Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Anne Murcott (1999) "Not science but PR": GM Food and the Makings of a Considered Sociology
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 3, <>

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Received: 22/9/1999      Accepted: 27/9/1999     Published: 30/9/1999


This article sketches a sociology in the making that arises out of the case of GM food in Britain in 1999. It is presented with a view to moving, collaboratively, towards its further study. A 'considered sociology' is not original. It requires treating as an integral and enduring part of the field of investigation the historical and social characterisation of that same field. An evaluation of the sociology of food indicates that field's limitations for the examination of GM food, with one key exception. The article moves on to propose the need for (a) an as yet underinvestigated field of the industrialisation of food together with the role of science and technology within it, and (b) an examination of the industrialised (social) scientific production of 'the consumer'. These may then serve as a basis for examining the manner in which public coverage of GM food could be characterised not as a matter of science but of a PR and is now publicly construed as a debate, 'pro' and 'anti'.

Applied Social Science; GM Debate; Industrialised Food; The Consumer


First, if you would, read the next four paragraphs quite fast.

In a matter of little more than a year or two, the initials 'GM' appear to have achieved an extraordinarily wide popular currency in the UK. An even shorter shorthand than 'GMO' (genetically modified organism), the use of 'GM' (genetically modified) seems most commonly to be confined to the description of either 'food' or, less frequently, 'crops' or 'food crops'.

Public coverage of is pervasive. It can be found via all kinds of media - packaging[1], fly-posters[2], shoppers' handbooks[3] restaurant guides[4], gardening magazines[5] - in addition to the various sub-sections (national and international news and current affairs, business, features, fiction[6], letters) of the established mass media of communication, the press, radio and television, and nowadays, of course, the Internet. It is via the latter that a substantial 1999 report 'Genetically modified crops the ethical and social issues' by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics which includes a chapter entitled 'the scientific basis of genetic modification' has been made available[7].

The dramatis personae very publicly involved run a gamut of power and prestige - the Prime Minister (and the US President) a couple of Lords (Melchett as President of Greenpeace, Sainsbury as Minister for Science) chefs, laboratory scientists, farmers, journalists, activists ready to pick up their placards and take to the streets and 'eco-warriors' ready to take to the fields. Equally extensive is the range of organisations and institutions implicated: government departments and consumer associations, the City and the Church, lobbies and pressure groups, universities and schools, legal or financial institutions, businesses big and small, the police force and the courts.

It can be said to have elements of quite some drama. There is a neologism, 'Frankenfoods', conveying presumably a combination of derision and defiance but also fear and the threat of terror[8]. There is major expenditure. A reputedly $1 million or more advertising campaign promoting the value of GM foods by Monsanto Company ran weekly in broadsheet newspapers from June to August 1998. Coverage has become heated[9]. There have been strong hints of government departments at cross-purposes[10]. There are reports of already deepening economic depression in agriculture being worsened and of the prospect of job-losses[11]. Richard Sykes, Chairman of Glaxo Wellcome, devoted his address as 1999 President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science to urge support for biotechnology and GM foods ('The Independent' September 14 1999). There have been major reverses of policy by food manufacturers and retailers but also, possibly, multi-national biotechnology companies. And there have been dramatic pictures; memorably vivid images of human figures inhumanly clad head to foot in white coveralls, faces protected by white surgical masks, braving/courting arrest by the authorities to move into fields to uproot GM crops by hand[12].

The group of paragraphs you have just skimmed is long and amply annotated on purpose. Attempting to capture an impression of the variety of facets of the manner in which GM food has been portrayed - no matter how well known they may be to the reader - is a necessary opening for this piece. That impression forms the background against which moving to formulating a distinctively sociological set of questions for thinking about GM is made. So doing is prompted by a remark made in July 1998, by a director (just below board level) of one of the major British supermarkets who, observing that our scientific people tell us it's safe, described GM as a PR problem, a matter of the consumer's attitude. It will become apparent that the sociological concern is not to engage with the conclusion that GM is 'not science but PR', but to examine what lies behind and makes possible a conclusion in those terms - terms which appeared in subsequent months to crystallise as a debate 'pro' and 'anti' GM foods.

Just for the moment and provisionally, it is important to rehearse an impression of, above all, the breadth, the pervasiveness of GM food in Britain and the several lines of enquiry apparently presented. One reason, whose detailed discussion will have to remain somewhat in the background, is that the view taken here depends on the suggestion that in order adequately to approach GM food sociologically, an exceptionally broad, numerous and intricately interrelated set of substantive arenas and concerns will need to be encompassed. Roughly speaking, these concerns have tended to be addressed and matched by one or other sociological sub-specialty. No respecter of divisions between them, a considered sociology of GM food will mean, among other things, the future development of collaborations across boundaries between a very wide range of sociological sub-specialties, including those specialising in rural sociology, the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), the sociologies business and commerce, of mass media, of occupations, of consumption, of social movements and of policy and politics. So saying, though, is to anticipate future discussions towards which it is hoped the present thoughts might lead.

