Yesterday I presented my research project to fellow PhD students at the annual Postgraduate Research Conference held by the Faculty of Economics, Social Sciences and Law. Although I haven’t yet collected empirical data – just had the first fieldwork trip a couple of days ago – I felt like sharing my theoretical framework and conceptual approach to ethical consumption would prove useful and generate some new insights. I have spent a couple of weeks reflecting on, designing and fine-tuning the presentation – vast amounts of theoretical material that stand behind my project meant hard cuts and choices had to be made to make the talk fit into the allocated 20 minutes – and for some time, my constant frustration about being able to only learn a small part of what there is to be learnt gave way to the overwhelming annoyance about being constrained to only tell a small part of what I actually could and would like to tell.
Due to academic restrictions, I can’t share my presentation here (although I would certainly like to), and I can’t reproduce the content of it in details, but what I can and want to do is to share and reflect on some of the questions raised and points made by the audience in response to my talk. To give you a little bit of context – in my presentation I tried to:
– briefly guide the audience through the history of environmentalism to show how environmental problems became linked with consumption
– highlight some of the key questions raised, theoretical approaches taken and gaps still unfilled in the literature on ethical shopping
– and, finally, by introducing my key concepts and knitting them together in one theory, present my approach to ethical consumption.
To my own surprise, I managed to cover everything I planned to, although slightly overrun my allocated time leaving meagre 7 minutes for q&a (instead of equally meagre 10). I was delighted to see that my presentation generated certain interest among the audience – I immediately got a couple of questions and more were coming, but, unfortunately, the conference was drawing to an end. Two key questions raised concerned two aspects: the difficulty of defining and working with the concept of identity, and the relationships between consumer demographics and my sampling strategy. I’ll start with the second point as this is something I feel I will have to respond to during the entire course of my PhD and, possibly (and hopefully) after, if my research proves worthy of publishing and further dissemination.
So the concern that my project seems to raise is that it only deals with elite consumers (those who have resources for and access to ethical products) and excludes less well-off groups who may be equally willing to engage in ethical consumption, but lacking resources of various sorts (money, time, access) to do so. While I acknowledge that this is a perfectly valid argument, I’d like to emphasise that I do not intend to do a comparative study of ethical versus “unethical” consumers, and by no means do I claim that the lack of engagement in ethical shopping should/must be attributed to individuals’ immoral, wicked and unscrupulous nature. What my project does intend to do is to explore and understand the relationships between ethical food consumption and consumers’ self- and social image, and the only way of doing this – it seems to me – is by talking to those who do engage in this kind of shopping behaviour. Information-rich cases, as Patton (2002) defines them, is what guides my sampling strategy, even though to the exclusion of certain groups. But let’s be honest, isn’t every research inevitably exclusive of someone and something? It seems to me that it is, and the primary concern is to justify and be clear about the boundaries you draw around the project and the choices (often hard!) you make in the course of it.
The other question concerned people’s identities and the challenges of defining what an identity is in the first place. Although in my research I place an explicit focus on consumers’ personal (understood as a matter of self-description, i.e. what we think we are and, importantly, what we would like to be (Barker, 2003)) and social (which is about social ascription – expectations and opinions that other people hold in relation to us (Barker, 2003)) identity, the question encouraged me to think about other dimensions, such as professional or family identity, that people may bring to their food consumption practices, and I will certainly look for the signs of this as I carry on with my fieldwork.
All in all, the conference offered a great opportunity for knowledge exchange, sharing of ideas and networking. It’s also been a good presentation exercise before my first big international academic performance at the Foodscapes Conference in May.
Barker, C. (2003). Cultural studies: Theory and practice. Sage
Quinn, P. M. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods. California EU: Sage Publications Inc.