Tag Archives: research

BSUFN Symposium 2017 – Provocation: The problem with the past

At this year’s symposium we decided not to have a keynote speaker, but to open up the floor to anyone attending to issue a provocation relating to food, it’s production, politics or study. There were four provocations.

This is the provocation given by Food Network member Abigail Wincott of the University of Brighton.

I study alternative food movements and politics of lifestyle and consumption. These lifestyle discourses are often very politicised. There is stuff relating to personal health, fashions and fads, like macarons or kale. But a lot of it is more or less overtly about a number of big issues that really are important.

There is a concern for social justice or fairness – an interest in the impact on workers and consumers of the quest for excessive profits, and of the dominance of corporations over the food system. A lot of attention is paid to the environmental damage caused by the same.

In addition, I’ve found there is a lot of concern expressed about a loss of diversity. This may be expressed as a blandness and homogeneity of food culture or of food itself and also characterises the experience of shopping for it. This is generally regarded as a negative byproduct of globalised capitalist food systems.

There is a concern about obesity, of course. This isn’t just a personal issue in lifestyle media, it is talked about as a social issue, one that the government or industry or society needs to take charge of.

Finally, there is a lot of talk about loss – loss of foods, loss of knowledge, a loss of pleasure. For example there are lots of references to the way people don’t know how to shop for the best, cheapest foods anymore, that they don’t sit and eat together anymore. In a sense this is an idea of a loss of pleasure in life. I guess this is also connected closely to the sense of homogeneity, and to the colonisation of life by corporations.

Now in these lifestyle stories about what is wrong with food and what puts it right, ‘the past’ keeps cropping up. The past takes various forms:

  • nostalgia for the way things used to be or taste
  • the past as a benchmark (a dinner plate used to be so big, people used to spend X amount on food, people used to know how to cook)
  • heritage – protect what is disappearing before it is lost forever
  • retro or historic themes or imagery: The ministry of food, bunting, wartime and austerity, for example.

I am partial to all of this myself, and of course I write about the uses of the past in lifestyle media. I’m not going to join in the dismissal of these uses of the past as automatically socially conservative, elitist or misinformed. People are using these ‘pasts’ to argue for different and better futures.

But I think we have to give some more thought to the way we use the past.

When we think about the future through the past, that affects what we think about, the solutions we come up with and how we feel about them. My problem with our uses of the past are that we tend to think in terms of individual solutions (lifestyle, individual consumer choice) and not to think about the modern state and complex social organisation, or modern technology.

Our ideas about the past are culturally produced: western, gendered, classed, colonial. They’re not a window onto reality.

Thinking through the past isn’t ubiquitous, people buy novel and high tech foods. People start co-ops and campaign for government regulation using a health science frame instead of a nostalgia frame, for example. But it’s pretty ubiquitous among alternative food types and that includes campaigners and academics. journalists, food writers…

It seems to me that these uses of the past are a heuristic. They have allowed us to boil down some very complex considerations in ways that allow us to ‘feel’ what is wrong or right, at a glance. Simple, traditional, like our grandparents cooked and ate, like other people’s grandparents cooked and ate – these things can come to ‘feel’ right. That helps us make fast judgements about what to eat, what to buy and what causes to support.

This heuristic has served its purpose and I think now it’s holding us back. We need to be more critical. We could cast our historical net wider for more unusual practices and ideas.

We need to ask more specific questions. The Green Revolution, mechanised production of food – are they just 100% intrinsically bad, or specifically bad for contingent reasons, like who profits from them or particular techniques that can be changed?

That would allow us to try some thought experiments. What if… we had factories making food, run by not-for-profit organisations? Might they be more energy efficient than home cooking, each of us heating our own ovens in our own home kitchens? That can’t be ‘felt’ to be right, within the dominant lifestyle discourse, which says, go back to the home, go back to traditional methods of production, go back to the small producer.

Industrialisation and high tech solutions to food problems are collective, public approaches to feeding the world. At the moment they are largely profit-making, but that doesn’t make them private in the sense of individual or small-scale. They are mass solutions to mass problems. This collective action on feeding the world has been developing over thousands of years. Social organisation is something people do really well. That mass organisation, planning and economies of scale are hidden in almost all the discourses of good food that look to the past.

The possible exception is the nostalgia for the post-war era – the idea of the Ministry of Food and the benevolent state, which Rebecca Bramall and others have written about. This is a time when people believed more wholeheartedly in progress and modernity. When the British had been hungry until they had been fed by state organised rations. They knew the past could be hungry and dirty and unregulated. People were a bit happier to embrace the new and the large-scale.

But generally,still our heuristic holds us back Some new ideas can’t be understood, don’t make sense if we look through the past in ways we do – tackling global social problems as individuals.

What injustices will become visible, if we stop assuming our ideas about the past are neutral and ‘true’? What kind of society-wide solutions could we find, that we have never found before, if we stop using the past as our benchmark? Who might we hold to account if we stop focusing on food as individual choice?

Would you like to post a provocation about food and its research? Let us know using the contact form and we’ll get back to you.

joke false teeth biting Hastings rock

Hastings Bites Back – food research in Hastings

Posted by BSUFN member, Abigail Wincott.

Hastings Bites Back is a new kind of research group. It draws members from across the Hastings area, and researchers from the University of Brighton, who have come together to produce research in response to the most pressing food issues, as decided by members and by the general public.

The project began last Autumn with a recruitment phase. I phoned dozens of food and drink related businesses, clubs, food banks, council departments and community groups, as well as any existing research
groups, like the Hastings and Rother Family History Group. With the support of the University of Brighton’s Hastings campus, 1,000 postcards were printed, which I handed out round town.

Members of the public trying research taster activities

Using props to generate ideas. Hastings Herring Fair.

I held a research taster activity stall at the Hastings Herring Fair. Through the taster stall and postcard campaign a large number of suggestions came in, telling is what kind of food issues people wanted us to work on.

Around 30 people have signed up to take part in Hastings Bites Back, with a core of 12 active members. The group is as diverse as you would expect from those beginnings – artists, teachers, councillors, business people, a scientist, local historians and me, a media researcher from the university.


As fantastic as that kind of diversity is, there was always the risk that we would have different interests and incompatible expectations of the project.

Yet so far that hasn’t been the case. We realised our ideas were threaded through with common themes: an interest in how spaces within the town change over time, in what has been lost – food knowledge, disappeared businesses, ways of life, lost sounds and smells and long lost people. Big themes motivated many of the ideas – themes we already know are not unique to Hastings: that modern industrial food production has brought us plenty, but at a cost to the environment, our health and wellbeing. That the town is changing so fast, it’s hard to tell what is for the better and what for the worse. All of these were represented in the suggestions from the general public too.

Next steps:

Over the next 6 months, the group will come together for a series of meetings, to plan a cluster of small projects – from family history research to developing a cookery course or producing an art installation – which work together to achieve a set of overall research aims: to make Hastings more productive, to understand the different forms of value that food production in urban spaces might have, and ultimately, to enable us to improve our quality of life in our town.

What can you do?

You can join the group as a researcher, and take part in one of the cluster of projects or add your own. For example, you might want to develop a new food product, start a community food initiative or research the history of your street.

Alternatively, you might want to apply high quality research in your business, community group or organisation. If so you can help make that research relevant for your needs by talking to us.

It’s in our interests to make sure as many people as possible see and benefit from our work so we want to hear from everyone about what they think the project might do for them.