This article is a first attempt to set out a considered sociology for the investigation of the several phenomena consisting in, represented by and associated with GM food in Britain in 1999. What is named here a 'considered sociology' has a number of aspects. Chief of these is an allegiance to treating as an enduring, an integral, part of the subject matter, the historical and social designation of that self-same subject matter. The investigative effort is to keep in view not only the object and sphere of enquiry, but also the manner in which that sphere is socially characterised, attending in the process to changes and continuity in such characterisation. To foreshadow an item in the discussion to come, a considered sociology of food is to incorporate attention to the social designation of food, the social character of discriminations between food and non-food. A considered sociology of GM food is, in like fashion, to attend to the several social characterisations of itself. Crucially, attention is centred on knowing and knowledges. What are the knowledges of GM food? How is knowledge of GM food declared? On what claims is knowing based? Is there a knowledge to which appeal is made whereby to adjudicate between competing claims to knowing? It is, incidentally, important to note that the verb to know is used very consciously and deliberately throughout what follows. As will be seen, the list of substantive arenas in which relevant knowledges are to be identified and examined is extensive. The list would be considered ludicrously over-ambitious were it not for a strong likelihood that GM food runs us into them all.

A considered sociology also urges attention to the non-obvious more than to the immediate and perhaps obvious. In part this means not always accepting at face value the terms in which actors and other protagonists in the field under investigation characterise the phenomena associated with GM food. Studies of risk are self-evidently important, but so too is going beyond adopting risk as the topic for investigation. Reflecting on the debate about GM food is unavoidable, but a considered sociology is will require treating agreement or disagreement with one or other position in that debate as beside the point. Rather than taking sides, it requires concentrating on how the sides come to be the way they are. Likewise it is liable to require declining invitations to think in terms of a typical shape to so-called food panics, and to avoid unthinkingly following some of the literature into traps that, unsociologically, with no comparison with other events (eg epidemics Strong 1990), in other eras or in other societies, announce it is most likely foods which are the object of such scares.

At the same time, a considered sociology has - on the face of it - to do the opposite to accepting protagonists' own terms. For it also requires realising it will be as well to learn, as part of what are to be integral to the data, key distinctions made by actors in the huge field under scrutiny. One in particular has frequently gone unnoticed by sociologists. It is, though, part of the stock in trade of the food industry, the relevant government departments, regulatory institutions etc. Taken-for-granted knowledge in such circles, it is of central relevance to even a preliminary approach to GM food. All concerned know that there is a distinction between nutrition and food safety. A simple example, from an industrial point of view, illustrates this item of basic knowledge. No food producer - farmer, processor, manufacturer, retailer - can compromise on safety. Contamination and spoilage (by accident), adulteration (by design) and the like, represent an ever present commercial threat. It is not simply bad for business, it can mean going out of business. Single food products offered for sale must not harm, poison or any wise damage those who are to eat it. By contrast there is no parallel concern for nutritional content, in that meeting an individual's daily nutritional requirements in a single food product is not an issue - with the exception of those for whom such products do represent their total dietary intake, namely infants/babies and pets. For in respect of nutrition, it is known that nutritional needs will be met by the intake of a variety of foods over which the individual purchaser, not the provider will have control.

Such a sociology is nothing new, though possibly it is newly adapted to the case of GM food. It is presented as a sociology to complement other sociologies if, for no other reason than declaring that sociology is 'the study of modernity' does not self-evidently exhaust the discipline's scope for illuminative, adequately empirically grounded enquiry. It is not to be thought of as necessarily supplanting other sociologies, although it may call for renewing older sociologies. It is to keep in mind Freidson's strictures that '(s)ociology needs the challenge of data to keep theorizing honest, and of theory to keep data honest (Freidson 1983:212).

What follows is speculative, programmatic and rudimentary, seeking to lay the groundwork and set out what has and has yet to be provided for. The makings of a considered sociology is the least speculative element; working through features of GM towards the sociology probably the most programmatic. Accordingly, the piece necessarily strays at several points quite some distance from an ostensible concern with GM food itself and the discussion more than once doubles back on itself. It is unavoidably based on an uneven overview of the literature, with a systematic search yet to be undertaken. So far, though, there seems to be little distinctively sociological literature on GM food. One of the apparently very few, however, concluded an assessment of the American evidence with the prediction that 'food biotechnology will not become much of a social problem' (Hoban 1995:206). Since it is a first excursion, this article cannot be based on empirical research that is already underway. Instead it relies, as and when they came to hand, on readily available material (mostly documents) about GM food assembled as incidentals to other work including ad hoc observation in the process of participating in non-academic forums[13] while serving as Director of the Economic & Social Research Council (UK) Research Programme, '"The Nation's Diet": the social science of food choice' 1992-1998.[14]

The discussion has its origins in the sociology of food. As the next section indicates, however, work in this sub-specialty provides a weak foundation for thinking sociologically about GM food - with one exception. Subsequent sections pursue that exception to outline the contours of the industrialisation of food, of the (social) science and technologies which need further investigation, the better to appreciate what lies behind GM as 'not science but PR'.

The sociology of food

Contrary to what might be expected, those of us associated with a self-styled 'sociology of food' are among the least well qualified to write about GM food. Any discipline (the identity of which is sustained by the activities of those working in its name) constructs the object of study. In this sense, what disciplines gaze at constitutes rather than reflects their subject matter.

