Theory and Society

, Volume 42, Issue 5, pp 477–507 | Cite as

Genetically modified food in France: symbolic transformation and the policy paradigm shift

  • Kyoko SatoEmail author


The priorities of French policy regarding genetically modified (GM) food shifted in the late 1990s from aggressive promotion to strict regulation based on precaution and separation of GM food. This paradigmatic policy change coincided with a rapid shift in the dominant meanings of GM food in larger French public discourses. Using data from media coverage, organizational documents, and in-depth interviews, the study examines the relationship between policy developments and GM food’s symbolic transformation. I argue that the interpretive dimension interacted with and co-evolved incrementally with formal policy developments, and that it cannot be understood as epiphenomenal to political processes, or as preceding and propelling a policy change. I identify three mechanisms of symbolic transformation: (1) multiplication of meanings; (2) association with other salient issues; and (3) coupling with national identity (boundary work). Conversely, this symbolic transformation influenced the terms of political debates and viable strategies, influencing policy developments. The study also demonstrates how certain longstanding elements of French political culture shaped, and were changed or reproduced through, these processes.


Cultural politics Policy Social movement Food politics French politics 



The author is grateful to the following for their helpful and insightful comments: Paul DiMaggio, Michèle Lamont, Peter Hall, Jal Mehta, King-To Yeung, Hélène Landemore, Barry Cohen, Bo-Mi Choi, and participants in the Culture and Inequality Workshop at Princeton University, the Culture and Social Analysis Workshop at Harvard University, and the Dissertation Writers Seminar at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University. The research for this article was supported by the National Science Foundation (grant #0326142), Princeton University’s Global Network on Inequality, and Japan Economic Research Foundation.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Program in Science, Technology, and SocietyStanford UniversityStanfordUSA

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