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Action theatre to explain and debate food democracy injustice

Estelle Fourat and Frédérique Jankowski


Alternative food structures, despite their core sociocultural justice values, experience difficulties in attracting members from diverse backgrounds. This article attempts to gain insight into the reasons for this paradox by assessing the findings of a specific survey conducted among inhabitants and members of a cooperative supermarket in Brussels, as part of a participatory research project on the sociocultural inclusion capacities of this cooperative structure. The survey method was based on a unique approach involving theatre workshops, which led to: (i) clarification of the representations and affects that the neighbourhood inhabitants associated with the cooperative supermarket, particularly regarding its accessibility and the food sold there; (ii) formalization of inhabitants’ critical narrative; and (iii) debate on the structure’s sociocultural justice principles. The findings above all highlighted the importance of taking experiential and affective dimensions into account in the definition of sociocultural justice principles to ensure that they will be shared by all actors concerned. We thus aimed to jointly address the analytical and methodological challenges of clarifying these dimensions so as to take them into account in food democracy projects.

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Editor's notes

This article was first published in French in 2021 : « Le théâtre-action pour expliciter et débattre des injustices de la démocratie alimentaire », Anthropology of food, Articles VARIA, Online since 24 June 2021. URL :

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First of all we thank all institutions that supported this project: Innoviris (for the FALCOOP/ULB Brussels/CEESE research), in partnership with ASBL EYAD as part of its Continuing Education programme, the BEES Coop and FdSS. We would also like to thank all of the theatre workshop participants for their generosity, commitment and discussions which gave rise to this creation (Ani Arakelyan, Dilsen Dalyan, Otman Ebn Achehab, Gulsen Eskici, Jamie Lee Fossion, Wahid Ghermoul, Pascale Missenheim and Yuksel Tekinarslan), as well as the actor-facilitator Brigitte Grisar for the quality of her interventions in support of the creation process. We are infinitely grateful to Catherine Closson, Laurence Holzemer and Marek Hudon who placed their trust in us to try this theatrical experiment and for the long exchanges on this participative research. Finally, this analysis is the result of a meeting between a researcher of the FALCOOP project and a researcher who has been working for several years on the use of participatory theatre in research. Their meeting and this co-writing project were facilitated by the MIAM seminar organizers, whom we also warmly thank.


1Global food systems are failing to produce healthy food for communities worldwide, which has prompted the emergence of new diverse modes of food production and distribution, including community gardens, collective food buying groups or cooperative supermarkets. These alternative forms of food governance are geared towards regaining access to quality food—irrespective of the economic resources and sociocultural background—thereby addressing so-called food democracy (Hassanein 2003; Paturel & Ramel 2017) and food justice (Gottlieb & Joshia 2010; Hochedez & Le Gall 2016) issues. Social values lie at the core of these alternatives (Dubuisson-Quellier 2009), including ethical relations with producers and solidarity with people living in poverty (Paturel 2014; Darrot & Noel 2018). The majority of these actor networks seek broad community participation, yet they still experience difficulties in diversifying their membership on the basis of income, education, profession, and cultural background despite the attractiveness of the food pricing scheme (Dubuisson-Quellier 2009; Mundler 2013). Several authors have questioned the capacity of these networks to generate sustainable, relocalized and socially just food systems (Goodman et al. 2012; Le Velly 2017). Studies focused more specifically on cooperative supermarkets (Fourat et al. 2020) have revealed that operating principles that aim to guarantee fairer and more equitable access to quality food (through single margins, balanced participation in supermarket operations, and a democratic decision-making process) require readjustments to ensure equal access for everyone.

