Portrait of Bernardine (Bee) Farrell

Bernardine (Bee) Farrell

PhD student
Social Anthropology


Pandemic Kitchens: A study of commensality in the digital age

Through the lens of commensality – particularly its social role of nurturing health and wellbeing – my fieldwork was framed by the absence of extra-domestic activity. For many months during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic (2020-2022) the public-facing food sector shut down due to social distancing measures and so cooking and eating was done solely in the home, intra-domesticity. What started as an exploration of hybridised spaces of food and togetherness, using digital and sensory ethnographic methods, expanded to consider the ramifications of solo-eating; the impact on wellbeing by the 2D abstraction and objectification of food and, the professional chef identity crisis when there was no possibility of work.

My focus group of professional chef educators felt the financial vulnerability and social loss of being unable to work in physical spaces with their students and so like thousands of others turned to virtual cooking lessons via Zoom video platform. Shaped by the architecture of algorithms and machine intelligence, the virtualised kitchen space of a promised togetherness began with enthusiasm but over the extended time of the pandemic grew weary. In that weariness the rupture of the pandemic actually revealed we are ‘alone together’ (Turkle, S., 2011), however much the video conference platform companies tell us otherwise. The choice of something so sensorial and biologically profound – cooking and eating together – set within the sterile and efficient digital space was like two worlds colliding. And in that collision society’s hidden pandemics of loneliness and vulnerability were observed and talked about. From my autoethnographic studies, thematic and diary-style interviews with the chef educators, observations of 50 online cooking group lessons, online food workshops, presentations, illustrations and articles I gained unexpected insights.

Because of its visible absence what I extrapolated from the intensity of conducting fieldwork during a pandemic was the need for public facing physical displays of togetherness – such as extra-domestic commensality. And that the tethered-ness of internetworked communities of affinity distort or mask the vitalness of physical togetherness founded upon the mutualised workings of the sensorium—the internalised bank of senses and memory. The transformation of physical and relational activity into the virtual space revealed digital wayfaring; hierarchies of control through software design features; a new digital lexicon;  blurredness of time; the tensions of asynchronous interaction; human-machine synthesis and how the physical absence of togetherness impacted on mental health and wellbeing. I intend that the research will show how anthropology can interpret and understand digital society and contribute to mental and social healthcare transformation.

2022: Panel Convenor 2022: Royal Anthropological Institute: ‘Anthropology, AI and the Future of Human Society', online  

2021: Independent researcher, project manager and author of highly commended Wolfson Economics prize | Caring Collective: The Future of Health & Wellbeing  

2020: 'Virtualising our Mouths: The Sensorium and Instagram Imagery', The International Journal of Food design 

2020-2022 Research Associate| British Academy Special Research Grants: Covid-19 Making-Unmaking-Remaking Home in Lockdown


Vice Chancellor Research Scholarship  


Professor Dimitrios Theodossopoulos 
Dr Anna Waldstein 
Professor Michael Fischer

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