Foundational Economy from the Bottom-up: The Case of Alternative Food Networks
Alternative food networks refer to a comprehensive body of practices based on direct connections between producers and consumers, namely local and farmers markets, direct sales, ethical purchasing groups, and so on. This kind of chains, which are very different as to the organizational dimensions, are usually conceived as niches of resistance and opposition against the supermarket business model. In the public debate, it is frequently argued that alternative food networks are able to guarantee both fair and trust relationships among the local economic actors and the quality of food production. At the same time they promote rural development and community sustainability, helping local farmers to protect their profit margins against the aggressive pricing policies carried out by the supermarket retailers.
In the paper, we will deepen these arguments from a sociological standpoint, focusing in particular on the relationship between producers and consumers, and the role played by the concept of quality in shaping this relationship and in sustaining alternative food networks. The definition of common quality standards is in fact crucial in order to build a trustworthy relationship among the actors involved.
According to the quality conventions theory, price and market are the main management forms of a commodity chain only if there is no semantic uncertainty about quality. If this is the case, differences in price directly express known differences in quality (Boltanski, Thévenot 2006; Karpik 2010). On the contrary, when price alone cannot evaluate quality, as in the case of alternative food networks, actors set up other conventions, establishing coordinating ways to estimate the product features, the characteristics of the producer and the peculiarities of the production process (Callon, Méadel, Rabeharisoa 2002; Barbera, Audifredi 2012). The application of the theory of conventions in rural sociology therefore supports the idea that quality is one of the most important forces leading to the raise and change of food markets. At the same time, the “power” of quality must be found over and above information and prices in a process through which a mutual judgment about quality emerges, changes and, eventually, even disappears. This phenomenon is particularly interesting to observe in alternative food networks, where quality conventions are not supply-driven, but rather they spread from consumers to producers. The basic idea is, in fact, that within these short market chains consumers provide quality specifications to producers who in turn transmit and translate them further along the value chain. This, in turn, shapes the governance of the value chain and the organizational structure of rural producers, for example fostering the adoption of specific agronomic management techniques in the farm, as well as the use of certain workers competences. Worlds of quality are thus isomorphic to worlds of production.
Following Thevenot (1998; cf. also Murdoch, Marsden, Banks 2000), we will focus on seven conventions of quality: commercial conventions, based on price and commercial value of goods; industrial conventions, assessing the compliance with technical standards and reliability; domestic conventions, which are related to the concepts of interpersonal trust and traditional modes of production; public conventions, concerning the importance given to trademarks and brands; civic conventions, which refer to the societal and community benefits of local products; inspirational conventions, based on the value of the passion conveyed by the products; ecological conventions, relating to the environmental sustainability of the goods and the production process.
We will test the value given by consumers to each of these conventions in different kinds of supply chains, both in the traditional and in the alternative ones. We will therefore analyse how single conventions of quality – or groups of conventions correlated to each other – move along the value chain, by transmitting from consumers to producers. In our hypothesis, the spread of a mutual judgment about quality contributes to establish specific food models related, among others, to the dimensions of proximity, traditional commodity, domestic context, agro-industrial organization, ethics, and so on (Ghersi, Rastoin 2010; Touzard 2013).
To take into account the specific characteristics of the existing systems, specifically outlining the peculiarities of the alternative food networks, we will carry out our analysis in four different supply chains: traditional local markets, solidarity based purchasing groups, high-end food markets, and large-scale distribution.
We will adopt a mixed method approach in order to investigate both the consumption and the production side. Survey data concerning conventions of quality and practices of consumption will be collected through a questionnaire administered to a large sample of consumers from all the above-mentioned market chains (about 1,000 respondents). Moreover, a series of in-depth interviews involving farmers in the different supply chains will also be carry out to discuss quality-related topics and organizational dimensions (about 50 interviews).
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