Eating as a Social Practice?

1. Introduction

Can we achieve a more sustainable food consumption by reframing the act of eating as a social practice? Conventional approaches which see unsustainable eating practices as the result of individuals choosing to behave in environmentally damaging ways are questionable, as they do not take into account the social, political, institutional and other factors which shape how people act.

I will begin with a brief explanation of the context of sustainable food consumption. Section 3 will provide an in-depth critique of prevailing approaches to sustainable consumption, followed by an analysis of how it might be better understood in terms of social practice in section 4. Section 5 will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of different interventions where either conventional models or practice-based approaches have been applied to achieve sustainable food consumption. Finally, section 6 will summarise the findings and suggest how transitions may be fostered from unsustainable practices of food choice to more sustainable ones.

2. Context

According to the European Environment Agency, eating is one of three key areas which together produce over 75% of the total environmental impact of consumption (EEA, 2012), and food consumption has been cited to account for around 30% of Western GHG emissions (Beverland, 2014). The negative environmental impacts of current food production and consumption patterns are widely acknowledged, and have been directly linked to the complexity and globalisation of food production chains, the alienation of consumers from producers and the fragmentation and individualisation of lifestyles (Niva et al. 2014). Meanwhile, global consumption patterns are increasingly uneven, as many people around the world are not having their basic requirements for life met, while others are consuming far more than their basic needs. This is no more apparent than in the area of food (Davies et al, 2014). Indeed, in many industrial countries, the expectation in food choices to be that a wide variety of foods should be on offer, regardless of country of origin or seasonality, and that these should be sold at a cheap price. This is accentuated by a “cultural omnivorous” trend, in which the set of items defined as part of a normal life is increased (Warde, 2005). This trend creates many environmental problems, as continuing to meet these expectations means the use of unsustainable and resource intensive systems (Shove, 2003). There are therefore calls for food consumption to be made more sustainable, which according to Reisch (2010), entails food consumption which is “safe and healthy in amount and quality; and…realized through means that are economically, socially, culturally and environmentally sustainable – minimizing waste and pollution and not jeopardizing the needs of others”.

However, there appears to be a disconnect. While explanations for the environmental impact of food consumption patterns are linked to environments and societal trends, intervention tends to focus predominantly on changing the individual (Delormier et al. 2009). Changing patterns of consumption has been recognised as a way to tackle environmental problems in many of the world’s international forums; originally at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and later at the 2002 summit on Sustainable Development where changing such patterns was acknowledged as one of three main objectives. Despite an initial focus on technological fixes, at the Rio+10 conference attention shifted to the role of the individual (Evans, 2011), and this has since been considered the appropriate unit of enquiry. There is a consensus emerging from the social sciences that concepts of social practice (SP hereafter) may help make better sense of the environmental impacts of consumption.

3. Limits of conventional approaches

The dominant paradigm of environmental policy generally focuses on the individual, seeking to encourage sustainable choices in sovereign consumers. This is particularly true for the field of consumption, which is largely considered to be private and autonomous and therefore inappropriate for governmental intervention, resulting in an emphasis on self-governance (Wahlen et al. 2012). This can be seen to be tied to a broader neoliberal rationale (Hargreaves, 2011), reflecting paradigmatic concepts of agency, structure and social change (Shove, 2003). From this view, social change is framed as the product of individual behaviour and personal responsibility, depending on attitudes, which are the drivers of behaviour that individuals choose to adopt. This is referred to as the ABC paradigm- attitude, behaviour and choice (Shove, 2010).

This draws on social-psychological theories and dominant discourses of economics and psychology (Delormier et al. 2009 and Shove, 2012) to explain individual food choices as a linear process of rational decision-making. The assumption is that an individual’s values determine the action he/she will take; value = action. However, it has gradually been realised that this is not necessarily the case, as despite increasing numbers of consumers expressing a concern for the environment, sustainable purchasing behaviour has actually decreased in many key markets (Greendex, 2014). Attempts therefore focus on closing what is known as the value-action gap through the provision of top-down information, education, awareness raising (Shove, 2003) persuasion and ‘nudge’ tactics (Wahlen et al. 2012), in order to create ‘enlightened consumers’ and encourage what Niva et al term as political consumption, that is; consumption that involves social, cultural, animal-related and environmental concerns beyond mere individual self-interest (2014). As the value-action gap has persisted, many models have progressively looked at how behaviour is shaped by other external variables whether they be positive enablers or negative barriers, such as context, habit, routine and personal capability (Shove, 2010), yet this has had limited success.

