite similar ideas expressed in the stress on sympathy with others and commitment to community values in Amartya Sen’s and Martha Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach (Sen, 1995 and Nussbaum, 2000).
According to Etzioni we should strive for a responsive community: “A responsive community is much more integrated than an aggregate of self-maximising individuals; however, it is much less hierarchical and much less structured and “socializing”, than an authoritarian community” (Etzioni, 1990, p. 8) (1)
What is commensality and how can it foster a feeling of belonging?
The concept of commensality was coined by Albert O. Hirschman during a lecture in German to commemorate the Czech philosopher and dissident Jan Patočka in Vienna in 1996. Note that the original title in German is Tischgemeinschaft which contains the word community – in German: Gemeinschaft. So, this suggests an immediate connection to concepts of community.
Commensality is congregating around a table on a particular occasion for a meal, drink and engaging informal conversation. As Sidney Mintz – an anthropologist specialising in food consumption writes: “Because of the satisfaction of hunger, as well as for many other more complicated reasons, the feeling of eating can be intensely pleasurable” (Mintz, 1996, p. 5). However, he adds: “Nourishment, a basic biological need, becomes something else because we humans transform it symbolically into a system of meaning for much more than itself” (Mintz, 1996, p. 6).
The historian Michel Jeanneret further explains this idea while drilling down to the basic social meaning of banquet which is yet another word for commensality events: “We have to choose whether to speak or to eat: we must not speak with our mouth full. However, the banquet is the one thing that overcomes this division and allows for the reconciliation of opposites. It recognizes physical laws, reinstates the legitimate role of instinctive behaviour, but at the same time provides a place for conversation and a setting for good manners. The combination of words and food in a convivial scene gives rise to a special moment when thought and the senses enhance rather than just tolerate each other” (Jeanneret, 1991). “A good conversation at table, […], must be diverse and open, it must put all the guests at ease” (Jeanneret, 1991).
In contrast, Christianity augmented the idea of fasting. In the words of Hirschman: “… the intellectual tradition stemming from the Bible had long separated the consumption of food from the so-called higher activities” (Hirschman, 1998, p. 15). And while the innocent celebration of feasting and drinking was fashionable during the Renaissance as illustrated in Jeanneret’s work: “The separation was soon to be fully restored by Pascal” (Hirschman, 1998, p. 15). Moreover, Ivan Illich (2009) criticised that modern industrialised societies drive out conviviality (yet another similar term to commensality). Hirschman points out that this separation between the functional production and the enjoyable consumption is very similar to the distinction made in modern economics between public and private goods. However, inspired by Georg Simmel’s article “Die Soziologie der Mahlzeit” (1910) he highlights that the meal is an institution bridging the private and public sphere when food and drink are consumed in common by a group.
From reading Simmel, Hirschman derives his definition of commensality: “The basic point is then worked out by Simmel through the principal characteristics of the meal. The German language is helpful to Simmel’s enterprise as Mahlzeit, the German word for meal, already refers, through the inclusion of the term Zeit (time), to some of the social features of the occasion. Mahlzeit denotes the regularity and simultaneity of the meal, or what is also known as its “commensality (2). A more common term today is conviviality, but I shall use here the more technical term – which derives from mensa (3) (table) – for eating together around a table. Commensality includes friends and family, but excludes irreconcilable enemies. According to a French author, it brings with it the douceur of having been included as well as the cruelty of being excluded (Morineau, 1987)” (Hirschman, 1998, p. 18/19).
Hirschman argues that ancient Greek democracy was exemplified in the practice of having banquets or symposiums. As shown on this picture of a Greek vase:
However, notice that there are just men enjoying themselves on this picture while the woman is there to entertain them and apart from women, slaves were also excluded from taking part in banquets and Greek democracy in general. So, commensality needs to deal with the problem of inclusion and exclusion.
Moreover, Hirschman emphasises the strong connection between the commensality of the banquet, of partaking in it and the resulting social and citizen or community member relationships. He quotes Schmitt Pantel who points out: “There is a direct tie between the practices of commensality and the functioning of power and the type of politics” (Schmitt Pantel, 1992, p. 438). Hirschman refers to so called „Männerbünde“ for instance beer drinking in German student corporations (Burschenschaften) in Weimar Germany paving the road for fascism and facilitating the reign of the Hitler regime in Nazi-Germany. Already the name “Burschenschaften” for these student clubs signals male exclusivity as “Bursche” means young man in German. This practice can be seen in the picture below:
However, some of these student corporations have allowed women to join recently.
