Skip to main content

Victual Vicissitudes: Consumer Deskilling and the (Gendered) Transformation of Food Systems

Abstract

A considerable literature addresses worker deskilling in manufacturing and the related loss of control over production processes experienced by farmers and others working in the agri-food industry. Much less attention has been directed at a parallel process of consumer deskilling in the food system, which has been no less important. Consumer deskilling in its various dimensions carries enormous consequences for the restructuring of agro-food systems and for consumer sovereignty, diets, and health. The prevalence of packaged, processed, and industrially transformed foodstuffs is often explained in terms of consumer preference for convenience. A closer look at the social construction of “consumers” reveals that the agro-food industry has waged a double disinformation campaign to manipulate and to re-educate consumers while appearing to respond to consumer demand. Many consumers have lost the knowledge necessary to make discerning decisions about the multiple dimensions of quality, including the contributions a well-chosen diet can make to health, planetary sustainability, and community economic development. They have also lost the skills needed to make use of basic commodities in a manner that allows them to eat a high quality diet while also eating lower on the food chain and on a lower budget. This process has a significant gender dimension, as it is the autonomy of those primarily responsible for purchasing and preparing foodstuffs that has been systematically undermined. Too often, food industry professionals and regulatory agencies have been accessories to this process by misdirecting attention to the less important dimensions of quality.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  • H. Assael (1984) Consumer Behavior and Marketing Action EditionNumber2 Kent Publishing Boston, Massachusetts

    Google Scholar 

  • A. Beck (2001) “‘Now then – Who said biscuits?’ Black woman cook as fetish in American advertising, 1905–1953” S.A. Inness (Eds) Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race University of Pennsylvania Press Philadelphia, PA 69–94

    Google Scholar 

  • Bluestone, B. and S. Rose (1997). “Overworked and underemployed: Unraveling an economic enigma.” American Prospect 8: 31. Accessed on May 28, 2004 at www. prospect.org/print/V8/31/bluestone-b.html.

  • D. Bowers (2000) ArticleTitle“Cooking trends echo changing roles of women” Food Review 23 IssueID1 23–29

    Google Scholar 

  • H. Braverman (1974) Labor and Monopoly Capital Monthly Review Press New York, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • E. Brewster (1997) ArticleTitle“A new brand of thinking: Consumer loyalty ain’t what it used to be.” Food Processing 58 IssueID7 114

    Google Scholar 

  • E Brewster (1998) ArticleTitle“A passion for food safety: Consumers know real sex appeal when they see it” Food Processing 59 IssueID10 68

    Google Scholar 

  • M. Burawoy (1979) Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labour Process Under Monopoly Capitalism University of Chicago Press Chicago, Illinois

    Google Scholar 

  • Chartoff, M. D. and M. C. Colby (1994). “Agribusiness leads effort to silence activists.” Safe Food News Summer: 16–17.

  • I. Cook (1994) “New fruits and vanity: Symbolic production in the global food economy” A. Bonnano L. Busch W. Friedland L. Gouveia E. Mingone (Eds) From Columbus to Conagra: The Globalization of Agriculture and Food University Press of Kansas Lawrence, Kansas 232–248

    Google Scholar 

  • Cook, R. (2004). “Supermarket challenges and opportunities for fresh fruit and vegetable producers and shippers: Lessons from the U.S. experience. Paper presented at the Conference on Supermarkets and Agricultural Development in China – Opportunities and Challenges. May 24, 2004 Shanghai, China. Accessed on July 5, 2004 at www.agmrc.org/markets/info/supermarketchallenges.pdf.

  • A. Cooper (2000) Bitter Harvest: a Chef’s Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do About It Routledge New York, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • B. Cutler (1992) ArticleTitle“From soup to purple dinosaur nuts (food items preferred by children)” American Demographics 14 IssueID10 48–49

    Google Scholar 

  • H. P. Diaz B. Stirling (2003) “Degradation of farm work on the Canadian prairies.” H. Diaz J. Jaffe B. Stirling (Eds) Farm Communities at the Crossroads: The Challenge and the Resistance CPRC Press Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada 31–54

    Google Scholar 

  • L. Dubé A. Chattopadhyay A. Letarte (1996) ArticleTitle“Should advertising appeals match the basis of consumers’ attitudes?” Journal of Advertising Research 36 IssueID6 82–89

    Google Scholar 

  • B. Duden (1993) Disembodying Women Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts

    Google Scholar 

  • S. Ewen (1976) Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture McGraw-Hill New York, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Food Marketing Institute (2001). New Products and Services. Washington DC: Food Marketing Institute. Accessed on May 25, 2001 at www.fmi.org/facts_figs/newproductsandservices. pdf.

