1+3 studentship, commenced in 2014 (MA Anthropological Research Methods + PhD Social Anthropology)
As a former chef and food writer I have been working with food for many years. Studying for a Masters in the Anthropology of Food at SOAS helped me to nuance my understanding of the social and political dimensions of it, and enabled me to see the potential ways in which an ethnographic study such as this could contribute to attempts at creating a more sustainable food system. During my MA I also completed an oral history project with London-based artisanal cheesemaker Neal’s Yard Dairy, which was archived in the British Library. This project gave me the opportunity to explore some issues relating to alternative food production and consumption in London, while also building media production and interviewing skills. All of these experiences have given me context for my research, and the skills gained through my career and studies will help me to shape, conduct and disseminate my research effectively.
My project is concerned with the transformative potential of British consumer food co-ops in relation to their members and networks, the food system, and wider society. Building on interdisciplinary literature on alternative/civic food networks, food poverty, consumption and governmentality, it will use comparative and ethnographic study of the grassroots provisioning methods employed by food co-ops to analyse their internal structures, interactions with external bodies, and the ethics of their supply chains.
Food is a productive lens through which to view the political and economic processes which have formed the contemporary food system, informed common-sense thinking about them, and impacted the lives and social worlds of the inhabitants of contemporary Britain. It can be used to enact visions of a more caring/moral political and economic system through the practices and structures of alternative initiatives such as co-ops – a particularly pertinent issue in the current era of ‘austerity’ policies. By analysing these visions my research will explore contemporary British perceptions of concepts such as morality, citizenship and welfare. By charting aspects of the lived experience of the shift from liberal to neoliberal economic and political regimes it will also contribute to literature on neoliberal governmentality in Britain.
The difference my research makes
Within the literature on alternative food networks food co-ops are under researched, this project will, therefore, help to address this gap. In practical terms, an ethnographic study of the socio-economic dynamics of food co-ops will be productive in assessing the potential for greater social diversity and, thus, inclusivity in such schemes. As well as the co-ops themselves, this information could benefit various stakeholders which use food co-ops for the purpose of community building and empowerment or to promote health through greater accessibility to food and education. Additionally, through analysis of the political and economic structures of food co-ops, which vary greatly, this study hopes to produce insights into the sustainability of food co-ops, which regularly encounter financial difficulties. By facilitating interaction between food co-ops, there will be opportunities for groups to share knowledge and forge more mutually supportive relationships. On a broader scale, this research will also add to the dialogue between parliament, industry and academia around ethical and sustainable food supply chains, and food poverty.
Harry G. West
Das, M. & Plender, C. 2014. An Oral History of Neal’s Yard. British Library Sound Archive, London, C1649.
West, H. G. & Plender, C., 2015. An Interview with James C. Scott. Gastronomica: the Journal of Critical Food Studies, 15(3), pp. 1-8.
Academia.edu profile: https://soas.academia.edu/CeliaPlender