Beginning students in the sociology of food will find textbooks and the like presenting them with subject areas such as 'culture and food', 'vegetarianism', 'food and health', 'food avoidances/preferences', 'the social organisation of food activities and of eating', 'food and fasting' (anorexia, 'dieting' as well as obesity) (eg Beardsworth and Keil 1997, McIntosh 1996 Germov and Williams 1999). Compiling a trend report (Mennell, Murcott and van Otterloo 1992) required straying into literatures beyond sociology to find work on subject matters deemed material, as well as reiterating a long standing acknowledgement to social anthropology- a discipline whose British contributions sustain an emphasis on the symbolic and communicative (eg Caplan 1997, and for the US Farb & Armelagos 1980, Counihan and Van Esterik 1997). Some subject areas (eg the 'food system') may be presented as outside and/or different from sociology; some authors regard blurring disciplinary boundaries as a virtue (eg Lupton [1996] on eating, the body and self control ), others concentrate on the sociology of just one type of 'eating occasion' (eg a whole book devoted to meals Wood 1995). Beginning students may also find the sociology exhibits a strong and not always stated (but cf McIntosh 1996:10-13) allegiance to, and alliance with, the applied science and profession of nutrition, and/or radical critics within it, and with prescriptive food and/or social policy.

Work stays close to culinary cultures, healthy eating or dining out (Finkelstein 1989, Warde and Martens 2000). Journal titles - there are none that are exclusively sociological - emphasise this range of subject matter: 'Food and Foodways', 'Ecology of Food and Nutrition', or 'Gastronomica' which is due to be launched in 2000. Such focus on eating and associated social mores is reinforced by continued attempts to get academic recognition for 'food studies' (Ruark 1999), a direction, however, that parallels rather than pursues a distinctive sociology.

A concentration on eating is also found in some of the best monographs (eg DeVault's 1991) and edited collections (Maurer and Sobal 1995) more considered discussions (eg Warde 1997) never mind wittiest word-play, Fischler's 'gastro-anomie' (1979). Indeed, students might also be forgiven for deriving caricatures of authors as sentimentally attached to mythical styles of eating[15]. All this may do well enough when beginning to open up a field of enquiry[16] but the sociology of food continues to be unduly preoccupied with diet, food intake, cuisines. The balance tips: less a sociology of food, more a sociology of eating.

Eating (or not) is but one locus of human activities to do with food, its social definitions and its institutionalised character (cf the sociology of medicine Atkinson 1995). Others, such as agriculture, sciences applied to food preservation and technologies of manufacture, are either barely mentioned or circumscribed (eg Whit's [1995: 175-80] important 'appraisal of "scientific agriculture"' centres on the US and is much compressed ) and tend to remain unduly 'pre-sociological'. Even when Mennell (1985) and Mintz (1985) (exceptions honourable for their analytic sophistication) attend to other loci, the trade press, or sugar cane plantations, they do so the better to account for the manner in which taste and predilections for certain foodstuffs are socially formed. Thereby they perpetuate a focus tipped toward eating.

Casper and Berg's sharp reprimand to the sociology of medicine for ignoring medical technologies and biomedical science in the laboratory is directly applicable. In concentrating on the doctor patient encounter

The investigator stood with his or her back to the heart of medicine and studied the 'social phenomena' surrounding it' (Casper and Berg 1995 quoted in Elston 1997:4).

Casper and Berg are concerned to turn investigators in the sociology of medicine round to look behind them at the nature of medical sciences and the institutions of the laboratory. The concern here is to urge investigators in the sociology of food finally to turn round and look at the food science laboratory, food technologies and the associated institutions of manufacture - at the back of which, as will be seen in a moment, is a corresponding sociological neglect of the industrialisation of food. To paraphrase Casper and Berg, the investigator in the sociology of food has stood with her or his back to the heart of food and studied eating as a prime social phenomenon associated with it. As a consequence, she and he are not particularly well equipped to write about GM food, particularly, as will be seen in the next section with respect to the industrialisation of food, except...

Those associated with a sociology of food do have an important advantage. They are - or they should be - completely at home with the idea that what counts as food is a social construction. The point was made long ago by Berger and Luckmann (1966:202) no less. Somewhat disappointingly, though, it has not been as fully pursued as it deserves, largely appearing in the literature as routine rehearsals of the commonplace that what is food to one social group/ at one period of history is non-food to/at another. Rarely has it been adapted for thorough investigation of change/continuity or - most pertinent in the present context - novelty.

Writing over a year ago, I suggested a direction which provides for moving in those directions to pose more complex variants on the question, sociologically speaking, 'what is food':

(W)ho is posing the question and proposing an answer. Who are the agents? which social institutions are involved? which social groups or organisations? in whose name are they acting, with what purpose? what are the social processes at issue? And the questions extend still further: what are the materials, techniques and technologies being deployed? what is the nature of the knowledge which is being harnessed and to which appeal is being made? and which groups, organisations and social institutions have the power, the resources to accomplish enacting new definitions? In sum, the point of departure in developing this line of thought is indeed the social construction of realities. But now the concern is to examine the social processes of cultural and social constructions, the social forces that shape their form, provide for inventions, make for stability or propel toward change (Murcott 1999:314).

