Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Les Gofton and Erica Haimes (1999) 'Necessary Evils? Opening up Closings in Sociology and Biotechnology'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 3, <>

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Received: 17/9/1999      Accepted: 28/9/1999      Published: 30/9/1999


This paper argues for an opening up of the theoretical and empirical closure on issues related to biotechnology. It argues that the real differences between issues and approaches in the disparate areas where genetic modification is used, from medicine to food production, have tended, for specific reasons , to be treated as though they could all be subsumed within a common set of issues and theoretical perspectives. Using examples from the existing sociological work in medicine and food, the paper presents an argument against the commonly assumed theoreticİprimacy of scientific discourses, often focussed on common issues of risk, and the related assumption thatİresistance to the introduction of gm products is best addressed by providing information and education. It argues rather that we need to treat each area as a very particularİresearch topic, and to maintain a clearİnotion of the variety of perspectives needingİto be employed in treating quite distinct applications of these varied technologies.

Biotechnologies; Comparative; Consumption; Food; Genetics; Medicine; Science And Knowledge; Sociology


Part of the excitement for sociologists working in biotechnology is the sense that it has not yet surrendered to the concepts and theories of any one field. It is still possible to find very different analyses,from those looking at Genetically Modified (GM) food production (see, for example, Lappe and Bailey, 1999) to those interested in medical applications (for example, Clarke, 1994; Conrad and Gabe, 1999).

The terminology remains fluid also. Different authors write about biotechnology, biotechnologies, genetics, genetic modification, genetic engineering, genetic manipulation, human genetics, animal genetics, agricultural genetics, applied genetics etc. Some of these terms are used interchangeably, some much more specifically. Each phrase carries with it a range of different associations and cultural echoes: it makes a difference whether the 'genetic manipulation' of animal cells is located in a discussion around biotechnology generally, in genetics and agriculture or in developments in new human genetics. Each possible location draws upon different hopes and fears, both culturally and in terms of sociological analyses.

In relation to GM food, the terms applied have a more direct significance: given public sensitivities, it is critical to find a way of describing the techniques causing least offence or alarm. Government pamphlets have sought to diminish the overtones of 'frankensteinism' or eugenics. 'Traditional' biotechnology, it reassures us (see HMSO, 1997) involved selective breeding of plants and animals; 'new' biotechnology simply extends these principles to the level of modifying, altering or re-combining different elements of plant and animal genes. We should, apparently, be reassured by the discovery that we have been 'doing' biotechnology all along, we just didn't know it...

Nevertheless, in a sense, the field is still wide open, its boundaries marked, if at all, by bramble hedges and drystone walls rather than electric fencing - permeable and accessible to a range of ideas, methodologies and associations. Part of our purpose is to make a plea for retaining that openness in the sociological analysis of biotechnology. One of the dangers in remaining focussed on issues specific to medicine, or the environment or food production, is that these will tend to become seen as 'what biotechnology is about'. We believe that a comparative perspective opens up the theoretical possibilities, and permits new insights.

Virtually all approaches to GM have foregrounded the possible risks. Indeed,there is a tendency to high drama in some social science work on biotechnology, where the potential of these technologies to work such changes on society is described in almost apocalyptic terms. The idea that both the known and the unseen consequences of these technologies will change society, social organisation, values, social relationships, social institutions, the meaning of life, and so on, is seen as almost inevitable. Within such views there is understandably an attraction towards 'risk' as the key analytical concept - how to establish its importance as part of the debates on biotechnologies; how to define it; how to predict, calculate and measure it; how to identify the appropriate expertises towards the different types of risk that will arise; what regulatory forms will enable the control of risk and so on.

Ulrich Beck's (Beck 1992a, 1992b, 1996) late modernity is the 'Risk Society'. Modern culture, he maintains, is first drawn into an unavoidable mode of bureaucratic calculation of risk in order to control and regulate the development of mercantile capitalism; the process then spreads to virtually every aspect of daily life. Science and technology, from being the means to control and exploit the natural world, have also opened Pandora's Box, unleashing forces and risks beyond our previous imagining. For sociologists such an approach justifies their input: who knows better about risk, and its social consequences, than they? Only sociologists can, Beck believes, adopt the reflexive position necessary to stand outside the modernist project of control and mastery of the world. The only hope is re-socialising science, a re-grounding in the real needs and wishes of communities (Bauman, 1992, 1997; Boholm, 1995).

