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Forage for Thought 1: A rant

Thursday 01 July 2010

I have been trying for more than a year to do a close reading of a paper by Klaus Weber of Northwestern and two doctoral candidates, called “Forage for Thought: Mobilizing Codes in The Movement for Grass-fed Meat and Dairy Products”, in the Administrative Science Quarterly (find it here). The article touches several points that interest me: differentiating products in the agri-food sector, collective entrepreneurship, and shared identities. Alas, I could never finish the paper. It made me so angry that I slammed it down every time.

My biggest gripe with the research is that it purports to construct a model of the relationships between a social movement (grass-fed beef vs. conventional feedlot-finished beef) and the entrepreneurial opportunity that the social movement affords to create a market segment. The process involves the understanding and mobilization of cultural codes that are common in the social movement that connote high order descriptors (grass-fed connotes sincerity, purity, permanence, etc — see figures 1,2,3; and conventional production connotes deceit, depletion, dirty) and that denote specific expressions that are incorporated into the language of production, social identity, and exchange. This semiotic analysis has some merit (see my subsequent post). But the authors muddied the analysis by confounding “grass-fed” with a variety of production practices, social phenomena, and other baggage. For example, organic production, heritage breeds, raw milk, slow food, multi-species farming, omega-3 fatty acids, and rural communities show up in the three tables of denoted expressions. This was by design. “We also collected data on adjacent markets for organic and local food to better understand the movement’s uniqueness…”(page 536). The authors drew specifically from conferences on local food and organic production.

How, then, can we follow the logic between the codes of the grass-fed movement and the entrepreneurial opportunities afforded by THAT movement, when slow food, organics, and locavory are thrown into the mix? Moreover, they included poultry, bison, goats, and sheep, and pigs (page 536) among the production units they studied. One hesitates to call this sophomoric, though any sophomore that I have taught in the last 30 years would know better than to throw all of these ancillary social issues and species together into a term paper on grass-fed beef. Of course, the vast majority of my students have been students of agriculture and food, even the rural sociologists among them. I know! I know! The title of the article says “grass-fed meat and dairy products”, but (dammit!) what the authors write about in describing the conventional vs. grass-fed industry is BEEF. Never mind that they don’t deliver on dairy products, either.

The authors make a great deal of their “data”: 41 semi-structured interviews with activists, ranchers, farmers, consumers, and journalists (!). They started with 24 respondents from a sampling frame of 50 producers drawn from a universe of 280 producers that are associated with the America Grassfed Association and, a website dedicated to pasture-based production. These 24 nominated “other producers, key figures within the movement, consultants, distributors, consumers, journalists, and chefs” until the researchers  felt that “information from these interviews reached a saturation point.” (page 536). So, saturation was achieved after 17 additional interviews were completed. Nowhere does it state how many of the 17 were chefs, journalists, consumers, distributors, etc.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have done semi-structured interviews in past research. Good technique. But I have never had the chutzpah to design a single semi-structured survey instrument that I would use across such a disparate respondent group. What does one ask of a chef, a consumer, a rancher, and a journalist in a common instrument? I suppose that is how you get to “cultural codes in common use in the movement”.

The survey data were augmented with archival data: web sites on grass-fed production, “several books on grass-fed production that were recommended by our interviewees” (page 536), all issues of the Stockman Grass Farmer, and 20,000 written comments on the proposed USDA proposed rules for a label for grass-fed production. There were also field notes from conference presentations by “numerous activists, including leaders of advocacy groups or sustainable agriculture, those representing nutritional causes and slow food ideas, chefs, a regional buyer for Whole Foods, farmers’ market coordinators, and managers at natural and conventional supermarkets” (page 537). MORE MUDDYING! This is where I usually through the paper down in disgust.

A couple of thoughts:

1. The USDA gave up on developing a label for grass-fed products about 3 years ago. What does that say about the degree to which the cultural codes were codified?

2. The authors note that in 2006, the market penetration for grass-fed products was 0.2 percent of the meat and dairy sector — as measured by producer numbers. Teeny. But if we looked at market penetration by volume of production from these very few, very small farms, we probably couldn’t see it with the aid of the Hubble telescope. If we were careful and broke this aggregate down into important product classes — fresh beef, fresh milk, cheese and other processed dairy products, would we know more or less about the actual market-making between consumers and producers? I’d say more. I believe these markets are distinct, whether the social movement is or is not.

