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Photo of Dr Celia Plender

Dr Celia Plender

Lecturer (Anthropology)

My work focuses on political-economic change in Britain through the lens of grassroots, community groups, engaging with themes of everyday politics, mutual aid and care. I have conducted long-term ethnographic fieldwork with urban, grassroots food co-ops to explore their everyday practices and responses to the changes taking place around them ranging from neoliberal reform to austerity and now covid-19. I am currently writing a monograph based on this research which is under contract with Berghahn Book’s Anthropology of Europe Series. My next research project will look comparatively at urban and rural food and housing insecurity to explore practices of collective care, coping strategies and self-valuation.

I am co-convenor of the Association of Social Anthropologists’ Anthropology of Britain Network with Jessica Fagin.

Research group links

Research interests

I engage with themes including: 

  • Social movements and community organising
  • Cooperatives and grassroots, alternative economic, political and food-based practices
  • Mutual aid, feminist ethics of care and collective coping strategies
  • Welfare reform, political-economic change and forms of insecurity
  • The politics of the everyday
  • The anthropology of food
  • The anthropology of Britain

My ESRC-funded PhD, Food Co-ops in Austerity Britain Negotiating Politics, Aid and Care in Changing Times, ethnographically explored the period of austerity in from the perspective of two retail food co-ops based in multicultural London, revealing how national politics came to punctuate everyday lives in Britain, informing practices of care, aid and community organising. Both food co-ops were born of different political periods – one started by anarchist squatters in the Thatcher era of the late 1980s, the other by an East End community centre in the New Labour years. Inevitably, these histories, accompanying organisational structures and ideologies informed each co-op’s daily practices and responses to the changes taking place around them. By engaging with the moral and social orders that constitute each food co-op, the research questioned the very nature of the cooperative, highlighting how contexts of neoliberalism and austerity can influence its politics and its form. I am currently writing a monograph based on the PhD which is under contract with Berghahn Books. The monograph puts forward a theory of everyday politics built on anarchist and feminist conceptions of political action. This is attentive to the practices of collectivity, care, and mutual aid whose politics have been drawn into sharper focus as a consequence of austerity.

My current project Collective Care in Insecure Times: A Rural, Urban Comparison, builds on this concern with grassroots experiences of political-economic change to document the uneven impacts that long-term welfare reform, austerity and the coronavirus pandemic are having on individual lives in Britain, through the lens of food and housing insecurity. Using an intersectional perspective, it engages with community food and housing groups in multicultural, urban London and the rural South West. It explores the complex dynamics of rural and urban poverty and the forms of stigma that these can create, along with the role of collective care, support and solidarity in coping strategies and self-valuation in the face of insecurity.

I have previously worked on research projects including An Oral History of Neal’s Yard, which I devised with a colleague at SOAS (Dr Mukta Das) to contribute to the University of Sheffield’s European Research Council-funded project Food Futures. We conducted life-history approach oral history interviews with producers, customers and staff of the artisanal cheesemonger Neal’s Yard Dairy in order to better understand its changing social practices and ethos. The oral history recordings are publicly available at the British Library; and A Study of St. Sidwell’s Community Centre, which was an engaged research project designed to provide data for St. Sidwell’s Community Centre on centre usage. I have also worked as project administrator for the ESRC-funded project Identity, Belonging and the Role of the Media in Brexit Britain.
 

Research supervision

I am interested in second supervising PhD projects relating to any of my research areas. 

External impact and engagement

Forum member for the Women's Environmental Netowork's Just FACT project.

Trustee St Sidwell's Community Centre, Exeter.

Coordinator for Food on Film at the Exeter Phoenix.

Neal's Yard Dairy Stories – An Oral History Project

Biography

Following completion of a language degree at the university of Manchester in 2002, I trained as a chef. I worked in catering for several years, including working in the events catering team at the Tate Art Galleries in London, and a period in a traditional Japanese restaurant in Tokyo. After returning to the UK in 2007, I transitioned into food writing and restaurant criticism with a specialism in Japanese cuisine, including several years working on the food & drink section of Time Out London Magazine.

I returned to education in 2012 to study for a part-time Masters in the Anthropology of Food at SOAS, University of London. I then went on to an ESRC-funded Masters in Anthropological Research Methods and PhD in Social Anthropology, which I completed in 2019. Since then, I have held an ESRC postdoctoral fellowship & various fixed-term lecturer contracts at Exeter, and in January 2022 I started a permanent lectureship in the sociology of food and agriculture.

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