And yet, there is a risk in risk: that of too readily accepting a particular theoretical framework and closing off other analytical possibilities. This is not to denigrate excellent work in this field (such as the collection edited by O'Mahony, 1999; also the work of Cunningham-Burley and colleagues): it is simply to suggest that we remain analytically 'open' (Schegloff & Sacks, 1973).

Part of the gain from that openness lies in the way that this allows hitherto marginalised work (for example, sociologies of agriculture, food production, the countryside and environment) into the centre. It also invites us to reconsider felicitous connections between more established areas, such as the sociologies of food and health.

We are not proposing a particularly radical alternative but suggesting that other, perhaps more old-fashioned analyses, might be useful too. A social problems analysis, for instance, particularly from the constructionist perspective, reminds us to ask the simple questions and interrogate the multiple dimensions of the issue (Best, 1995). To ask, in other words, about the nature of the claims being made; the identities and affiliations of the claims makers; the mass media typifications of the topic (given the number of media analyses in this area, it is surprising how little use is made of this concept, or indeed the concept of 'moral panic' which Thompson (1998 has recently revisited with reference to 'risk'; see also Gofton, 1990, and Beardsworth, 1990); the cycles of definition and redefinition of issues as they are presented and re-presented in media stories (but also, and often more crucially, in policy, scientific and professional documents); and the range of policies offered to regulate such issues, or indeed, and perhaps more interesting, their absence.

This approach can incorporate the more detailed and possibly more complex analyses, such as risk, within a broader analytical framework whilst providing a reflexive spin on the work of sociologists as one amongst many sets of claims-makers. It is a means of keeping our analytical feet on the ground, allowing us to assess the relative significance of different strands of the biotechnology debates at different times and in different contexts. To paraphrase Conrad and Gabe, the challenge is 'to find or create appropriate sociological frameworks' for understanding biotechnology and its implications (Conrad and Gabe 1999:510).

We would argue that there is a particular need to return to a consideration of the indexical qualities of these technologies, to see the way they both reflect but also constitute social and symbolic order and meaning. To do this we need to return to the finer-grained analyses of the significance that everyday actors attribute to these technologies in their everyday lives. We turn to a brief view of what we learn from such analyses in a moment; first, though we draw out some further contrasts between food and medicine.

Genetics, Medicine, Food

As well as providing a source of fine-grained analyses of biotechnologies (see, for example, Clarke, 1994; Marteau and Richards, 1996; Conrad and Gabe, 1999) 'health, illness and medicine' also contrasts with 'food' in the way that its 'genetics' has been ascribed social meanings and locations. Comparisons between the two areas provide more analytical purchase on the varied cultural identities of genetics.

A note of caution: Health and food are, of course, strongly implicated in each other's domains. Nutrition is a central dimension of health, and bad eating habits are said to generate our largest health problems. Coronary heart disease, strokes, and a large number of cancers are linked to particular eating patterns. Scares over E.coli, salmonella and BSE/CJD are as much health related as food related. So the two fields are not easily separable, and overlaps are very pronounced: food is a matter for medical researchers, and health is a key factor when investigating food usage.

And yet, with reference to genetics, there are some major differences between the two domains; the most important is undoubtedly in the incorporation and acceptance of biotechnologies. We don't want to overstate this, as a detailed history in both cases would reveal at least a mixed picture (see Tizzard, 1999 on the campaigns to establish the legitimacy of IVF). However, in general terms there has been a high degree of public acceptance of biotechnology in medicine, while research has shown GM food becoming steadily more controversial and less acceptable (Anon, 1994; Beardsworth, 1990; Brown, 1994; Frewer, 1994, 1995, 1998; Gofton, 1996, 1998; Gottweis, 1994; Hileman, 1995; Hoban, 1997; Leemans, 1993).

