9th Conference European Sociological Association

RN12 Environment and Society

2009-09-03 15:30:00 2009-09-03 17:00:00 Thursday, 3 September 15:30 - 17:00 Food Chains and Network Building I, 1E6

Alternative Agro-food Networks: A New Knowledge-based Agro-food Paradigm?

Recent years have seen the emergence of a range of alternative agro-food networks (AAFNs) which contrast starkly with the dominant productivist model of conventional agro-food systems (Ilbery & Bowler, 1998). Terms such as relocalisation (Renting et al. 2003), re-connection (Hartwick 1998), and re-socialisation (Marsden et al. 2000) have all been used to describe this relatively new tendency in the "modern geographies of food" (Whatmore &Thorne, 1997), one which seeks a transformation of the power dynamics within the agro-food system.

Based on an understanding of the knowledge/power link (Foucault 1972), as well as recent observations on the centrality of knowledge for the acquisition of a competitive advantage within post-industrial societies (Bell, 1993), the aim of this paper is to investigate the "knowledge" dimension of these newly-catalyzed agro-food spaces, and the associated forms of sociality and power. As van der Ploeg (1990) underlines, the rationalisation and standardisation of conventional knowledge-based agro-food processes has led to a shift away from the "art de localité" of practice-, experience- and craft-based agro-food knowledge. However, there are ways in which AAFNs can be seen as part of a very different kind of knowledge-based agro-food paradigm, one that involves distinctive forms of immaterial labour that invest the commodity with both informational and cultural content (Lazzarato 1996).

This paper explores the diverse knowledge systems operating in alternative agro-food networks in two areas of the northwest of England - the Manchester urban conurbation and rural Cumbria - and aims to identify their links to the different patterns of social relations and forms of value (Graeber 2001) associated with them. A plurality of complementary or contradictory knowledge systems can be observed among the practitioners, involving a diversity of knowledges and skills - old and new, traditional and modern, expert and lay, explicit and tacit (Polanyi 1967), encoded and embedded (Nonaka, 1994). Our aim is to explore the role that such knowledges might play in the constitution of a new knowledge-based agro-food paradigm, one associated with rather different future visions of society. Data come from the EC-funded project, "Facilitating Alternative Agro-food Networks: Stakeholder Perspectives on Research Needs" (www.faanweb.eu).