Dueling the consumer-activist dualism: The consumption experiences of modern food activists

Allison Gray


Consumer-based food activism (CBFA) is increasingly a symbol of modern politics. Through eating, food purchasing, and other consumer behaviours, individuals advocate for social justice causes. However, CBFA is critiqued for being enabled or produced by neoliberal ideologies, which emphasize individuals’ market-based positions as consumers over other (activist) roles, effectively diminishing any influence such personal behaviours have on changing broader structural systems. This project is an exploratory study investigating i) the types of food activism food activists are engaged in; ii) whether they experience CBFA as an effective means to cause social change; and iii) if their roles as consumers and activists are conflicting. In other words, this study seeks to ground the theoretical debates involving the ineffectiveness of CBFA and the dualistic consumer-activist identity. An online survey of self-identified contemporary food activists allowed the collection of data using both close-ended and open-ended questions. The results indicate that these food activists understand their roles as consumers as an opportune component of being food activists, while their effectiveness is both enabled and constrained by neoliberal market systems. While other studies investigate CBFA through particular forms such as organic or local food, this project contributes to the literature by recognizing that food activism is not confined to singular forms of CBFA, nor is it utilized to advocate for single food issues. Future research involving CBFA must continue to unpack the complexities involved in contemporary food activists’ understandings of CBFA, its effectiveness, and their roles as both consumers and activists while contemplating the stomach as a political space.


Keywords: food activism, consumer activism, neoliberal ideology,              consumer-activist dualism, food politics

Data of the article

First received : 14 June 2017 | Last revision received : 14 November 2017
Accepted : 29 November 2017 | Published online : 29 December 2017
URN: nbn:de:hebis: 34-2017110153680

Full Text:



Allen, P. (2010). Realizing justice in local food systems. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 3(2), 295-308.

Allen, P., FitzSimmons, M., Goodman, M., & Warner, K. (2003). Shifting plates in the agrifood landscape: The tectonics of alternative agrifood initiatives in California. Journal of Rural Studies, 19(1), 61-75.

Anderson, M. (2008). Rights-based food systems and the goals of food systems reform. Agriculture and Human Values, 25(4), 593-608.

Arnould, E. (2007). Should consumer citizens escape the market? The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 611(1), 193-204.

Barnett, C., Cloke, P., Clarke, N., & Malpass, A. (2005). Consuming ethics: Articulating the subjects and spaces of ethical consumption. Antipode, 37(1), 23-45.

Barta, A. (2017). Habitus in alternative food practice: Exploring the role of cultural capital in two contrasting case studies in Glasgow. Future of Food Journal, 5(2), 19-33.

Bauman, Z. (1990). Thinking sociologically. Oxford: Blackwell.

Bauman, Z. (2002). Consuming life. In Society under siege (pp. 180-200). Cambridge: Polity.

Belasco, W. J. (2007). Appetite for change: How the counterculture took on the food industry (2nd Ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste (R. Nice, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1979)

Brower, A. (2013). Agri-food activism and the imagination of the possible. New Zealand Sociology, 28(4), 80-100.

Brown, W. (2015). Undoing the demos: Neoliberalism’s stealth revolution. New York, NY: Zone Books.

Brown, N. M. (2017). Bridge leadership: Gendered consumerism and Black women’s political power within early 20th century “don’t buy” campaigns. Sociological Focus, 50(3),1-16.

Bryant, R. L., & Goodman, M. (2003). Consuming narra¬tives: The political ecology of ‘alternative’ consumption. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 29(3), 344-366.

Burchell, G. (1996). Liberal government and techniques of the self. In A. Barry, T. Osborne, & N. Rose (Eds.) Foucault and political reason: Liberalism, neo-liberalism and rationalities of government (pp. 19-36). London: UCL Press.

Campbell, T., & Sitze, A. (Eds.). (2013). Biopolitics: A reader. London: Duke University Press.

Chandler, D., & Reid. J. (2016). The neoliberal subject: Resilience, adaptation and vulnerability. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.

Cruikshank, B. (1999). The will to empower: Democratic citizens and other subjects. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Dauvergne, P., & Lebaron, G. (2014). Protest Inc.: The corporatization of activism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

DeLind, L. (2011). Are local food and the local food movement taking us where we want to go? Or are we hitching our wagons to the wrong stars? Agriculture and Human Values, 28(2), 273-283.

