When it came to sitting down with friends for lunch or dinner, just as it did in the world at large, COVID-19 set a new set of rules in dining halls and restaurants at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Limited number of diners per table. Face masks pulled down to eat then slid back up between bites. Social distancing when possible.
Eating together is important to forming social bonds and instilling a sense of camaraderie, so what happens when it disappears?
Tyler White wondered. Was there a sense of loss because sharing meals was harder if not impossible? Did they feel isolated or disconnected?
White spent fall and spring semesters studying the subject through Zoom interviews, conversations, surveys and a personal journal of his own. The results were presented at the end of spring semester as part of the two connected courses “Ethnographic Methods” and “Anthropology Research Seminar.”
“Yes there was a feeling of loss,” White said. “A lot of the people I interviewed mentioned that they thought that eating together was important, or that they missed doing that.”
But not as much as you’d think, he said. They simply made adjustments.
“The main thing I found is that students still carry on social lives and eat socially, but they become much more careful and selective with who they eat with, how they decide to do it and where they decide to do it,” said White, a junior in anthropology.
“With the people I interviewed who did still eat socially, they usually kept it to small gatherings with close friends or family members.”
Ethnographic studies, the primary research strategy used by cultural anthropologists, involve a deep dive into a culture and its people. That means often living with them for extended periods of time, forming relationships, experiencing and participating in their daily lives, discovering their beliefs and practices.
“An underpinning idea here is that, to understand peoples’ worldview and cultural beliefs in a rigorous way, you have to immerse yourself in their world,” said Emma McDonell, visiting assistant professor in anthropology and instructor for both ethnographic studies courses.
“Many times, a cultural practice of belief that seems strange and ‘exotic’ from afar begins to make sense once you’ve actually lived in the world where this logic makes sense,” she said.
COVID chunked all the usual techniques out the window, so the seven students in McDonell’s two courses had to figure out new ways to conduct research.
“You can’t really walk up to strangers in the way that you used to be able to and propose, ‘Hey, can I conduct an interview with you? Would you mind if I, you know, hung out with you as you go about X or Y cultural practice?’” she explained.
“Choosing their topics was one of the key challenges of the pandemic because they were more limited to their existing social networks, at least as a starting point.”
Most of the students kept their research at UTC, examining the various cultures on campus such as students in religious groups, those who had shifted from in-class to nothing but online classes, the experiences of freshmen and the social aspects of eating that White studied. Their overarching focus was on how students in general adapted to changes brought on by COVID-19.
“In some sense, this was a huge challenge,” McDonell said. “On the other hand, it also was a really interesting and important opportunity because, effectively, everything that the students studied—how the pandemic had changed people’s social lives and cultural practices and even beliefs—was going to be brand-new research.”
White, who lives in Johnson-Obear Apartments, said about half the students he interviewed still ate on campus and also left campus to eat. In both cases, most wore face masks and practiced social distancing when possible, he said.
But there also was a distinct trend for students to retreat into the safety of their own social group, making sure they knew the people before hanging out with them, he said.
“I have one person say that occasionally they’d have movie nights. Get a few friends together, bring a few snacks and drinks. They were comfortable with letting five or six friends in such close proximity. They knew to take this pandemic as seriously as they did,” said White, who also works at Dippers Chicken in West Campus housing.
“I saw people still meeting up while I was eating in the U.C. or while I was at work. Group sizes were generally smaller, but there were still a few big groups.”
In general, people also would carefully choose where and when they got together with others, he said.
“Very few went to restaurants. Most of the time it was theirs or another person’s house, eating with people they felt they knew,” he said.
Perhaps the most common feeling, though, was the acute need for the social interaction, said White, who feels the same way, as do his friends.
“We talked some about stuff we would do once it was safe to meet in-person again, like bringing food to a meeting or going out again.”