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Forage for Thought 2 – research issues to be explored

Thursday 01 July 2010

In a previous post, I was rather unkind toward the empirical analysis of the grass-fed social movement in this paper by Weber, Heinze, and DeSoucey. I was distressed that the analysis muddied the focal phenomenon of activist interest in an alternative production system to the beef industry norm – corn-based fattening in  commercial feedlots. The alternative, a grass-based diet as espoused by Michael Pollan and others, represents both a social movement and a framing for entrepreneurs to enter the market and connect to consumers. However, this story was confounded by the fact that the researchers festooned the analysis with allusions to other social movements: slow food, organics, local foods, and community-based agriculture.  I also expressed some pique that the primary data collection didn’t distinguish among the respondents (ranchers, journalists, chefs, consumers,…); these actors live in different places in the incipient market and have different roles in the social construction of the new market niche.

So why return to this paper? There are a number of reasons. First, the hypothesis of the paper is important. The authors “suggest that social movements can fuel solutions to three challenges in creating new market segments: entrepreneurial production, the creation of collective producer identities, and the establishment of regular exchange between producers and consumers.” (from the abstract, page 529) As someone who has spent more than thirty years working with agricultural producers on strategic marketing, organizational strategy, and supply chain development, these challenges are REAL.

Furthermore, the trap that the authors fell into – conflating several social movements in the agri-food sector – reflects the salient strategic issue in the sector for the next 20 years. That is, there is a huge number of overlapping social movements around food production and food consumption that can create opportunities for entrepreneurial action. A top-of-mind list would include sustainable production, fair traded products, organic production, low fat/salt/sugar/transfat/whatever diets, animal welfare, locavory and distance-delimited-diets, vegetarianism, and slow food. And each of these has variants that reflect regionality and ethnicity, different perspectives from consumers and farmers, inconsistent definitions, and emotionally charged rhetoric.

So doing a proper job of linking the cultural codes of specific social movements to the social construction of markets is of vital interest to an economically healthy, innovative sector. Beyond that, the paper’s second challenge (creating collective producer identities) is one of critical importance in agri-food. Producers are atomistic agents and no market creation can occur if there is no way for concerted collective entrepreneurship to create (mimic) effective scale to produce, assemble, process, and distribute products to consumers. I am convinced that identity is critical to collective action (more on this in subsequent posts). I have been fiddling with organizational identity work for about a decade, having learned about it from Peter Foreman and David Whetten during a sabbatic  more than 15 years ago. Now I am faced with another uncodified construct: collective entrepreneurship. I hold this to be a particular form of collective action and I am suspicious that the relationships between organizational identity and economic performance are different in incipient entrepreneurial firms and established firms and are different between diffused markets (e.g. all grass-fed producers) and focal organizations (e.g. a local cooperative of grass-fed milk producers).

To quote the Weber et al paper, “producers in the emergent niche need to develop a positive collective identity that is recognized both internally and externally.” (page 546) And, “ In addition, collective identities give rise to cooperative efforts to institutionalize the market category. To create and maintain this community, producers need to establish external boundaries as well as internal cohesion. Cultural codes … supply the resources for both tasks.” (page 547) Now, I think the paper was a bit too blithe in presenting empirical validation for these points, but I am convinced that further research efforts on the collective identity – collective entrepreneurship relationship will be important.

There are two more quotes in the paper that resonate with me. They are tied to prior work by Harrison White and others in the building of exchange relationships in the market.  The first locates a fundamental issue between (business-as-usual) commodity agriculture and the plethora of social movements in the sector. “The exchange value of commodity products is determined by a single or small set of attributes, while price premiums can arise from the relational embedding of exchange or from moral and identity-based associations.” (page 555) I confess that I have professed this in executive education courses and the undergraduate classroom for more than 15 years. I just didn’t have the mass of sociology behind my argument.

The second quote I like is “ [b]ut for a growing group of committed consumers, food consumption is already an expression of identity and morality.” (page 556) We need to understand this phenomenon through the lens of social psychology, as much as sociology, to better construct new markets … and to better teach entrepreneurship to students of agriculture and food.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Monday 12 July 2010 16:12

    Great posts (parts 1 and 2). Funny how many (heretofore) unrelated experiences of mine intersect in your rants: working on a farm, working in the health food business, qualitative research..). Well, I suppose picking vegetables and working in the health food business were vaguely related. Nice post.

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