2Depending on the actors involved in these new forms of governance, the empowerment of communities (Lacy 2006) is essential to achieve food self-sufficiency, i.e. by gaining insight into the food system, being able to participate and appropriating the necessary tools. There has thus been an increase in participatory research at the crossroads of food, social work and, sometimes, health fields. This research has been focused on vulnerable populations in Europe (ATD Quart Monde 2014; Damhuis et al. 2020) and North America (PSFL et al. 2011; Leclercq et al. 2020) with the aim of combating inequalities in access to quality food and improving food security. The same methods are often implemented, i.e. group interviews, to foster knowledge exchange and changes in food practices. Many of these food learning initiatives include cooking workshops, garden visits, or video screenings to raise awareness on issues regarding the conventional food system and its impacts on life and health. Even when the expertise of these individuals is taken into account, the findings are not always tapped to gain insight in the factors that keep these people from eating well or sustainably so as to be able to co-define these concepts. It has also been shown that food practices deemed unsustainable are not so due to a lack of knowledge or interest in eating well, but rather to the prevailing social and financial situations (Damhuis et al. 2020). As noted by Godrie et al. (2018), participatory research can also generate conditions under which social inequalities are reproduced by focusing on certain types of (academic) knowledge to the detriment of the diverse range of other forms of knowledge (including experiential knowledge) or by excluding collective group discussion, so the survey data is confined to the opinions of individuals who can readily be overlooked.

3In this paper we discuss the findings of a participatory theatre approach developed via participatory action research on the sociocultural inclusion aspect of a cooperative supermarket. The aim of this approach was to overcome certain epistemic inequalities revealed during meetings, particularly by elucidating the feelings of injustice that the actors associated with the cooperative structure.

4The article is structured in three sections. In the first section we present how this approach emerged in the light of the constraints identified over the course of the research project. The second section describes some of the outcomes of the theatre workshops which helped overcome the inequalities in expression between researchers and project participants, while mainstreaming the experiential dimensions into the research. The third section outlines the critical argument formulated via the collective creation process resulting from the theatre workshops. We review the public performances of this creation and how they provided spaces for testing the sociocultural justice principles put forward by the supermarket cooperators.

Analysis of social inclusion principles and perceived injustice

5In this first section we will see how action theatre has emerged as an experimental methodological tool tailored to the epistemic issues identified via participatory research.

FALCOOP project: implementation of the social inclusion objectives of a cooperative supermarket

  • 1 Since 2015, the Brussels Institute for Research and Innovation (Innoviris) has been funding action (...)

6One component of the FALCOOP participatory action research1 was to support the implementation of the sociocultural inclusion objectives of a cooperative supermarket. Based on the experience of this cooperative structure and mobilization of its social diversity committee, the FALCOOP project also aimed to analyse the mechanisms underlying the reduction or increase in inequalities in quality food access.

7In line with the findings of other research aimed at supporting the creation of food alternatives (Paturel, 2014; Chiffoleau et al. 2017)—where the convergence of usually remote universes is pivotal to the assessment process—the FALCOOP research brought together researchers, supermarket cooperators and local residents through the associative community to which they were already members. These people mutually defined the content of the workshops in which they would jointly participate (group discussions on the food system, cooking workshops, visits to producers, community gardens and the supermarket).

8Like most cooperative supermarkets, the one targeted in this project heralds values of social justice and accessibility to all consumers, regardless of their age, gender, nationality, language or financial resources. To put these values into practice, the cooperative model of the supermarket is based on the principle of equality between all members—compulsory voluntary participation of members (through monthly 2.45 h time slots), who are both shareholders (compulsory minimum purchase of a €25 share) and membership card holders. Only card holders have access to the supermarket to do their shopping and participate in governance of the structure at general meetings. The aim to restore some degree of social justice is also symbolized by the fact that a single 20% margin has been set to ensure fair prices for both producers and consumers on food produced mainly under organic farming principles. Yet it became clear during this research that this economic model was not fully understood by local inhabitants and it did not make staple foods such as flour, cereals and oil—upon which the single margin was applied—more affordable. Moreover, the research revealed inequalities linked to the principle of participation of all members in the cooperative supermarket operations (Fourat et al. 2020), such as knowing how to read and write and even using a cash register. It was also found that social inclusion practices within the structure and in the workshops often reproduced commanding narratives on food (on what is good and right to eat), and it was hard to create a critical space to shield research participants from these narratives. These findings prompted the need to develop a participatory method to overcome the epistemic inequalities (Fricker, 2007) observed within the project. The aim was therefore to create a space for the expression of feelings of injustice that the supermarket could arouse in some participants.

Action theatre to overcome inequalities in expression and incorporate sensitive evaluation into the survey

9These various observations led to the idea of using a participatory theatre approach with one of the groups participating in this participatory action research in the framework of the FALCOOP project.

