Book Review: Digital Food Activism by Tanja Schneider, Karin Eli, Catherine Dolan and Stanley Ulijaszek

Image: Rodion Kutsaev

Wednesday 20th March, 2019

Review by Rebecca Sandover

Digital Food Activism by Tanja Schneider, Karin Eli, Catherine Dolan and Stanley Ulijaszek was published by Routledge in 2018.

Digital Food Activism is an important and emerging field within the social sciences that has had little detailed consideration by scholars. The authors of Digital Food Activism state in their introduction “This is the first volume to explore the emerging roles of digital platforms in food activism” (2018:6). Starting with definitions and contextual readings that locate the field, this useful and important book provides critical insights that will be of great interest for students and researchers of consumption studies, food activism, food politics, digital activism, critical digital studies and more. Firmly rooted in STS interdisciplinary perspectives, this book explores what is Digital Food Activism via investigations of different types of activism and technologies used to pursue activist goals, as well as varied research methods deployed by researchers in the field. The editors contribute introductory and follow-up chapters, plus an afterword by Javier Lezaun, all of which provide understandings of the theoretical underpinnings of Digital Food Activism. Sandwiched between these lie case study chapters that illustrate various aspects of this broad area of enquiry.

Digital Food Activism is rich and rewarding and can be dipped into as each of the chapters stand alone with their individual research projects. Chapters cover a broad range of digital food activist subjects, from Diabetes on Twitter, Marketing Critical Consumption and Alternative Food Networks, Anti-Capitalist Food Action, 3D Food Printing, Moscow Bioart and more. Themes include: the performativity of ICTs and platform sociality - exploring the types of technologies available for food activism - the typologies of activism and social movements - histories of protest - ICTs linking food producers and consumers - the tensions between ethical eating, distinction and elitism. There are also many insights into how different researchers are carrying out digital research on food activism. The book therefore provides a dense read. A comprehensive concluding synthesis of the key themes raised would have helped to sift between these varied insights and to drive core themes home.

The introductory chapter provides a useful exposition of the fields, such as food activism and digital activism that constitute this emerging area of study. Digital Food Activism is defined as ‘an internet based, organised effort to change the food system or parts thereof in which civic initiators or supporters use digital media’ (ibid. 8). According to Schneider et. al. (2018) digital food activists ‘use the digital realm to redefine and/or expand food transparency, and to disseminate otherwise ‘hidden’ information to citizen-consumers who may share these concerns’ (ibid. 1). The digital platforms, the editors stress, are therefore of as much interest to researchers as the actual processes of activism, as these digital spaces shape the activity taking place. 

A focus on the co-constitution of digital food activism that is performed via wikis, apps, websites, social media platforms etc. is a strong theme running through the book. Analysis of this provides critical insights into the relational nature of platform based political action. The performativity of ICTs in shaping activism is explored in the editors’ chapters and within several of the case study chapters. Sarah Lyon’s useful chapter on ‘Digital Connections: coffee, agency and unequal platforms’ describes the internet as creating ‘convergence spaces where both producers and consumers can practise new forms of transnational food citizenship’ (ibid 72-73). Alana Mann’s excellent chapter on ‘Hashtag Activism and the Right to Food in Australia’ drawing on communication studies, explores how activist practices utilise digital affordances to build communities of action. These networked processes enable ‘the participation of ordinary citizens in political discourse on issues of social importance’ (ibid 170). Food activists, Mann sets out, use digital media to enable ‘networked framing’ of specific causes via crowdsourced ‘connective action’. The co-constitutive nature of digital food activism via the interactions of platforms, activists, consumers, retailers etc. is further analysed in Eli, Schneider et al.’s chapter on ‘Values, expertise and modes of action’. Based on three case studies this chapter investigates how the values and priorities of the platform/wiki/app creators form organising principles that shape what evidence and action is taken by activists and consumers. These are important principles that shape digital user interactions and are often side lined or ignored in other fields and media reporting on digital technologies.

Another theme that will be pertinent to many scholars, particularly those interested in consumption politics, explores the tensions between performing food ethics and elitism, which raise Bourdieusian issues of ‘Distinction’. This is explored across several chapters, including 5, 6 and 7. In Chapter 5 Katharina Witterhold explores ‘The Intersection between political consumerism and online netizenship: consumer netizens’. In particular she discusses whether internet users are ‘clickactivists’ or prosumers using the participatory functionality of digital platforms to spread political messages and engage with others. Witterhold interrogates whether this is a form of political consumption that is based on activist intent or a desire for distinction? In Chapter 6 Ryan Alison Foley investigates ‘Marketing Critical Consumption’ and alternative food networks, which also explores themes relating to distinction. Foley explores how some alternative food organisations’ online engagement highlight their desirability, equating responsible consumerism with ‘high quality products and with glamour’ (ibid 119). These discussions bring to the fore the inherent responsibilisation and individualism of alternative consumerist practices where intentions linked to individual prestige or performing food politics for the collective good can be blurred.

Lezaun’s afterword reflects on many of the key issues raised in the book, in particular the impact of digital platforms on information communication. The ‘informational ecology of food systems’ he argues, has increased in complexity due to the ‘crowded digital public sphere’ (ibid 222). Control over the spread of this information and the data collected via digital participation is therefore critical:

‘The medium of communication then comes to shape not only the specific tactics used by the organisation to deliver its messages, but the strategic processes through which it crafts those messages and imagines its audience.’ (Schneider, Eli et. al. 2018:223) 

Digital Food Activism, Lezaun argues, produces publics that are concerned with the food they consume and the processes by which information relating to their food are shared.

Digital Food Activism discusses themes that are of central importance to social scientists interested in digital participation. Through its wealth of case study material it covers the breadth of food activism taking place online and the complexity of relations this raises. From distinction to platform sociality (Van Dijck 2013), Digital Food Activism sets out the growing sphere of participatory food politics performed online and is a key text for scholars to engage with.

Dr. Rebecca Sandover is a Research Fellow at The University of Exeter and is an engaged researcher with a focus on knowledge co-production and social food networks. She tweets @SandySom.

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