The reconfiguration of producer-consumer relations within alternative strategies in the UK agro-food system : the case of farmers' markets
This thesis is concerned with the UK agro-food system, and in particular the emergence of 'alternative strategies' ('AS') that seek to overcome, or at least circumvent, some of the problems associated with the globalised and industrialised practices on which it is based. Underlying the emergence of these 'AS' is the intention to reconnect the processes of food production and consumption in various ways, and to reconfigure the relationship between producers and consumers. Commercial imperatives remain important within 'AS', but they are overlain with social, cultural and ethical constructs that can significantly influence the motives of those involved, as illustrated by Fair Trade produce which seeks to introduce a sense of equity within the exchange process. This research focuses on the relationship between producers and consumers within the context of Farmers' Markets (FMs). FMs have been used as the portal for this purpose because they are considered to be an exemplar of how producer-consumer relations are being reconfigured within a concrete exchange context. FMs aim to re-locate production within specific localities and specific personal relationships, in an attempt to facilitate produce traceability and give food a sense of identity. In order to examine these emerging relationships, data were drawn from a questionnaire survey of FM managers across the UK, semi-structured interviews with producers and focus group discussions with consumers at five FMs in England. In the first instance the data were interpreted through the notion of 'embeddedness', which established that the exchange process at FMs is modified by social interaction within a localised setting. As this did not permit an explanation of aspects of the relationship that were clearly of value to the participants, but extraneous to their commercial evaluations, the data were also analysed within the notion of 'regard', which established that there were additional benefits to the producers and consumers at FMs, intrinsic to the human-level interaction between them. For example, producers sometimes felt personally valued for the effort they make to produce high-quality food produce. On this basis, it was possible to establish what distinguishes FMs as a retail outlet, in terms of how the producers and consumers relate to each other and to the produce available. In order to better understand the significance of these results within the wider agro-food system, they were subsequently assessed within Conventions Theory (CT). CT is based upon a number of conventions, of which the 'civic' and 'domestic' conventions are of particular relevance in this instance as they I are concerned, respectively, with the general societal benefits of a product, and the development of trust in a product on the basis of attachments to specific places or people. The concept of conventions enables an understanding of how the participants at a FM define the quality of the products to be exchanged between them. However, CT does not specifically address the benefits of regard and so this thesis proposes that a regard convention should be considered, which can specifically incorporate this aspect of quality evaluation. Each of the conventions of quality identified for FMs is the subject of ongoing negotiation, and the concept of a bubble of FM alterity is suggested as a means of understanding the durability of FMs as an 'AS', before their underlying integrity is breached and they cease to have a distinctive identity. In this context, the term bubble is used to convey flexibility and elasticity, whereas alterity means 'otherness' which implies an intention to produce change within the agro-food system.