10The use of such approaches in research stems from participation science and performance ethnography or ‘art-based’ ethnography (Banks, 2001; Colleyn, 2011; Conrad, 2004; Denis, 2009; Muller et al. 2017). Such approaches are used by researchers from various disciplines, such as sociology, ethnology, psychology, medicine, education and environmental science (for a review, see: Heras & Tabara, 2014).

11These approaches are all based on the analysis of self-representations, i.e. representations of reality created by the concerned actors. The self-representations are interpreted through a negotiation of meaning process: the researcher is not the only interpreter of the representation but shares this role with the different participants in a collective analysis. The aim is also to offer the actors a stepping-stone to act on their world. These approaches thus help address the ethical and political challenges of research (Jankowski et al. 2020), and thus also the FALCOOP project goal of rebalancing the dynamics between participants.

12For researchers using participatory theatre as an assessment method, theatrical performance is also viewed as a representation of global knowledge jointly encompassing the mind and body. Some authors stress the key role of action and embodiment in theatre-borne knowledge, which is hence embodied, culturally based and socially distributed. According to Courtney (in Conrad 2004), theatrical performance “offers an alternative performative way of knowing—a unique and powerful way of accessing knowledge, drawing out responses that are spontaneous, intuitive, tacit, experiential, embodied or affective, rather than simply cognitive (Courtney, 1988).”

  • 2 Action theatre emerged in French-speaking Belgium in the wake of the May 1968 social uprising in Eu (...)

13Action theatre workshops was the participatory theatre format chosen for the FALCOOP project2 based on a discussion between a project researcher, a cooperative supermarket volunteer and a facilitator from a neighbourhood continuing education association historically serving the Turkish immigrant population in Brussels. This facilitator—herself a member of the cooperative supermarket—had expressed an interest in involving a group of immigrants in the research.

14The prime mission of action theatre groups is “the development—with socially or culturally disadvantaged people—of theatrical practices with the aim of enhancing their means of expression, creation capacity and active involvement in social debates” (decision issued by the Government of the French Community on action theatre in 2005). This mission is implemented within the framework of a unique mechanism, i.e. theatre workshops. The latter involve people guided by so-called actor-facilitators to produce collective creations whereby various dimensions of their experience are re-enacted. “In practical terms, a theatre workshop is an activity consisting of a number of repeated sessions (generally 3 h, once a week) with the same group (generally involving a dozen participants, ranging from two to up to twenty at most) for a relatively long or intense period (generally 10 months). This enables serious consideration (without always being successful) of a collective creation (usually theatrical), where the participants are actors in the play.” (Brahy, 2011: 80-81). Theatre workshops, which are part of the large family of popular theatres, are seen as a means of expression but also of reflective analysis and exploration of avenues of emancipation, and even of personal and social transformation. Brahy (2014) describes participants’ involvement in these workshops as “engagement en présence” (in-person commitment). The latter implies new modalities of coordination between participants that “places emphasis on emotions, feelings and corporealities.” (ibid). This mode of participant involvement enabled us to fully apply a participatory and sensitive approach by mainstreaming experiential and affective dimensions into the core of knowledge production, as we will see in the following section.

A cooperative supermarket viewed through an affective lens

15In this section we present: a) the collective of individuals involved in the creation process and the unique status of researchers in this process; and b) the expressive modalities implemented to highlight participants’ emotions and feelings of injustice. We will see how—through a reflexive and collective analysis—they highlighted affect-bearing objects within the supermarket.

The creative collective and the researcher’s stance

16The collective of ‘participant actors’, hereafter simply referred to as ‘the collective’, was made up of a socioculturally diverse group of around 10 people (two Belgians, one French, three Turks, two Moroccans, one Armenian and one Algerian) in the 30 to 50 year age range. The collective was named BAFTAM—an acronym for Belgium, Algeria, France, Turkey, Armenia and Morocco—in reference to the diversity of nationalities involved in the process. It hence pooled residents with an immigrant background living in the cooperative supermarket neighbourhood and members of the neighbourhood continuing education association, their facilitator, a researcher, a cooperative supermarket volunteer and a theatre facilitator.

17Note that this sociocultural diversity was also associated with a diversity of food practices within the collective. The researcher, group leader and cooperative volunteer regularly visited organic food outlets or food buying cooperatives. Yet the other participants had never joined a food cooperative of this sort, and they usually shopped in ethnic grocery outlets and hard discounters, where they sometimes purchased organic brand foods.

