(Im) Materiality of Good Food

Sunday, June 26, 2016: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
258 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Galina Kallio, Aalto University School of Business, Helsinki, Finland
Who would not want to eat good food? Indeed, the quality and safety of food are highly monitored by both national and international authorities as well as by the food industry and its representatives themselves. And yet, there seems to be increasing number of food movements for who ‘conventionally’ produced food no more represents ‘good’ food (Van Bommel and Spicer, 2011; Weber, Heinze and DeSoucey, 2008). As a result of the rising dissent at grassroots, given food standards supporting globalized industrial production and distribution start loosing their legitimacy provoking alternative ways for valuing food (Connel, Smithers and Joseph, 2008).

Valuing objects is a socio-material process that appears to be central in how we understand markets (Callon and Muniesa, 2005; Lamont, 2012). In much of the related research, materiality plays a key role in making sense of the processes and practices of valuation (Cochoy, 2007; Heuts and Mol, 2013). Specifically, research in the field of sociology of markets has provided much insight into how technologies and devices influence valuation (Muniesa, Millo and Callon, 2007). Most importantly, this research has cleared the way for considering valuation as materially mediated action, as in contrast to emphasizing value as something that an object has (Muniesa 2012). However, these approaches have been criticized for their representation of contemporary exchange through ‘the laws of the markets’ (Miller, 2002). Indeed, the underlying economic rationale in the studies of sociology of markets seems to reduce valuation to calculation(s) (Cochoy, 2008) giving little room for considering morality – why and how something becomes to be good, or valuable – that underlies markets (Fourcade and Healy, 2007) and is intrinsically present in any social practice (MacIntyre, 1984).

While not empirically concentrating in the contexts of Western markets, anthropological tradition has long roots in exploring value and valuation (Graeber, 2001; Mauss, 1954). Anthropological studies have delved into practices of exchange, and provided rich analysis on the formation of value through the constitutive practices of the society. Acknowledging markets as only one system of exchange (Biggart and Delbridge, 2004) could open up new ways of perceiving value and engage researchers from different fields to further explore valuation – reminding us on the profound connection between value(s) and valuation, objects and action (Graeber, 2001; Helgesson and Muniesa, 2013). Weber and colleagues (2008) illustrate nicely in their study on market creation, how values and valuing are intrinsically connected by showing how values formed the basis for how producers were able to influence consumers’ quality perceptions. The embedded exchange relationships enabled consumers to add information about the production process, among other issues, into their valuation of grass-fed meat products. Understanding valuation is thus more about exploring how, rather than what, is being exchanged and looking into the practices through which objects get made to be ‘good’ or morally accepted (Anteby, 2010; Zelizer, 1978).

In this paper, I study how food collectives engage in producing what they perceive to be ’good food’. Food collectives are initiated by groups of households – their sizes ranging from 10 to 300 members – who organize collective procurement and distribution of food directly from food providers on a regular basis. Food providers are typically farmers but also other food providers, these ranging from organic wholesales to mushroom grannies and home-bakers. The historical emergence of local food collectives in Finland as well as resembling groups in Europe can be traced to the early 90’s (Crivits & Peredis 2013). The genesis of food collectives in Finland can be located within the opening up of a common European market in the mid 1990s, which increased competition and resulted in disappearance of many family farms, hence, reducing the availability of locally produced organic food. Moreover, rapid increase in the number of food collectives has been spurred by the rise of various food movements during the past decade. Interestingly, the emergence of food collectives has happened in a situation where standards for local food have not existed making food collectives an interesting empirical setting for studying valuation in an emerging social practice.

I use practice theory as a point of departure to study the making of good food in (a social) practice. A practice in this study refers to sociomaterial activity (Orlikowski, 2007) – embodied knowledgeable accomplishments anchored in material world and informed by normative understandings (Gherardi, 2012: 208) – that is recurrently performed in a similar way, in the same place or within a particular group of people. Socio-material practice-based approach provides good framework to study the entanglement of materiality and morality (Schatzki, Knorr-Cetina and Von Savigny, 2001). Empirically, in order to observe everyday lives of food collectives and understand the practice from the viewpoint of practitioners, I draw on a five-year ethnography on food collectives. Ethnographic research approach is a particularly valid method to study practices, because it allows observing ‘a practice’ as it happens (Gherardi, 2012; Orr, 1998). The core data was generated between January 2010 and December 2015 through participant observation, interviews ranging form ad-hoc to in-depth, and by following social media discussions. These sources were supplemented with food collectives’ own publications and webpages, and news articles. This longitudinal fieldwork allowed me to observe how understandings of ‘good food’ were produced and re-produced in food collectives’ everyday practices. 

My preliminary findings suggest that food collectives are in themselves moral projects through which the value of food materializes. Food is ‘known’ to be good through interconnected practices of producing, distributing, handling and cooking food and at the same time various ‘ideals’ are lived through food collectives: good food is not just about perceiving and knowing but of imagining and desiring what something ought to be like. This study has implications for better understanding the interconnectedness between materiality and morality but also brings about a new research agenda on studying exchange as a moral social practice.