Another example of male exclusive commensality is the traditional “Schaffermahl” (translates into English as: “achievers meal”) in my home town Bremen in Germany, where since 1545 merchants, ship owners, captains and politicians meet once a year in the upper festivity chamber of the medieval town hall to celebrate the successes of the past year. As the picture quite clearly shows, this is or until quite recently was another example for male exclusive commensality. The male exclusivity of the event was contested several times over the centuries and in the early 2000s very few female guests were invited as exceptions. However, after the gender unequal practice was criticised quite fiercely by politicians of the Green party and the press recently, since 2019 the Schaffermahl is officially open to women as participants.
English universities also have their traditions of male exclusive commensality. A notorious example is the Bullingdon Club pictured below:
Do you recognise one or two of the young men in the picture?
One may also reflect on and discuss how inclusive High Table events in Oxford or Cambridge actually are though the two exemplary pictures below do include women.
Note, as the anthropologist cum economist team states: “Food is a medium for discriminating values, and the more numerous the discriminated ranks, the more varieties of food will be needed” (Douglas and Isherwood, 2001, p. 44). So, inclusivity is key if we want commensality to promote belonging in a communitarian and democratic university context. Moreover, we will have to pay attention to the kinds of foods and drink that will be produced and served during our commensality events at the university of Leeds.
Challenges to make commensality inclusive:
Timing and place are significant parameters for a sense of belonging in commensality events. Moreover, the size and closeness of the group of people sitting around a table matters. To allow lively conversation, the acoustics of the room is important, too.
“The ill are obsessed about food; they suffer over food. It is food, or what food means to them, that makes them sick” (Mintz, 1996, p. 5). So, such a feeling can lead to exclusion of students suffering from eating disorders for example. Moreover, cultural barriers for religious and other reasons can lead to exclusion: kosher, halal, vegetarian and vegan food preferences for instance.
To allow for commensality to become a tool for conviviality in the spirit of Ivan Illich (2009) and to foster the improvement of life skills for staff and students, I think it is also best to include communal cooking, preparing and serving of the food and drink as part of the event. This will also allow particular groups of international students to celebrate and show case their specific food and drink as symbols of their culture.
Becker, Gary (1993): Human Capital – A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis, with Special Reference to Education, third edition, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Buitendijk, Simone (2021): Inside Track – A values-driven strategy for the next 10 years, published 15 February 2021 and retrieved 5 January 2022 from: https://forstaff.leeds.ac.uk/news/article/7335/inside_track_%E2%80%93_a_values-driven_strategy_for_the_next_10_years
Douglas, Mary and Isherwood, Baron (2001): The World of Goods – toward and anthropology of consumption, London and New York: Routledge.
Etzioni, Amitai (1990): The Moral Dimension – Toward a New Economics, New York: The Free Press.
Hirschman, Albert O. (1998): Melding the Public and Private Spheres: Taking Commensality Seriously, in: Crossing Boundaries – Selected Writings, New York: Zone Books, p. 11-32.
Hirschman, Albert O. (1997): Tischgemeinschaft – Zwischen öffentlicher und privater Sphäre, Wien (Vienna): Passagen Verlag, p. 11-33.
Illich, Ivan (2009): Tools for Conviviality, London: Marion Boyars.
Jeanneret, Michel (1987): A Feast of Words – Banquets and Table Talk in the Renaissance, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Mintz, Sidney W. (1996): Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom, Boston: Beacon Press.
Morineau, Michel (1987): “La Douceur d’être inclus.” In Françoise Thélamon, ed., Sociabilité, pouvoirs et société. Université de Rouen, Publication No. 110.
Nussbaum, Martha (2000): Women and Human Development – The Capabilities Approach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schmitt Pantel, Pauline (1992): La Cité au banquet: Histoire des repas publics dans les cités grecques, Rome: Ecole Française de Rome.
Sen, Amartya (1995): Inequality Reexamined, New York: Russell Sage Foundation and Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Simmel, Georg (1984): Das Individuum und die Freiheit: Essays, Berlin: Wagenbach.
University of Leeds (2021): Universal Values, Global Change University of Leeds Strategy 2020 to 2030, retrieved 5 January 2022 from: https://spotlight.leeds.ac.uk/strategy/
1. Unfortunately, in our university strategy the expressed communitarian principles are mixed with and overshadowed by incompatible corporate values. Moreover, in my experience in recent organisational practice and changes to governance, the corporate (authoritarian) values seem to trump communitarian norms.
2. Mensa is actually the German term for refectory – the university restaurant.
3.“Food can discriminate the different times of the day, and one day from another; as well as the annual events it can also distinguish life-cycle events such as funerals and weddings. … We would find that the rank value of each class of goods varies inversely with the frequency of its use: the breakfast is taken separately, more of the family and friends assemble for Sunday dinner, a larger assembly collects for Christmas, and still a larger for weddings and funerals” (Douglas and Isherwood, 2001, p. 83).