18At the first meeting with the potential participants, the researcher and cooperative supermarket volunteer explained the targets of the theatrical approach to the group. This first meeting was crucial in defining the process since it turned out that the participants had a very low French fluency level. In the process, it was essential to use exercises that would overcome the participants’ French linguistic limitations and thereby foster expression and exchange.

19The theatre facilitator decided on the exercises and their adaptation to the group of participants. The researcher was not involved in this choice and participated to the same extent as the other group members in the various proposed exercises. This framework thus positioned the researcher in an observant participation position. Pfadenhauer (2005) listed several aspects in which observant participation differs from participant observation, particularly regarding the intention to produce subjective experiential knowledge, linked to an insider’s standpoint rather than that of an outsider (in Soulé, 2007: 132). In this case, the researcher—through her own physical involvement—had to gain access to participants’ experiential backgrounds. Moreover, the researcher had to comply with the same expressive modalities as the other participants through the proposed exercises. This framework imposed a common language that was unfamiliar to any of the participants, thereby mitigating the inequalities in expression between the researcher and the other actors less familiar with the conventional deliberative context. Moreover, as noted by other authors (Godrie et al. 2018; Carrel et al. 2017), the presence of a third person (e.g. the theatre facilitator) at the citizen group/researcher interface also helped establish a certain degree of equity in the discussions.

20The collective met weekly for 10 theatre workshop sessions (from October 2018 to January 2019). At the end of these sessions, the collective creation was exposed in two performances, which were attended by audiences consisting mainly of social workers and cooperative supermarket workers.

Sensitive expressions and highlighting affect-bearing elements

21Below we describe some of the exercises used in the theatre workshops. This description highlights the way these exercises revealed the affects of the collective members, while also providing a framework for individual and collective analysis of the feelings of injustice associated with the cooperative supermarket.

Fostering fluency of expression

22One of the actor-facilitator’s tasks during theatre workshops is to create individual and collective expression situations (Brahy, 2019). In each session, various gestural and vocal expression exercises were thus proposed to the participants. In the early stages of the FALCOOP project theatre workshops, the aim was to give participants the opportunity to express their feelings about collective visits to the cooperative supermarket. The facilitator asked the participants to write the word (or illustrate it by a drawing) that best corresponded to what they had felt during the cooperative visits. A set of words and drawings was hence produced (Figure 1). These drawings and words could be classified according to two main themes: (a) the first concerned the cooperative and its functioning (the reception, its complexity and rigidity), and (b) the second was related to the nature of the associated foods (organic, natural or not 100% natural, healthy). This expression method differed from that of other survey methods used in the project as it enabled participants to overcome difficulties associated with constructing an articulated narrative based on ordinary expression codes. Through words and drawings, the group members were able to express what they had experienced and identify shared feelings.

Figure 1. Examples of images produced by the participants.

Figure 1. Examples of images produced by the participants.

Photo source: Estelle Fourat 2017

Expressing and positioning oneself through emotions

23The facilitator used various improvisation techniques—not always verbalized—to enable the participants to more fully express their emotions. Some of the emotion-expression exercises were designed to facilitate participants’ reflection on their emotions, thereby encouraging individual and collective analysis of the expressed feelings. During one meeting, for instance, the researcher involved in the collective asked the other members what the word ‘card’ meant to them, n.b. this word had been mentioned by one member in an improvisation and a membership card is required to access the cooperative supermarket. The responses referred to a variety of cards, including ‘transport card’, ‘identity card’, ‘credit card’, etc. A so-called ‘statue exercise’ was implemented to assess the affective value of these different cards. As the name suggests, in this exercise, individuals had to stand still in a particular posture representing what a situation, a moment or a term (in this case the card) stirred in them. This also provided a way of visually showcasing the person’s psychological state to the other participants. Each person in turn had to affirm the type of card that each statue pose reminded them of. The facilitator then asked everyone to improvise a sentence about the problem they associated with their card. Problems were stated as follows: “without an identity card you have no job, no papers, no house, etc.; without a credit card you can’t buy, eat, etc.”. These participant comments reflected the omnipresence of cards and the fact that they were essential in meeting their everyday needs and even in confirming their identity. The participants therefore associated the cooperative membership card with all of these cards.