  • L. Frederick S. T. Hawkins (1992) ArticleTitle“A comparison of nutrition knowledge and attitudes, dietary practices, and bone densities of postmenopausal women, female college athletes, and nonathletic college women” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 92 IssueID3 299–306

    Google Scholar 

  • D. R. Gabaccia (1998) We are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans Harvard University Press Cambridge, Massachusetts

    Google Scholar 

  • Y. Gabriel T. Lang (1995) The Unmanageable Consumer Sage Publications London, UK

    Google Scholar 

  • Gerrior, S. and L. Bente (2001). Nutrient Content of the U.S. Food Supply, 1909–97. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Home Economics Research Report No. 54.

  • Gertler, M. E. (2001). Co-operatives and Sustainable Development. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada: Centre for the Study of Co-operatives.

  • M. Gillman S. Rifas-Shiman L. Frazier H. Rockett C. Camargo A. Field C. Berkey G. Colditz (2000) ArticleTitle“Family dinner and diet quality among older children and adolescents” Archives of Family Medicine 9 235–240 Occurrence Handle10.1001/archfami.9.3.235

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • D. Goodman M. Redclift (1991) Refashioning Nature: Food, Ecology, Culture Routledge New York, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Granju, K. A. (1998). What Every Parent Should Know About Commercial Infant Formula. Accessed on May 28, 2001 at http://www.bestfed.com.

  • A. Gray (1995) ArticleTitle“Flexibilisation of labour and the attack on workers’ living standards” Common Sense 18 12

    Google Scholar 

  • Greenpeace (2001). Vitamin A: Natural Sources vs. Golden Rice Backgrounder. Accessed on November 15, 2001 at http://www.greenpeace.org/geneng/reports/food/VitaAvs.pdf.

  • J. Guthman (2004) Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California University of California Press Berkeley, California

    Google Scholar 

  • D. Harvey (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity Basil Blackwell Cambridge, Massachusetts

    Google Scholar 

  • W. D. Heffernan (2000) “Concentration of ownership and control in agriculture” F. Magdoff J. B. Foster F. H. Buttel (Eds) Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment Monthly Review Press New York, New York 61–75

    Google Scholar 

  • Heffernan, W. D., M. Hendrickson, and R. Gronski (1999). Report to the National Farmers Union: Consolidation in the Food and Agriculture Industry. Washington DC: National Farmers Union.

  • M. Hendrickson W. D. Heffernan P. H. Howard J. Heffernan (2001) Consolidation in Food Retailing and Dairy: Implications for Farmers and Consumers in a Global Food System National Farmers Union Washington DC

    Google Scholar 

  • S. Kander (1947) The Settlement Cookbook EditionNumber28 The Settlement Cookbook Company Milwaukee Wisconsin

    Google Scholar 

  • T. Lang (1999) “Food policy for the 21st century: Can it be both radical and reasonable?” M. Koc R. MacRae L. J. A. Mougeot J. Welsh (Eds) For Hunger-Proof Cities International Development Research Centre Ottawa, Canada 216–224

    Google Scholar 

  • T. Lang Y. Gabriel (1995) ArticleTitle“The consumer as citizen” Consumer Policy Review 5 IssueID3 96–102

    Google Scholar 

  • S. Lash J. Urry (1987) The End of Organised Capitalism Polity Press Cambridge, Massachusetts

    Google Scholar 

  • D. Levenstein (1993) Paradox of Plenty Oxford University Press New York, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • L. S. Lieberman (2000) “Obesity.” K. F. Kiple K. C. Ornelas (Eds) The Cambridge World History of Food NumberInSeriesVol. 1 Cambridge University Press Cambridge, UK 1062–1077

    Google Scholar 

  • A. Lipietz (1997) ArticleTitle“The post-Fordist world: Labour relations, international hierarchy and global ecology” Review of International Political Economy 4 IssueID1 1–41 Occurrence Handle10.1080/096922997347841

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • D. Lupton (1996) Food, the Body, and the Self Sage London, UK

    Google Scholar 

  • M. Mackenzie (1993) ArticleTitle“Is the family meal disappearing?” Journal of Gastronomy 7 IssueID1 36–37

    Google Scholar 

  • Magdoff, F., J. B. Foster, and F. H. Buttel (eds.) (2000). “An overview.” In Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment (pp. 7–22). New York, New York: Monthly Review.