While the simplistic nature of these models is appealing- particularly for policy makers, they have nonetheless received much criticism. For many, they fail to take into account the political, institutional, social, ethical or emotional factors that shape how individuals act (Davies et al. 2014) and thus only focus on “the tip of the iceberg” (Shove, 2010), disregarding the potential for longer-term transformations in terms of technology, culture and practice (Shove, 2003). For Niva et al (2014) the delegation of environmental problems as the responsibility of market actors undermines other political action, as political institutions are replaced with market mechanisms.

Shove stresses the political agenda of such approaches, which necessarily “obscures the extent to which governments sustain unsustainable economic institutions and ways of life, and […] have had a hand in structuring options and possibilities” (2010). She argues that there are real political interests at stake in framing environmental problems in terms of individual responsibility which aim to keep a very particular understanding of governance in place. Hargreaves (2010) turns to the work of Foucault to expand on this, detailing how subtle micro-political processes of disciplinary power operate to create the world and the people in it. As it circulates through capillaries of collective life’ (Collier, 2009), this power is able to reclassify and reorganise space, time, activity and individuals in order to impose new forms of control onto activities (Hargreaves, 2010).

4. Social Practice Theory

Having considered the limits of behaviour theories, I shall now explore alternative approaches to sustainable food choices emerging from social practice theory (SPT hereafter). SPT draws largely on sociological/social anthropological perspectives and readdresses the fundamental assumptions of behaviour theories; namely that a) the individual is the appropriate unit of enquiry and b) behaviour is driven by an individual’s chosen attitudes. Instead, SPT takes ‘practice’ as the basic unit of enquiry, and therefore presents unsustainable consumption patterns as embedded within the prevailing organisation of practices rather than the fault of individual consumer behaviour (Evans et al. 2012). In this way, SP can be seen to mediate the tensions between structural determinism and individual agency (Giddens, 1984), demonstrated in the value-action dilemma of ABC approaches.

This is illustrated in the dual perspectives of practices-as-entities and practices-as-performances. Practices are assemblages of images (meanings, symbols), skills and competences, and stuff (materials, technology) that are dynamically integrated by skilled practitioners through regular and repeated performance (Shove and Pantzar, 2005). Practices-as-entities looks at the structural social order of the practice determined by economic, political context for example the systems of food provision, historically evolved discourses, equipment, technology and socially constructed ideas of food, which are adapted to available resources, such as time and money, via performance (Jaeger-Erben and Offenberger, 2014). Practice-as-performance considers the day-to-day reproduction of practices by individuals, who are viewed as ‘practitioners’ reproducing more or less sustainable ways of life and patterns of consumption (Shove, 2003). Although practitioners are considered as rarely fully conscious or reflective when performing a familiar practice (Warde, 2005), SP does not deny agency or possibility for social change. Rather, it stresses explicitly that the reproduction of practices relies on practitioners continuing to enact them in a specific way (Evans, 2011). From this perspective, “the insatiable wants of the human animal to the instituted conventions of collective culture” (Warde, 2005).

Some practices are easier to identify than others due to formalised definitions of proper performance and more visible indicators (Shove and Spurling, 2013). Eating, however, is a particularly complex practice, one which Warde (2013) refers to as a compound practice- drawing upon several integrated practices rendering it weakly organised, merely regulated according to convention, with no clear definition of what it means to be a ‘good eater’. Both Warde and Evans et al (2012) draw attention to the constituting practices of eating, ranging from the supplying of food, acquisition, food storage, methods of cooking and preparation, the organisation of meal occasions, aesthetic judgements of taste and the ways in which surplus foods are disposed of. Rather than adopting conventional approaches to sustainable food consumption which tend to focus on certain ‘behaviours’ in isolation, (e.g. the promotion of/dissuasion from particular foods; product substitutions; preparation efficiencies; and informational campaigns), Evans et al and Warde stress the need to address the interlinked activities and forms of coordination that constitute the practice of eating (Evans et al. 2012).