From individual feelings to collective experience

24An important feature of theatre workshops is also the emergence of a sense of collective belonging through shared experience (Brahy & Servais, 2016). Some of the exercises were thus focused on the physical experience of being together through collective motor coordination. In one of the meetings, for instance, the facilitator asked the participants to stand in line, shoulder to shoulder, and then to move forward together at the same pace, while maintaining contact with each person saying a sentence starting with “I’m fed up with...”. This statement was to be accompanied by a growing feeling of anger as they moved across the stage. After repeating this collective movement several times, the facilitator proposed the same exercise, but this time the participants were asked to say a word or phrase that symbolized the cooperative (without naming it), and that was related to food or associated food. In this exercise, all participants were driven by the same emotion—anger. In chorus, we thus heard:

I’m fed up with cards!

I’m fed up with the workshop!

I’m fed up with the high prices!

I’m fed up with the word organic, organic, organic!

I’m fed up with everything good being too expensive!

I’m fed up with people telling us that we should eat organic food!”

25Unlike group interviews that generate emotional regulation processes, in this exercise the emotions felt by all participants served as a vehicle for individual expression. Affect-bearing objects emerged via these expressive modalities, i.e. ‘organic food’ and ‘membership card’. As Bonnet and Rochedy (2020: 3) point out, “a simple method seems insufficient to ethnographically assess affects, which generally requires a combination of different methods. If affect must be detected in a respondent’s would likely be necessary to delve deeper—to take the respondent’s tone of voice, gestures, body postures, facial expressions and even gaze into account. This focus helps grasp the emotional expression of the social aspects”, as achieved via the combination of different expressive modalities used in the theatre workshops.

26Moreover, one of the issues that arises in group interviews is the researcher’s post-facto definition of the collective narrative, yet this definition was an issue shared by all participants through collective creation in the theatre workshops. This collective narrative was based on the diversity of feelings expressed and the common affect objects identified during the workshops, which took the form of scenes created by all the participants.

Testing the sociocultural justice principles of the cooperative supermarket

27In this section we describe the collective creation resulting from the theatre workshops and how it led to the formalization of a critical narrative on the cooperative supermarket. We will see how the public performances provided spaces for testing the sociocultural justice principles held by the supermarket cooperators.

Collective creation: Ch€re planète

28The scenes co-constructed during the expressive situations were reworked with a view to using them in public performances. The aim was to showcase what had emerged from the theatre workshops in the form of a collective creation with a common framework and an audible narrative. A further aim was also to create opportunities for dialogue between the neighbourhood inhabitants and the cooperators on the sociocultural inclusion principles of the supermarket.

29Formalization of the collective creation via the theatre workshops is generally a three-phase process (Brahy, 2019): (i) demodalization or remodalization; (ii) symbolization of the narrative and experience; and (iii) strengthening of the narrative. Demodalization “can be understood as the ability of actors to erase traces of their presence as enunciators in the statements they produce” (ibid: 135). Otherwise this meant using the unique experiences expressed in the theatre workshops to co-create experiential situations shared by all the participants. The symbolization and strengthening of the subject matter were based on the creation of a scenic universe using different props. The collective work thereby gave rise to a play with three scenes (as detailed hereafter).

30Scene one: A rocket heading for the supermarket. A captain and a stewardess announce the departure for an unknown planet—the cooperative supermarket. The stewardess repeats twice how the participative cooperative works and the group of passengers sitting in a row behind look at each other in disbelief: “I don’t get it”, “Where are we going?”, “Why us?”. The stewardess announces the change of working slot with a shrill whistle! She swaps her seat for that of the captain. The passengers burst out laughing but are soon interrupted by the steward repeating the same words over and over again, “Organic! Health! Cheap! Quality!” The pilot blows his whistle, “Landing!”.

