You Are What You Eat: The Social Economy of the Slow Food Movement

Article excerpt

Abstract Recent work by Schor revives concerns raised by Veblen and Hirsch over the destructive consequences of competitive consumption. In contrast, Twitchell argues that increased access to commodities as symbols of luxury signals a democratization of class and social status. Rather than playing the role of dupes, consumers are active co-conspirators in the creation and maintenance of luxury goods markets. While flawed, each of these perspectives has something important to offer to social economists interested in understanding consumption. A key question for social economists is whether material pleasure and the symbolic expression of identity through consumer goods is compatible with a more politicized, socially conscious consumption ethos. Food consumption offers a fruitful starting point for pursuing this issue. I begin by examining food and its symbolic role in identity formation. I then consider the Slow Food movement and explore the ways in which it maintains a central role for material pleasure while promoting a socially and environmentally conscious stance toward consumption.

Keywords: consumer identity, cultural capital, food consumption, social capital, slow food

Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are.

(Brillat-Savarin 1949 [1825]: 1)

The battle over minutes and seconds, over the pace and intensity of work schedules, over the working life ... over the working week and day (with rights to "free time") ... has been, and continues to be, right royally fought.

(Harvey 1989: 231)

We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods ... So Slow Food is now the only truly progressive answer.

(Slow Food International 1989)

INTRODUCTION

Consumption occupies a peculiar position in the field of economics. Analysis of shoppers, homemakers, and consumers is neglected compared with the extensive treatment given over to business investment, labor productivity, and trade. Neoclassical economics largely refrains from analyzing the roots of consumption behavior. Perhaps this has to do with the ways in which both passions as well as interests drive consumer behavior (de Grazia 1996). By contrast, social economics, attending to the social and cultural milieu embedding economic life, appears better suited to investigating the inner workings of the sphere of consumption.

Anthropologists, historians and sociologists have come to characterize consumption as a complex relational activity (Featherstone 1991, Miller 1995, Glickman 1999). Contrary to neoclassical theory (Stigler and Becker 1977), much information is lost when consumption is portrayed merely as a function of income and relative prices. Our consumption choices send messages to others (Douglas and Isherwood 1979) and we, in turn, adapt our consumption choices in light of others' perception of us (Cosgel 1994). For Veblen (1953 [1899]), conspicuous consumption requires novelty and scarcity in order to maintain status differences. Similarly, for Hirsch (1976), "positional goods" are commodities that signal one's rank in the social hierarchy. Attention to the social and cultural aspects of consumption is acknowledged in recent attempts to produce a critique of consumerism, most notably in the work of Schor (1998).

Schor examines the rise of "competitive consumption". In countries in which living standards are high, the objectives of consumption switch from material subsistence to social signaling through material abundance. Following Veblen and Hirsch, Schor argues that the acquisition and display of positional goods maintains one's social standing only so long as those goods are rationed. Competitive consumption becomes a race run on a treadmill with the goal of superior social status lying just out of reach. Schor concludes that the sensible thing to do is to "downshift", re-evaluate one's values and drop out of the race. …