This week I gained an invaluable insight into the inner workings of the American academia. The Department of Rural Sociology is looking to fill the position in Bioethics for Food Protection & Environmental Sustainability, and I had a chance to get closely acquainted with the faculty search and hiring procedures at Penn State which is nothing like I have ever seen before. Performed be a specially convened search committee, a multi-step process of applicant assessment involves (besides a series of meetings with different faculty members, students, and community groups, classroom teachings, etc.) a so-called job talk – a presentation of the candidate’s research to prospective employers. I could not miss the chance to attend this event not only due to a desire to observe the candidate selection process, but also because the topic of the talk spoke directly to my research interests.
Entitled “Concealing Controversy: How Producers, Consumers, and the Mass Media Distance Food Ethics from Everyday Life”, the presentation was a review of the candidate’s PhD research exploring the factors that contribute to the distancing of food ethics from people’s day-to-day consumption choices and practices. The study singled out and analysed three major factors: political-economic context, social practices and routines, and the mass media, each having a role to play in preventing consumers from developing the sense of food ethics. Thus, agro-food industry was claimed to not only be responsible for the temporal-spatial isolation of consumers from food production, but also for exacerbating social and environmental inequalities through air and water pollution, labour exploitation, increased public health costs of poor diets, dishonest advertising and marketing, etc. Next, social practices and routines were indicated as playing a vital role in the perpetual reproduction of population consumption patterns and reification of the norms surrounding eating choices and behaviours. The concept of legitimacy was used to explain how, by continuously engaging in commonly shared and agreed upon consumption practices, individuals contribute to their legitimisation thus inhibiting the emergence of ethical considerations. Furthermore, consumers were argued to be responsible for the cognitive-affective distancing of food ethics from their consumption routines by staying deliberately oblivious to the ethical, social and environmental problems enmeshed in food production (in my research, such consumer attitude is called intentional ignorance – a quite useful and eloquent term which I owe to one of my research participants) public efforts to evict slaughterhouses further afield was mentioned as a telling example. Finally, mass media was shown to further broaden the gap between the daily lives of consumers and food ethics. The discourse analysis of beef-related stories (the project focused on meat as the locus of various ethical issues) that have appeared in the US second largest newspaper, New York Times, over the last several years has shown the coverage to be dominated by mundane concerns such as cooking, economy, and nutrition – much to the detriment of ethics-related themes. Overall, the key conclusion of the study was that producers, mass media and, most importantly, consumers themselves actively contribute to the alienation of the sense of food ethics from our daily lives.
The talk left me with a lot of unanswered questions. The idea of consumers as active and even willing participants in the process of the distancing of ethical considerations from our day-to-day consumption practices is refreshing given that the food industry has for a long time been singled out as the main culprit for decontextualisation of food and turning products into what Claude Fischler (1979) called “unidentified edible objects”. The argument that cultural amnesia – to use Wendell Berry’s (1992) term – that makes consumers ignorant of the history and origins of their food is a diagnosis that most people are comfortable, and in fact, prefer to be living with is in many ways compelling. Yet, I feel like there is a lot that would need to be accommodated within this picture. In each of the three domains cited as the areas where active and deliberate concealment of food ethics occurs, there are trends and phenomena that at least have the potential to undermine the supposedly ongoing conspiracy against our sense of food ethics. Thus, despite the industry’s active role in drawing a veil over the conditions of food production, the amount and variety of ethical labels and claims that the products increasingly come with suggests that companies recognise and attempt to speak to the growing trends towards more mindful consumption. As far as the social practices are concerned, although conventional ways of food provisioning and traditional eating behaviours are, undoubtedly, dominate overall population consumption patterns, the sociocultural significance of alternative food movements such as vegetarianism, veganism, and, more lately, freeganism should also be acknowledged. These food practices, completely alien to the general public discourse several decades ago, are now increasingly recognised and accumulating the potential to challenge the dominant social norms around what it is acceptable to eat. Finally, as for the media effects, although certain agenda-setting outlets – which New York Times is certainly an example of – may be downplaying the food ethics theme, the social and environmental challenges posed by the modern food system have generated a lot of media hype in the recent years, with countless books on food issues becoming bestsellers. Certainly, the above factors do not manifest themselves to the same extent in different contexts, and every study is inevitably just a snapshot of a limited number of issues at a certain place and time. Yet, acknowledging trends that run contrary to the commonly held assumptions and norms might help yield a fuller understanding of the relationships between individuals and food ethics.
All in all, I thought the study offered a methodologically exciting (research design included checking the contents of participants’ fridges!) and conceptually refreshing approach to consumption ethics. Conceptualising consumers as participants in rather than victims of the process of distancing of food ethics is, perhaps, a long-needed turn in the sociology of consumption.
Berry, W. (1992). The pleasures of eating. Cooking, eating, thinking: Transformative philosophies of food, 374-379.
Fischler, C. (1979). Gastro-nomie et gastro-anomie. Communications, 31(1), 189-210. 199-200.