31Scene two: Customs office. Passengers enter this unfamiliar place in a frightened and stressed state. They look at the audience and their eyes converge on a customs officer who barks out, “Hurry! Organic card control”. The pilot and stewardess march in confidently and present their cards to the customs officer, while both shouting, “Organic card!”. The customs officer waves them on and they pass through customs and disappear. A passenger arrives and presents an identity card and then a health card, but they do not authorize him to enter. Then the rest of the passengers who have not yet cleared customs gather. Turning around, they shout louder and louder: “No health card, bad health”; “No bank card, you’re nothing”; “No residence card, no life”. They ask each other questions, then walk in front of the customs officer with new cards: “Happy days”, “Black Friday”, “Pleasure buying”. The hypnotized customs officer dances and sings, then comes to her senses: “Stop! Organic card!”

32Scene three: Arrival on the planet and meeting its inhabitants and their food. The passengers pass through the audience saying “They are beautiful, they are organic”. At the commander’s signal, they rush onto the stage to admire and touch the food “Can we?” A new signal is heard: “Tasting!”, followed by “Apples and carrots, €3.50 a kilo”. The hostess offers to make a time slot. One after another, the travellers get up and leave the stage, chanting: “Work to buy cheaper? But they’re crazy”, “They’re crazy! And I have children at home!”. The pilot and stewardess walk towards the audience in despair: “My commander, they have all left. But what can we do now?”.

Applying metaphorical criticism

33Here we should stress the importance of the metaphorical references used in the collective creation, their role in the construction of a critical narrative on the functioning of the cooperative supermarket and in the sharing of emotions.

34The first scene of the collective creation was based on a metaphor of a rocket trip to another planet—the cooperative supermarket. The rocket here represents a journey to a distant unknown space. The passengers stated that they did not understand why they had to make this trip to a planet that did not really concern them. This scene also represented a change between crew members with very different roles and skills, i.e. the stewardess and the captain. The passengers were spectators of this operation—which they found surprising—and they were getting incomprehensible messages. This scene thus expressed the range of misunderstandings felt by the participants during a visit to the supermarket: (i) a structure that they felt was not intended for them; (ii) the interchangeability of members in the various tasks to be accomplished within the cooperative; and (iii) the associated messages perceived as injunctions.

35The second scene was based on the customs office metaphor which was representative of the regulated access to the cooperative supermarket, with cards symbolizing an exclusion modality. Participants viewed the supermarket card as being in the same category as bank cards, credit cards, residence cards, etc. This metaphor derives from the participants’ explicit categorizations to make sense of one dimension in the functioning of the cooperative structure, i.e. its access. In this scene, the customs officer seemed to falter when presented with cards symbolizing consumption. This scene thus embedded the cooperative supermarket in a more global consumerist model which was exclusionary since it required a membership card that generated selection mechanisms, thereby worsening inequalities.

36The last scene was based on the metaphor of the discovery of a new planet, where everything (inhabitants and food) was beautiful, good, but strange and especially expensive. The food habits of the inhabitants of this planet appeared irrational to the travellers. The project participants expressed their incomprehension about the high cost of products sold by the cooperative supermarket and its participatory operation scheme.

37Metaphor usually involves projection of the structure of a specific field of experience onto another field. In this collective creation process, the metaphor of the trip to a strange distant planet was intended to appeal to the audience through an experience they also shared with the actors, i.e. the trip. The trip actually represents a common field of experience that enables us to grasp another field of experience, i.e. strangeness and exclusion in a migratory journey, that is more abstract for spectators with heterogeneous territorial histories. Metaphors thus help reorganize the interpretative and conceptual field of situations. Here they accounted for relationships between elements that constituted participants’ lived experience and perceptions (Lakoff & Johnson 1980) regarding the cooperative supermarket. Similarly, they enabled participants to express their perceptions of the cooperative supermarket, while also conveying to the audience what the supermarket aroused in them—the experience and feelings it echoed. The feelings of strangeness and exclusion experienced by the participants were likely associated with the feelings they more generally experience in their host society. This way of referring to personal experience and to a form of lived intimacy places criticism of the cooperative supermarket’s modus operandi in a sensitive argumentative context.

Towards a redefinition of sociocultural justice principles?

38The collective presented the results of the creative process on two occasions in a cultural centre and a theatre (around 80 and 40 spectators) located in the cooperative supermarket neighbourhood. The audience consisted of Brussels social workers interested in accessibility issues, as well as cooperative supermarket volunteers.