The remainder of the paper draws several bold ( I am being kind here) statements about what the data show about the roles of cultural codes in attracting producers to this new niche, reducing exit at early stages in niche development, and the creating of shared, or collective, identity among the producers. I just wish there was one datum to support these conclusions.

And, finally: why do the authors insist on calling this an “extreme” case? Why not “revelatory”, “paradigmatic” or “holistic, single” case? Aren’t extreme cases often called “deviant”, because they represent something out of the norm? If I am correct on this, then the grass-fed case doesn’t inform us about how social movements generally affect entrepreneurial activity,

A collection of articles on locavory

Tuesday 20 April 2010

The latest issue of Choices, which is an outreach publication of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), discusses many topics of interest to the study of locavory. These topics include the competing definitions of “local”, the confounding of “local” as a spatial variable with other social variables, and the roles that public policy have in promoting the development of local markets. A quick read suggests that there is much to be absorbed from this issue. Find it here.

Choices can be obtained via free subscription. If you choose to subscribe, it will signal AAEA to continue the publication.

Locavory and Entrepreneurship

Wednesday 17 March 2010

I had a scintillating session with my undergraduate class in entrepreneurship today. We were using the HBS module on Market Segmentation, Target Marketing, and Positioning as an entry into constructing a venture plan. As we are nearly all food and ag sector folks, we discussed segmentation on such consumer benefits as nutrition, organic preference, food interest, and local food preference. It was particularly useful to note the overlaps (at least in common rhetoric) among these benefits as consumers perceive them: are locally produced foods more healthful, tasty, and have a better “story” to share over dinner?

We talked of DDDs (Distance-Delimited-Diets), such as the 100 mile diet. While no one in the group admitted to sharing in this peculiar form of crackpottery, we did discuss the opportunity for entrepreneurial rents to be earned in selling the benefit “locally-produced” to locavores, as well as people for whom nearby-production signals other (perhaps less valid) benefits: taste, uniqueness, nutritive value, environmental-friendship.

Locavory is complex, like many of the non-nutritive preferences sought in food markets. Attached to the construct local is a complicated set of credence attributes that include freshness, wholesomeness, tradition, and “connection to what we eat”. There are social benefits, as well. These include supporting family farms, supporting community members (i.e. the farmers), connecting to the growers and their families beyond the transaction, and being “green”.

As with any entrepreneurial opportunity, choosing a market position to serve locavores can be constructed with additional layers of differentiation to protect against competitive erosion of the entrepreneurial rents. Think of being a firm that produces and markets locally grown organic produce using heritage varieties. Or operating a catering firm based upon these consumer promises, overlaid with convenience. Like this one.

More on locavory in subsequent posts.

Driving on Friday afternoon

Saturday 13 March 2010

Don’t you think the state government should alert its citizens when they empty the insane asylums for the weekend … and let the inmates on the highways?

Tertius Iungens and creating entrepreneurial rents

Thursday 11 March 2010

I just re-read the 2005 paper by David Obstfeld entitled, “Social Networks, the Tertius Iungens Orientation, and Involvement in Innovation”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 1  (Mar., 2005), pp. 100-130. The JSTOR stable URL is . He introduces tertius iungens as a network position that differs from the commonly cited tertius gaudens. The former is “the third who joins (the other two)” and the latter is “the third who rejoices”. The agent who is tertius gaudens gains economic advantage because the other two agents in the network are in conflict. The agent who is tertius iungens gains economic advantage from bringing the other two parties together — a market-making entrepreneur, perhaps.

I haven’t found much follow-up to Obstfeld (even by himself) in regard to how this agent is compensated. The other form, tertius gaudens, appropriates rents directly from the market by stepping into the conflict and creating value from other agents in the network. This is clearly an entrepreneurial act. Ronald Burt, in Structural Holes (Harvard University Press, 1992), identifies a second form of entrepreneurship associated with tertius gaudens: the broker/negotiator between the conflicting parties. He says that the rents can be captured directly from the negotiations (both parties, presumably) or “to add value, strengthening the relations for later profit” (page 34.) This latter entrepreneurial behavior is hard to distinguish from tertius iungens, save for Ostfeld’s specific claim that Georg Simmel’s original distinction was whether the intervening tertius agent maintained the separation between the conflicting dyad (gaudens) or mediated/unified the dyad (iungens). Implicit in Ostfeld’s definition is that Burt conflates the two.