  • E. Martin (1992) The Woman in the Body Beacon Boston, Massachusetts

    Google Scholar 

  • B. Martineau (2001) ArticleTitle“Food fight: The short unhappy life of the Flavr Savr tomato” The Sciences 4 IssueID2 24–29

    Google Scholar 

  • M.K. Matthews K. Webber E. Kim S. Banoub-Baddour M. Laryea (1995) ArticleTitleInfant Feeding Practices in New foundland and Labrador Canadian Journal of Public Health 86 IssueID5 296–300

    Google Scholar 

  • M. D. McFeely (2000) Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?: American Women and the Kitchen in the Twentieth Century University of Massachusetts Press Amherst, Massachusetts

    Google Scholar 

  • Mitchell, A. (1991). “Learning to live with spoiled brats.” Marketing July 4, 1991: 14. Accessed on May 20, 2001 at http://web2.infotrac.galegroup.com/.

  • S. W. Mintz (1996) Tasting Food, Eating Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture and the Past Beacon Press Boston, Massachusetts

    Google Scholar 

  • S. Myers J. Manno K. McDade (1995) ArticleTitle“Great Lakes human health effects research in Canada and the United States: An overview of priorities and issues” Great Lakes Research Review 1 IssueID2 13–23

    Google Scholar 

  • National Provisioner (1999). “Hamburger consumption takes a hit, but a reversal of fortune is in the offing,” National Provisioner. Cited in Schlosser (2001).

  • D. Neumark-Sztainer (2003) ArticleTitle“Family meal patterns: Associations with sociodemographic characteristics and improved dietary intake among adolescents” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 103 IssueID3 317–322 Occurrence Handle10.1053/jada.2003.50048

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • D. Noble (1984) Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation Alfred A. Knopf New York, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • K. Parkin (2001) “Campbell’s soup and the long shelf life of traditional gender roles” S. A. Inness (Eds) Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender and Race University of Pennsylvania Press Philadelphia, PA 51–68

    Google Scholar 

  • Peiss, K. L. (1998). “American women and the making of modern consumer culture.” The Journal for MultiMedia History 1(1). Accessed on May 21, 2001 at http://www. albany.edu/jmmh/vol1no1/peiss.html.

  • K. Polanyi (1944) The Great Transformation Beacon Boston, Massachusetts

    Google Scholar 

  • D. Powell W. Leiss (1997) Mad Cows and Mothers Milk McGill-Queen’s University Press Montreal, Canada

    Google Scholar 

  • InstitutionalAuthorNamePrepared Foods (1998) ArticleTitle“Teen market: Snackers and swayers” Prepared Foods 167 IssueID10 76

    Google Scholar 

  • J. Putnam (2000) ArticleTitle“Major trends in U. S. food supply, 1909–1999” Food Review 23 IssueID1 8–15

    Google Scholar 

  • Raven H., T. Lang, with C. Dumonteil (1995). “Off our Trolleys? Food Retailing and the Hypermarket Economy. London, UK: Institute for Public Policy Research.

  • E. Reiter (1991) Making Fast Food McGill-Queens’s University Press Montreal Canada

    Google Scholar 

  • Ritzer, G. (1998). “McJobs: McDonaldization and its relationship to the labor process.” In The McDonaldization Thesis: Explorations and Extensions (pp. 59–70). London, UK: Sage Publications.

