Emergence of a New Practice for Exchange: Insights from Household Food Collectives

Friday, June 24, 2016: 4:15 PM-5:45 PM
201 Moses (Moses Hall)
Galina Kallio, Aalto University School of Business, Helsinki, Finland
Exchange is a universal and essential feature of social life (Kopytoff, 1986), and a constitutive element of markets (Araujo, 2007; Weber, Heinze & DeSoucey, 2008). At its core, economic exchange refers to a particular kind of social activity that consists of giving something and receiving some ‘thing’ of equivalent value (Easton & Araujo, 1994; Miller, 2002), nowadays being usually money. Currently, economic exchange is undergoing a major transition. The 20th century marked the building up of complex systems of exchange with mediators at several levels. However, the recent technological developments have resulted in radical changes making again salient direct exchange between individuals and communities, stripped of middlemen. New ways for sharing and collaboratively consuming and producing goods and services – a phenomenon coined as the sharing economy – challenge the prevailing market practices and the underlying structures supporting contemporary market-based economies. Similarly, the existing theories for exchange come under closer scrutiny – as clear division between production and consumption becomes questioned, the focus turns on those practices that constitute exchange in the everyday life interactions.

Exchange has been studied in several disciplines, particularly within economics, sociology, and anthropology. Both economic sociologists and anthropologists have criticized the decontextualized approaches of the economic theory assuming rational and opportunistic behavior of human actors (Williamson, 1981), and highlight that economic action is embedded in social and political relations and networks (Granovetter, 2002; Fligstein, & Dauter, 2007; Polanyi, 1957). Research in economic sociology casts much light on the dynamics of markets and their functioning. However, these studies provide little understanding on the core practice of markets – exchange. Practice perspective is closer to the interest of the researchers in the science and technology studies who have explored valuation processes, materiality, and mechanisms influencing transactions in markets (Callon, 1998; Muniesa, Millo & Callon, 2007). But likewise these studies provide scant insight to the nature of exchange being performed in everyday practice, through micro-level interactions.

In contrast to studies in economics and sociology, research in anthropology has an established a tradition in studying exchange such that provides several ideas for founding a practice-based approach. The classic studies by Mauss (1954) and Malinowski (1922), both exploring gift exchange in the archaic and tribal societies, provide rich descriptions of the diverse roles, rules and rituals that constitute exchange. Malinowski’s (1922) studies on the Melanesian Kula ring reveal that how, where, and when exchange happens, and who gets to participate, is defined by several interlinked practices that enable the actual consummation of exchange. These studies show how exchange is embedded in materiality, rhythms, places and tradition, contributing greatly to the birth of political, economic, and social institutions (Kopytoff, 1986; Mauss, 1954; Miller, 2002). However, anthropological studies mainly focus on gift exchange in the context of indigenous tribes and archaic societies and, thus, provide scant understanding on such economic exchange practices in the context of Western societies where ownership changes and relationships and value are negotiated among buyers and sellers.

In this paper, we set out to study how exchange emerges through the everyday life interactions. By drawing on ‘contemporary’ practice theories (Gherardi, 2012; Schatski, Knorr Cetina & von Savigny, 2001) and anthropology (Graeber, 2001; Malinowski, 1922; Mauss, 1954) we develop a practice-based perspective to exchange. Moreover, we contribute to a better understanding on the emergence of a practice, which only very few studies have tried to capture so far (Furnari 2014; Gomez & Bouty, 2009). Empirically, in order to better understand what actors actually do when they engage in exchange, and how they make sense of their practice (Gherardi, 2012; Orr, 1998), we draw on a four-year ethnography on food collectives.

Food collectives bring together households (consumers) and food providers (producers) into a direct relationship to engage in exchange of local and organic food. Food collectives are formed by groups of households – their size ranging from ten to 300 members – who organize collective procurement and distribution of goods on a regular basis. Food providers are typically farmers but also others, these ranging from organic wholesales to mushroom grannies and home-bakers. The emergence of food collectives relates to broader food trends such as the organic, alternative, or local food movements that arose in Europe during the past couple of decades. The lack of, or high prices of organic food in supermarkets and local grocery stores motivated their founding. By doing the job of the middlemen, food collectives compensate lower prices with their own work. Food collectives therefore provide an extreme context to study exchange as they represent a context stripped of conventional mediators and middlemen, allowing us to observe how production and consumption are synchronized through the everyday life interactions. Our findings suggest that food collectives represent a moral practice through which work, production and consumption gain novel understandings and re-interpretations.