Power differentials, culture and food integrity. | Sumfood

Posted in Consumer, Food Security on May 23, 2018

I have many theories about food systems.

It’s fair to say I have had an interesting career. Though I escaped academia after the powers-that-be thought my proposal to investigate how young people were using the World Wide Web (as it was called back in 2006) was not worth the time or effort, sometimes the academic in me bubbles up and I find myself theorizing about stuff. Usually, food stuff. More specifically, food system stuff. So, finding myself in a rather tedious session at a recent food conference, I started pondering something I had read in a Malcolm Gladwell book.

In 2008’s Outliers, Gladwell wrote about the power distance index, quoting examples of how flight crews acted (or didn’t act) in the face of imminent threat. That work was based on the theory of a Dutch social psychologist named Geert Hofstede, who created the power distance index to measure the extent to which less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.

‘What on earth does this have to do with food?’ I hear you say. Well, I find it intriguing that countries that have the lowest power distance (that is, they readily question authority and expect to be active participants in decisions that impact them) also seem to come from countries with robust food systems. The inverse – those with high power distance (accepting of unequal power and unlikely to challenge authority) – seem to have not-such-robust food systems.

There is nothing causal in this theory, but it is interesting to ponder. If you are in a society that will challenge authorities when something is not OK, then if follows that you are more likely to kick up a stink when there is something wrong with the food supply chain. Conversely, if you live in a society where you accept your position and are resigned to the powers of the authorities, you are more likely to be accepting when bad (food) things happen.

Let’s stretch this theory even further. Countries such as Austria, Israel, Denmark and New Zealand that have the lowest index scores (11, 13, 18, and 22, respectively) which means there is greater engagement and less acceptance of power as a differential between people/groups, can be compared with the ‘frequent fliers’ of food safety issues (USA 40, South Africa 49, India 77 and China 80) that score considerably higher on Hofstede’s scale. So, it is plausible that engagement with authorities leads to greater expectations and therefore, in this application, improved food systems.

Similarly, it is likely that in countries with a low score, food workers who see something ‘wrong’ are more likely to notify authority figures. How then can we expect to ‘fix’ food systems in countries where consumers are unlikely to challenge authority (whether that authority is the government, lobby groups, executives or other people with ‘higher power’)? Clearly, this is only a theory and has not been tested. Even if an appropriate research design was employed, it would be extremely difficult to apply any level of causality.

But … it is one mechanism to explain the cultural challenges we have in fixing broken food supply chains. While food potentially transitions through a number of different countries on its convoluted journey to the consumer, each one of those countries will have subtle differences in approach which can, in part, be explained by culture.

To my mind, this is further evidence that a one-size-fits-all model for food integrity will never work. Not only do we need to build food literacy, we need to ensure that people will be safe and able to become safe food advocates. Understanding the power differential aspect of cultures may well be a very useful way to start addressing food integrity.

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