Natacha Chevalier is a first year PhD student of Contemporary History. Here she describes her research that focuses on World War II and the effects of food shortages on food habits and consumption and makes use of the Mass Observation Archive.
This research is mainly the result of curiosity and the frustration to not get answers. When I was doing my BA’s final dissertation on rationing during the WWII I found lots of information, but often through statistics and mostly about the poorest part of the society. This information was precious, but still did not tell me what kind of foods people really put on their table. Besides, I was interested in people “in the middle”: neither poor nor rich. What had a secretary or a teacher for breakfast when eggs were so scarce or for tea-time when tea, butter and jam were rationed for instance?
Thanks to Mass Observation Archives I can now try to find out answers to my questions through the organisation’s surveys, reports and respondent’s diaries. These diaries are essential to my research as they tell about the daily life and wartime experience of people mostly from middle-classes. The information they contain should allow me to get a view “from the inside” and add some humanity, and everyday life reality, to statistics.
The main area of my research is contemporary and social history, but sociology is important too as the social-class membership is deeply involved in people’s food habits, tastes, beliefs and perception. Human beings have a special relationship with foods. “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are” to quote the French gastronome Brillat-Savarin is quite right and the social (and emotional) factor must be taken into account when working on food matters. Consequently I use both history and sociology methodology to approach and to understand my sources and my results.