The Slow Food Movement: A Sociological Perspective

BlogHeader_SlowFood_11This week I retain the focus on social movements aiming to create and promote alternative food networks, practices and environments. By looking at the Slow Food International as one specific example of such movements, I want to critically examine the non-conformist nature and transformative potential of alternative agri-food initiatives. To this end, I have engaged with some academic literature to see how sociologists and economists of consumption unravel the interplay between the different forces that unconventional food movements purport to exert as well as those they are themselves moulded by.

While the Slow Food is generally praised for advocating the return to traditional values of communal cooking and eating and promoting the vision of food as an embodiment of intangible cultural heritage to be recognised, safe-guarded and conserved for successive generations, the movement’s real effectiveness is consistently questioned. So, while Jones et al. (2003) note that the Slow Food is undoubtedly tapping into the recent consumer trends towards environmental protection, respect for biodiversity and sustainable development, the authors are explicitly sceptical of the organisation’s far-reaching promise to induce significant changes in the world’s eating habits or challenge the dominant power of the fast food industry and culture. While Jones and colleagues are concerned with the practical ability of the Slow Food to achieve its ambitious objectives, Pietrykowski (2004) is interested in its potential to create cultural and social capital. He readily acknowledges that the movement is vulnerable to considerable criticisms:

–       it is claimed to promote elitist ideology by focusing on aesthetic, sensory and symbolic value of food over its material worth thereby privileging a highly educated consumer with sophisticated palate and substantial cultural and economic capital;

–       by concentrating on the pleasures of eating, the movement neglects gender imbalances involved in the preparation of food and related household labour;

–       by focusing on small batch handcrafted foods, it risks to limit the idea of food authenticity to ultra-premium goods, artisanal production and peasant economies.

Yet, Pietrykowski goes on to dispute the criticisms by claiming that the movement successfully combines the promotion of cultural capital, admittedly associated with high tastes, elitism, status assertion and conspicuous consumption, with socially and environmentally oriented goals such as preservation of biodiversity, promotion of sustainable agricultural practices, and revival of community networks. It is this infusion of the Slow Food’s cultural ideology with explicitly political objectives that transforms the movement into something more than just the preserve of food connoisseurs with sophisticated palates and wealth. Moreover, Slow Food generates social capital which resists commodification by promoting communal eating and creating agri-food networks that rest on the values of trust, loyalty as well as open knowledge about food and production processes. As Pietrykowski argues, within the Slow Food’s ideology, “the pleasures of the table become form of resistance to corporate, standardised, mass-produced foods” (p. 318). However, Nosi and Zanni (2004) point to the inherent contradictions of the Slow Food’s widely promoted ideology of anti-globalisation. They offer an interpretation of the movement as a manifestation of a post-fordist consumption paradigm, which is characterised by the following features:

– a move away from standardised and uniform commodities towards highly differentiated goods;

– growing emphasis on credence attributes and – concomitantly – increased role of information and knowledge in guiding consumer decisions

– rising importance of symbolic and identity value of products as opposed to their material worth.

With its distinct focus on TFP, or typical food products (unique foods with high historical and cultural value tied to their specific territory of origin and/or production, such as French cheeses, Chilean vine, etc.), the Slow Food Movement can indeed be seen as part of such post-fordist framework. Local artisan foods are presented as an embodiment of uniqueness, authenticity, immaterial culture and everything anti-global which is reflective of the Slow Food’s general self-positioning against globalisation and its accompanying effects of commodification of goods, homogenization of food cultures and standardization of dietary habits and tastes. However, as Nosi and Zanni observe, it is precisely these unwanted globalisation effects that give the movement its competitive advantage and appeal. It is the dominance of industrial mass production of foods that opens up a strategic opportunity for successful marketing of locally produced unique products with distinctive intangible qualities and values. The argument about hidden contradictions involved in the Slow Food’s activity can be extended to its well established online presence and impressive use of social media to reach new audiences worldwide. Thus, there is a clear misfit between the Slow Food’s heavily promoted anti-globalisation image and the organisation’s reliance on the most recent communication technologies and tools to get its message across as widely and at a speed as high as the globalisation allows. Thus, the success of the Slow Food Movement is dependent on the very same processes, forces and trends that it claims to oppose and subvert*.

Thus, while alternative food initiatives purport to induce commendable social, cultural and practical changes in our current food environments, their real transformative potential needs to be more critically examined and assessed.

Notes

* While I focused on alternative agri-food movements and the Slow Food as one particular example thereof, the above arguments can be justly applied to many other social movements taking up the “anti-globalisation” banner. 

References

Jones, P., Shears, P., Hillier, D., Comfort, D., & Lowell, J. (2003). Return to traditional values? A case study of Slow Food. British Food Journal105(4/5), 297-304.

Nosi, C., & Zanni, L. (2004). Moving from “typical products” to “food-related services”: The Slow Food case as a new business paradigm. British Food Journal106(10/11), 779-792.

Pietrykowski, B. (2004). You are what you eat: the social economy of the slow food movement. Review of social economy62(3), 307-321.

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