Food, obesity and families: Practices relating to food and body weight in Irish families
Dr. Suzanne Harkins
This 1-year IRCHSS project is designed to facilitate the preparation of my doctoral dissertation for publication. The fellowship provides an opportunity to maximise the impact of my research findings in terms of academic publishing, as well as disseminating the findings for wider benefit, on the topics of healthy eating, obesity and healthy body weight management in Ireland and more broadly.
Dr. Suzanne Harkins
This 1-year The Irish Research Council project is designed to facilitate the preparation of my doctoral dissertation for publication. The fellowship provides an opportunity to maximise the impact of my research findings in terms of academic publishing, as well as disseminating the findings for wider benefit, on the topics of healthy eating, obesity and healthy body weight management in Ireland and more broadly.
This project is an empirical, sociological investigation of food, ‘healthy eating’ and body weight practices in Irish families with young children. The research was formulated and undertaken in the context of the state and media attention to obesity in mid-2000s Irish society. Recent research, for example from the Growing Up in Ireland study, suggests that this topic remains an important social research issue. The The Irish Research Council fellowship supports my already-existing research to create its maximum impact.
The project’s overall aim is to examine family food and body weight practices from the perspectives of multiple family members (mothers, fathers and children) and to understand how ‘healthy eating’, body weight management and obesity are understood within the context of everyday family life. To address an under-researched group in Irish society with regard to the topic, this study was focused on middle-class families with a child aged 6-8.
The project’s specific research aims were as follows:
- To explore family food practices, and potential differences in these between households, in a sample of middle-class Irish families with young children;
- To investigate lay understandings of body weight and obesity within family food practices and consider if and how they are related to medicalised understandings of body weight and obesity; and
- To examine lay understandings of ‘healthy eating’, body weight and obesity in family food practices and investigate if and how they may be related.
To investigate the research aims, a qualitatively-driven mixed methods research design was used. This involved the qualitative analysis of semi-structured interviews undertaken with children age 6-8 as well as their parents and siblings. A small number of teachers were also interviewed to develop the context of the role of food, eating and body weight in school environments. This qualitative work was supplemented by structured food diaries and questionnaires for sampling purposes.
In line with the research aims, the full thesis examines: (1) the social organisation of family food practices; (2) how the participants constructed ‘healthy eating’ both at home and in school; (3) the meaning of obesity and body weight in the context of everyday family realities, and the participants’ constructions of meaning concerning the relationships between body weight, obesity and food practices.
The The Irish Research Council fellowship supports the development of a series of journal articles from the research. Although the thesis covers multiple aspects of the research topic in more detail, the four specific themes to be developed for publication are outlined below.
- The meaning of food in middle class family practices
A tripartite family food typology was developed from the analysis of the family food diaries and interviews. The typology is based on organisational characteristics of the family food practices, the types of meals consumed by the families, and the structured ‘key influences’ reported by project participants. Analysis of the households’ food-related labour suggests that although some men contributed to household food activities, the division of food-related labour was highly gendered with women undertaking the large majority of food work. The typology is therefore based on how household labour was organised and, most importantly, how the women constructed the meaning and significance of food within everyday family food practices. There was substantial variation related to the meaning of food within family life, with food and eating playing different roles as a chore, a duty or a hobby.
- Middle class experiences of obesity as a social problem
This publication will explore how obesity was – or was not – characterised as a social problem by the participating families. Food, nutrition and body weight have frequently been framed as social problems, however most sociological analyses of social problems focus on how problems are constructed by claimsmakers (e.g., biomedical scientists) rather than the everyday experiences of individuals which contribute to the understanding of a social problem within the realities of everyday life. This paper focuses on the everyday activities involved in the recognition, identification and definition of obesity and/or problematic weights amongst family members. This includes examining how the participants evaluate bodies and limitations to qualitatively researching ‘obesity’ as it is defined biomedically.
- Parents’ views on obesity and body weight practices in middle class Irish families
This paper examines if and how body weight was managed as a social problem in the interactive practices reported between parents and children in the parents’ accounts. It explores how the body weights of individual adults and children are ‘talked about’ and managed within everyday family practices, with a particular focus on the management and monitoring of children’s body weight. As issues related to body weight were constructed by parents as a highly dangerous topic, this paper reviews the strategies and activities used by parents to manage their children’s physical body weight and associated mental health.
- Social class, nutrition and obesity in Ireland
The final theme being developed for publication is based on a review of the relationship between biomedically-defined obesity and social class in Ireland. This paper will: (1) review relevant anthropometric data; and (2) consider multiple approaches to the study of nutrition and inequalities, including how attention to the social distribution of taste could supplement and inform the current Irish policy focus on health inequalities.