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The invisible mouth' : mobilizing 'the consumer' in food production-consumption networks'
journal contributionposted on 06.12.2017, 00:00 by Stewart Lockie
The distanciation of production–consumption relationships in space and time, and the historically productivist bias of social theory, have contributed to the development of sociologies of food production and consumption as largely unrelated academic discourses. Production–based agri–food studies have tended to treat consumption as either a domain of social practice distinct from, but determined by, production, or as a source of ‘demands’ that producers must compete among themselves to meet. Both perspectives fail to deal either with the complexity of food consumption practices or their relationships with practices of food provision. One solution to this problem—informed by actor–network theory and commodity systems analysis—has been the examination of specific commodity chains, or networks, and the material and symbolic transformations that substances undergo as they move from the point of production to the point of ingestion. However, as a number of studies have found, simply adding the hitherto neglected activity of consumption to the end of the commodity chain has proved difficult; this method ultimately favoring the analysis of relatively small chains for niche and specialty foods for which specific actors may unproblematically be identified. This paper argues that while the conceptualization of production–consumption in terms of actor–networks is itself robust, the methodological injunction to simply follow actors through networks is problematic. Additional conceptual and methodological tools are needed that allow an examination of the ways in which actors seek to render others knowable and governable ‘at a distance’; that is, to order diffuse and complex networks. In much the same way, for example, that the point of production has become increasingly invisible to the consumers of industrially produced foods, so too are those ingesting food potentially invisible to its producers. ‘The consumer’ is, however, made knowable and governable through the application of technologies including market research, survey data and point of sale record keeping. Investigation of the ways in which ‘the consumer’ is made knowable within rapidly extending organic food networks illustrates the ways in which ensuing discourses of ‘consumer demand’ are deployed to mobilize actors at multiple points within each network—including the point of ingestion from which this demand is purported to flow.