5. Case Study

5.1 UK’s Sustainable Development Strategy

Securing the Future (2005) is the UK’s sustainable development strategy. From the assumption that behaviour changes are needed in order to deliver sustainable development, a comprehensive behaviour change model for policy making is introduced in the form of the 4E’s model; Encourage, Enable, Engage and Exemplify (see fig.1). Sustainable behaviour is encouraged through financial incentives, engaged through community action, networks and campaigns, enabled through education, information and the removal of barriers, and exemplified by the government. This relates to nudge techniques, using positive reinforcement to encourage certain behaviour.

The strategy depends on education, which it sees as “helping pupils grow into responsible decision-makers and informed problem solvers”, and stresses “the importance of their roles as citizens and consumers”, demonstrating that individuals are the unit of enquiry and resonating Evans’ (2011) notion of ecological citizenship being evoked as a way to encourage people to “do their bit”. It also reflects a basic assumption that market mechanisms are the appropriate line of action. A more explicit reference to its neoliberal rationale advocated that in order to “maintain a more competitive economy, to compete internationally and build ourselves sustainable communities, we need to improve the knowledge and skills base of everyone”, revealing the political and economic agenda of the strategy.

Out of this strategy arose the ‘I Will if You Will’ report, which examines how more sustainable patterns of consumption can be achieved. The point of departure is that there is already sufficient evidence and governmental commitments in place, so the remaining challenge in to enable people to take up more sustainable habits and choices. Here, the value-actions gap is explained as being due to barriers such as price and convenience but also due to people lacking a sense that they are part of a collective movement, and suggests that this can be overcome by demonstrating that they part of a larger movement in which everyone is participating and making a difference. It therefore is taking into account social norms.

The report stresses a need to ‘get to grips’ with the ‘forces’ that drive consumer behaviour- making them appear to be abstract, elusive factors rather than deliberate, conscious and institutionalised social, cultural and political actions. Its description of these forces as “perverse incentive structures” echoes Shove’s earlier critiques of ABC approaches, yet the report still seems to be dependent on raising awareness and informing people and “opening people’s minds to the impacts of their actions”, and responsibility is nonetheless delegated to the individual and specific economic and political conditions are nonetheless left unchallenged (Stevenson and Keehn, 2006).

Beyond changing individual behaviour, the report also suggests two other mechanisms for sustainable food consumption. Firstly, the potential of ‘choice editing’ through governmental co-ordination is highlighted, where particular products and services are pre-selected to provide consumers with a sustainable choice. Secondly, the techniques of social marketing are suggested to create sustainable ‘wants’. Both of these however can be seen as neglecting the role individuals play in reproducing social order, and marketing is still deemed the appropriate channel in which to address environmental problems. Choice editing can be seen as a shift away from focusing solely on consumer decisions, making the sustainable choice the only choice. But this raises important question of who does the editing- who decides what is sustainable? Perhaps more importantly however, these efforts are focused narrowly on only one behaviour in isolation- the act of acquisition, thus neglecting the many interlinked activities and corms of coordination that make up the practice of eating.

Fig.1. The 4E’s model of behaviour change. SOURCE: Stevenson and Keehn, 2006)

5.2 Slow Food Organisation

Warde (2005) looks at how the Slow Food Movement can be seen as promoting some kind of coordination between the different integrative processes of eating in order to achieve sustainable eating practices, as it seeks to influence “the supply of materials, cooking techniques, temporal rhythms and convivial eating in light of an intellectual justification for reform of the eating habits associated with fast food and industrial farming” (Petrini, 2001, in Warde, 2013). This study thus takes Warde’s insights as a point of departure.

The primary organisational efforts of the SFM are to create cultural and educational climates in which new identities can take shape (Schneider, 2008). This can be seen to be creating a suitable environment for sustainable practices to emerge in, or “envirogenic” environments- in which the reproduction of sustainable consumption is favoured (Shove, 2010). SFM’s efforts to “redefine gastronomy” (Schneider, 2008), resonate Beverland’s (2014) call to redefine the elements of eating- changing the meaning of normal food, expectations and perceptions as well as technologies and competences that are involved. This can be seen as an attempt to formalise the constituting practices of eating, setting the standards of how they should be performed (Warde, 2013). It also more specifically aims to change the meaning of taste through exposure to local and regional foodstuffs; changing expectations and crafting preferences and thus becoming a form of cultural capital in which knowledge and practices are influenced (Pietrykowski, 2007). Here, demand can be seen as being created from within the practice, rather than individual desire.