I went on to indicate what I had in mind via two extended case studies: one where the definition of what was to count as milk, its virtues and perils as defined by one or other more or less powerful social group was at issue. The other capitalised on a rare study from inside a food manufacturer - a poultry company in Norway - examining what is involved in creating a near enough brand new market for poultry. How was the raw material of chicken or turkey to be processed - how was it to look, taste, and be named - so that it would count as poultry which people would buy. Most important, I called for the study of the dynamic character of the social construction of food with respect to

1) regulation, policy and political processes: 2) the manner in which food suppliers (whether in manufacturing, or distribution) construe, and operate in, the market; and 3) the place of applied science and technology (Murcott 1999:332).

Bear that advantage in mind while noting that there are good reasons for the sociology of food to be unduly tipped towards a sociology eating. The number of trained sociologists specialising in the field is very low, and it is rare to find more than single numbers able to concentrate on it exclusively. The policy emphasis - albeit contested - on the demand side is possibly rather less controversial than on the supply side. Some sociologists' biographical/ political inclination and/or institutional affiliations (eg allied to nutritional sciences, dietetics, home economics, marketing) lean toward alignment with social institutional gaze at 'the consumer', 'the public', 'the people's health' and 'the (dietician's) patient'. The corollary is that examination and analysis of - as distinct from merely allusion to - industrialisation and food has been lacking.

'Not science...' industrialised food, industrialised science and technology of food

There is a hypothesis long overdue for thorough sociological investigation. It runs something like this: food is an interesting case of the satisfaction of a survival 'need' which, even in developed countries, has been strikingly late to industrialise.

Providing the wherewithal to deal with other individual and domestic needs (setting aside 'macro-level needs' for a pacified society) such as shelter and clothing, supplies of energy and of water (Goubert 1989, Hartley 1978, Hamlin 1990) furniture and textiles, household equipment and home decoration, as well as leisure (eg the mass media) and recreation (eg alcohol) are, the hypothesis proposes, more fully industrialised than is catering for food. The combined domestic production and use of all those others have, historically, moved out of the home, and split between commercially mass production and put on sale for domestic purchase (eg for the case of drinks, Burnett 1999). Crucially, items are on sale in a form immediately ready for use in a culturally and socially acceptable form. Sewing up lengths of fabric, wielding matches and firelighters, sander and paint brush are all optional domestic elements of productive effort. Typically, when the production of all, bar food, appeared in a British home of the 1970s, it could be more aptly described as leisure or hobbies than necessity[17].

It is only in the last ten to fifteen years - so the hypothesis needs to substantiate very thoroughly indeed - that a newly extensive range of food items are markedly more widely available on sale in a form immediately ready for use in a culturally and socially acceptable form on a par with other individual and domestic provision. 'Cook-chill', fresh not frozen ready meals, dishes running the gamut of (class-related) taste, along with world-leadership in food retailing are just some features of this recent and dramatic shift, a shift in which Britain has been at the forefront in most, world-leader in some. By the 1990s, the main (only?) likely exception with respect to food is home 'entertaining', special occasions, where home-growing the vegetables and labour-intensive home-cooking might be as aptly described as a hobby or relaxation. As part of my 'late industrialisation hypothesis', adequate account needs to be taken of the likelihood that one would be hard put to find laments for loss of skill[18] or campaigns for the resurrection of the ability to spin wool, build a table, dip candles, grow hops for home brewing, light a good fire for cooking, neatly darn a sock, that are parallel and equal in strength to the regular, more than century-long, public calls drawing attention to people's apparent inability to cook properly or urgings that the next generation be taught how boil an egg and make a meal.

What the hypotheses also requires be asked is the part played in industrialisation in general, and in these separate spheres in particular, by the sciences, by their application, and by technology. The organic character of food (Fine 1996) is likely to be central in this question.

The ramifications of food's organic character for demand (needs) are buried at the heart of modern concerns for health as construed by medical professions, health services and the state via ministries for health, welfare and social care[19]. The associated scientific practices producing dietary guidelines or nutritional-epidemiological evidence of inequalities in health status that is coupled with low levels of purchase of 'five a day' fruit and vegetables among the least well off are features with which a sociology of food has been closely concerned. The development of the biomedical science of nutrition - in practitioners' definitions 'the study of foods in relation to the needs of living organisms' (Bender 1975) 'applie(d) to promoting health' (Yudkin 1985) - has been documented far less by sociologists, rather more by its own practitioners (Galdston 1960, Copping, 1985) as well as been the object of social historians' scrutiny (Smith 1997).

The ramifications of food's organic character for supply seems to have suffered neglect, sociologically. Some historical studies deal with the matter, for example Atkins' (1991) careful analysis of spoilage and contamination of milk supplies through the nineteenth century. Rather the opposite to a sociology of food, the social history of food tends to tip away from a social history of eating. Sources reflect the supply side rather than demand. Certainly there is several centuries' worth of material on the taste and eating habits of aristocracies whose material and cultural circumstances included the creation of documents and other relevant artefacts - and the most desperate circumstances of the hungry and poverty stricken turn up in the record via riot and revolution. Eating, taste and other aspects of everyday demand, of the mass of a population have remained the stuff of a more incidental record, to be captured via oral history until well into this century, and the creation of sciences which investigate and record it - brief further comment on which is made below.

