Why things matter to people: understanding human concerns with Andrew Sayer

For the past several weeks my blog has been on a hiatus. I was working intensely on data analysis, re-immersing myself into the life stories of ten ethical consumers, trying to penetrate the deepest meanings and understand the idiosyncrasies of their subjective moral commitments. I found this process as delicate and intimate as doing the interviews themselves, which is why I decided to refrain from posting my early observations and insights before they develop into firm and defensible conclusions. Last week, however, I picked up a book by Andrew Sayer as part of my ongoing effort to bring the “abstract”, i.e. my theoretical and conceptual framework, into the relationship with the “concrete” – the participants’ experiences and practices which I am trying to render meaningful. The book, entitled “Why things matter to people: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life”, offered me a continuation of the theme of human concerns with a specific focus on morality with which I have been long engaging through Archer’s writings. It too emphasises the view of humans as “beings whose relation to the world is one of concern” (Sayer, 2011, p. 2) – the argument which lays the foundation of my entire account of subjects’ ethical food practices. It allows me to construe ethical consumers not as “unfeeling actors of parts, bearers of roles, occupants of subject positions, mere causal agents” (Sayer, 2011, p. 12), but as morally concerned individuals whose actions and choices are a manifestation of their ultimate commitments and a reflection of their unique moral selves. I find particularly appealing Sayer’s justification of why the notion of concerns is the one that enables social analysis to produce the most comprehensive and fair account of human practices:

Concepts such as “preferences”, “self-interest” or “values” fail to do justice to such matters, particularly with regard to their social character and connection to events and social relations, and their emotional force. Similarly, concepts such as convention, habit, discourses, socialisation, reciprocity, exchange, discipline, power and a host of others are useful for external description but can easily allow us to miss people’s first person evaluative relation to the world and the force of their evaluations” (2011, p. 2)

This resonates with my own continuous efforts to displace theoretical approaches such as rational choice theory, social practice theory, and Bourdieu’s habitus from the long-held positions of privilege in the sociology of consumption and, drawing on Archer, highlight the essential human properties of emotionality and reflexivity and evidence their key role in shaping people’s concerns, decisions, and actions. In interpreting ethical food commitments as subjective moral projects which people design to address matters of importance to them, I share the ambition “to do justice to this relation of concern, to lay normativity, and to the fact that we are sentient beings who can flourish or suffer” (Sayer, 2001, p. 3) depending on how objects of our ultimate concerns are faring. Furthermore, in my study I want to go beyond merely showcasing the presence of concerns over food ethics in the subjects’ feelings, day-to-day choices, and pivotal life decisions. As I read and re-read each participant story, I feel a growing urge to elucidate the origins of the individuals’ unique moral universes and uncover the mechanisms through which their subjective values and concerns translate into particular practices and lifestyles. In doing so, I intend to respond to yet another Sayer’s appeal, that is to negate the view that “values are merely subjective or conventional, beyond the scope of reason – not susceptible to evidence or argument – and have nothing to do with the kind of beings that we are, or with what happens” (2011, p. 3, emphasis in original). By looking at people’s practices of ethical consumption through the lens of the concept of reflexivity – my key explanatory tool which reconciles human emotions and reason and brings them together in the idea of internal conversation – I feel I can achieve precisely that. By showing how agents exercise their reflexive ability in order to make sense of their emotional as well as cognitive experiences and elaborate on their concerns to arrive at the ultimate moral commitments, I aim to help deflate the belief “that judgements of value and objectivity don’t mix” (Sayer, 2011, p. 7). Relying on my two theoretical cornerstones – the concept of reflexivity and the notion of human concerns, I hope to produce a sociological account of ethical consumption that acknowledges and analyses the subjective meaning of moral food practices for individuals, while leaving room for “the life of the mind, for personal decision and responsibility” (Sayer, 2011, p. 13).


Sayer, A. (2011). Why things matter to people: Social science, values and ethical life. Cambridge University Press.


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