The SFM views consumers as “co-producers of cultural knowledge and traditions” (Schneider, 2008), resonating practice-based perceptions of practitioners as (re)producers of practices. Sassatelli and Davolio however criticise the SFM however for their perception of ‘the consumer’, arguing that she is implied to be intelligent and aware, able to recognise and subsequently support quality food (2010). It is understood that the consumer must be trained and educated to become the “eco-gastronome”, which ties to Niva et al’s (2014) concept of political consumption. However, the SFM’s emphasis on education can arguably be set aside from former approaches which seek to close the value-action gap through the provision of information in that it employs gastronomical and sensorial education as a means to create new ‘collective identities’ which can then exert social, economic and political power (Schneider, 2008).

SFM seeks new ways of intervening and organising the food industry, focusing on cultural and symbolic interventions. The concept of slow is set against global capitalism’s logic of speed which they see reflected in food production methods and the modern supermarket. This approach aims to open up critical thinking space at moments of intervention (Schneider, 2008), and can be seen to be providing important time-related resources for the performance of a practice, as it attempts to “disrupt the practices on which practices upon which fast-food culture if constructed” (Pietrykowski, 2007).Here, the SFM can be seen to harness disciplinary power to reorganise current capitalist organisations of time, allowing practitioners to “control the rhythms of their own life” (Honore, in Schneider, 2008). The movement’s more radical position in its direct and explicit rejection of the ‘fast life’ implicit in capitalism and globalisation also responds to Shove’s criticisms that “policies which do not challenge the status quo…have the perverse effect of legitimising ultimately unsustainable patterns of consumption” (Shove, 2003).

6. Summary

The case studies have shown that, despite mainstream approaches to sustainable food consumption relying on individual behaviour models, there are increasing considerations of structural social order. Although this is arguably currently insufficient, there is evidence of many alternative approaches to sustainable food which are fostering practice-based approaches and taking a more radical stance against the political and economic structures involved in the food system. These efforts are coming from bottom-up movements within NGOs, suggesting that conventional top-down approaches to changing behaviour are perhaps not best effective.

As demonstrated by the SFM, practice-based approaches can seek to change consumption practices by changing the constituting components that make them up, for example, changing patterns of time, meanings attributed to certain acts and aesthetic judgements of taste. This is considered as taking a more holistic approach, addressing the interlinked activities which constitute and coordinate the practice of eating. These can arguably hope to create longer-term changes than simple individual behaviour models, as they seek to shape the environment to create conditions conducive to sustainable food consumption rather than expecting individuals to make these changes in an incompatible environment. Moving beyond behaviour-based approaches also importantly opens up possibilities beyond mere market mechanisms and intervention, building scope for a broader, more democratic and inclusive approach to sustainable food consumption. This report therefore suggests that such efforts might be effectively reproduced in future conventional approaches, shaping the relevant meanings, skills and materials necessary for sustainable food consumption and paying particular attention to how these are then reproduced and performed by practitioners.

7. Conclusion

Through reviewing contemporary literature and examining relevant case studies, this study has shown that, by reframing the act of eating as a social practice, interventions for sustainable food consumption can be made more effectively. It has argued that conventional approaches to sustainable food consumption which focus on individual value-driven behaviour are limited in that they only provide end-of-the-pipe solutions and disregard non-market interventions, rather than considering the root cause of the problem. In SP however “the background comes to the foreground” (Shove, 2003), and the ways in which options and possibilities are shaped by political, economic and other factors are exposed.

Recommending specific courses of action is difficult in SPT due to its internal contingency (Schatzki, 2012 in Evans et al. 2012). However, this is not unique to practice-based approaches; rather they are simply more willing to acknowledge and confront it than other behaviour-based approaches (Evans et al. 2012). This complexity should not be ignored simply because it is too difficult to grasp within current policy frameworks (Shove 2010). So although taking this perspective does not necessarily lead to direct action, by adopting a SP lens, conventional approaches can hope to expand their horizons for the types of intervention that are possible and appropriate (Shove, 2012).


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