I like Ostfeld’s distinction as the basis for research into entrepreneurial behavior. While Ostfeld and Burt cast the problem squarely within social network analysis, I think that these peculiar forms of  entrepreneurial opportunity can be examined by an agent-based model, wherein the social networks need not be structurally defined. The interesting question is whether the mediator can capture any value from “closing the space” between the dyadic parties. It strikes me that this should be modeled by imbuing agents with either active adversarial (close, but antagonistic) dyadic relationships or passive (distant, indifferent) dyadic relationships. The tertius agent can be characterized as  having  brokering or mediating attributes. Finally, there needs to be some characterization of available rent-earning mechanisms from single-period interactions and across time steps (Burt’s “later profits”).

Perhaps we can steal the necessary behavioral rules for agents and their interactions from ecology: amensalism, commensalism, mutualism.

Time to dust off the simulation software.

Why I am involved with a graduate seminar in the philosophy of science

Wednesday 10 March 2010

This semester, I am participating in a graduate seminar in the philosophy of science. The seminar is directed by André Ariew, who has a national reputation as a scholar in the philosophy of biology. The seminar meets weekly on such topics as modeling, explanation, causation, and game theory. The syllabus is here. As this is a learning experience, especially for me, there is a blog where we carry on the discourse between scheduled sessions. As philosophy of science blogs go, it is active.

So, why does a long-in-the-tooth professor of agricultural and applied economics participate in such a venture? Here is what I wrote to André to seek his help.

Why I Need Philosophy (and Philosophers) of Biology

12 October  2009

I am neither a biologist nor a philosopher. Thus, I cannot tell you the difference between ontogeny and ontology. I was trained as an applied economist, but my research and teaching since finishing in graduate school have caused me to delve into a number of methods, constructs, and theories from social psychology and sociology. This follows, in part, from fluttering among the professional (B-school) pigeonholes of organizational behavior, organizational theory, strategic management, and marketing. Each of these fields relies to some degree on economics, though rarely on High Theory and more often on some heterodoxy. The remaining drivers of research in these fields are the personal and interpersonal behaviors engendered by the other social sciences.

Let me tell the punchline here. I want to write a book on “biological models for strategic management”.  Long story short, strategic management is about competition – red (ink) in tooth and claw, cooperation/mutualism, resource dependence, systems, and system failures. The field has an explicit longitudinal aspect; industries and markets “evolve” dynamically. There is at present a strong flavor of evolutionary economics at the core of the field. Strategy scholars are explicitly adopting Nk  models from evolutionary genetics (Kaufmann), r-K models from population ecology (Lotka-Volterra), fitness landscapes (Wright), and the concept of reproductive isolation (Dobzhansky, Mayr). There are also examples of tacit or implicit adoption of biological concepts, and an even greater number of opportunities to make the biological metaphor more apt.

I am using metaphor, in part, as a dilettante would. The pages written on the differences among similes, analogies, and metaphors are as countless as the grains of sand on the beach. Even if I jettison the pages on literary metaphor in search of what I really want – scientific metaphor, I remain confused and intimidated. I like Max Black’s (1962) interactive metaphor as a way to make the transaction across the metaphorical divide between biology and management useful and precise. There are important limitations of the biological metaphor that need to be examined – both to critique the extant borrowings from biology, as well as to develop my “improved” paradigm. To do this well requires an understanding of the mechanisms, rhetoric, and epistemology (or what I really meant to say) of biology and how these can be ported across the metaphorical divide. I need your help. Obviously.

I am an autodidact with respect to biology. My pattern of learning is to enter through the portal of popular writing. I have read all of Stephen Jay Gould’s essays, then chased down the citations, biographies, and puzzles in the serious literature: Evolution, The American Naturalist, Bulletin of Mathematical Biology; Provine’s writings on Haldane, Fisher, and Wright; and Coyne and Orr on Speciation; etc.  I also read David Quammen’s essays and books, notably The Song of the Dodo and The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. Quammen caused me to jump into the scientific literatures on ecological modeling, metacommunities, landscape ecology, ecological niche theory, and trophic cascades.

