This paper considers the relationship between social science and the food industry, and it suggests that collaboration can be intellectually productive and morally rewarding. It explores the middle ground that exists between paid consultancy models of collaboration on the one hand and a principled stance of nonengagement on the other. Drawing on recent experiences of researching with a major food retailer in the UK, I discuss the ways in which collaborating with retailers can open up opportunities for accessing data that might not otherwise be available to social scientists. Additionally, I put forward the argument that researchers with an interest in the sustainability—ecological or otherwise—of food systems, especially those of a critical persuasion, ought to be empirically engaging with food businesses. I suggest that this is important in terms of generating better understandings of the objectionable arrangements that they seek to critique, and in terms of opening up conduits through which to affect positive changes. Cutting across these points is the claim that while resistance to commercial engagement might be misguided, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge the power-geometries of collaboration and to find ways of leveling and/or leveraging them. To conclude, I suggest that universities have an important institutional role to play in defining the terms of engagement as well as maintaining the boundaries between scholarship and consultancy—a line that can otherwise become quite fuzzy when the worlds of commerce and academic research collide.
Researching (with) Major Food Retailers: Leveling and Leveraging the Terms of Engagement
David Evans is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Senior Research Fellow of the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester, where he is currently leading an ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council)–funded project on sustainable food transitions. He is also working on a project looking at environmental leapfrogging in the global South, funded by Unilever, and recently completed a project on eco-innovations and consumer practices, also funded by the ESRC. He co-edited Waste Matters: New Perspectives on Food and Society (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and is the author of Food Waste: Home Consumption, Material Culture and Everyday Life (Bloomsbury, 2014).
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David Evans; Researching (with) Major Food Retailers: Leveling and Leveraging the Terms of Engagement. Gastronomica 1 August 2015; 15 (3): 33–39. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2015.15.3.33
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