Hall of mirrors: do college dinners circulate class along with the port?

Organisational scholars probe the world of gowns and high table for clues. Matthew Reisz reports

May 5, 2011

The system of "formal hall", in which university students dress up in gowns to be served by waiters and learn which way to pass the port, plays a central role in "the maintenance of the British class system", according to a study conducted by academics at the University of Cambridge.

Kamal Munir, reader in strategy and policy at Cambridge's Judge Business School, said he vividly recalled the first time he was invited to dinner in hall.

"The whole thing blew me away - with only candlelight, and the master saying grace," he said.

For a study that led to a paper published in a recent issue of the Academy of Management Journal, titled "Formal dining at Cambridge colleges: linking ritual performance and institutional maintenance", Dr Munir joined forces with Paul Tracey, reader in human resources and organisations at Cambridge, and Tina Dacin, E. Marie Shantz professor of strategy and organisational behaviour at Queen's University in Canada.

At the outset, the paper says, the academics believed that such rituals were just "hangovers from the past...that served no other purpose than to keep alive an artificial sense of grandeur".

Yet as they carried out interviews with Fellows, students, staff and alumni, in addition to observing formal college dinners in action, they came to rather different conclusions.

Dining, they write, acts as "a kind of social drama that seduces college members into conforming to the norms and values of the ritual" - and those values include class "roles and boundaries".

One student interviewed for the study recalled being told by a head waiter at his college: "Getting up and smoking in between courses is for peasants."

Even more significant, the paper's authors contend, is the role that formal dining plays in "demystifying the upper echelons of the class system, providing cultural knowledge about how to behave and interact with members of the establishment".

A City lawyer recalling his days as a Cambridge undergraduate offered an idea of how that process works.

"If you were invited to high table you could in theory end up sitting next to a Nobel laureate," he is quoted as saying.

"You learn not to be silent...not to be awestruck, but also not to be obsequious. You're pretending that you're at the same level, but at the same time subtly signalling how important they are."

Dr Munir said he was "against the class system and I don't believe people should be evaluated on how they dress or speak".

But he also feels that formal dining "has a lot of positive aspects". He added: "I would retain it even if I were opening my own university tomorrow.

"It is good to bring people from different disciplines together to bond over dinner. The level of conversation is very high. I would want to cut back on waiters and butlers, but try to retain the positive aspects," Dr Munir said.


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