Leiden Anthropology Blog

Provisioning activism

Provisioning activism Photo via iStock

An increasing body of literature identifies and compares various strategies for alternative provisioning, namely procuring food and other goods and services in a consciously oriented way. Why is this anthropologically interesting?

Alternative agro-food networks

A growing literature identifies alternative strategies for self-provisioning: i.e., for procuring food and other goods and services in a consciously oriented way (for example Seyfang and Longhurst 2013, Schor 2010, Stevenson et al. 2009, Stolle et al. 2005). A large part of this scholarly interest focuses around the topic of ‘alternative agro-food networks’.

A few results stand out. Firstly, some scholarship has highlighted the fact that alternative food networks often focus more on sustainability and quality, less on social inclusion and ‘food justice’ (access to resources for underprivileged groups). What are the limits and potential of these networks? Secondly, we lack a coherent conceptual framework to demonstrate the ways in which ‘civic food networks’ (Renting et al. 2012) may appropriate and express notions of citizenship and societal participation.

ERC Consolidator project

These are two of the challenges I will address over the next five years in the ERC Consolidator project Food citizens? Collective food procurement in European cities: Solidarity and diversity, skill and scale. I will set out to identify and ethnographically observe alternative provisioning initiatives that move beyond the idea of ‘alternative food networks’. The case studies examine collective food procurement on multiple scales and in three European cities, focusing on the cultural dimensions of collective food procurement.

Building on a one-year comparative pilot project in Italy and USA funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, I propose a set of questions: How do styles of procurement match styles of participation? Might some models of participatory engagement reproduce hegemonic views of what ‘active citizenship’ should be, and what ‘alternatives’ should look like? How can we compare skill, scale, diversity and solidarity across different types of networks? How do we foster new imaginaries of food and of societal participation?

Active citizenship

Collective forms of provisioning promote a number of different projects and agendas, such as viable local economic circuits, responsible production, and ethical consumption. Furthermore, it has been argued that they provide alternative paradigms for active citizenship through democratically controlled regional economies. However, the histories and meanings associated with such paradigms may be very diverse. I build on my comparative ethnography of two areas of advanced industrial or post-industrial development: Massachusetts (U.S.) and Lombardy (Italy). Local understandings of what a ‘solidarity economy’ might amount to, and how to set up and run ‘solidarity economy networks’ varied considerably between these two locations.

Although some of the protagonists of these networks share an understanding of what a ‘new economy’ (Alperovitz 2012) should strive for and shared some literature and inspirational examples, they tended to focus on different practices: whereas in Italy the focus lay on re-engineering short provisioning chains (mostly in relation to food), in the U.S. the emphasis was on striving for ‘green and just’ energy provision, weatherized and socially affordable housing, and setting up workers’ cooperatives.

Cultural dimensions

Building on this, I will focus on the cultural dimensions of collective food procurement: skill is a good example of this. An ethnographic investigation of skill means analysing the practical and organisational know-how – how and whether local knowledge is locally reconstituted in such networks – and exploring to what extent it succeeds in creating new forms of wealth (e.g. relational rather than financial). Such wealth would be defined for example in the capacity to nurture networks of mutual help.

Grassroots initiatives for local provisioning date back to well before ‘the crisis’ – a watershed moment that is often inappropriately associated not just with an artificially induced financial breakdown, but with socioeconomics. With a much broader focus, anthropologists share an active interest in carrying out in-depth ethnographic investigations of livelihoods as necessarily economic arrangements: ways of organising life in such a way that it reproduces itself.

These arrangements naturally involve diverse interpretations and practices of sustainability and of participation. With this in mind, it makes sense to focus on the diverse and profoundly cultural dimensions of skill, scale, solidarity, and diversity in European urban practices of collective food procurement. This approach is the natural result of engaging with an interdisciplinary scholarship that offers fieldworkers the opportunity to ethnographically investigate contested and contextual imaginaries of societal alternatives at work. Wish me luck! 

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