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Lamenting the “Decline of the Family Meal” as a Moral Panic ? Methodological Reflections

Anne Murcott
p. 97-118


This essay considers the relevance of the idea of moral panic to a frequently repeated lament for the supposed “decline of the family meal”. It proceeds by first recapitulating earlier discussion (Murcott, 1997) of the supposition, second by bringing that discussion up to date. Noteworthy is the durability of that lament and of the range of practitioners and activists who report and repeat it. Although suitable data sets are in short supply, some social scientific research has relatively recently been devoted to examining the historical accuracy of the decline of the family meal, and find at best equivocal support for its disappear­ance. Despite the inadequacy or absence of evidence for any decline, the lament persists, revealing the lament as a possible exaggeration. The paper’s final section reviews the relevance of moral panic in relation to the persisting lament in respect of the seven features of the notion presented by Garland (2008). On this basis, the article concludes that, despite claims by Jackson et al. (2009) of the relevance of moral panic to the lament, it is only partly so.

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I. Introduction

  • 1  I am most grateful to Jean Michel Chaumont, Université Catholique de Louvain, for suggesting the t (...)
  • 2  Garland attributes the notion to Stan Cohen and Jock Young, but in his introduction to the third e (...)

1 This essay revisits the question of the decline of “the family meal” to ask whether it is well characterised as a moral panic, and, if so, what might the consequences be of so categorising it. Describing what follows as an essay is deliberate, for it aims to be such in, perhaps, an older sense of trying out, and reflecting on, a set of thoughts. Thus it is not an essay as a personal point of view, more a tentative attempt at a marriage1 in this case, between a well-enough described phenomenon and a well-established idea2. The phenomenon is a repeatedly expressed anxiety that “the family meal” is declining, a lament for a distinct social arrangement for domestic eating that is held to be disappearing. The lament takes the dual form of a claim that a daily main meal taken sociably round the table is being replaced by household members eating at different times and in different places, and a declaration that its loss results in serious moral, health or social problems : that is the phenomenon. “Moral panic” is the idea. Marrying the two takes advantage of the precedent set by those who sought to «open space for the consideration of other social anxieties that do not quite fit the moral panic paradigm» (Ungar, 2002 :272).

2 Putting the pair together is not original. Jackson, Olive and Smith (2009) argued that the concern expressed about the demise of the family meal is to be understood as «a “moral panic” based on a partial and exaggerated interpretation of the evidence» (2009 :131). The detail of these authors’ argument is critically examined in a later section, for now, howe­ver, it should be noted that developing a fuller discussion of this particular marriage seems to be novel. Certainly Ungar is not alone in considering other social anxieties that are of a different type from those included in the early formulations of Cohen (1972) and Young (1971). The new anxieties that Ungar deals with derive from his understanding of risk society, and revolve around nuclear, chemical, environmental, biological and medical issues to include a long list of things such as «various forms of reproductive technology and biotechnology, the ozone hole, the “greenhouse summer of 1988” … and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)» (Ungar, 2002 :272-273). In similar fashion Critcher (2003) also could be said to have extended the range of topics by including the 1980s/1990s rave/ecstasy culture, the response to video “nasties” in the same period as well as child abuse in families. The last, along with child pornography (Jenkins, 2001, in Garland, 2008 :22-23) may well be examples which moral panic researchers themselves would agree deserve all the anxiety attributed to them, if not a good deal more than anxiety. Prima facie howe­ver, topics such as those are “out of order” – infractions of a set of rules – just as were the activities of Mods and Rockers on Clacton beach. But, all those examples could be said to break rules in a fashion that is wholly different from “the decline of the family meal”, a phenomenon located, if not rooted, in the realm of the mundane, routine and domestic.

3 This essay is presented with a view to prompting further debate about the relevance of moral panic to questions of the decline of the family meal – concluding that it is only partly so. In principle, the essay can also prompt further debate about the extent to which discussion of the supposed disappearance of the family meal may help refine the notion of moral panic. Certainly it skirts the question as to whether the notion needs to be expanded to include ordinary, domestic and everyday topics or whether on those very grounds it should remain untouched. Squarely addressing that question in any detail is, however, reserved for another occasion. Indeed, only very selective reference will be made to the now large secondary literature on moral panics, geared to helping consider the relevance of the notion to questions of the disappearing family meal. Brief word is, however, needed on the way that attempt is to be approached. Thus it is probably foolhardy to talk in terms of the utility of an idea or concept (although that hovers round the edges of that large literature) for it raises the difficult, if not intractable, question of the manner in which the criteria for utility are to be decided – although that was initially considered here. More cautiously, the key word “relevance” has been adopted, allo­wing a seemingly more straightforward mode of proceeding.

4 Reviewing the relevance of the idea of moral panics to the phenomenon of the anxieties about a disappearing family meal is reserved for the final section of the present article. The next section starts with a brief return to an earlier discussion published over a decade ago (Murcott, 1997). That chapter opened for inspection and query the supposed decline of this ea­ting arrangement. Entitled Family Meals : a Thing of the Past ? its conclusion proposed that the question mark at the end of its own title ought to remain until further enquiry had been undertaken. Accordingly, the section recapitulates some of that earlier discussion in order first to set out the story of the lament for the demise of family meals and second to serve as a baseline from which to update that story. Included is note of the durability of that lament and note too of those who report and repeat it – all of which, taken together, make up the phenomenon mentioned in the opening paragraph above. The section thereafter discusses research, including but not exclusively, the social scientific coverage of the decline of the family meal, noting that, up until the late 1990s, much of it assumes the decline is real. That section goes on to examine research on one or other aspect of the topic of family meals itself and concludes with commentary on those possibly rather fewer sociologists, anthropologists and geographers who have queried, resisted or tested the assumed decline. The final section returns to the marriage of phenomenon and idea and considers how relevant the notion of moral panic may be to the persisting lament for the decline of the family meal – in the process touching just briefly on consequences of asserting that the lament is “no more than” a moral panic. In the end, as, perhaps, is the way of an essay, the question is left open.

