Thursday, 13 December 2012

On tea, and what is normal

Posted by Heather Yoeli

There were two things which drew me to Northumbria University in seeking a Fuse studentship. The first was the refreshingly sociological and social justice based ethos within the health improvement focus of public health within the department. The second was the invigorating friendliness of its Coach Lane East canteen staff. And I’m writing this not to ingratiate myself to my supervisor nor wrangle another cuppa off my Go Catering loyalty card. I’m going somewhere with this, I promise…

One of the greatest contributions which the social sciences have made to the practice of health care has been their critique of fixed notions of norms and deviance. Whereas both conventional biomedicine and the biopsychosocial model assert the existence of an objective, positivist distinction between normality as healthy and abnormality as pathological or deviant, the social sciences tend to adhere to the structuralist or poststructuralist view that what constitutes the ‘normal’ is merely a social construction and thereby likely to change in response to a number of social, cultural or economic processes.

Nevertheless, it is my observation that academics from a range of disciplines of social sciences and health studying and working at a range of institutions possess a disturbing tendency to overlook this vital insight whilst operating a crucial instrument of research equipment: namely, the kettle. Even amongst academics with a resolute and impassioned commitment to language and terminology that is respectful, empowering, enlightened and anti-oppressive, there exists a tendency to express a preference for ‘normal tea’ (or sometimes ‘ordinary tea’). I would even contend that, were tea leaves to possess sufficient consciousness to comprehend the concept of prejudice, such a careless deployment of language would leave bags of Assam, Ceylon, Darjeeling, Earl Grey, green teas, redbush, peppermint, camomile, ginger, rosehip, lemon and numerous other blends feeling seriously discriminated against.

Certainly, such an unreflexively-assumed norm accords very closely with the way in which the UK beverage industry regards tea. Whereas Twinings and Clipper sell ‘English breakfast tea’ and Twinings also sells a cheaper ‘Everyday tea’, all other leading brands (Typhoo, Tetley, PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea, Cafedirect) simply market their product as ‘tea’. It is with Tesco own-brand basic of ‘Quality tea’ that the semiotics of this becomes clearest. However, I’d argue that social researchers possess a responsibility not to allow their attitudes to be determined by the global multinationals in control of the marketing industry. Peppermint tea must not be relegated to the deviant or abnormal.

The idea that the language we are given to use will insidiously determine our thoughts and attitudes is generally attributed to the polemic and scare-mongering of the literature of George Orwell. However, the idea has a rigorous and respected evidence base established through the ‘linguistic relativity’ research of Sapir and Whorf and more recently developed by Lakoff and Fairclough. Therefore, if academics within the social sciences can be manipulated by the tea manufacturers into talking about ‘normal tea’, it may only be a matter of time before they revert once more to talking about ‘normal people’. 

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