How Sharing a Meal Can Satisfy our Appetite for Connection and Heal Wounds of Social Division

Written by Ella Green of Sussex International Development.

Communal consumption cultivates connection

Eating always has, and always will be, a human ritual. It is essential to our humanity: it is what makes us human. From pan to plate, the product of the cooking experience is greater than the food upon which we feast. Sharing food fills not only the stomach but the heart.

Throughout history, eating together is well documented. In fact, the word companion has its roots in the Latin phrase com panio, meaning with bread. So, believe it or not, a friend or companion is actually just someone with whom you share your bread. Sharing a meal has an immense social power. The benefits go beyond the biological. Through sitting down and eating with someone, the divisions of difference can be somewhat dismantled.

In the words of ‘life chef’ Leon Aarts: ‘Sharing a meal has power to connect you with people from other countries, other cultures, the other side of your street, or even your family.’ But can the commonplace rituals of cooking and consuming combat the effects of the hostile immigration environment?

The Home Office has made the UK hostile

‘When you’re an asylum seeker, you can’t work and your social life is almost nothing. You feel like you’re useless’ – Noor

Life as a migrant in the UK is tough. Barriers exist at every stage of integration and migrants are deprived of human rights. One of the most harmful hurdles is the ban on working. Refugees seeking asylum are not entitled to work in the UK. This leaves many people in precarious situations, where they live in poverty. The government gives asylum seekers just £5.39 a day to live on. Covering the costs of living in a city like London is almost impossible.

Source: Refugee Action, 2018
Source: Alisdare Hickson, 2017

Alarmingly, 71% of the British public believe that asylum seekers should have the right to work. From this we can conclude that the government is not reflecting the opinions of the people. Instead, they are creating a culture of exclusion. And even when people’s asylum claims or migration status are accepted, the struggle continues. Many migrants find that their qualifications don’t count or they’re English language skills aren’t high enough.

People also find themselves living under a volatile immigration status. The threat of detention or a change to their visa is always on the horizon. Paulette, from Jamaica, worked for 5 years as a teacher in South London. One day, the Home Office made changes to her visa requirements and she was informed that she must have extra qualifications in order to extend her visa. After this, Paulette and her young daughter lost their home and source of income and became susceptible to deportation.

Many living under hostile immigration policies, feel devalued. Arriving with burning ambition, experience and skill, these are left to dwindle. Most migrants desire purpose but are met with prejudice. Additionally, Post-Brexit plans will make it even harder to migrate to the UK, and many migrants will be classified as unskilled.

Source: Phil Thomas, Flikr, 2011

And it’s not only migrants who feel the burn of the Tory government’s hostility. Marginalisation is rife amongst native English nationals. The strains of austerity mean society is characterised by inequality. For many, life consists of poverty, social isolation and poor mental health.

So, where the void between people is seemingly growing, is food the answer to our problems?  

Sharing a meal can satisfy our appetite for connection, direction and solidarity

According to Leon Aarts , ‘We had more in common than our differences.’ When Leon, sat down to share a meal with refugees in the Calais ‘Jungle’, he realised that through the simple act of eating communally, social divisions can be crushed. From there, he bought back to the UK the concept of Superclub Compassion.

Likewise, in response to the hostile environment, a multitude of grassroots, social enterprises are flourishing in the UK and beyond. Migrateful, Superclub Compassion, Supper & Stories, JUMA Kitchen, The Jollof Café and Al Shalmi Kitchen all put connectivity through food at the heart of their operation.

These organisations have created collective spaces which are fuelled by conviviality, hospitality and care. They focus on our commonalities not our contrasts. This is demonstrated in the fact that, despite their notorious brutality, the refugee and volunteer-led kitchens in Calais have even been known to feed the police. Therefore, the impact of together spans far and connects even the most divided. In fact, it has also been proven that sharing a meal improves happiness, health and wellbeing.

A clear case of connecting migrants with people from diverse background is the initiative Migrateful. Migrateful works by paying migrants from as far as Syria Eritrea and Sri Lanka to run cooking classes.  Although some may have unstable immigration statuses, they offer some of their chefs that do not have the right to work a weekly solidarity grant to support them with their essential needs. Migrateful also invests in training their chefs, so they can deliver high quality lessons to the public. The experience is about mutual learning- the chefs teach people to cook food from their home countries, while at the same time, they develop skills, such as English language. Everyone then sits down to dine together, sharing life stories and laughter.

Migrateful cooking class. Source: Migrateful, 2020

Other groups work in a similar way. When the government isn’t welcoming or integrating migrants, these initiatives reinstall the sense of self-worth and purpose that people crave.

