A social work science approach to eating
This research project, which is conducted at the St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences in Lower Austria, focuses on eating as a social phenomenon. It is part of the cross-institutional research network FIRST (Forschungsnetzwerk Interdisziplinäre Regionalstudien) and concentrates on how eating practices are linked to individual biographies and analyzes the impact of social inclusion on food choices. As a long term goal, the project seeks to gain new insights into the potential impact of social work in supporting individuals‘ self-determination in their nutritional choices. To this end, a scientific basis for understanding interdependencies between social inclusion and eating is an essential requirement. This basis is currently being developed as part of the present project.
At present, little work is being done in the social sciences concerning eating and nutrition. This has not always been the case: Until the 1960s, hunger and famine were among the most pressing problems for working class people living in poverty. In response to this problem, welfare institutions sought to provide staple food and taught women how to prepare nutritious meals.
Nowadays availability is rated as a resolved issue, as if the right type of food – namely healthy food – was available to everyone. Free choices (presumed or real) are taken for granted. As a result, individuals are burdened with the responsibility to make healthy nutritional choices, when in fact they do not have that choice.
Obviously, a range of underlying social factors influence eating habits. However, they are generally not recognized as such and eating habits have therefore been left to nutritional sciences, medicine, and food technology with few exceptions during the initial phase of social work history. The contemporary social sciences have neglected social aspects of eating habits. Therefore, a sound scientific basis needs to be developed and integrated into the expanding social work field concerned with eating and nutrition.
Social science case studies constitute a first approach to the research topic because they allow for an analysis which combines societal contexts and the viewpoints of individuals. Case studies use data from individual biographies. For the present study therefore biographical interviews which focus on nutritional habits were conducted with a special focus on persons who live in precarious conditions. Another source of data are artifacts interviewees refer to, such as cutlery, recipes, and dishes, which are of specific importance for them. In addition, interviewees have taken researchers to places where they eat, allowing for further insight into respective eating habits and the origins of the food they consume.
Participant observation in “eating situations” such as invitations to meals and being present for the handing out of food in social institutions were the next step in the research process, followed by focus group discussions among social service users.
This mix of methods provides insights into individuals‘ efforts to maintain their capability of action. Persons‘ reactive strategies, interpretations, and attempts for safeguarding individual integrity become obvious.
Preliminary results and discussion
First research results show that changes in nutritional habits and access to certain foods highly interrelate with events in individuals‘ biographies, such as the occurrence of diseases, success in one’s career, job loss, or, more generally, social climbing and social relegation. This becomes evident when outlining biographical timelines with respective interview partners.
Obviously, there is a range of implications for developing social work theory and practice in the fields of eating and nutrition. Social work has neglected the aspect of nutrition in the last decades as if it were insignificant within its field, not recognizing the importance of the topic with regards to the overarching theme of inclusion and livelihood. This research project will therefore be an essential contribution to gaining a social work scientific perspective on eating.