At the (Dinner) Table: Cultural Creation is a Lever for Social Change

By Souhail Arfaoui

Culture encompasses all ways of legitimising the existence of the human race; this allows the emergence of a classificatory category in society. Culture by definition encloses all knowledge, traditions and customs of a social community; manifesting in the different structures: theological, social, ethical, culinary and aesthetic. Social class is defined as a group or community that has its own values ​​and cultures, through which it identifies itself within the social scale which, in turn, legitimates its existence as a system.

This is manifested, for example, within table manners, where we notice a translation of a class conflict—seen through the behaviours, values ​​and culinary habits at the dinner table. Cultural capital is based on the vision of socialisation, a process in which the individual forms part of the acquired social and cultural social practices and dispositions of a given social milieu. The notion of culture is strongly linked to symbolisation—where symbols enter into conflict.

In each culture there is a symbolic language which, manifesting in table rituals, relates to traditions and customs; this is called the art of the table that determines the culture. The art of the table determines a vision of the world and marks the conviviality and pleasure of existing; the exchange of dishes is an exchange of culture. The table is filled with symbols—for example, people who live alone tend to buy round tables because they symbolise conviviality. The relationship of the table to conviviality is also evident in the circulation of dishes and especially of the word; if speech does not circulate, there is no cultural act. The interaction is not only at the social level but also at the cultural level; in exchanging dishes and words, we exchange culture. The art of the table’s principle of the evolution of culture is a recognition and ritualisation of a culture that is different from others; in this way, it can also be a manifestation of social exclusion.

Table preparation is a ritualisation of the culture that characterises society and distinguishes it. Distinction through the table arts can determine and classify the culture. Through the search for meaning and the need to preserve the culture, which is the principle movement of history, the individual calls for conviviality with other individuals, other cultures, other codes and other customs. Each culture includes codes or a ritualisation of norms, usually injected into socialisation, where there is the inculcation of culture from childhood, so we can talk about the ritualisation of culture as dictated by codes and norms that refer to standards and socialisation instilled by previous generations. Standards and attitudes are symbolised in all of our practices, in the way we speak, eat and gesture at the table.

This ritualisation of culture obscures the sanctity of the practices and rites, which are transmitted from generation to generation. These are reflected in the behaviours from which one speaks of the somatisation of the culture, which itself shows the domination of one culture over another. In each social class, there resides a cultural capital that is determinant of the position of that culture in society and its domination over others, and which thus forms the classificatory resource of society.

Souhail has a Masters degree in Human Sciences, specialising in Education and Culture Development, at the Higher Institute of Human Sciences of Tunis. He is also a researcher and investigator in Social Science; a consultant at a consulting office; a researcher at the Middle East Democracy Project; and a writer at NEWS @ 24 (an online NEWS Educational Initiative of international organisation CCLP Worldwide, which has special consultative status with the UN ECOSOC).

Featured image by Christopher Michel via flickr


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