Manger ensemble :
the social psychology of food
Laboratoire Européen de Psychologie Sociale
(Maison des Sciences de l'Homme; Paris)
Recent events (BSE, food scares, health concerns, but also the rise of vegetarianism, organic foods and ecological awareness) again raise an old issue in social psychology. Since the famous and seminal works of Kurt Lewin (1943) it is well known that psychosocial factors and mechanisms determine feeding behaviour. Hence, the perception of food risks, which is nowadays becoming a salient feature of consumer attitudes and public policies, must of course also be studied, beyond biochemistry and epidemiology, from a psychosocial point of view. It must also be connected with deep mutations in social behaviour : e.g. eating is more often a lonely practice; preparation time (and hence control over food) gets shorter, etc.
The vocation of the European Laboratory of Social Psychology (LEPS) has always been to stimulate new trends in research, and link them to societal changes. Food habits, deeply embedded in culture and everyday life, are a privileged field for observing psycho-social evolution.
The manger ensemble (eating together) group of the LEPS is an international workgroup of researchers on the theme of food and eating. Since 1997, this group founded by Serge Moscovici and coordinated by Saadi Lahlou, has been working on intercultural approaches to eating with an interdisciplinary perspective. A first set of field studies about meat eating has been launched. Meat was chosen as a cultural test food because of its specific anthropological characteristics and as a means ofunderstanding better the psychological and cultural forces at work in feeding behaviour. Meat is the main tabooed food, and in each civilisation some specific meats are recommended or forbidden. Attitudes towards meat eating are ambivalent and there are great differences between age, gender, class and of course countries. A growing trend of vegetarianism can be observed in Europe and meat consumption is changing.
The first set of pilot field studies was carried out in 4 countries (England, Finland, France, Italy), with a focus group in each country, and showed a great similarity between Italy and France, where meat eating is considered natural and necessary, even by some vegetarians. The Finnish and English groups, however, expressed stronger concern for ethics, animal welfare, and questioned the necessity of meat eating. This can be connected with the high percentage of vegetarians in the UK.
Beyond local cultural differences, those results, which remain to be confirmed, are consistent with some deep divisions between the Mediterranean and Northern attitudes concerning the food-health connection. Religious (Catholic vs. Protestant) and medical (Galenic vs. Paracelsian) cultural traditions, but also social habits (meal schedules and patterns) are involved. These differences go deep into the social and individual representations and have strong implications for health or trade policy at European scale, as illustrated by the persistent difficulties and heated debates in EC negotiations on those topics (AOC, dietary recommendations etc.)
The group has raised several hypotheses concerning these contrasts (developing ethical concerns, connection of food with social culture, relative strength of lobbies and regulatory authorities, etc.). Those hypotheses are now being tested in the following programme :
- International bibliographic survey
- Artefact gathering (menus, meat displays in products and butcher shops.)
- Tradition and habits gathering (stories, edible animal representations, slaughtering and preparation rituals …)
- Representation gathering (semi-directive interviews, focus groups, questionnaires)
The "Manger ensemble" group is intercultural and interdisciplinary. One of its objectives is to set up and test new methods and concepts fit for addressing intercultural issues. In this perspective, meat is not only a topic in itself, but also a testing ground for these new methods
"Manger Ensemble" members:
Giovanni Carnibella. Psychology Unit, Oxford Brookes University, Headington, Oxford.
Nicoletta Cavazza. Università degli studi, Dipartimento di science dell educazione, via Zamboni 34, Bologna.
Pascal Dibie. Université Paris VII.
Claude Fischler. CETSAH, EHESS/CNRS.
Lynn Frewer. Institute of Food Research, Reading Laboratory, Reading, UK.
Kate Fox. Social Issues Research Centre.
Saadi Lahlou. EDF/DER et EHESS/LPS.
Anne Laurent. Fondation MSH.
Estelle Masson. EHESS/LPS.
Peter Marsh. Social Issues Research Centre.
Serge Moscovici. EHESS, LEPS.
Anna-Maija Pirtillä-Backmann. Dept. of Social Psychology. University of Helsinki.
Françoise Sabban. EHESS.