II. The lament, its durability and the identity of those voicing it

Meal-time as family reunion time was taken for granted a generation ago […] there is arising a conscious effort to “save meal-times, at least, for the family”. As one mother expressed it : ‘Even if we have only a little time at home together, we want to make the most of that little. In our family we always try to have Sunday breakfast and dinner together at least’ […] ‘I ate only seven meals at home all last week and three of those were on Sunday’ said one father (Lynd/Lynd, 1929 :153-154).

Over the past 40 years there has been a food revolution in Britain. New foods and new methods of growing, processing, distributing and cooking food have arrived. Even eating has been transformed. No longer does everyone have so-called family meals all seated round a table. We have snacks between meals, buy low nutrient foods and eat on the hoof – appropriately known by the food marke­ters as “grazing” (Lang et al., 1989 :3).        

[…] it is worrying that […] breaking bread together is no longer the focal point of family life ; a snatched breakfast – if any – being follo­wed by lunch at school or work, with the evening meal a matter of individually finding what is available and gobbling it up in front of the telly […] or perhaps hunger is assuaged at a fish and chip shop or the ubiquitous McDonalds (Davis, 1995 :356).

5 It is with these three quotations that the earlier discussion opened (Murcott, 1997 :31). The first is sociologists’ report of their findings, the second figures as part of a group of food policy activists’ assessment of the state of the British food system overall, and the third an Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics’ anxiety about modern eating habits, published in a medical journal. Since they so succinctly and thus conveniently summarise the phenomenon, they are re-used here to illustrate that even a decade ago, the concern appears to : be of long standing ; be found on both sides of the Atlantic ; prompt sufficiently strong feeling that it can attract what some might consider intemperate vocabulary. The apparent durability of the lament is pursued further in a moment. Note for now, however, that the third example is written – with reference to modern life such as the television or the “ubiquitous” McDonalds – as if this is a trend noticeable to both author and reader alike, while the second specifies the period over which the decline is said to have occurred. All the examples identified in the 1997 discussion take it for granted that “family meal” needs no formal definition, although it can readily be inferred that it is eaten at home, by parents and children who are dependent minors. The family of the family meal is the nuclear family of which the household is composed.

  • 3  The alternatives offered by the search engine include : family meal ideas ; family meal planner/pl (...)

6 Since 1997, it has become unremarkable as a first crude search for anything to use the internet. Typing “family meal” into a search engine (for the UK) produces strings of results, numbering, according to its (unstable) calculations in the millions3. As is also the way of these things, some links are broken, and the results are inclined to be indiscriminate : recipe ideas ; cooking on a low budget ; meal planning ; academic research projects’ websites. All the same, it is notable that continued expressions of the lament can readily be found : a typical instance is the opening paragraph of a short discussion (connected to a macrobiotic website) entitled The Importance of the Family Meal by Melanie Waxman, a macrobiotic chef and author :

The family meal, unfortunately, is disappearing fast. In all cultures, this timeless institution was recognized as a vital part of strong, stable family life. Eating together is the time when everyone can gather after a day hard at work or studying in school to share adventures and stories4.

  • 5  Other examples include: (a) «MEALS around the family table, while not quite dead and ready to be b (...)

7 Other examples found over the last decade are similar (a few of which are reproduced as a footnote5). The lament continues to be durable.

8 Systematic searches and thoroughgoing content analyses still need to be conducted. Such work will not be easy, however, for, among other things, it will need to take suitable account of the instability of web pages never mind the near-invisible manner in which search engines are designed to produce search results that mirror a user’s previous activity. None the less, it remains particularly difficult to find results that go in the opposite direction to lamenting the demise of family meals. Indeed, opportunistic enqui­ry beyond online searches, also suggests it is hard to find anyone welco­ming their demise.

  • 6  The expression is used here to refer to a chef/restaurateur who also appears on television either (...)
  • 7  This too requires systematic enquiry: is it found elsewhere in Europe ? in Australasia ? and what (...)
  • 8 access checked October 9 2011.

9 There are, however, new twists to the topic that seem to have occurred over the last decade or so. Notable is the emergence of campaigns to promote family meals. One form is illustrated by a UK Sunday newspaper in one of whose issues the “celebrity chef”6 Aldo Zilli is quoted as declaring that «It is so important for families to come together at least once a week. If eating round the family table dies, then the family starts to drift apart» (The Independent on Sunday, 2006). Others are widespread in the US but apparently without counterpart in the UK7. An unusually striking example is a book by Miriam Weinstein, a journalist, entitled The Surprising Po­wer of Family Meals : How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier, Happier (Weinstein, 2006). Close reading suggests that the title – like some newspaper headlines – has been composed with a view to catching attention, and that the content does not unequivocally or unifor­mly find evidence in support of the claim it makes. Similar are foundations and institutes devoted to the support and improvement of family life. One such is “Putting Family First”8 dedicated to raising «awareness about the crucial connections between parents and children, and helps families find balance in their lives». Its home page announces «If you can only do one thing to help your kids each day share a family meal» support for which is presented to anyone checking a separate page publishing a piece entitled Overscheduled kids, underconnected families : the research evidence, prepared by William J. Doherty, Ph. D. Family Social Science Department, University of Minnesota.

10 This last foreshadows a further twist, the emergence of academic research on the topic combined with popular reference to it. In 1997, research seemed to be confined to market research, in turn reported in women’s magazines as well as other sections of the mass media. For instance, some German marketing research of 1995, found that of the 97 per cent who reported taking dinner/supper on working days, 41 per cent of said they took it «“with all other household members” and 34 per cent “with some other household members”» (Murcott, 1997 :35). Since then, howe­ver, university based researchers have weighed in.

11 At this point, two observations are needed before returning to examine such research in more detail in the next section. The first is methodological, the second substantive. While the moral panic literature is sometimes classified as belonging to the sociology of the mass media, it is also categorised under a heading of the sociology of deviance. If the former, then reliance on mass media coverage to characterise the topic in question is unremarkable in that it opens discussion as to the organisation and power structures of media institutions and by the same token, allows analysts to side step the nature and extent of the sources of reference to and anxiety about the topic. If classified as the sociology of deviance, then there is greater onus on researchers to discuss not only how extensive the anxiety is, but also the identity both of those who do expresses it and any who disavow it. Much of the present discussion relies on the mass media as sources of both the assumption that the family meal is declining, and the concomitant lament. But doing so runs the risk of eliding mass media reporting and public opinion when, although they may well overlap, they cannot be treated as coincident. Unless suitably designed studies are undertaken, the nature and extent of the overlap cannot be determined. For now, though, a single, opportunistically observed example is instructive.