Where social historical investigation is not straightforward in certain distinctive respects, contemporary, concurrent, empirical investigation is not straightforward in others - contributing perhaps to the sociological neglect of the ramifications of food's organic character for supply. It means 'breaking into' a sphere that is intricate and, to many sociologists, probably alien, describable as yet in only the most ham-fisted fashion. This sphere is one in which those at managerial and policy level in and associated with the industry take it for granted that the food chain - easily memorised in sound-bite form of 'farm to fork', 'plough to plate' - is long, complex, world-wide, runs the gamut from primary industry, through manufacturing to the service industries. These senior managers and their associates know, as a matter of course that in the UK, food characteristically has a very high proportion of SMEs compared to other industrial sectors, a high proportion of which in turn are very small indeed - and retailing in particular has a dramatic bi-polar distribution with a small number of large and powerful companies at the other end of a scale. They know they are enmeshed in an industry which they appreciate better than outsiders has a distinctive level and type of competition. For the opportunity to sell an increased volume of pre-existing foodstuffs disappears when the majority of a population is sufficiently fed. It is the other side of the coin of Mennell's pointing out there is a physiological limit to the using the capacity to stuff as a means of social display and distinction which paves the way for discrimination in taste to become valued instead: quality supplants quantity. 'Added value', 'new product development', 'delivering quality', 'increasing consumer choice' are just a very few of the watchwords of the commercial knowledge brought into play in this type of competitive circumstances. Research access requires negotiation through such micro-political intricacy, along with commercial confidentiality, over and above other distinctive considerations in investigating business and commercial enterprises, such as interviewing VIPs (Thomas 1993).

From, at least, the viewpoint of the sociology of food in Britain, investigators seem to have left a gap where sociological study of food scientific knowledge and technology needs to be; a study of abattoirs in France (Vialles 1994), but apparently no studies of veterinary science and its application in the industry; seemingly no social studies of microbiology or toxicology laboratories and their role in the technology of food preservation, the hygiene inspectorate,. The closest is instead provided by social historians bringing their studies as much up to the present as they are able (Horrocks 1995, 1997, den Hartog 1995). In effect, the absence of such a body of work represents a gap in sociological understandings of the broader food industrial context and its own scientific and technological knowledges - understandings of a pre-existing context which would support making informed sense of the food industrial reception of GM food technology.

The invention and growth of biotechnology and its own industrialisation compounds the investigative complexities for the case of GM food. A significant trail has been blazed by sociologists' successful negotiation with university colleagues in the natural science and medical faculties, testimony to a good twenty years of the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), a trail continued as scientists have been followed out of the academy into commercial scientific enterprises (Rabinow 1996). So saying is not wholesale to adopt Miller and O'Leary's (1994) call for, in effect, the dissolution of the distinction between laboratory and factory in their urging the extension of the idea of he former to encompass the latter. However illuminating so doing may be, its intention will not serve the purpose at issue here, of tracing through the various divisions of a manufacturing company, the fate of the understandings and constructions, the knowledges in short, of the science and technology integral to the items being manufactured. For it will be important not to overlook the slightly separate investigation of life in the laboratories that are located within manufacturing firms themselves.

Here are intricately interlocking arenas - but hastily described here - in which a considered sociology will need to create and locate itself by way of devising an investigative grasp of the knowledges at issue. Tracing the interplay, the nature, the very construction of these knowledges not just through the various industrial segments of the food supply, but also through the different divisions of a single company - be it complex and multi-national, small and 'niche' - may be an exceptionally tall sociological order. It does, though, logically follow as an investigative strategy for tackling for the case of GM food (among others) the questions posed in paragraph 3x above.

'...but PR': industrialised social science and the social production of the consumer, the case of GM food

The previous section outlined the contours of a still shadowy sociology of the industrialisation of food and of the integral part played by science and technology, noting along the way just a few of the considerable logistical difficulties to be tackled in mounting a programme of empirical work. This section illustrates a further aspect of a considered sociology of the case of GM via inferring the industrial-scientific 'manufacture', the social production, of 'the consumer'. In this fashion it proposes an additional way into the empirical investigation food's industrialisation where it is types of applied social science that are the science and technology in question.

The line of thought in this final section is adjacent to, rather than directly in line with, an only ten year old literature in the sociology (along with social anthropology Miller 1995, geography Bell and Valentine 1997 and other social sciences) of consumption (Corrigan 1997). In key respects this field has developed in reaction to what has been judged sociology's previous over-emphasis on production (cf Warde 1990 ie his intro to special issue of Sociology). Attention has thus been turned to substantive aspects such as shopping (eg Falk and Campbell 1997) tourism (Urry 1990) clothes (Corrigan 1989) and 'the body' (Falk 1994). Attention too has been devoted to that remarkable current tendency to talk of 'consumers' rather than listeners to the radio, spectators at a sport stadium or even just plain shoppers, as the starting point for understanding the changing character of modern society, along with selected associated features such as the 're-packaging' of what might once have been judged high culture for mass consumption (Keat, Whiteley and Abercombie 1994). Inevitably so doing also meant regarding the public services as a site of consumption, which has been elaborated to separate from one another, the market, the state, the household and the communal as ideal-typically distinct modes of the provision of consumption.