And these spaces allow for self-expression, healing and storytelling. Stories & Supper, for instance, give migrants a place to share their histories. In a simple mealtime setting, the silencing of migrant voices is resisted. Narratives of refugees and migrants as passive and in need of saving are slowly grated away. Migrants take the lead and their agency is nourished. In these environments, prejudices melt away and the conventional space where you expect to share a meal with friends or family is filled with strangers.

And the impact flows in all directions. Cross cultural exchange is facilitated by the universality of food. Cooking seems to cultivate compassion, connection and cohesion. At its best, food becomes a uniting force, in the midst of a lonely and hostile world.

Sadly, appetites for human connection may only be partially satisfied. The wounds of a society divided by race, gender, sexuality, religion and more, can only be partially healed.

 But, at the end of the day, one thing everyone has in common is eating. As Majeda, a Syrian chef at Migrateful, says: ‘I believe there is a relationship between cooking and love.’

Ella Green is a finalist in International Development at the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.

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Doing cross-disciplinary research: a successful experiment

Written by Dr. Andreas Antoniades of Sussex International Relations.

Summary: Working in multidisciplinary research teams is challenging but necessary if we’re to tackle some of today’s big challenges such as inequality, climate change and pandemics. Based on my recent experience in the field of sustainability, I point to five factors for success when it comes to working across disciplines.

Three years ago I was given the opportunity by the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) to work in a multidisciplinary research team. The initial composition of the team was rather small (4-5 members) and involved both natural and social scientists investigating the impact of rising debt on deforestation and environmental sustainability. It was a transformative experience. Reflecting back, I think there are 5 key things that made this multidisciplinary experiment a success.

(a) Dividing work in a non-disciplinary way: We never divided the work along disciplinary lines (e.g. political scientists focusing on politics, economists on economics, natural scientists on deforestation, etc.). Each of us was more interested in what other members of the team had to say about ‘our’ field of expertise and how we should design the research. This willingness to ignore subject boundaries and create a truly ‘non-disciplinary space’ created a productive dynamic, that strengthened the integration and the creativity of our research team.

(b) Trust: In this non-disciplinary environment, we did not feel the need to retreat to disciplinary jargon or hide behind our disciplines when we faced difficulties, e.g. when a ‘common language’ was not there to support our communication. We made it clear from the outset that all questions in team meetings, no matter how basic, were legitimate. Through this we managed to create a safe space for knowledge exchange, and most importantly a safe space for ‘ignorance’ based on mutual respect. This built trust amongst team members, which enhanced creative cross-disciplinary thinking. In fact, some of our most interesting findings came from asking questions from our data that would not normally be asked from experienced researchers in disciplinary dominated research environments.

(c) Shared responsibility/ownership among the leading investigators: A shared ownership model maintained the involvement and commitment of the investigators to the highest possible degree. Such a governance structure created dynamics of equality, boosting levels of trust and causing ripple effects across the rest of the group. Doctoral and post-doctoral researchers did not participate as research ‘assistants’, but as fully integrated members of our team with an equal voice on all aspects of the project and its direction. Having clear rules from the outset on who would be the first author in planned publications, further increased the trust and commitment of the fellows of the team and made it feel like a truly collaborative project.

(d) Time commitment: Cross-disciplinary work is a time-consuming exercise. It takes time to develop a ‘common language’ because this can only happen through actual research interaction. It takes time for different modes of thinking to integrate in a new non-disciplinary modus-operandi. And it takes time for the above-mentioned relations of trust to be established. Maintaining the group as a cross-disciplinary space is an ongoing process, too. Frequent meetings are required to nurture and guard cross-disciplinarity, avoiding any specific discipline to dominate or determine (consciously or unconsciously) the direction of the project. Frequent meetings also help to keep the project warm even when problems arise and progress slows down. In our case, this meant weekly meetings of 45-60 minutes.

(e) Willingness to take risks: Cross-disciplinary research is ideally placed to create new knowledge, advance curiosity-driven research and reverse the over-fragmentation of knowledge in modern academia. Yet, to maximise the benefits, investigators should be willing to take risks and work outside their comfort zones. This could be experimenting with different methods or with data mining; attempting to examine the relationship between seemingly unrelated phenomena; or testing ideas that sound farfetched. In such an environment some risks will be materialised, so flexibility (both from funders and researchers) and contingency planning is critical. And of course, some mistakes along the way may be unavoidable – integral parts of a steep learning process.