  • 9  This is in great contrast to a view expressed by a senior epidemiologist, director of a very well (...)

12 In June 2009, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) ran a workshop to consider what kinds of issues affecting the Agency’s work might be “over the horizon” to which a mixture of its stakeholders were invited. Note that the FSA is dedicated to evidence-based policy making. In small group discussions, participants referred in passing to changes in meal patterns. They took it for granted that the “family meal” was disappearing and assumed, as its corollary, that eating was more informal, with more snacking and the marketers’ expression “grazing”. Further conversation, also in passing, in between discussion of what were treated as more significant topics such as rates of foodborne infection, public attitudes to food safety or the adequacy of the food supply, reflected agreement that eating together with the family was valued, aimed for and deemed “right”, and considered supe­rior, to alternatives. It would, however, be hard to describe the view expressed on this particular occasion as anxiety (however defined), or even a lament9. It seemed more like regret of no greater concern than a shoulder shrug at a change which had somehow become inevitable. Unlike other topics discussed during the meeting for which attention to the underpinning science was devoted, this was not one that was held to need evidence, but rather was assumed to be generally known and accepted. This, of course, was a single occasion, obliquely observed by chance participation, but its ad hoc nature is perhaps telling. Ironically, that very nature would make systematic enquiry difficult, for “orchestrating” an ad hoc occasion for research purposes is obviously self-defeating. So determining more precise details of the content of the lament remains to be accomplished. Perhaps, however, despite the methodological details still to be dealt with, it appears that the lament may vary in forcefulness from that shoulder-shrugging acknowledgement to far more pronounced regret. Either way, a welcome for the demise of the family meal continues to be elusive.

13 The other observation to be made is substantive, and concerns the identity of those for whom the disappearance of family meals is a worry. As already indicated, these include professionals – whether chefs or doctors – whose practice has something to do with eating and diet, as well as self-appointed commentators, journalists (editors and reporters) and activists, sometimes independently of each other, sometimes in a kind of coalition (e.g. the Sunday newspaper campaign mentioned earlier). Note that though the professionals are thereby experts of one kind or another, typically they are not expert in the systematic study of the relation between whatever family meal is to mean and the dire outcomes to which they point, any more than they are experts in the study of the history of this form of commensality or in one or other of the social sciences. This list contains those who are strong candidates for the epithet moral entrepreneur (Becker, 1963). This includes the manner in which the professionals step beyond the boundaries of a technical definition of their specialty (clinical medicine, running a restaurant) to assert an opinion claiming an authority based on their expertise to do so, despite the probable absence of the relevant expertise in their training. Though these moral entrepreneurs can be distin­guished from one another, their discourse appears very similar. And, though deserving further more systematic investigation, doing so has to be postponed for another occasion. Their discourse contrasts, as will be seen below, with that of the form of general public approval of family meals that is coupled with practical acceptance of the difficulty of orchestrating them on a daily basis. For now, be it noted that the whole topic is recogni­sably located in the general terrain of moral panic – not least in regarding young people as especially vulnerable. But before taking the point further, discussion is needed of the attitude taken by social scientists among other researchers.

III. The (presumed) decline of the family meal : research attitudes and approaches

14 Moving away from concentrating on media representations of the decline of the family meal, this section pursues the presumption of its demise by scrutinising the research literature. It begins by illustrating the way that, for a long time, the presumption went unchallenged, exposing in the process, a distinct ideological underpinning. Thereafter it moves on to show that a rather different literature, primarily on the sociology of eating at home, provides evidence of the way that the family meal (at least as an idea) is highly valued by members of the public. The section ends by considering the more recent and rather smaller number of studies designed empirically to test the historical accuracy of the decline of the family meal.

A. The assumption remains unchallenged

15 For a long while, social scientists – the eminent among them – shared with non-social scientist commentators the assumption that the family meal was in decline. So Claude Fischler, in his neat little pun that nods to Emile Durkheim, declares that it is a case of “gastro-anomie” ; a state in which, without rules for meal-taking, people were by the late 1970s left normless, without guidance, culturally speaking (Fischler, 1979). A deca­de later, Sidney Mintz, never apparently persuaded that rules were so essential in the first place, none the less assumes that meal patterns are collapsing (Mintz, 1985 :200-204) as, later still, does Pasi Falk (1994). Though writing for international readerships, and implicitly referencing transnational social circumstances, these scholars none the less found nothing in their own countries of residence – respectively France, the US and Finland – to lead them to contradict their assumptions. Even after the earlier discussion (Murcott, 1997) was published, social scientists could still be found perpetuating such assumptions (e.g. Atkins/Oddy, 2009). Indeed, a reviewer of the volume in which the 1997 discussion was publicshed completely missed the point. Presumably allowing preconceptions to cloud understanding, she purported to summarise its argument as asking «[a]re family meals becoming rarer and, if so, how important is this for family life ?» (Gregory, 1999 :129).

16 Those examples are contributions to the (predominantly sociological) academic literature, with “pure” scientific intent, aiming to explain and understand the decline. Somewhat different is a genre of “applied” research geared to the solution of social problems in which the decline is similarly assumed without question, but to which is added the belief that family meals are a desirable feature of a “good” society in which healthy, well-adjusted children may be brought up. Thus such meal taking is to be promoted. One of the more heavily publicised – albeit rightly adversely criticised – is the research undertaken for over a decade by the National Center on Addiction & Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Its position on the matter is well captured by Joseph A. Califano, its Chairman and President, introducing the 2005 and 2011 reports, The importance of family dinners II and The importance of family dinners VII :

America’s drug problem is not going to be solved in court rooms, legislative hearing rooms or classrooms, by judges, politicians or teachers. It will be solved in living rooms and dining rooms and across kitchen tables – by parents and families (CASA, 2005).

Over the past 17 years, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA Columbia) has surveyed thousands of American teens and their parents to identify factors associated with an increase or decrease in the likelihood of teen substance use […] Our surveys have consistently found a relationship between children having frequent dinners with their parents and a decreased risk of their smoking, drinking or using other drugs, and that parental engagement fostered around the dinner table is one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children (CASA, 2011).

