Materiality

 

From Fellow Zsuzsa Gille: Materiality has become for me the best way to demonstrate how the seemingly ever so mobile, elusive, and fluid processes we associate with globalization need to be grounded somewhere, crafted and maintained by someone for particular reasons and with particular tools.

Specifically, there could be no world commerce in food if it weren’t for the myriad of technical specifications that food commodities have to abide by. The ways in which quality, safety, or ethical concerns are devised is a power-laden process that benefits some and harms others.

zsuzsa6

Key Terms

Materiality: Refers to the physical world that surrounds us: nature, man-made objects, our bodies, and even more broadly, the way space is organized around us, and the concrete practices and technologies we employ in our everyday life.

Socio-material Assemblage: A network of human and nonhuman actors organized in a particular way

Nonhuman Actors or Actants: Entities that are not human, such as animals or biological entities, objects. These, according to Actor Network Theory, can exert an influence on society and culture in unexpected and often unnoticed ways.

Logistical Power: Chandra Mukerji’s term for exercising control over people through materiality in a way that seems technologically necessary. This type of domination thus appears neutral and is harder to resist.

Transnational: A term designating the connections among various organizations (corporations, non-governmental organizations, social movements, etc.) that are located in different nation states; these connections now require little or no mediation by the nation state, which is why the term ‘international’ doesn’t adequately capture these relations. Transnational can also be an adjective referring to such social actors that are routinely present and active in several countries at a time.

Materializing Politics: Solving political conflicts or achieving political goals with the seemingly apolitical tools of a particular organization of materiality. Like logistical power, this is a less transparent way of exerting political influence.

Discussion Questions

1) Whose interests do standards in food safety, quality, or animal rights serve in theory and whose in practice?

2) How does the materialization of politics work?

3) What is a grounded view of globalization? What does it demonstrate that are invisible in mainstream views of globalization?

4) Do you think animal rights should be prioritized over small farmers’ livelihood? If yes, how would you implement stricter rules about the treatment of farm animals in a way that small farmers are not disadvantaged?

5) Is it fair for a country or organization to impose its moral standards on people living in another country?

6) Who should decide what agricultural practices are ethical and humane?

7) Should national traditions prevail over ethical concerns in the treatment of farm animals?

Supplemental Readings

zsuzsa8

Strings of hanging peppers.

Aistara, G. (2011). Seeds of Kin, Kin of Seeds: the Commodification of Organic Seeds and Social Relations in Costa Rica and Latvia. Ethnography, 12(4), 490-517.

Brown, O. (2005). Supermarket Buying Power, Global Commodity Chains and Smallholder Farmers in the Developing World, Human Development Report Office Occasional Paper 2005/4, New York, NY: U. N. Development Programme.

Caro, M. (2009). The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World’s Fiercest Food Fight. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

DeSoucey, M. (2010). “Gastronationalism: Food Traditions and Authenticity Politics in the European Union.” American Sociological Review. 75(3), 432-55.

Dunn, E.C. (2005). Standards and person-making in East Central Europe in A. Ong and S.J. Collier (Eds.) Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems (173-194). Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Heath, D. and Meneley, A. (2010). The Naturecultures of Foie Gras: Techniques of the Body and a Contested Ethics of Care. Food, Culture & Society, 13(3), 421-452.

Latour, B. (1993). The Pasteurization of France. (A. Sheridan and J. Law Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mincyte, D. (2011). Subsistence and Sustainability in Post-industrial Europe: The Politics of Small-scale Farming in Europeanising Lithuania. Sociologia Ruralis, 51(2), 101-118.

Mukerji, C. (2010). The Territorial State as a Figured World of Power: Strategics, Logistics, and Impersonal Rule. Sociological Theory 28(4), 402-24.

Paul, K.T. (2012). The Europeanization of food safety: a discourse-analytical approach. Journal of European Public Policy. 19(4), 549-566.

Verdery, K. (1996). What Was Socialism and What Comes Next? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Can be taught with these Framing the Global chapters 

  • Bartley/Rules: The juxtaposition of regulation with deregulation
  • Mascarenhas/Land: The power of nongovernmental organizations
  • Kumar/Genealogies: Different types struggles around agricultural technologies

Websites

Related Films or Television Programs

1) Barber, Dan. 2008. “Dan Barber’s Foie Gras Parable.” Talk at Taste3 conference, filmed July. TED video, 20:19. Posted November 2.

3) Documentary: The Supermarket That’s Eating Britian

4) Documentary: Food, Inc.

5) Documentary (on US farm subsidies): King Corn

Useful News Sources

Assignments

1) Look for evidence of how materiality shapes society in your dorm, your community, or in your classroom.

2) Identify which member country in the European Union has received the most PDO/PGI or TSG protections for its agricultural products using the EU’s portal at http://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/quality/door/list.html.

3) If you wanted to reduce the number of farmers in a country through logistical power, how would you go about it? List a few possible policies or regulations.