Designing an explanatory practice framework: local food systems as a case

Maarten Crivits, Erik Paredis

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    The article documents the designing of an explanatory framework for the role of consumption practices in transitions to (enhanced) sustainability in the food system. In the endeavor to develop an applied practice approach we combine the concept of ‘practice’ with that of ‘niche/regime’, respectively adopted from contemporary environmental sociology and theories on systemic innovations and transitions theory. We argue that this re-combination adds to the field of applied sustainable consumption research and allows to depict consumption beyond conventional individualist models as well as integrate a conceptualization of the a-linear reproduction of aligning and competing consumer practices. We illustrate the methodology by showing its potential application field through the presentation of data collected on a consumer food niche in the Belgian Food system. Elaborating on the social practice model based on Giddens (1984) and Spaargaren & Van Vliet (2000) we designate a three-tier framework that endeavors to describe consumption practices in terms of everyday routines and habits, integrating an agency perspective with a dual perspective on structure. A series of semi-structured interviews and focus groups with consumers in combination with a system-analysis of the context in which the alternative food practice is embedded allowed to construct a schematization of what it implies to be a carrier of the niche practice. The practice schematizations of this niche are then considered vis-à-vis a schematization of the regime practice. The comparison shows two essential aspects: firstly, it points out that (1) although qualitative and systemic differences are found between niche and mainstream practices, in both cases the perception of the carriers (i.e. consumers) on what they need to do is to an equal extent normalized and, (2) empirical results indicate that central societal conceptions in the contemporary food consumption discourse such as convenience and sovereignty can in real life be redrawn by entirely different sets of interconnected routines. We reflect on the research methodology and finally give suggestions as to how a consumption policy/governance could be orientated towards practices as complementary to the traditional focus on individual consumer behavior and consumer norm targets.
    Original languageEnglish
    Journaljournal of Consumer Culture
    Issue number3
    Pages (from-to)306-336
    Number of pages31
    Publication statusPublished - Nov-2013


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