Cross-disciplinary research may not be easy, but it is certainly the way forward. To address the big challenges of today and tomorrow, we need to change our knowledge production system. This is easier said than done. Decades of knowledge fragmentation and compartmentalisation have created a well-consolidated structure deeply rooted in all aspects of academic life, from how students are socialised in different academic fields to the criteria of how academic faculty is recruited and promoted. The identification of the problem is not new. But how we address it matters a great deal. Attempts to develop or impose top-down structures of cross-disciplinary collaboration can only do so much, and in some cases they seem to have generated a non-productive, instrumentalised attitude toward multidisciplinarity, including resistance towards it. To succeed, this should be a bottom-up process driven by trust and creativity. Here I pointed to five factors that may facilitate this process at the research group level. Research institutions can support this shift by creating more opportunities for informal social interaction between researchers from different fields, and by explicitly supporting and recognising the value of cross-disciplinary curiosity driven initiatives.

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Making ‘Vaccines work’ for everybody

This post is written by Dr. Ben Kasstan, a medical anthropologist at the University of Sussex.

Photograph by Thomas S.G. Farnetti
© Wellcome Collection.

It is unreasonable to expect hesitant parents to accept vaccinations automatically. Vaccinations are among the most successful public health interventions to reduce childhood morbidity and mortality, but they also remain one of the most controversial. 

Uptake of the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccination in England has suffered since 1998, when Andrew Wakefield and colleagues falsely claimed in The Lancet that the triple-vaccine may be a cause of childhood autism. Whilst their article has since been retracted and Wakefield’s claims refuted, the legacy for vaccination coverage has been catastrophic. Parents continue to fear that the all-in-one vaccine could put their children at risk of developing autism, which has been linked to outbreaks of measles in UK media

From a public health perspective, maintaining high levels of vaccination coverage across the population is vital to prevent and resist the spread of infectious outbreaks. High coverage rates help to protect people with vulnerable immune systems, such as newborn babies, pregnant women, or people who can’t be vaccinated. 95% of the population need to be vaccinated for protection against measles, though coverage rates at the national level do not reflect rates at local levels. 

Recent outbreaks of measles in areas of New York have been largely blamed on Haredi Jews, who are otherwise described as being ‘ultra-Orthodox’ or ‘non-compliant communities’ because of ‘culture’ or ‘beliefs.’ Yet there is little understanding around the vaccine decision-making and hesitancies among Haredi Jewish parents. Reactions to the outbreak have been so damaging that age-old anti-semitic representations of Jews as public health risks have resurfaced. Public health in the United States was used as a political technique to contain and control reviled migrant groups in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as European Jews and Italians

Similarly Haredi Jews are viewed as a ‘hard to reach’ group by Public Health England due to lower vaccination coverage in London and Manchester neighbourhoods. Haredi families tend to be much larger than the national average, which presents a concern of more unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated children.  

My research has explored vaccine decision-making among Haredi Jewish families in England. What is true of any community is diversity, and I found a range of responses that included complete acceptance, selective acceptance, delayed acceptance and refusal of childhood vaccines. Parents were not opposed to vaccinations because of ‘religious beliefs,’ to the contrary, I was frequently told that they were important to preserve health and save lives (a core Jewish principle known as pikuach nefesh). The most common problem for parents with vaccine hesitancies, or who opposed vaccinations altogether, was safety and a lingering concern that the MMR vaccine could cause autism. More importantly, parents felt healthcare professionals did not treat their concerns seriously, and parents perceived healthcare professionals as not being able to address their concerns transparently. Whilst non-vaccination is seen as a moral issue (‘good’ parents vaccinate, ‘bad’ parents don’t vaccinate) – and even ‘child endangerment’ as one friend put it – the Haredi parents in my study declined vaccinations to protect their children. 

There is a danger here in scapegoating minority groups for what is, in reality, a national anxiety. The Childhood Vaccination Coverage Statistics for 2017-18 in England indicates a worrying trend towards lower vaccine uptake, which raises critical questions of the trust between England’s diverse population and public health services. The statistics report that rates of MMR coverage at two years of age have lowered for the fourth year in a row, with coverage stalling at around 91.2%. This falls short of the 95% threshold of MMR coverage needed to protect population health. Whilst the 95% threshold was secured in County Durham, regions such as the Isle of Wight and Camden (London) were below 90%.Recent media reports claim that up to half a million children in the UK remain unvaccinated against measles, which could spread like ‘wildfire’ without action. 