  • 10  I am grateful to Jean Michel Chaumont for drawing my attention to this point.

17 This succession of reports is open to serious criticism on a number of counts. Among them is the failure to control statistically for income as a basic technique for ruling out spurious correlations between forms of drug-related behaviour and family meals. In the process the studies also fail to allow for the possibility that a measure of the frequency of family meals is simply proxy for poverty. Another is the studies’ reliance on self-report in telephone interviews. Yet another is the failure to publish the questionnaires on which the studies are based. As a result it is not possible to know whether asking what teenagers enjoyed about family meals was matched as principles of adequate questionnaire design would require, by asking what they did not enjoy. And, as Wilk tartly points out, the work is not submitted for peer review in academic journals, but published by the Center itself. Wilk goes on to observe that by aligning interpretations of the data with so powerful a cultural “icon” (as he describes a family meal) a cloak is provided for «failure of policy and law… and den[ies] the importance of inequality and social discrimination. It turns legitimate social problems into personal moral issues which are addressed through exhortation and preaching, often glossed as “education”» (Wilk, 2010 :4) what is commonly summarised as victim-blaming. Reliance on flawed research that supports their agenda appears as a very common feature of moral entrepreneurs’ discourse10.

  • 11  Nutritionists and public health specialists are also inclined to include enquiry about whether and (...)
  • 12  The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is the UK public examination taken by 16 yea (...)

18 Not only is the Columbia University research made widely available, it is widely relied upon by non-scientific commentators and promoters of family meals of the type mentioned earlier e.g. the Nemours foundation (see footnote 5). In any case, it is not clear how or why family meals enter the picture of any research on the antecedents of teenage drug misuse in the first place – Wilk, in effect, attributes it to the power of family meals as an image of enduring American conservatism (Wilk, 2010). The origins of the way that it has surfaced in parallel fashion in the UK is even less clear11. A headline appeared in at least two UK broadsheet newspapers in June 2008 : Regular family meals boost GCSE exam results (The Telegraph, 2008), illustrating in the process, the way that the mass media report research12. In this instance, the report is under the by-line of the Education Editor, reporting findings from a study published by the UK gover­nment’s Department for Children, Schools and Families.

  • 13  The Telegraph June 26 2008: «Children perform better at school if parents impose traditional value (...)

19 Cross checking with the original research report is instructive (UK GOV., 2008). In the section reporting the correlation between family meals and success in exams, the authors observe that «[A]nother factor sometimes seen as an indicator of family “togetherness” is the frequency with which a family has an evening meal together» (section 5.2). Their remark is written in the passive voice that evades identifying who it is that sees family meals as this type of indicator. And they observe that it is thought of as some sort of proxy – not it should be noted for material disadvantage – but for some quality of family life for which a colloquialism is used and placed in inverted commas. As noteworthy, only a relatively small proportion of the original report on exam success is devoted to its positive correlation between family meals, yet two broadsheet newspapers, at least, selected this aspect for their articles’ headlines13.

20 In effect, then, the assumption remains unchallenged. More than that, there is a hint of a recursive pattern in which media coverage and other sources of the assumption reinforce one another. While not apparent in a strong form of media amplification, and seems to be recurrent over long periods during much of which it lies dormant, it none the less resembles it.

B. High value accorded the idea a family meal

  • 14  For an overview of the field see Mennell S., Murcott A., van Otterloo A., 1992.

21 It may turn out to be that the durability of the assumption and the fai­lure to challenge it is kept alive by the widespread appeal of the idea of families eating together at table that is pervasive among members of the general public. All the research considered in the previous section assu­med the decline of the family meal, and in the last two examples, emphasized faith in its virtue as associated with valued behaviour in young people. Bear in mind that neither of those latter pieces of work are reported in peer reviewed journals. Turning now to scientific sources which are peer reviewed adds a further dimension to investigation on family meals. For, in some fashion or another, family meals figure across the last three or so decades of research in the sociology and social anthropology of domestic eating in the “West” more generally14. The rise or fall of the frequency with which such meals are taken is, by and large, incidental to the purpose of these enquiries. Rather it is found that time and again, “eating together as a family” is an ideal to which research participants are devoted. It may be valued as a means of teaching children table manners, found among the middle aged as a way of recreating a somewhat rose-tinted recollection of their own childhood (Kyle, 1999) and reported among rural dwellers in Australia as representing family cohesion and sociality (Lupton, 2000). DeVault’s (1991) research in the US, Charles and Kerr’s (1988) in the UK, Bugge and Almås (2006) in Norway present respondents’ commitment to the family gathering round the table to eat, talk and catch up. Companionship itself may be key as, for instance among older Swedish women :

The meal that was most enjoyed was the one eaten in fellowship with family members or friends, together as a group at one table (Sidenvall/Nydahl/Fjellström, 2000 :415).

22 All such work testifies to the manner in which such occasions are va­lued.

23  While the value placed on family meals as a component of family cohesion remains evident, such devotion is underlined by respondents’ talking of the difficulty in turning the idea of family meals into reality. Regret and frustration tinge their recognition that family schedules militate against orchestrating such mealtimes as frequently as would have been liked (DeVault, 1991 ; Brannen, 2011). Adding to the sense of realism, the inability to relax, and the tensions or arguments accompanying mealtimes with children are also reported (Burgoyne/Clarke, 1983) as is couples’ longing for the romance of meals à deux before the children were born (Dobson et al., 1994).

  • 15  Although a cross national study of Nordic countries records that family meals are part of ordinary (...)

24 Not being primarily devoted to tracking the incidence of the family meal15, this literature is also able to pay attention to a wider range of meal-related considerations. Indeed, it is arguably more nuanced in its apprehension of the social organisation of eating in the home requiring, for instance, awareness of negotiations of different food preferences among household members (e.g. for the UK Valentine, 1999) paying attention to different household formations and stages of the life course (e.g. for Sweden Fjellström, 2004) or uncovering the manner in which homemade food – Thanksgiving turkey, cinnamon rolls, breakfast waffles – can evoke nostalgic valuation of family life (Moisio/Arnould/Price, 2004).