  • G. Ritzer (1993) The McDonaldization of Society: An Investigation into the Changing Character of Contemporary Social Life Pine Forge Press Newbury Park, California

    Google Scholar 

  • E. Roos E. Lahelma M. Virtanen R. Prattala P. Pietinen (1998) ArticleTitle“Gender, socioeconomic status and family status as determinants of food behaviour” Social Science and Medicine 46 IssueID12 1519–1529 Occurrence Handle10.1016/S0277-9536(98)00032-X

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • D. Roth (2000) ArticleTitle“America’s fascination with nutrition” Food Review 23 IssueID1 32–37

    Google Scholar 

  • L. Ruowei Z. Zhao A. Mokdad L. Barker L. Grummer-Strawn (2003) ArticleTitle“Prevalence of breastfeeding in the United States: The 2001 National Immunization Survey” Pediatrics 111 IssueID5 1198–1201

    Google Scholar 

  • Sanchez, A. (2000). “Diet and its relation to early atherosclerosis in teenagers.” Paper presented on March 13, 2000 at the American College of Cardiology 49th Annual Scientific Session. Anaheim, California: American College of Cardiology .

  • E. Schlosser (2001) Fast Food Nation Houghton Mifflin New York, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • A. B. Schmookler (1993) The Illusion of Choice: How the Market Economy Shapes Our Destiny State University of New York Press Albany, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Shapiro, L. (1986). Perfection Salad. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

  • E. R. Shell (2001) ArticleTitle“New World Syndrome” The Atlantic 286 50–53

    Google Scholar 

  • Y. Shim J. Variam J. Blaylock (2000) ArticleTitle“Many Americans are falsely optimistic about their diets” Food Review 23 IssueID1 44–50

    Google Scholar 

  • C. Simontacchi (2000) The Crazy Makers: How the Food Industry is Destroying Our Brains and Harming Our Children Tarcher/Putnam New York, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Store Equipment.com. (2005). Technobuilt CarryAll Kiddie Carts. Accessed on February 15, 2005 at www.storeequipment.com/browse/man/technibiltkc.shtml.

  • D. Strinati (1995) An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture Routledge London UK

    Google Scholar 

  • F. W. Taylor (1911) The Principles of Scientific Management Harper and Brothers New York

    Google Scholar 

  • S. Thompson (2001) ArticleTitle“Campbell fires up budget for lines other than soup; Prego, Pace and Franco-American to get more consumer ad support” Advertising Age 72 4

    Google Scholar 

  • Tufts University (2001). “Quicker approval of health claims helps marketers, not consumers.” Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter March.

  • USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) (2001). “Food consumption and spending.” Family Economic News. Accessed on May 21, 2001 at http://www.reeusda.gov/ecs/news/maynews.htm.

  • USDA (2000). “Potatoes: U.S. per capita utilization by category, 1991–1999.” Washington DC: Economic Research Service. Cited in Schlosser (2001).

  • InstitutionalAuthorNameUSGPO (United States Government Printing Office) (1999) ArticleTitle“What you don’t know can hurt you (consumers ignore food recalls)” FDA Consumer 33 IssueID4 6

    Google Scholar 

  • P. Van Esterik ParticleVan (1997) “The politics of breastfeeding: An advocacy perspective” C. Counihan P. Esterick ParticleVan (Eds) Food and Culture: A Reader Routledge New York, New York 370–383

    Google Scholar 

  • M. Visser (1986) Much Depends on Dinner McClelland and Stewart Toronto, Canada

    Google Scholar 

  • InstitutionalAuthorNameWHO (World Health Organization) (2003) Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding World Health Organization Geneva, Switzerland

    Google Scholar 

  • Willis S. (1991). A Primer for Everyday Life. New York, New York: Routledge.

  • A. Winson (1993) The Intimate Commodity: Food and the Development of the Agro-Industrial Complex in Canada Garamond Press Toronto, Canada

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to JoAnn Jaffe.

Additional information

JoAnn Jaffe teaches rural, environmental, and development sociology, the sociology of gender, and theory in the Department of Sociology and Social Studies of the University of Regina.

Michael Gertler teaches rural sociology, the sociology of communities, and the sociology of agriculture in the Department of Sociology at the University of Saskatchewan. He holds a cross appointment in the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Jaffe, J., Gertler, M. Victual Vicissitudes: Consumer Deskilling and the (Gendered) Transformation of Food Systems. Agric Hum Values 23, 143–162 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-005-6098-1

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-005-6098-1

Keywords

  • Consumer deskilling
  • Consumerism
  • Food system
  • Gendered relations of consumption
  • McDonaldization
  • North America
  • Provisioning