DuPuis, E., & Goodman, D. (2005). Should we go ‘home’ to eat? Toward a reflexive politics of localism. Journal of Rural Studies, 21(3), 359-371.

Gilbert, J. (2013). What kind of thing is ‘neoliberalism.’ New Formations, 80(80-81), 7-22.

Goodman, D., & DuPuis, M. (2002). Knowing food and growing food: Beyond the production-consumption debate in the sociology of agriculture. Sociologia Ruralis: Journal of the European Society for Rural Sociology, 42(1), 5-22.

Goss, J. (2004). Geography of consumption I. Progress in Human Geography, 28(3), 369-380.

Grosglik, R. (2016). Citizen-consumer revisited: The cultural meanings of organic food consumption in Israel. Journal of Consumer Culture, 17(3), 732-751.

Guthman, J. (2008). Neoliberalism and the making of food politics in California. Geoforum, 39(3), 1171-1183.

Harper, B. (2010). Sistah vegan: Food, identity, health, and society: Black female vegans speak. Brooklyn, NY: Lantern Books.

Heng, C., & Wing, S. (2017). Aspiring for change: A theory of middle class activism. Economic Journal, 127(603), 1318-1347.

Hilgers, M. (2012). The three anthropological approaches to neoliberalism. International Social Science Journal 61(202), 351-364.

Hilton, M. (2003). Consumerism in twentieth-century Britain: The search for a historical movement. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Irving, S., & Helin, J. (2017). A world for sale? An ecofeminist reading of sustainable development discourse. Gender, Work & Organization, 1(24), 143.

Johnston, J. (2008). The citizen-consumer hybrid: Ideological tensions and the case of Whole Foods Market. Theory and Society, 37(3), 229-270.

Johnston, J., & K. Cairns. (2012). Eating for change. In R. Mukherjee & S. Banet-Weiser (Eds.) Commodity activism: Cultural resistance in neoliberal times (pp. 219-239). New York, NY: New York University Press.

Khoo, S. (2011). Re-interpreting the citizen consumer: Alternative consumer activism and rights to health and development. Social Science & Medicine, 74(1),14-19.

Kennedy, E. H., Parkins, J. R., & Johnston, J. (2016). Food activists, consumer strategies, and the democratic imagination: Insights from eat-local movements. Journal of Consumer Culture, 0(0), 1-20.

Klein, J. G., Smith, N. C., & John, A. (2004). Why we boycott: Consumer motivations for boycott participation. Journal of Marketing, 68, 92–109.

Lang, T., & Garbiel, Y. (1995). The consumer as citizen. Consumer Policy Review, 5(3), 96.

Paddock, J. (2016). Positioning food cultures: ‘Alternative’ food as distinctive consumer practice. Sociology, 50(6), 1039–1055.

Pietrylowski, B. (2009). Political economy of consumer behavior: Contesting consumption. In B. Pietrykowski (Ed.) Political economy of consumer behaviour (pp. 143-152). New York, NY: Routledge.

Roff, R. (2006). Shopping for change? Neoliberalizing activism and the limits to eating non-GMO. Agriculture and Human Values, 24(3), 511-522.

Schudson, M. (2007). Citizens, consumers, and the good society. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 611(1), 236-249.

Schweikhardt, D., & Browne, W. (2001). Politics by other means: The emergence of a new politics of food in the United States. Review of Agricultural Economics, 23(2), 302-318.

White, M. (1999). Neo-liberalism and the rise of the citizen as consumer. In D. Broad & W. Antony (Eds.) Citizens or Consumers? Social Policy in a Market Society (pp. 56-64). Halifax, NS: Fernwood Publishing.

Wrenn, C. L. (2016). White women wanted? An analysis of gender diversity in social justice magazines. Societies, 6(2), 1-18.

Ventura, P. (2012). Neoliberal Culture. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Zerbe, N. (2014). Exploring the limits of fair trade: The local food movement in the context of late capitalism. In P. Andrée, J. Ayres, M. J. Bosia, & M.-J. Massicotte (Eds.) Globalization and food sovereignty: Global and local change in the new politics of food (pp. 84-110).Toronto, ON: University of Toronto


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Comments on this article

View all comments




 Google Scholar H5 index 5 


The contributions of the peer reviewers for the journal are acknowledged in the 


Sponsoring Organisations

Logo Agrarekologie Uni Kassel