Conrad (1999) suggests the reason for the acceptance of biotechnology within medicine, and in the public discourse of medical applications, is three-fold (and mirrors the acceptance of germ theory as an explanation for disease): first, the applications are concerned with the internal environment rather than the external; second, they reinforce ideas of diseases as having a specific aetiology and thus as being easily locatable and treatable; third, biotechnology depicts the body as a machine with replaceable parts: locate the 'bad' gene and replace it. This view of disease and of the power of genetics is, Conrad suggests, misleading but appealing.

Conrad's thesis may also explain why one area of human biotechnology, human reproductive cloning, has been widely and publicly rejected: it affects the 'external' environment and has little to do with curing diseases. Perhaps it is almost too uncomfortably mechanistic to sit easily in the metaphor of 'body as machine'.

On the whole, then, from Conrad's point of view and ours, there is less fuss generally about GM humans than there is about GM foods! (Though again our point about terminology is important here since in medicine it is genetic screening and genetic therapy that are broadly accepted; some would argue that cloning is rejected precisely because it is seen as the GM of humans whereas genetic screening and therapy are not seen as genetic modification in the public eye). Surely though it is unexpected that there should be greater acceptance of medical applications than applications in food? One might expect that the role of genetics in human health and reproduction would be highly contested, both in terms of its ability to change, and even threaten, our definitions of life, identity, health, normality, nature and so on (Haimes and Williams, 1998), as well as in terms of its role in more specific contexts, such as prenatal screening.

The standard areas of contestation around biotechnologies are those of expertise, risk, responsibility and regulation. Within health studies, the formal attribution of actors and institutions to each of these areas is relatively unproblematic (though fiercely debated in specific areas and specific issues, of course) but is this the case in food? It is difficult in the area of 'food studies' even to begin to sketch out the possible contenders for these key areas, let alone begin to identify the key structures and social relationships (what, for example, would be the equivalent of the doctor-patient relationship? what is the equivalent of the GMC?). It is not our point that these actors, institutions and structures in medicine are unproblematic but rather to say that in the field of health it is at least possible to provide such a cultural map that in turn makes the fierce debates mentioned above possible. In the field of food studies, a number of different maps, and routes through them, would vie for authority.

Equally we have to step back and ask a more fundamental question: why do we have such expectations in the first place, that medicine should be the primary location of serious social debate, evaluation and possible rejection, and food not? Again, we don't want to overstate the case because,of course, there have been debates over medical biotechnology, but the terms of the debates, the range and types of groups participating in them, the forms of public protest, the tone of the media coverage and so on are different in the two domains. Can one imagine protesters trashing experiments in human genetics research institutes? Even were that to happen one could imagine a rather different tone in the media response to such actions to that of the half-approving coverage of GM crops being trashed.

We want to suggest here that one important element in any explanation of differences lies in the contrast between the cultural constructions of the two domains as sacred (medicine) and profane (food). Is it the case that the very fact of the cultural identity of food as being mundane, everyday, unprofessional (in contrast to the cultural identity of health and even more so, sickness and medicine as being serious, life disrupting, requiring professional expertise) that makes it possible to have such contrasting responses to these debates? Food is subject to such debates by the very fact of its mundane character - like football perhaps. (See Chaney, 1997, for a cultural exegesis of beer in similar terms.)

The rest of this paper considers this cultural paradox and explores its significance for the debates over food and the 'genetic paradigm' (Conrad and Gabe, 1999).

Food, Risk and Freedom Of Choice

GM food is often debated as if the decision to use or not use was simply based on a detached evaluation of the science. The most perfunctory glance at the sociology of food shows this to be unlikely. A focus on the risks involved (Mitchell and Greatorex, 1989; Frewer, 1998) has narrowed the perspective on how choices are made and how food is used, since the nature and origins of risk are equivocal. As McGuigan (1999) comments, definitional conflict is everywhere. For Beck the reflexive knowledge suffusing the social world of late modernity involves a struggle between expert and lay epistemes; for Giddens, it is the loosening of tradition, and the consequent reflexive changeability of institutions which provides the tentative, 'as-if' character of reflexive modernity (McGuigan, 1999, 124-5; Giddens, 1997; Beck, 1996). Risk, then is multiplex and polysemic, arising out of conflicts between systems of knowledge, and the loss of the warrant of tradition. Only within the 'aseptic space' of scientific discourse is risk precisely defined and measured (Bauman, 1992).