Though I am a reluctant and incompetent mathematician, I have spent time on the mathematical modeling of ecological and evolutionary mechanisms and processes. In the last five years, much of this effort has been re-directed into agent-based models (individual-based models in biology) because I sense that Lewin was correct in his 1966 “Strategy of Model Building in Population Ecology” paper. The large models at the system level may be soluble, but they are usually constructed as a house of parametric cards. The small, general closed form analytical models in the MacArthur/Levins style are elegant but abstract. I believe that if nature is inherently self-organizing, why not model it as such, without imposing structure at the community or system level. Plus, so many of the interesting questions are about “local” behaviors, including niche establishment, mutualisms, and apparent competition.

This brings me to an urgent need for help in the philosophy of biology. Evidently, there is much ado about modeling and models in the field. I have problems with interpretation of this work. Some of my problems arise from differences in the rhetorics of economics and philosophy. When economists speak of “robustness”, they are remarking upon the stability of a statistical model with respect to alternative data sets, alternative solution algorithms, and, often, to outlier data points. One never speaks of the robustness of theory as a function of the number models that test it, which is how I have interpreted some recent papers that have been written as commentary on the original Levins paper (e.g. Orzack and Sober, 1993). Economists have been building large systems models longer that biologists have. One of the centers at MU – FAPRI, models the entire agri-food sector of the US with explicit links to other geopolitical areas. One assistant professor at McGill wrote a big chunk of the input-output model of the Canadian economy: mining and forestry to households. We obviously have, at least at the pragmatic level, different epistemologies. Or do we?  So, I need real help on how philosophers of biology speak of theory, models, modeling, etc.

Let me outline another problem I have. If we truly believe, as most undergraduate textbooks seem to do, that G. Evelyn Hutchinson was really on to something with The Ecological Theater and the Evolutionary Play (1965), then it is difficult to disassociate ecology from evolution when we speak of modeling. But most of what I have read manages to abstract one from other with adroitness. Even the Philosophy of Biology seems to do so. The preponderance of the literature is associated with “longitude” – evolution, and there is little work on “latitude” – ecology. In fact, at least half of the pieces that I have seen on the philosophy of ecology begin with a self-conscious statement that “nobody has paid attention to” the philosophy of ecological science.

But what of the massive time differences that must exist to make ecology cogent and evolution cogent? Hutchison’s theater falls to dust as the evolutionary play unfolds. While the theater is intact and the players are interacting, do we really see them evolve? Speciate? Is this a problem? Can I abstract entirely from evolutionary/ geologic time and describe longitudinal processes that are constrained by the environment, while I have a “timeless” ecological process with implicit evolutionary constraints? I believe that a better understanding of the time dimensions that are implicit in allopatric, parapatric, and sympatric speciation, and in drift and selection will help in dealing with this modeling question.

To make the metaphors work, the critical interaction involving the time dimensions of the principal (management) and subsidiary (biology) objects must be made explicit. Effectively, the management context may inform which of the elements of the biological theory/models must be, or may be, ignored to create a meaningful metaphor. In addition to time, we have questions about level of analysis (individual, species, firm, market) to sort out.

I see the time path toward my putative goal of writing the book on the biological bases for strategic management as having discernibly separate, but criss-crossing paths. One is to better understand what the philosophy of biology says about evolutionary and ecological theories. A second path is to understand the relationships of extant theories and models in the management literature that are “evolutionary” or “ecological” to their biological analogues. To do this properly, would one apply the methodologies of the philosophy of biology in this “parallel literature” to understand the internal epistemology and semantics before relating across the metaphorical divide?

A third path is the aforementioned study of models and modeling. This will directly support something that I am doing now: building agent-based models using a clever new software platform that permits complex modeling of agent attributes, agent interactions, and interactions with their environment. It also allows for modeling system-level phenomena that can constrain agent behavior. But I want to be sure that this effort, which is explicitly designed on the interactive metaphor between ecology and strategy, is grounded properly and executed “better” than extant models.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Tuesday 09 March 2010

I am on my way to a 3-hour seminar on the Philosophy of Science. The guest speaker is Dr. Jay Oldenbaugh of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. I’ll reflect later (after dinner and requisite alcohol).