Even though this last has been placed under a heading of the 'production of consumption' (Edgell and Hetherington 1996 their chapter in Soc Rev Mon), the sociology of consumption thus far has developed work which, when it is not engaged in discussion at more abstract levels of 'consumption', appears to be aligned with the point of view of those doing the consuming and located in the midst of their experience as consumers. There may, then, even be a case for paraphrasing Casper and Berg (para 2.3 above) once again to suggest that, thus far, investigators in the sociology of consumption have also stood with their backs to the heart of the consumption industry, and studied the 'social phenomena' surrounding it. The attempt here, by contrast, is to turn round and look at the scientific production not so much of goods or services to be consumed, but the (social) scientific production of 'the consumer'.

The first stage in this attempt is to try and make strange (in the manner integral to ethnography Hammersley and Atkinson 1995) what has probably become very familiar to anyone following debates about GM food. It is based on two haphazardly chosen items that are to hand - here, for convenience, respectively KR and LB. One is an item carried by the 'The Irish Times' on 29th April 1999[20], under the headline 'Consumers not receiving clear and accurate information about genetically-modified foods'. A sub-head reads: 'Reason should return to the genetically modified food debate to ensure we can benefit from the many advantages of gene technology as it applies to what we eat, writes Kathryn Raleigh' - whose affiliation at the foot of the article is given as 'executive of IBEC's Food and Drink Federation'. The other item, entitled 'Unnatural Order?' appeared in 'Waitrose Food Illustrated' a (literally very) glossy magazine published by the supermarket/store of the same name[21]. It too carries a sub-head: 'As the genetic modification debate gathers pace, Lynda Brown explains why she and her fellow food writers launched their own anti-GM campaign. Part way through the article are, sub-head fashion, two quotations from itself: 'Common sense says everybody should be concerned about playing God with nature' and 'Consumers are angry about the undemocratic way that these foods have been introduced'.

These two items are not just set up as on opposite sides of a debate for present purposes, they are presented as such and each author declares as much. The sub-head of both explicitly refers to 'the debate' prefixed by a definite article; the latter referring to an 'anti' campaign, the former saying 'reason should return' signalling, if that be needed, a 'pro' position with reference to 'the many advantages'. Correspondingly, it is possible to work through them both and add to the list of contrasts - in terms of vocabulary, tone, imagery, style etc - marking them as one opposing sides.

Equally it is possible to confirm that they are involved in the same, a shared, debate underscored by their use of identical vocabulary and by their close attention - albeit from opposing positions - to the same dimensions. Put the other way round, neither seeks to question, undermine or step outside the terms of that debate. Both make reference to choice: only on receipt of a balanced, clear and consistent message can 'consumers... make an informed choice' (mentioned twice) (KR); '(c)onsumer choice is at the heart of this debate' (LB). Both are campaigning for labelling (even though what, how, where etc is liable to differ): 'comprehensive labelling... on the front of the packet, not buried in the small print on the back' (LB); 'from the outset the food industry has been consistent in its call for labelling... (w)e are committed to labelling all food products... (KR). Both use the word 'benefit'. 'It is... likely we will se the development of more GM foods... from which the Irish consumer will derive a direct benefit' although Kathryn Raleigh does not anywhere specify what that benefit is. 'Genetic modification... as far as we can see, offers no consumer benefits' (LB). Both refer to the system of expert knowledge, regulation and control: 'the food industry has absolute faith in the system' with controls described as 'rigorous' and 'strict' and 'scientists' listed among those the industry talked to (KR). But '(B)est scientific advice was hopelessly wrong over BSE... ' (LB). Both use a contrast with 'organic' foods. The 'anti-GM' position includes reference to the fear of contamination of non-GM crops and the risk of the loss of their organic status to organic farmers as well as including 'buy(ing) as much... organic food' as possible in the list of action the reader can take (LB). The 'pro' viewpoint includes seeking some 'flexibility' in labelling akin to that 'allow(ed)' organic farmers. So here the reference to organic comes via an illustration noting that 'if a product is labelled as organic, up to 5 per cent of the ingredients may be derived from non-organic ingredients.

Though not conveying anything new, the previous three paragraphs seeks to make them seem so. The attempt here is to underline the terms in which 'the consumer' is held to be concerned by those who are to write in their interests. On that basis, the present attempt aims to pivot around on just those same terms as a way of beginning to look at the manner in which 'the consumer' is produced. It may be noted, incidentally, that an untested proposal lying behind the point being made is that, in this sense, 'the consumer' is a collaborative production, jointly produced by opponents, both those representing a food-industrial position and those who are, at some level, allied with other organisations and groups describable as part of a consumer movement.

There is one more feature in common that needs to be mentioned. Both articles make appeal to evidence, ie to some form of measure of consumers' views. 'No one was taking the concerns of consumers seriously... yet every poll shows that between 70 and 90 per cent of people don't want genetically modified... foods' (LB). 'Genetic Concern has stated that surveys indicate consumers do not want GM foods.' (KR). But, the latter continues: 'However, not one survey of the population has been carried out by an independent body to illustrate the level of concerns consumers have.'

These articles' references to surveying/polling consumer responses, brings the discussion to the second stage of this attempt to turn round and examine the industrialised (social) scientific production of 'the consumer'[22] The extension, the analogy, is indeed as simple as it sounds. Where the industrial production of cook-chill meals depends on sciences and technologies that include bench laboratory work, electrical engineering and computerised control systems, the industrial production of the consumer depends on selected applied social sciences.