25 So a more measured approach is evident, as is the analytic importance of stepping outside the ideological constraints of focus on the family meal. In her study of meal provision in the Czech republic, Haukanes observes :

The food served does not so much create a sense of social intimacy between the family as a group as between the woman and the individuals who eat the food she has prepared. During meals (served to one of more of her family members) the woman may sometimes sit down and eat with the other(s) and sometimes only be the provider of the meal, but she is always at the centre of distribution – as such, she is the main “kin-maker”. Food provides her with a highly efficient means of creating social proximity and strengthening family and kinship bonds. At the same time, she is building her identity as a proper woman who does what women are supposed to do (Haukanes, 2007 : para 20).

26 This research shifts the interpretative centre of gravity from the family to selected bilateral relationships between the woman and those for whom she cooks – taking empirical investigation beyond solely focussing narrowly on the set of nuclear family relationships as a group.

27 One of the most solid foundations for adequate analysis of shared meals is provided by Grignon’s shrewdly judged, if densely expressed, theoretical discussion of commensality which he addresses to fellow scholars of the social organisation of eating (Grignon, 2001). He and his readers know well that cultural prescription not only define what is edible/inedible, not only indicate where and with what (if any) implements people are to eat. In just the same way, he observes, cultural specifications also indicate those who may and may not eat together. And he warns that…

Serious study has to be prevented from confusing, as is too often the case, commensality with conviviality, which is a result of the former, even if its euphoric manifestations are easier and more pleasant to describe (Grignon, 2001 :24, emphasis added).

28 Indeed, he relies on his readers’ knowledge of the literature when he reminds them that forms of domestic commensality vary greatly, «being sometimes very far from the contemporary pattern of the nuclear family» evident in the West (Grignon, 2001 :25).

C. Testing the historical accuracy of claims that the family meal is in decline

  • 16  The same Nordic study report that family meals were more frequent among older people and also more (...)

29 Grignon’s observations on the contemporary Western family pattern of eating foreshadow key empirical research dedicated to examining the assumption that the family meal is in decline. He regards the intensity of domestic commensality as a reflection of the cohesion of the family grouping, underscored by the degree to which it is resistant to pressures external to that group, pressures from the world of work or school. But for him, this opens up the opportunities for study, beginning with asking about the types of family and the circumstances under which they are free to coordinate their schedules to achieve eating together. It readily follows that analysing variations in household size and composition16 and in parti­cular the household’s «position in the social hierarchy […] the parents’ occupational activities, the children’s type and level of schooling» (Grignon, 2001 :25) becomes significant.

  • 17  It is striking that none of the three discuss definitions of the family meal, nor do they consider (...)

30 It is not until later in the first decade of the new century that work began to appear that is dedicated to testing the supposed de-structuring of eating, the expression sometimes adopted to describe the assumption that family meals are being replaced by solo eating and/or snacking and grazing17. Such research is not easy. Whenever there is question of either decline or increase, time-trend data are needed. Cross sectional studies that report 50% of a population does not eat with the family, cannot discriminate between an upward, downward, or static pattern over time. But fin­ding suitable data-sets for earlier periods requires considerable ingenuity. Two independent, though equally resourceful pieces of work make use of time diary data. Cheng and colleagues reanalyse UK time diary data for the years 1975 and 2000 (Cheng et al., 2007) while for Belgium, Mestdag’s tour de force scrutinises data for three years : 1966, 1999 and 2004 (Mestdag, 2007).

31 Both studies report that though there is an apparent reduction in the amount of time spent eating in the company of others, eating together has not disappeared. Mestdag reports that despite an increase since the 1960s in the frequency with which respondents ate alone «[S]till the majority of eating time is spent in primary interaction» (Mestdag 2007 :325, emphasis added). Cheng et al. confirm similar trends. Although their evidence indicates that there has been a decline overall in the amount of time spent eating and drinking at home, they caution against regarding it as evidence of an increase in solo snacking replacing the family meal. For they note such an interpretation «is not confirmed by analysis of the distribution of durations of episodes at home which reveals remarkable stability since 1975». Indeed, they continue, «[I]f anything, people spent slightly longer per episode at home in 2000 (87 per cent of eating and drinking at home events lasted no more than 30 minutes in 1975 contrasted with 83 per cent in 2000)» (Cheng et al., 2007 :47 ). Eating they conclude continues to be «a sociable collective practice» despite shifting pressures of time which make coordinating eating together harder to accomplish.

32 Just as imaginative as the work of Mestdag and Cheng et al. is the study by Jackson et al. (2009) to which reference was made at the very beginning of this article. Their solution to the paucity of comparative data for earlier periods is to return to a data set providing personal testimonies of an earlier era. The data comprise more than 400 life history interviews Paul Thompson conducted with men and women born at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Jackson et al. reanalysed them with the specific aim of uncovering recollections of patterns of domestic eating when the interviewees were younger children. They reveal remarkably familiar arrangements :

In Edwardian times as now […] family meal-times and domestic routines were highly contingent on other practices, mainly taking place outside the home. The “family meal” may have been venerated by some families as a (middle-class) ideal. But the ideal was rarely attained in practice. Where “family meals” did take place among our Edwardian families, it usually occurred on weekdays at mid-day and on Sundays, a pattern that was largely dictated by the demands of paid employment outside the home (Jackson et al., 2009 :145).

33 Even if these three very thorough and undeniably resourceful pieces of work are rather few, the results of all three run in very similar directions. The third adds weight to the report by the Lynds in Middletown of the 1920s that the ideal remained valued, but was hard to put into practice. The durability of the co-existence between allegiance to the ideal and rea­listic recognition of the difficulty of living up to it paradoxically echoes that other durability, the media coverage that repeatedly re-presents the lament of the decline of the family meal discussed in the previous section.

IV. The marriage between “the phenomenon” and “the idea” : declining family meals as moral panic ?

  • 18  The idea of moral panic has been invoked in respect of other food related phenomena, notably so-ca (...)

34 In effect, media reports of those who utter the lament appear to operate in a different realm from the everyday world of people who do not always eat together but who continue to think they should. This summarises a key element of the background against which to consider the relevance of the idea of moral panic to the anxiety that family meals are waning. As already noted, Jackson et al. interpret this as exaggeration which thereby provides the basis for their description as a moral panic18. In so doing, however, they rely on just one dimension of the sociological exposition of moral panics and neglect any of the others. Examining others does not lead to so unequivocal a conclusion.