It is not enough to tell parents that ‘vaccines work’ (as the 2019 World Immunisation Week hashtag puts it), and it is unreasonable to expect hesitant parents to accept vaccinations automatically — without a process of informed consent. Healthcare professionals need to be responsive and sensitive to the vaccine hesitancies of parents in order to promote public confidence, and they need to be prepared to address questions of safety by offering clear information about vaccine products, processing and procurement. 

If parents are to accept that vaccinations are the safest way to protect their children, then healthcare professionals and public health services should accept that some parents need assurance and reassurance of why and how vaccines are so safe. 

Protecting child health is the aspiration of parents, healthcare professionals, and anthropologists like me. Working together to understand how concerns can be addressed is the most sustainable and effective way to show that vaccines can work for everybody.

This post is written by Dr. Ben Kasstan. Ben’s research focuses on reproductive and family health among ethnic and religious minority groups. His forthcoming book ‘Making Bodies Kosher’ (Berghahn Books) explores vaccine and child health decision-making among Haredi Jews in England.

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Global Studies Wellbeing PhD Workshops

This post is written by Dr. Gemma Houldey of International Development as part of our ‘Anxieties and Mental Health During Stressful Academic Times’ blog series. Gemma and Evie Browne are promoting mental health workshops for researchers that will run in June and July 2019.

Photo by Marco Verch.

Last week was Mental Health Week, an opportunity for all of us, no matter who we are, to bring awareness to our personal struggles and those of others. It is likely that you or someone you know has suffered from depression, anxiety or emotional upheavals which are not only debilitating, but can also be a very isolating experience. Whilst it is common for people to talk about physical ailments such as coughs and colds or a broken ankle, it can be far harder for us to share our emotional vulnerabilities, in spite of this comprising part of being human.

Having just completed my doctoral research into stress and wellbeing in the aid sector, I’m fully aware – from my own experience as much as my research participants’ – that many of us, particularly in academia, suffer in silence and in solitude with regard to our own mental health.  Studying a PhD can feel like a lonely experience, especially when it comes to organising our own field research in remote and unfamiliar places, and the pressure of writing up the thesis and being confident in the data and findings. In addition, many of us are dealing with family crises, relationship problems, financial or job-related concerns or other health issues. There is little opportunity to share these multi-faceted challenges with others, particularly in an academic environment where there is significant pressure to perform well and be successful.

With this in mind, in the months of June and July Global Studies will be holding a series of wellbeing workshops*, supported by the Understanding the Mental Health of Doctoral Researchers project.  The sessions aim to be inclusive and participatory, exploring different techniques that can support us in looking after our minds and our bodies. They will cultivate a space in which to listen and to feel heard, and encourage a shared understanding of mental health and wellbeing as both an individual and collective responsibility for the functioning of communities who care about their members.

The workshops are designed to provide a range of services and ideas that researchers will familiarise themselves with and participate in during the sessions but can then use afterwards in their own time as well. They will include activities such as body and breath exercises, walking in nature and journaling, as well as discussions around diversity and inclusion in educational settings, and where researchers can go for help and support. Through the workshops we hope to build community and a sense of belonging so that no one need feel alone in their struggles. They are also an opportunity to celebrate all we achieve and overcome as researchers!

Please do come join us, beginning Tuesday 18th June, 5.30-7pm, for 5 weeks. Contact Gemma Houldey (gh95@sussex.ac.uk) or Evie Browne (Evie.browne@sussex.ac.uk) for venue details.

*These workshops are open to all doctoral researchers from Global Studies and IDS.

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Higher Education: The Good, the Bad and the Paradoxical

This post is written by Ilaria Alessandrelli and Yuvinka Ribero Hurtado, 3rd year students in Anthropology and International Development. It is written as part of our blog series on ‘Anxieties and Mental Health During Stressful Academic Times’.

Do you remember how you used to imagine University life? Not the frenzy of freshers’ week, but the everyday routine you would settle into after the first month, to slowly but surely work towards achieving a degree. While completing my A-level qualifications, university appeared in my mind as a space where the abyss that had separated theoretical from practical knowledge throughout my educational journey would finally be filled. I imagined that peer-led debates, participatory workshops and case study evaluations would provide me with a creative approach to real-life problems by incorporating analytical issues centered on ‘why’ questions and pragmatic concerns focused on feasible solutions. However, it is only after studying Anthropology for three years that I have found this space where I can approach my personal and academic journey at Sussex as a legitimate source of insights on the fundamental contradictions underpinning the British Higher Education System. Here is what I have noticed about the inner-workings of university when I applied the two anthropological principles that ‘lived experience’ must be taken seriously and subjective emotions can be epistemologically productive to my own experience as a student at Sussex.