Recall that the remark that sparked the line of thought in this article concerned PR not with suppliers (poultry farmers, cereal growers or millers) to the company in mind, but purchasers of the good and services the company produced. The reference throughout was to 'consumers'. In this the remark was directly in line with the terms in which putting food on sale was expressed among those in and associated with the industry [see footnote 13]. It is also, of course, in line with the focus of the applied social sciences involved. Describing these sciences here as 'applied' derives from their apparent separation from the institutional and organisational location of non-applied ('basic', 'pure') social sciences.

It is noticeable that there are slight variants in the names given to the applied social sciences in which the word 'consumer' figures[23]. Reviewing recent developments in the US, Belk provides a neat 'genealogy: economics begat marketing which begat consumer behaviour research which begat "the new consumer behaviour research"' (Belk 1995:58) the last of which is the subject of his discussion. 'Consumer Research' is also enshrined in the name of the professional association and the journal. 'Consumer sciences' appears to be the expression current among managers and others close to the food industry in the UK. While 'consumer studies' (historically allied to home economics) is the term enshrined in the UK Standing Conference whose definition runs:

Consumer Studies is an interdisciplinary subject which seeks to understand the relationship between consumers and the economic, technical, social and environmental forces which influence the development and consumption of goods and services (reprinted in CS&HE 1999)

As Belk records, consumer research is still 'in the early stages of theory development and continues to draw more on other disciplines than these disciplines draw o it' (Belk 1995 199:74). He also notes it is affiliated to business schools in the US. In parallel, UK consumer studies appears to be linked with university departments of marketing and business studies, and also 'new' universities' departments of consumer studies, schools of tourism/leisure or of consumer education. Any of these variants is neither a familiar or obviously widespread designation for courses, degree schemes, commonly consulted journals and the associated paraphernalia defining academic orientation, in longer established British university discipline-based social science departments of economics, psychology, social anthropology or sociology. Though Belk makes the point only obliquely, consumer studies/science research is itself commercialised, implicated in Mode 2 knowledge production (cf Gibbons et al 1994), based in think tanks, consultancies and independent research enterprises whose businesses is the production and sale of knowledge in forms usable by industrial clients (see also Warde 1998) as well as organised in some companies as an in-house service. Self-evidently, of course, this means that the day to day work of researchers engaged in such applied activity is to be distinguished from that presented to audiences of researchers' peers in, say association's conferences or journals, but is undertaken as a commissioned commercial service for an industrial client, more akin to the occasional consultancy undertaken by university social scientists.

Belk is, though, explicit in characterising an older model of the consumer 'the information processing rational consumer' (Belk 1995:73) which is being supplanted. He notes the emergence of new 'non-positivist perspectives' such as 'experiential consumption ethnographies' tackling 'consumption symbolism' as well as developing critical perspectives dealing with 'consumer resistance strategies' and 'dysfunctional consumer behaviours' (Belk 1995:61-67). Noting his observations here underscores the present concern to open up for future enquiry models of 'the consumer' constructed by commercial uses of consumer sciences, its industrial production.

This concern is illustrated with reference to two pieces of work about GM food, presented to and by industrial interests. One is an article by Chaya Howard and Lynn Frewer of the Institute of Food Research summarising their research on 'consumer attitudes' to GM which was carried by 'feedback'[24] published by the Food and Drink Federation in its Winter 1998 issue. The other, on the same topic, is a report of 'qualitative consumer research' conducted by the Institute of Grocery Distribution, included in a pack supplied on request by Monsanto Co. to those who visited its website in August 1998. Describing each report as well written and professionally highly accomplished is not to be taken as patronising but the best substitute possible in the present context to convey a sense of both. Each - it has to be assumed - satisfactorily provides what the industrial client expects. Apart from both locating their reports with reference to the 'need for information', 'labelling', and '(informed) choice', and also to 'risk', 'benefit', and 'ethical concerns', they share a slightly more technical vocabulary enshrining the knowledge being purveyed about 'the consumer'. A count could (but has not) be made of the high frequency with which the following - almost invariably prefaced by the word consumer used adjectivally - occur in both: acceptance, awareness, opinion, confidence, concerns, perceptions, trust, understanding, reassurance.

These are the dimensions in terms of which the reports are geared, in effect, to assess the extent to which those included in the study share or do not share - how correct or incorrect - an industrial view of GM foods. The orientation of this (and much other) consumer research bears close similarities to what Wynne (1995) has summarised as the survey research approach to studies in the public understanding of science that are limited to the measurement of degrees of supposedly 'scientifically correct' answers. It also bears similarities with studies of patients' 'compliance' with preventive or therapeutic regimes as conceived of by doctors. Consumer, public, patient, it is proposed, are all thereby produced via the forms of applied social science giving expression to the distinctively socially manufactured conception of each of the three.

Concluding remark

The foregoing is a first - and fast - attempt to set out the beginnings of a considered sociology of the case of GM food. Closer to thinking aloud than an academic paper, it has required venturing well beyond the sociology of food, in order to illustrate the manner in which GM food needs a fuller investigative grasp than is currently available of the industrialisation of food and its supply, and to sketch a fraction of the type of approach and empirical work worth attempting.