35 The fit between the idea and the phenomenon is considered in this final section by simply discussing the seven features of a moral panic which Garland lists in his lucid critical analysis of the idea. He derives the first five from Goode and Ben Yehuda’s book which he describes as «the standard text» (Garland, 2008 :10). There are : (i) concern, (ii) hostility, (iii) consensus, (iv) disproportionality, and (v) volatility. He adds two more which he believes «are essential to the meaning of the concept that Cohen developed» : (vi) the moral dimension of the social reaction and (vii) «the idea that the deviant conduct in question is somehow symptomatic» (Garland, 2008 :11).

36 Rather than consider each in the order in which Garland presents them, those where the fit seems to be good are grouped together and considered first, beginning with the pair which Garland judges «are essential to the meaning of the concept that Cohen developed» (Garland, 2008 :11). A moral dimension to the reaction lies only just beneath the surface when the demise of the family meal is mourned. This is echoed in the manner in which its supposed disappearance is not regarded as positive or neutral but as a failure, and worse, one that puts the younger generation at some sort of risk. Also not far beneath the surface is the idea that the deviance «in question is somehow symptomatic» (Garland, 2008 :11) : it is easy to read depictions of the lament for the demise of the family meal as indicative of the decline of the family – as was proposed in the 1997 discussion. Added to these two, the first in Garland’s list can also be dealt with quite easily. Concern refers to a reported event or behaviour which produces anxiety or alarm. Mourning the decline of the family meal is an example of just that. As to a disproportionality – exaggeration of the behaviour in question – it is this which forms the basis for the designation of the lament as a moral panic in the work of Jackson et al. But focus on this feature reveals an elision in their thinking. While disproportion may serve as diagnostic of a moral panic – i.e. a necessary condition – it is not self-evident that exaggerated statements by moral entrepreneurs signal disproportion – i.e. not a sufficient condition (Chaumont, 2010).

37 The remaining features of Garland’s list do not fit quite so readily. Consensus refers to widespread unanimity deploring the behaviour or event. In the case of the supposed disappearance of the family meal, the picture is not obvious for it depends on the source. The portrayal in the mass media would suggest consensus of this kind – although discourse-analyses of the texts would be needed to establish that they are written to convey the impression that all right thinking readers would concur. As the source of, and vehicle for moral entrepreneurs’ expressions of anxiety, the legitimate question arises as to whether the mass media faithfully echo those worries or whether they misrepresent them. On the other hand, the general public’s allegiance to the ideal of families eating together and their reports describing the difficulties of doing so, suggests the opposite. Here the source is systematic social scientific research, an endeavour held to work at ruling out misrepresentation. And the manner and tone of research respondents’ reports of the difficulties of orchestrating family meals is signi­ficantly different from that of the moral entrepreneurs’ anxieties. Commonly, research respondents point to activities such as employment, school, children’s sports or additional tuition which limit eating together as unavoidable, necessary or valuable. In effect, any adverse effects of not managing to get together for family meals as often as would be liked is balanced by the virtue of those other activities which are either deemed essential to the viability of the family unit or, in their own ways evidence of for instance, good parenting. Perhaps, incidentally, the shoulder shrugging acceptance of the fathers and mothers who in their professional capacities attended the FSA horizon scanning workshops reflects more closely the position of research respondents than they do of that of the journalists, professionals and food activists whose anxieties are found in the mass media. This co-existence of judgements deriving from the two different sources would seem to be long standing. Consensus exists in the realm of the mass media, but is absent at most or equivocal at least in the realm of the mundane and of everyday routines.

38 Hostility refers to portraying the perpetrators as folk devils. But in the case of the supposed disappearance of the family meal, no perpetrator is explicitly named. First it is less a case of anyone who does something which breaks a rule, so much as those who fail to do something, thereby breaking a rule. The lament is expressed not as a “sin” of commission but rather one of omission. For it to be the other way round, the lament would need to be couched in terms of a headline which castigated grazing and eating snacks one one’s own.

39 Second, the lament is depicted in terms of meals which are disappearing – in the passive voice. It is not presented with reference to anyone who is responsible for making them disappear or who fails to organise them. Si­milarly, the focus is on the offending foodstuffs – snack and fast foods that can be eaten quickly, in fingers instead of food that needs to be served on a plate, takes time and needs cutlery to eat it. It is not on the people who eat the takeaway pizza straight from the cardboard container on their knee in front of the television or have the sandwich in its wrapper alongside the computer at the office, nor is it those running the food industry which processes, manufactures or retails the snacks and fast foods.

40 Part of the difficulty is that the business of eating is mundane, something of which everyone who is not starving has experience as a normal component of the daily round. Even those (in the West) who may never have had anything like a family meal in their life, are very unlikely not to recognise what others mean by it. As a result, it is not straightforward to work out who the folk devils might be. By definition, it cannot be (potentially) any and everyone. The nearest candidates are those who fail to measure up, who fail to have family meals sufficiently frequently to be unable to evade criticism. Identifying them more precisely becomes even harder. There is a strong suspicion that in some fashion the accusatory finger is more likely to be pointed at the working classes, especially those already disadvantaged : the poor ; lone parents ; adult household members who are not just employed out of the house but working shifts and/or ha­ving to take more than one job to make ends meet and so on. But it is only a suspicion. Worries about the demise of the family meal are reported across a newspapers whose readerships run across the income groups. Aspirations to “eat together as a family” are found in studies of working as well as middle class families.

  • 19  Certainly McRobbie and Thornton claim that folk devils are no longer reviled in the way they were (...)

41 On the other hand, even though the perpetrators are not named, Wilk is clear about the identity that is implied. He names them19 in what is perhaps the sharpest comment in his damning criticism of the Columbia University research (referred to above) when he writes :

Alternative forms of family and parenting become deviant and dangerous, conflict at meals a crime against society. Blended families, same-sex couples, multi-generational households, homeless families – all are pushed aside into other categories, so the quality of their dinner tables is marked as a product of their difference, in contrast with the normative center (Wilk, 2010 :4).

42 For him, then the folk devils are the people who do not and cannot (due to no fault of their own, he implies) conform to conservative image of the proper (i.e. nuclear) family.