This reveals an interesting confusion. 'Informed choice' is generally considered to be the best basis for consumers to make their judgements about GM foods: it is at the heart of many government policies. Clear and informative labeling, it is commonly agreed, is essential if consumers are to make up their minds about issues they palpably will not take on trust. Yet both Beck and Giddens identify lack of confidence and endemic conflicts within systems of knowledge, and the reflexive changeability of the institutions producing this knowledge, as the wellsprings of our uncertainty. The 'freedom' of choice in the consumer society, Giddens believes, is also '..abandonment without guidance, and choice without guarantees' (McGuigan, 1999, 125; Giddens, 1997).

Thus, information and education (cubed or not) will not do. Gath and Alvensleben (1997) in a study of the effects of labelling on (German) consumers, concluded, 'The possibilities of influencing the acceptance of GM foods by information are limited...the widespread opinion that the acceptance of GM food is primarily an information and education problem (for instance Hoban, 1997) has to be questioned'. Frewer, Shepherd and Sparks (1994) likewise concluded that while Britons don't understand the term 'genetic modification', a campaign of public education to equip them to make a real 'informed choice' was impractical.

Education is useful for the acceptance of GM foods, Rath and Alvensleben argue, only if there are also consumer benefits, of approximately 40% lower prices than competitive products. However, they wryly conclude, 'Other consumers will not accept GM food as a present...'! The key difference in consumer attitudes to medicine, revealed in a conjoint study of attitudes (Polis, 1997), is that the consumer benefits are firmly believed and clearly perceived.

It is worth noting that this point (that acceptance of GM depends on perceived benefits to the consumer, evident in medical applications but totally absent from GM food) is hardly mentioned in the general debate dominated by risk. Yet it is surely a major and perhaps THE major factor in discussions of GM food, and highly significant when we consider the relations between biotechnologies in different sectors.

However, even though consumers are ill equipped to understand, and make little use of such information, it is a burden which cannot entirely be shirked. Daniel Dennett (1986) has drawn a useful parallel here. Despite a beloved status in pulp fiction and Hollywood movies, 'old fashioned' doctors do not really have the option of refusing to take account of new medical knowledge, or failing to keep up with new treatments. New drugs, treatments or information about illnesses involve a moral imperative for medical professionals. Increasingly the same moral imperative operates for actual and potential (that is, all of us) patients. Food provisioners cannot be said to be under the same kind of imperative, but housewives in one study were aware of the consequences of the beliefs they acted on in feeding their families: 'My son has always struggled with his weight, and that is thanks to me' one woman said; a domestic science teacher commented ironically 'Think how many people I've killed telling them that eggs and milk were an ideal diet. That's what we were told though...' (Gofton et al, 1998).

Equally, consumers comment on the complexity and contradictory nature of such information. A belief in 'organic' or 'natural' products may be a response to this information overload by returning to the past: food's version of postmodern nostalgia. This problem is acute in relation to GM foods: it is both the 'number one' food scare of the present in Britain (Guardian, 13/9/99), yet is also a fast growing sector in Britain, and is now second to the US in size (Hawkes, 1999; see also Gottweiss, 1994).

Although shoppers do invest time in looking at the 'biographies' of food products, as Cook, Crang and Thorpe (1998) found, there is a structural ambivalence - an 'impulse to forget' combined with 'a need to know' - confining this to reasonable limits. Our shoppers (Gofton et al, 1998) said, 'I can't spend time to read labels; it would simply take too long'. Cook et al's subjects adopted strategies such as 're-localizing' food sourcing by taking part in organic 'box schemes', providing a 'threshold' of security.

Consumer studies indicate that consumers resolve such issues of confidence in various ways - store patronage is often based on a belief in the retailer's responsibility and professionalism. The recent reactions of major players to public mistrust of GM foods illustrates how important it is to food retailers that customers trust their products (see Gofton, 1999). Hamstra (1993) found that Dutch consumers were anxious to find a trustworthy source of information in order to provide them with re-assurance, but this is not the food industry, scientists, or government. Developments such as 'consensus conferences' seem hopeful, but have not moved beyond the trial stage in the UK.

