Following Thingies.

13 Apr

I have been charged with (re)writing my thesis introduction … again. Apparently I am not supposed to launch straight into Coffee Stuff because, heaven forbid, some people – namely, my examinars, may not actually be interested in coffee. Infidels. It does beg the question, why read it in the first place? But no, in university terms, this means I have to ‘contextualise’ the chapter, and explain how it fits in with, and contributes to current geographical theory and debates. I find this sort of thing extremely difficult to write. Obviously my whole thesis is heavily influenced by whatever I’ve been reading, but pinpointing exactly which parts can be attributed to what author remains a mystery.

In very loose terms, this whole coffee project is based around explorations of commodity chains, trade networks, food production techniques and to some extent, commodity fetishism. I am lucky in the fact that Ian Cook has done several extremely useful blogs and papers about these topics, and so I can start with his ‘umbrella’ paper called/. ‘Afters’ which discusses all of the above. Cook also championed the idea of ‘following’ – as in, tracing a ‘thing’ back through its production process from consumer back to producer. This is really more of a method than a theory, (much like ANT, actor-network theory -which is similar but not a theory either,) but it is the idea of ‘following’ that has shaped my own research the most. Cook’s first example was papayas, and he did go into some detail about the people who worked with papayas. Mine got a lot more involved and sort of turned into an ethnography of the ‘coffee people’ because I have always been far more interested in the PEOPLE, peoples’ attitudes, peoples’ way of life, their politics, economics and preferences, how they affect the little bean and how it affects them, than the physicality of the little green/brown beans themselves.

Following the beans’ journey does throw up some useful stuff, besides straight-forward ‘this is how you make coffee’. Cook’s  -and others’ – papers cover the idea of ‘transformation’, I can talk about the huge difference in what people mean by ‘coffee’ – are they talking about the plant, the beans or a drink? Raw, green coffee beans bear little resemblence to the average cappuccino, so somewhere in this journey, the Thing, ‘coffee’ is created and transformed.

As soon as you get into the coffee production process, you can’t help but get bogged down in the ethics of the industry – and fortunately this applies to plenty of other food industries, (like papayas) so I don’t have to mention the C word too soon.  Lyon talks about commodity chains and Fairtrade initiatives attempting to ‘shorten’ and ‘strengthen’ the links between producer and consumer. Supposedly if we understand more about where our food comes from, we ‘engage’ with it more and it is ‘defetishised’. In simpler terms, by raising awareness of how our food is produced, it ceases to be mysterious, special or exotic, bell hooks calls this “eating the other” – as in, consuming “ethnic” foods because they are unusual and exotic which brings a whole new meaning to ‘consuming culture’. (I had to look up why bell hooks does not capitalise her name. It is a pen name, and she doesn’t use capitals to differentiate herself from her grandmother, apparently). Being aware of the producers is not the same as actually engaging with them, however. Strengthening the links in a global commodity network is not necessarily the same thing as breaking down the power  and economic inequalities between first world/western consumers and third word producers. The results of this ‘following’ would vary considerably depending on who does the following and their position and vantage point in the network.  Being aware of the production process may shorten the links and maybe ‘defetishize” the commodity to some extent, but it does not change the manner in which is it is produced or consumed. I’ve written a lot on fair trade and I reckon I don’t have to go into it too much again in this introduction, but one area that I haven’t really touched on is who actually buys it. Certified food – be it fair trade or organic or whatever, is generally more expensive. Thus, it tends to be bought by people who have more money. So in turn, buying ethical food (or any other products) becomes a luxury in itself. Sometimes (like my primark t-shirts) it is not lack of awareness that leads to inethical consumption, more, it’s a case of not having the money to shop ethically. This is one of the major criticisms of alternative trade models – they are not necessarily accessible to all.

What else? Commodity networks, fetishism, ethical consumption, ‘becoming food’. Think that’s about it and hopefully I can then get into COFFEE and the interesting stuff!!

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Posted by on April 13, 2011 in Uncategorized


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