43 As to volatility (the sudden emergence and equally swift disappearance of mass media coverage of the event and its anxiety) the case is also not clear cut. What has been reported here shows up a significant difference between mass media coverage of the lament that the family meal is disappearing on the one hand, and expressions of anxiety at the brawls among youngsters on the beach over a holiday weekend on the other. The diffe­rence is akin to the medical distinction between chronic and acute disease. Volatility suggests that a plot of the frequency of reports over time would reveal something close to a bell-shaped curve. Inspection of the mass media coverage mourning the demise of the family meal is far more likely to indicate a pattern of very sharp spikes – no more than a single day’s cove­rage – that recur over decades.

44 To some extent this the pattern is not so far from that described by Pearson (1983) in his longer historical view of hooligans, young men misbehaving badly and publicly. Although at different periods in the last century and more, the names given to such young men (or adopted by them) have changed, Pearson proposes that it is less one named group of trouble­makers or another and more the broader phenomenon of comparison with an earlier period since parental control, the quality of discipline and more are supposed to have degenerated. There is a decades’ long durability that mirrors that found for the lament for family meals, a nostalgia even such that :

[…] an anxiety lest the family meal is waning is also to be understood as if it were a standing item on the agenda of twentieth century public commentary on the nature of family life. It is exactly parallel to Pimlott’s observation that it is ‘part of the tradition that Christmas is never as it used to be’ […] In this view, one generation reflects on life the generation before, not only finds it altered, but judges it wanting. Each successive generation does exactly the same. Thus it is a constant that the past is mourned, the golden age feared lost (Murcott, 1997 :46).

45 Adopting this perspective leads to two related observations. One points, as Jackson et al. also note, to the manner in which that “standing item on the agenda” serves as a myth to live by as a means of accounting for remembered social changes. The other is closely associated and points not to the “amazing power of family meals” but, as both Wilk and Grignon declare, the amazing power of the family, or more accurately the ideology of the (“Western”) family. And it is that last, the ideology, wherein may lie the answer as to what the social forces may be that keeps the lament alive.

V. Conclusion

46 The point has now been reached when the two questions posed at the beginning of this essay may be considered. Is the anxiety about the decline of the “family meal” well characterised as a moral panic, and if it is, what might the consequences be of so categorising it ? The simple answer to the first is that the idea of a moral panic – in at least its “classic” form – is only partly relevant to the phenomenon that is this particular anxiety. A more complicated answer might propose that the classic form has, with the passage of time vis à vis developments in the discipline as well as historical shifts, to be amended or stretched, in which case the fit might be better.

47 Addressing the second question would, for those exercised by practical considerations, provide a basis for adjudication. If the view is adopted that moral panic is relevant to understanding the lament for the decline of the family meal, then one conclusion is likely to follow which swamps all others. Garland talks of moral panic as an outsider’s concept – knowing, cynical, in possession of sufficient cultural capital to be able to stand secu­rely aside without being drawn into the anxiety or troubled by it. This is something like the point of view adopted by Jackson et al. who point only to the exaggeration and simply declare other features as not part of their discussion. Accordingly, exaggeration is likely come to define the lament and to frame any associated discussion. If that is so, then should there be any benefits to be derived from the particular form of commensality represented by the family meal, there is a chance they may be lost or at least not championed.

48 A counter to this view, however, is one which asserts that if there are benefits, then they will be appreciated by participants themselves who, it follows, will then simply sustain the habit needing neither campaigns or prompts. This contrary view might not, however, find favour with nutritionnists and dieticians. If – and it is a very large “if” – these practitioners’ research is well founded that family meals are not just correlated with but are also causally related to superior nutritional intake, then these benefits are not necessarily on a par with the enjoyment of sociability, something that can be experienced and named as such by participants. For it requires experts to survey the nutritional consequences, which are, in the short term at least, not evident to participants themselves. Some, then, may use this line of thinking to reject the attribution of moral panic to the lament for any decline in family meals lest it risk eclipsing championing this form of commensality. Others may, however, want to adopt a more nuanced position. Realistic about domestic tensions if not strife – realistic about household power differentials and the abuse of power – realistic too about other aspects of domestic life, notably encouragement of dependent children’s autonomy

49 The 1997 discussion of the decline of the family meal ended on an provisional note, proposing that the question mark remain. The present discussion of the relevance of moral panic to the lament for the supposed demise of this form of commensality ends as equivocally. For, until surer, adequate nutritional scientific and social scientific evidence, supported by sober judgement on all sides, can be reached on any adverse consequences of the loss of the family meal, suspending judgement on the relevance of the idea of a moral panic to the phenomenon of the lament for the decline of the family meal may, for some, be the wisest provisional conclusion.

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The Independent, Sunday 30 July 2006.

The Telegraph, June 26 2008.

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1  I am most grateful to Jean Michel Chaumont, Université Catholique de Louvain, for suggesting the two be put together, for inviting me to contribute to this issue of the journal, for his penetrating comments on the first draft and for his patience. And, for various invaluable discussions, I should also like to thank Jason Hughes, Peter Jackson, Jakob Klein, Anne Pyburn, Amanda Rohloff, Harry West, Anne Laure Wibrin and Rick Wilk. I am also grateful to two anonymous referees, one of whom added helpful suggestions for modifying the title.

2  Garland attributes the notion to Stan Cohen and Jock Young, but in his introduction to the third edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics Cohen himself credits Young’s essay in his own edited collection Images of Deviance (Garland D., 2008 ; Cohen S., 2002).

3  The alternatives offered by the search engine include : family meal ideas ; family meal planner/planning/planner template ; family meals on a budget ; family mealtimes ; family meals for a fiver ; family meals for kids.

4, access re-checked October 9 2011.