Consumer resistance to GM foods does not proceed simply from fears about its safety, however. A myopic pre-occupation with expert knowledge on food safety and 'scientific evidence' obscures the range of social processes and considerations in food choice and food usage, including GM foods. Consumer reactions to GM food products, in our view, can be understood only if we recollect these processes and considerations. The key claims for our argument might be summarised thus:

  1. new foods are accepted or rejected according to the usage they may or may not be able to find within a system; food items are seldom evaluated in isolation, but in terms of their use by specific actors, on specific food occasions, in combination, as complements or as substitutions for existing foods;
  2. choices, or non choices, involve a complex range of values and issues rather than simply a reflection of the 'utility' or safety of a product;
  3. choosing/shopping is constitutive of social relations, rather than simply a reflection of individual preferences; choices 'make' love (Miller, 1998), or at least secure household bonds; perceptions and meanings attached to foods have to be seen from this perspective, rather than the simplistic utilitarianism and rationalistic calculation involved in the risk perspective;
  4. concern over the 'unnaturalness' of GM foods reflects their deconstruction of ontological, categorical, and epistemological frameworks within which choices constitutive of social order and personal relationships take place;
  5. too singular a concern with 'informed choice' misrepresents the role that information does or might play in consumer actions.

We now consider each of these in more detail.

  1. Bringing food sociology back in...
    Food is a natural need, but a socially structured activity. To see the acceptance or rejection of food types simply in terms of their nutritional adequacy or physical safety is, as many social analysts have pointed out, to violate the complexity of the role played by food in social life. Few if any food choices in real life are simply governed by these factors. Indeed, this is exactly the issue taken up by Mary Douglas in her study of dietary taboos (Douglas, 1966, 1970, 1982). As Douglas has shown, the acceptability of food items depends on their symbolic role - 'instant mash' cannot simply substitute for potatoes because the latter 'marks' boundaries between important and casual meals, symbolising social inclusion and exclusion. Social intimacy signalled by comensality at 'main meals' is, at least in the food system of the British working class, marked by, among other things, the use of potatoes as a side vegetable on the main course plate (Douglas, 1982).
    Previous attempts to change diet - for instance, to increase fresh fruit and vegetable consumption - have shown that acceptable forms, patterns and combinations of foods are relatively intractable. To substitute fresh fruit for pudding in the British meal is to modify one of the important structural elements. Meals are for 'thinking', not just nutrition, and the established conventions incarnate (literally) relations between participants, ritual meanings, the mood of the occasion, connections with the past, and so on (Levi-Strauss, 1970; Miller, 1998; Valentine, 1999).
    Pierre Bourdieu's now classic study of French tastes (Bourdieu 1986) illustrates how the form and contents of meals, how they are served and eaten, their organoleptic qualities and so on, are important expressions of social distinctions. Food represents, Bourdieu says, a 'material philosophy of the body'; class differences are manifested in the different notions of the body, and food here relates to the appropriate body. 'Men's' and 'women's food', concatenated with class distinctions, relate to the qualities of food ingredients, modes of preparation, cooking and serving, style of eating, the eating mouth, the consuming body, and so on.
    If food choice is socially structured, safety is likely to be subject to similar factors, depending, for instance on who is buying for whom. Young mothers, for example, are likely to be much more sensitive to food safety issues bearing on their infants' diets than their own (see Gofton, 1989, 1990; Miller, 1998). Considerations of safety are typically placed alongside related concerns, such as animal welfare or environmental damage. Thus, existing concerns about, for instance, the use of chemicals in the growing and food production processes, or ethical reservations about animal husbandry regimes have to be set alongside the kinds of scientific and technical considerations raised specifically about GM.