Compulsory Education vs. Higher Education, or the Pain of Identity Negotiation 

© Mazcan, Graffiti Artist

“I thought studying Anthropology and International Development would make me happy. But that feeling of happiness didn’t come, instead, anxiety came knocking at my door. When I began doubting the soundness of the very system of higher education, my world collapsed on itself. My doubts on the validity of the teaching methods of this institution filled me with desperation. I wish I had had the strength to ask myself ‘which shape of knowledge do I value?’ ‘how can I achieve it?’ ‘what would its purpose be?’ But doubting my life choices brought so much pain it took away my potential to become a successful student and a healthy human being. To adapt to the new academic environment, I couldn’t ask myself these questions, or indeed any questions.” —(extract from a message sent to a friend in 11/07/2017)

This is what I wrote in my first honest reply to the question ‘how are you finding university?’ It took me a long time before being able to pin down what was it that made me doubt ‘the soundness of the higher education system’. Part of the problem was growing up in an academic environment that defines knowledgeability as the amount of data students can recall on any given topic. In this model of education, seemingly neutral narrative strategies (e.g. chronological order) are employed to generate ‘objective’ descriptions of reality. A student’s chief duty is being able to reproduce in spoken and written form all information that has hitherto been selected as expressing universal ‘truths’ about the world and the human condition. Today, I believe this approach to knowledge fails to depict phenomena objectively. It simply creates an illusion of ‘perfect objectivity’ by obscuring the subjective judgments made in the process of selecting and collating data. 

© “Lake Kriteria” by Ilaria and Yuvinka

The Joy of Participatory Learning and The Agony of Essay Writing

I came to these conclusions gradually, due to my prolonged exposure to Sussex teaching practices. Rejecting definitions of knowledge centered on the accurate memorization of large bodies of information was a painful process. It stripped my efforts to conform to the education system in which I was raised of any value. However, by taking part in the scheduled peer-led seminars and workshops, I started believing in the power of participatory learning processes. Once the need to repeat what the greatest thinkers have previously written is forgotten, students can freely engage in the co-production of ideas that are truly representative of their doubts, concerns and experiences. This is the first step towards the creation of an inclusive learning process that helps individuals make sense of their surroundings and their own circumstances. Ideally, this should bring some understanding of what we hope to change about the present and how to act on such understanding outside the classroom.

My time at Sussex made me reconceptualise knowledge as the collective endeavour to understand human life in its full material, emotional and spiritual depth and co-produce feasible solutions to real-life issues. Having to structure the weekly study routine around preparing my meaningful contribution for peer-led seminars, encouraged me to place great value on the opportunity to actively participate in knowledge-production processes. However, embracing this new conception of knowledge made me realise that the current assessment structure does not mirror the values Sussex’ curriculum is based on. In fact, despite advocating for participatory learning approaches, this university does not even assess individual seminar attendance and contribution. Essay-writing emerges as a champion over all other modes of assessment. Over the years, the importance of alternative assessment criteria (e.g. exams, presentations, learning diaries and blog articles) capable of measuring students’ proficiency across a wider spectrum of skills, gradually shrinks. Finally, dissertations come to represent 100% of a student’s overall capability and intellectual engagement with their university degree. In practice, to embody the ‘successful student’ becomes repressing one’s genuine interests in favour of focusing on essay-writing and the quest for original arguments.   

Coming to terms with my values

Even though resisting this view of higher education as mere essay writing sometimes resulted in anxiety or depressive episodes and increased academic pressure, I decided to have faith in my view of what it means to be a successful scholar. That is, an individual who can creatively combine theoretical and practical knowledge to bring about a more inclusive future in which a greater number of persons people can pursue the kind of existence they most value. This led me to be proactive in engaging with local institutions addressing environmental and social issues in Brighton, in order to gain a practical understanding of the challenges analysed within the classroom. I took part in participatory workshops and debates on campus to discover alternative forms of knowledge, such as that described by Professor Mario Novelli, produced by social movements. More importantly, I have taken the opportunity to co-write this blog piece with a colleague, who has sincenow become a friend, to make the reflections stemmed from my academic and non-academic experience at Sussex available for others who might be attempting to make sense of and overcome feelings of frustration and anger. This collaboration has encouraged a healing process and made me re-think my career aspirations.       

Today, after almost three years of navigating academia, I can say that the determination to act upon existing inequalities and make change happen by joining forces with other students, I have cultivated in the face of a hostile higher education assessment structure will be my greatest achievement at Sussex.  

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