5  Other examples include: (a) «MEALS around the family table, while not quite dead and ready to be buried, are a far less common phenomenon these days than in decades past» (The New York Times, by Jane E. Brody, September 19, 1979) ; (b) «Another day, another dinner to prepare. Are you having a difficult time finding easy to prepare meals that can satisfy your growing family ? You want to give your family the best, but time is in short supply and preparing a healthy meal has become a chore. Too often take out or frozen dinners have to do. Is there a way to combine healthy eating with convenience ? Yes ! New methods of cooking and easy to prepare staples can change your eating habits and lead to a better eating style for your family. According to the “Kid’s Health” Program created by the Nemours Foundation, family meals are an important part of developing healthy habits in your kids. Eating as a family will encourage your kids to eat healthy foods like whole grains and vegetables. It will discourage unhealthy snacking and even make them less likely to try smoking, alcohol or marijuana. But how do you plan healthy family meals on a tight schedule ? Here are some ideas to start : […]» (access checked August 29 2011) ; (c) Mail Online : Family meals are ‘a thing of the past’ because we’re too busy to sit down together (Last updated at 01:43 04 March 2008): «The family dinner has become a thing of the past in millions of homes. Only a fifth of families sit down for a meal together at least once or twice a week, a survey has found. Three-quarters of 1,000 families surveyed said they were so busy they hardly ever found the time to talk through their problems. Psychologist Dr Pat Spungin, a parenting expert, said a family should aim to spend at least 20 minutes at the table to help foster meaningful conversations […] Families need to spend significant time together to enjoy in-depth conversations and share their experiences, stories and worries. The survey by Heinz showed this time is being eroded - not just by TV but by mobile phones, games consoles and computers, said Dr Spungin. She added : “Conversation is the glue of family life. So when families do sit down at the table, it's important they make the most of the time. Talking through family issues is the key to family bonding”». This article is accompanied by a pair of “then” and “now” photographs : the first is captioned «Bonding : A typical scene from the Fifties. A family sits down to a meal and, in the absence of TVs and mobiles, talks through family issues with each other» and the second «Sullen and silent : Modern families take less and less time to chat with each other even without other distractions» (Attempting to re-check that the web page still existed on August 29 2011, failed to find it).

6  The expression is used here to refer to a chef/restaurateur who also appears on television either to present cookery demonstrations, a judge of cooking/baking competitions or as a pundit brought into discussions of food related issues of the day, publishes cookery books, who may also promote his own brand of industrially produced comestibles (e.g. pasta sauces, baby foods) who may mount campaigns on one or other aspect of contemporary food production/consumption and who almost invariably has their own website.

7  This too requires systematic enquiry: is it found elsewhere in Europe ? in Australasia ? and what about nations such as Thailand, Russia or South Africa ?

8 access checked October 9 2011.

9  This is in great contrast to a view expressed by a senior epidemiologist, director of a very well respected institute in a UK university medical school in a conversation with him in the early 1970s when I was starting to think about doing sociological research on conceptions of food and eating. It would be hard to forget the fervour, or more accurately ferocity, with which I found myself lectured about meals, even though I had not mentioned them. My research must not fail, he told me, to promote families eating together, as he and his family did every day without exception. Everyone had to take turns to report on their day and none of the children could get out of it. His tirade was energetic, repetitious and thereby prolonged. Indeed, it verged on the frightening – I was glad to leave his office and was tempted to feel very sorry for his children – so much so that the whole episode remains a particularly vivid memory.

10  I am grateful to Jean Michel Chaumont for drawing my attention to this point.

11  Nutritionists and public health specialists are also inclined to include enquiry about whether and how often young people eat with their families, and report that higher frequency is associated with better advised nutritional intake (e.g. Haapalahti M. et al., 2003). Quite why this rather than some other variables are included remains un-discussed.

12  The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is the UK public examination taken by 16 year olds.

13  The Telegraph June 26 2008: «Children perform better at school if parents impose traditional values in the home, Government research suggests. They are more likely to get five good GCSEs when parents insist on sharing family meals every night - and set regular evening curfews, figures show. Irrespective of social class, family “togetherness” was seen as one of the biggest bearings on success in the classroom […] Research published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families yesterday showed 16-year-olds were much more likely to stay on at school if they “get on” with parents. ‘There is a strong relationship between regularity of having a family evening meal and GCSE attainment’, it said. Researchers analysed the findings of two major reports tracking the progress of 19,000 schoolchildren. At the age of 14, pupils were asked how often they sat down for an evening meal with their family. According to the report, 50 per cent of those eating with mothers, fathers and siblings six or seven times a week gained eight or more A* to C grades, compared to 31 per cent of teenagers who never ate with families […]». And “(F)amily meals help pupils make grades, says study” (The Guardian, Friday June 27, 2008).

14  For an overview of the field see Mennell S., Murcott A., van Otterloo A., 1992.

15  Although a cross national study of Nordic countries records that family meals are part of ordinary daily eating (Holm L., 2001).

16  The same Nordic study report that family meals were more frequent among older people and also more frequent in households with children. Furthermore, couples with children were more likely to have family meals than single people with children (Kjaernes U., 2001).

17  It is striking that none of the three discuss definitions of the family meal, nor do they consider the manner in which it is to be operationalised for the purposes of research. In the process, the question of any distinctions to be made between researchers’ and respondents’ definitions of “family meal” is not raised. Similarly, the question as to whether the expression is peculiarly Anglophone nor and how far it translates into other languages is not mentioned (Murcott A., 2011).

18  The idea of moral panic has been invoked in respect of other food related phenomena, notably so-called “food scares”. But, as Macintyre et al. point out, doing so is unduly glib (Macintyre S. et al., 1998).

19  Certainly McRobbie and Thornton claim that folk devils are no longer reviled in the way they were when Cohen first published, and, as they add, many find support for their behaviour in sections of the mass media (never mind the emergence of micro media dedicated to publication of their viewpoint. McRobbie A., Thornton L., 1995). But support for any of those Wilk lists for not eating together has yet to be found in mass media coverage of changing eating patterns. Perhaps his catalogue needs closer empirical inspection : for at least some he mentions, notably same-sex couples, moves are increasing for them to be accorded the same status as heterosexual couples never mind those who have dependent children in a way increasingly to be thought of as unexceptional.

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Anne Murcott, « Lamenting the “Decline of the Family Meal” as a Moral Panic ? Methodological Reflections »Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques, 43-1 | 2012, 97-118.

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Anne Murcott, « Lamenting the “Decline of the Family Meal” as a Moral Panic ? Methodological Reflections »Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques [En ligne], 43-1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 11 mars 2013, consulté le 14 mai 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne Murcott

School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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