  2. Education, education, education...?
    The gap between scientific and lay discourses may actually benefit scientists. Kerr, Amos and Cunningham-Burley (1997, 1998) argue that switching between discourses enables scientists to maintain, on the one hand, the position of detachment and disinterest on which scientific authority rests, while at the same time, using that authority to influence important decisions relating to the way society resources and employs scientists and scientific work. Scientists' discourses on biotechnology involve strategic switching between different modes. Scientists are disinterested seekers after knowledge, according to their notion of what science involves, and also powerful and authoritative players in the political and economic system. Maintaining their position in (2) depends on sustaining the authority invested by (1). This is achieved, Kerr et al argue, by switching between two types of discourse. For example, the chairman of Glaxo Wellcome, addressing the British Association for the Advancement of Science, switched constantly between the unquestionable right of science to carry out research, the obligation of government to fund it, and the dangers to the economic well being of the country of '..the present anti-GM food campaign' (Sykes, 1999).
    In relation to biotechnology, this switching enables scientists to maintain that they are not responsible for the way in which their discoveries are applied, but also that they are the only voices worth listening to in decisions about the allocation of resources and policymaking concerning scientific research and development. Sykes describes the public as 'consumers, workforce, taxpayers and technology users of today' and the responsibility of scientists is to 'answer questions and explain their work and its impact'. In the case of GM food, interestingly, 'the potential benefits.. have not been properly emphasised and thus are not understood by the public.' He concluded, 'The creation of greater scientific literacy in the wider community must be seen as an important goal for the government, educationalists, the scientific community industry and the media'.
    Yet consumers consistently choose products showing that they are responsive to information and that they are increasingly 'scientifically literate'. Choosing or refusing foods, in fact, reflects a range of values and issues rather than simply the 'utility' of a product. To consume is also to accept or refuse the ideas and values bound up in products. GM products are entering a market in which there are already well established segments focussed on health, environmental protection, social responsibility and so on. A GM product, like 'green' packaging or 'low fat' foods, carries added value in the form of the ideas it embodies. As Douglas (1997) remarks, shopping can also be seen as protest: some foods are not chosen, even when there seems to be strong reasons to prefer them. Many food shoppers will pay a premium for eggs produced humanely, coffee grown instead of cocaine, or corn free of chemicals.
    To refuse GM tomatoes is not only to ('irrationally') deny the hegemony of science and the scientific way of thinking, but represents a tangible threat to the general process of adoption, and thereby to the general economic prospects for 'the country'. To consume these products, then, is also to accept or endorse the place of this technology within our society, and indirectly, the ideas of competition and market values, as well as science, providing technologism with its authority.
    Equally, while lay discourses about food are likely to be very far away from those of scientists (Beardsworth, 1990), according to Amos et al (1996, 1998) it is important for scientists to sustain this distance, since it remains a key factor in their status and capacity to influence public policy. Pious declarations of the need for more widespread 'scientific literacy' would actually undercut the exclusivity and privilege of scientists as a 'caste'.

  3. Food and social relations:
    The debate surrounding GM food products, then, needs to take account of the range of concerns and projects that consumers choose between, in placing this or that food in their supermarket trolley. Risk may be an important element, but it is neither the only consideration, nor is it easy to decide exactly how it is perceived by consumers, or how it connects with related issues and aspects of image, symbolic meaning and usage.
    Daniel Miller (1998) sees shopping as analogous to sacrifice, but not just metaphorically. Both acts are concerned with using goods, especially food, in order to constitute relationships with loved ones/gods. To shop is to 'make' love, Miller argues, although that is, he agrees, only one possible way that shopping might be seen.
    Miller's analysis points out that one of the recurrent elements of the shopping experience is the idea of 'thrift' which is juxtaposed with the idea of 'treats'. Similarly, for the subjects in Gofton et al (1998), naturalness was an overarching concern but the 'unnaturalness' of GM foods was not universally seen as a bad thing. Sometimes, other considerations, such as budgetary constraints or lack of time mitigate otherwise powerful motives, such as providing high quality, healthy or safe food (Gath & Alvensleben, 1997). In relation to GM salmon, for example, one of the respondents in Gofton et al (1998) pointed out that producing salmon more cheaply would enable him to provide better for his family: if gm salmon were to become cheaper, it would enable him to offer more treats while satisfying the demand for thrift. GM, then, enables this individual to constitute a better relationship with his children by showing care and improving their diet.
    How foods can operate to articulate such relations depends on the broader context. Thus, for example, Harbottle (1996) found that Iranian refugees in Britain are concerned to limit or exclude non-Halal meat from their children's diet because they regard that food rule as an important aspect of the life they will have as Moslems back in Iran. However, many accept that it is expedient to 'bend' these rules because of local conditions, and accept non-halal meat or even products such as hamburgers containing pork. Such adjustments articulate the sense that relations between parents and children are different in Britain than they would/will be in Iran.

