In my last post, I offered a quick glance into Andrew Sayer’s book “Why things matter to people…” and highlighted some of the most compelling arguments in his sociological account of human normative values and concerns. I found Sayer’s discussion useful not only for developing my conceptual understanding of the topic, but also for enabling me to recognise and appreciate some highly relevant methodological issues. One of the most valuable lessons I learned concerns the researcher-reader relationships – the issue which is not often raised, probably because it remains in the shadow of a more frequently discussed problem of the relationships between the researcher and the researched.
Andrew Sayer, however, draws our attention precisely to the way in which we, as researchers, address our audience. He notes the tendency of social researchers to treat readers “more as fellow spectators of social life than as possible co-participants” (2011, p. 11), that is to describe and explain social issues and processes through third person accounts of other people’s behaviour without explicitly asking or even tacitly encouraging readers to assess presented portrayals in light of their personal life experiences. Since my study focuses on the issues that are near and dear to the heart of every human being (for no one can possibly live a life without ever considering the questions of morality, ethics, and the right way to be and act), I decided to follow Sayer’s appeal and “address the readers as fellow participants in life” (2011, p. 11). I therefore want to invite my readers to step out of the position of detached observers and, as I walk them through the life stories of ten ethical food consumers, reflect back on their own experiences and feelings. To be able to assess my account of the subjects’ inner processes and their outward manifestations, one does not have to be an ethical consumer or even imagine himself in such a role. To identify with the participants of my study and comprehend their moral pursuits, it is sufficient to perceive yourself as a person whose relationship to the world is one of concern. For any of us, this should not be a difficult undertaking for we all have our own worries and cares which, whether we wish it or not, incessantly feed into our deliberations about what to do with our life, steering us towards certain courses of actions and away from the others. A certain amount of introspection is all it takes for a person to discern the presence – or absence – of particular concerns in every deliberate action she takes or refrains from taking.
The moment you start seeing your own behaviour in terms of a wider picture of your concerns, it suddenly becomes very easy to understand someone else’s decisions, choices, and actions, and it does not matter in the least that your subjective concerns and those of the person whose practices you are trying to render meaningful may be about completely different things. Regardless of which domain of life our concerns belong to, the effects they exert on us – human beings – remain the same. They stir up our emotions through which we become aware of the things that we care about and value most. They provoke reflexive deliberations through which we define our ultimate concerns and devise ways to address them, and they prompt us to continuously monitor the course of our life to ensure the fit between our chosen moral projects, subjective concerns, and objective circumstances.
Thus, by recognising themselves as human beings whose emotional and mental wellbeing is dependent on the state of the things they truly care about and by projecting this image onto ethical consumers, the readers should have no difficulty in following my account of the participants’ moral food commitments and understanding the ways in which they shape subjects’ personal identities and social lives.
Sayer, A. (2011). Why things matter to people: Social science, values and ethical life. Cambridge University Press.