Food knowledge in migratory bodies: an embodied approach to taste/smell memories through time and space.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Sociology, Philosophy, Anthropology


I propose that food is a medium through which migrant stories may be carried within the body when all else is left behind, and through which cultural knowledge may be reproduced and networks created in new contexts. I ask: 1) How might commensal food practices facilitate positive responses to immigration both for migrants and members of the resident community? I explore this through the following sub-questions: a) What is food knowledge and where does it reside? b) What can an embodied approach tell us about the role of sensory taste/smell memory in the creation of food identities?

My investigation focuses on the body. It is the physical instrument through which the sensory aspects of food are perceived and the repository of food memories which inform our autobiographical food 'selves.' As individual bodies we are situated within social groups in which commensal food practices are negotiated. Thomas Csordas' theory of embodiment proposes that sense of self resides in the body; it is created when sensory inputs from the external world are made sense of in relation to past experiences and existing cultural knowledge. Following this line of argument, I suggest that the sensory qualities of food transmitted to the body are stored within it as taste/smell memories. Eating experiences are thus subjectively understood and shape our individual food identities.

Migrant memoirs attest to the capacity of food to act as a powerful marker of identity. The eating and preparation of the 'food of home' is not only a means of practising one's cultural identity, but also of seeking comfort - a way to repair spatial and temporal ruptures. For migrants in exile, smelling/tasting food from home counters tendencies towards psychological fragmentation by momentarily allowing the eater to return to the 'whole' world of sensory memories associated with that morsel. Taking a phenomenological approach, I consider the extent to which migrant food knowledge resides in the body, investigating how this knowledge is reproduced in new contexts, and what positive outcomes may be gained from this.

Bourdieu's concept of habitus proposes that we hold knowledge within ourselves as bodily 'dispositions' which orient us towards the world and inform how we interact with it. When migrants project their food identities onto the world in a new context, they enact new food practices. I will explore how migrants access different forms of food knowledge through provisioning, cooking, remembering, talking, and eating together, as they negotiate the interplay between their internal and external food worlds. Theories of commensality suggest that by consuming the same food substance, eating together makes commensals alike, producing bonding between them. This research considers whether bringing migrants and members of resident communities together to share food practices can create spaces of mutual knowing and understanding. I will test the potential of commensality to enable timely and creative ways of navigating difference across cultural and linguistic boundaries.

I propose redefining the scope of 'olfactory ethnography' to apply it to taste and smell in food research. Smells (and therefore taste/smell memories) are only evoked in the presence of a stimuli. Developing innovative sensory methodologies will allow me to access conscious and unconscious forms of food knowledge through direct sensory engagement with food. Undertaking research in dynamic contexts, e.g. walking, talking, trying and tasting while moving through food environments, such as a market, or cooking/eating) aims to elicit responses of the body in situ, as participants touch, see, hear, taste and smell material food products.

Following ethical clearance, I will undertake ethnographic fieldwork over 12 months in collaboration with Migrateful.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2414091 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2020 30/09/2024 Anna Theresa Seecharan