  4. Food and social order:
    Foods are a physical embodiment of important aspects of daily life. Mary Douglas (1982) has described the ways food occasions mark the passage of time, through the day, week, seasons, year, life cycle. Various food events, from snacks to ceremonial feasts are means of 'being' a particular type of person in a particular place at a particular time.
    The 'meaning' of a particular meal is, to a large extent, carried in the foods composing it; for example, the centrality of 'the roast' within the European food tradition is, as Elias (1979) notes, a key medium for the expression of social power and masculine domination. Historically, the division of meat was a ritual delineation of social divisions; for the ancient Greeks, it united the Gods and the classes of men included in the calculation of the social hierarchy. Later, carving was the privilege of the lord, passed from father to son (Svenbro, 1984; Detienne & Vernand, 1989; see also Falk, 1995, 1996) until the last vestiges of this power can be discerned in the gendered meanings of the 'proper meal' found in recent writings (Kerr and Charles, 1986; Murcott, 1982). At least one of the implications of 'freedom of choice' is a breaking down of the (male dominated) structures of the household in-carnated in the idea of a 'proper meal' and the gender relations this implies. Is freedom from oppressive traditions the same sort of thing as freedom of choice under consumerism, however?

  5. Consumer freedom, information and the postmodern:
    Although consumerism is often presented as the achievement of modernity, Bauman argues that consumer society is truly postmodern. Modernity involves the triumph of control and regulation in the application of science and technology to solve human needs. It is, he argues, the resistance to this controlling impulse which gives freedom, specifically 'consumer freedom', such a powerful attraction. 'Postmodernity refuses the modernist impulse to security in favour of the value of freedom - and freedom of choice is its vade mecum' (Bauman, 1997, 12).
    Freedom of choice is the means by which social distinctions are expressed and recognised, the critical distinction being between the heroes/victors of postmodernity and the vagabonds, the 'flawed' consumers who are its excluded victims (see Bauman, 1998). Yet, at the same time as the freedom to choose is achieving primacy, the process of making choices is becoming destabilized. The scale, breadth and complexity of the factors involved, actually and potentially, in choosing between the ever expanding goods available in the marketplace would be daunting in itself, were it not also the case that the very process of competition has at its heart the notion of product differentiation. As a consequence, choosing become more and more difficult and exhausting, as , in Bauman's words
    Differences pile up one upon the other; distinctions previously not considered relevant to the overall scheme of things and therefore invisible now force themselves upon the canvas of the 'lebenswelt' (Bauman, 1997,29)

In relation to gm food, as we have seen, informed choice becomes all but meaningless as the institutions within which choice takes place and information is obtained are deconstructed.In his analysis of purity as a major preoccupation of modernity,Bauman (1997) argues that this has led to two main forms of epistemological closure in the recent past, both associated with totalitarian political regimes. The 'purity' of national socialism sought to reduce everything to the central principle of race, while the communism of the USSR sought to make class the master concept. This tendency, Bauman suggests, is endemic to modernity.

We could see the debates over gm food as a rationalist/scientific discourse, struggling for closure, seeking to impose its authority. Yet the very force it seeks to control and regulate(consumer freedom of choice) is the basis for science's power and capacity to influence social and cultural development. (Bauman, 1997; see also Douglas, 1993)

In many ways, this paper is about resisting this 'pressure to closure': resisting seeing GM food as an isolated topic and opening up its connections to wider food issues; resisting seeing food as a singular cultural concern; making the connections between the different domains of genetic modification and biotechnologies more generally; resisting doing the 'one' sociology when many other sociologies are possible and relevant. What this paper offers is a web of connections (not all fully explored yet, admittedly) in which GM food issues can be located: both as a point of connection and as a source of further threads that extend the web's capacity.


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