1 eg Packages of tofu manufactured by Cauldron Foods, Bristol, are now over-printed 'GM FREE'

2 A series of stickers appeared on posters, walls, lampposts etc in north London in early July 1999 urging attendance at a rally, protesting 'We're not swallowing GM foods'.

3eg 'How to avoid GM food' by Joanna Blythman (Fourth Estate) and 'GM Free: a Shopper's Guide to Genetically Modified Food' by Sue Dibb and Tim Lobstein (Virgin Books)

4'The Good Food Guide 1999' (1998) London: Which? pp 24-5, 20-31

5Ingram, D (1999) 'Engineering the future' 'The Garden: journal of the Royal Horticultural Society' vol 124 part 7 July 544-45

6'The Archers', Britain's longest running radio soap opera based on a farming dynasty, introduced a strong story-line revolving round the risk to an organic farmers' status from nearby fields of trial GM crops. A similar case had been heard in the Court of Appeal in 1998 (Barr 1998). The soap version is serving as a vehicle for airing a remarkably detailed and fully informed range of angles on the debate; notably including reference back to a report covered across the mass media (cf 'The Independent' May 20 1999) of the lethal risk posed to the Monarch butterfly of pollen from maize genetically engineered with Bacillus thuringiensis toxin (BT) pointing out, though, that the same toxin is used by organic farmers as a 'natural' pesticide. One of the programme's agricultural advisers is Graham Harvey, author of (1998) 'The Killing of the Countryside' London: Vintage.


8Adapted, presumably with some glee, in the headline 'M&S sells genetically modified Frankenpants' in an article carried on page 1 by 'The Independent on Sunday', July 18, 1999, reporting the use of GM cotton in underwear sold by Marks & Spencer who had not long before announced the withdrawal of GM ingredients from its own-brand food products.

9When, during the summer of 1999, the veteran and widely respected American (English born) journalist Alistair Cooke, in one of his weekly BBC Radio 4 broadcasts in his series 'Letter from America' which has been running for some four or five decades, commented on the manner in which the British and other Europeans seemed far more exercised about GM ingredients than were the Americans, he was fiercely taken to task by a furious correspondent to the listeners' comment programme 'Feedback' for being interfering, patronising and imperialist.

10Scrutiny of British broadsheet newspapers throughout 1999 will allow comparisons of reported public pronouncements of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods (MAFF), the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Department for the Environment (DFTE) which suggest they have not consistently been neatly aligned.

11 BBC Radio 4 'Farming Today' July 19 1999 report on risks to Britain's advantageous position in Europe as a leader in the 11,000 job biotechnology industry and a biotechnology scientists' 'brain drain'.

12Eg reproduced by 'The Times Higher' August 27 1999 p 15.

13 In the company of managers, executives and directors in manufacturing and retailing food companies; civil servants; spokespersons of the very large numbers of associations representing various sectors of the industry; lobbyists, activists, members of pressure groups and representatives of consumer associations; independent consultants to the industry and experts in the law, public relations, accountancy, sales and marketing, venture capital; scientists including toxicologists, food scientists, microbiologists, chemists, applied psychologists, economists, nutritionists, public health doctors and market researchers.

14 <>

15A nostalgia either for a golden age of perfectly cooked omelette and a perfect glass of wine in a tranquil kitchen, whose portrayal is detached from, has obliterated even, the labour, the politics and the economics of their production, or for a near-Luddite repudiation of the modern and its distances between farmer and shopper, to hanker after a different myth of noble craft production close to the earth.

16 The title - 'The Sociology of Food and Eating' - of my own first edited collection (Murcott 1983) sought accurately to reflect that initial emphasis.

17And, possibly less and less frequently, eg DIY repairs and house decoration, as a cheaper alternative to buying services on the open market.

18Other than a kind of rescue effort akin to rescue archaeology.

19Another aspect is in terms of looks, allure, sense of self and well-being, more marginally construed in terms of health and welfare among medical professionals, health services and the state, more prominently the province of sport, fitness, weight reduction, fashion left much more to the market.

20 That the article is Irish not British is immaterial for the present discussion.

21Normally on sale/free to store account holders but for the issue in question, a complimentary accompaniment to 'The Observer'. I am grateful to Hilly Janes for drawing my attention to it and providing me with a copy.

22 Cf a 1939 definition of the consumers as those 'who buy for household or personal needs without the object of making money out of the use of the goods purchased' Dameron: 1978:21

23 It has yet to be established whether these are superseding, co-existing with or being treated in contrast to the term 'market research'.

24 A slim, 22 page A4 periodical, full-colour clearly and well designed and produced carrying short articles.


This article would have been much harder to write without the careful filing of newspaper cuttings and other ephemera about GM foods voluntarily undertaken by Laura McKenzie (31st August 1967 - 1st May 1999). It is dedicated to her memory. For helpful conversations, suggested references, or generously prompt responses to hurried requests for the loan of a book or copies of their articles, I am indebted to Roger Dickinson, Robert Dingwall, Gill Ereaut, Ronnie Frankenberg, Stewart Lockie, Virginia Low, Phil Lyon, Alan Mitchell, Virginia Olesen and Mark Thorpe. As ever, I am grateful to my niece, Laura Allen, for keeping me supplied with cuttings and note of new web-sites.


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