39As mentioned above, the use of metaphors is a way of sharing emotions with the audience. These procedures define the framework of an empathic relationship between the actors and the audience, as well as a framework for the expression of the audience’s feelings and experiences. The spectators perceived the critical scope of the play. We noted two types of reactions to the play.

40The criticism was perceived constructively by some spectators, who pointed out that it provided an alternative to the usual narrative promoting the model’s justice values while also offering a way to change the modus operandi of the structure:

Spectator A: “I would like to thank everyone, they’ve done a great job. Usually we say that the cooperative is a perfect model, yet I find it interesting to look at this model from a critical angle. (...) Thanks to them and their comments, it will evolve.”

41Otherwise, some people expressed their disagreement with the criticism of the obligation to work, the high prices or the ‘organic’ injunction put forward in the play:

Spectator B: “The point is to pay less, right?”

Actress-facilitator: “To pay a fair price, because the prices are certainly cheaper than in other organic food shops, but more expensive than in Turkish shops in the neighbourhood. During the visit, they saw that a kilo of lentils was three times more expensive.”

Spectator B: “Yes, but we have to compare organic foods with organic foods, not with anything else.”

42This latter spectator pointed out that the price of organic food products in the cooperative supermarket could only be compared with that of other organic food products. This was not really discussed in these performances, yet the participants’ evaluations of the fairness of the prices of ‘organic’ products were not solely based on a comparison with other marketed products, but also on their food practices, which were based on the consumption of ‘local’ or ‘homemade’ products, underpinned by know-how from their native countries. One participant thus stated: “I always eat natural food, prepared myself. Olives are fresh, prepared at home, and the same for yoghurt and jams. The dry food is all organic, it’s my mum in Turkey who sends it...”.

43Another spectator referred to her own motivations, while stressing that she felt the cooperative supermarket was not just a sales outlet for organic food products but rather a social commitment.

Spectator C: “I’m a cooperator and I’m somewhat sad that the main word that emerged for you is ‘organic’. My commitment to the cooperative does not concern eating organic food and caring for your own body, whereas there are four product acceptance criteria, I’m wondering if you’ve heard about that!”

Actress-facilitator: “It’s what was perceived and felt...”.

Spectator C: “There’s local products, which means nearby jobs; there’s Fair Trade, the way others are paid. We’re opening up to something other than ourselves. It’s a shame that it’s been labelled organic because for me it’s not really an organic supermarket, it’s a place of commitment.”

44This spectator mentioned feeling sad about the criticism and seemed to interpret this as partly stemming from a lack of information on the part of the participants-actors (“there are four product acceptance criteria, I’m wondering if you’ve heard about that”). She insisted on the fact that it was not only a question of eating organic foods to meet nutritional requirements, but also, more broadly, to meet social justice requirements through fair remuneration of producers (“the way others are paid”).

45These exchanges—especially those concerning the high cost of products sold in the cooperative supermarket—raised the question as to how sociocultural justice principles were defined by all actors involved in these cooperative structures. Indeed, the different spectators’ explanations revealed some degree of incompatibility between the sociocultural justice principles which aimed to support broader inclusion of the neighbourhood inhabitants, irrespective of their cultural origin and social class, as well as social justice principles to boost the value the producers’ work by selling their products at a fair price. Similarly, these comments underlined the fact that the inclusion of certain inhabitants in the cooperative should help account for the broad range of different food practices that are considered ‘organic’.


46The theatrical approach developed within the framework of the FALCOOP project aimed to assess the methodological and analytical issues related to the specification and consideration of the affective and experiential dimensions of feelings of injustice in food democracy projects. As mentioned in the introduction, this issue was closely linked to that of overcoming epistemic inequalities that often prevail in collaborative research projects.

47Our aim here was—via the description of the creation process and theatrical improvisation exercises—to take into account the unique features leveraged by this approach for the specification and sharing of the representations and affects associated with the cooperative structure. The exercises were based on a variety of verbal and non-verbal expression modalities. When this concerned a highly multilingual group, the expression palette helped overcome difficulties associated with the construction of a narrative articulated in a foreign language. It also provided participants with a framework for individual and collective reflective analysis. The diverse improvisation exercises contributed to the step-by-step construction of a critical argument—in the form of a play—about some of the cooperative supermarket’s baseline principles. In this setting, the analytical process and associated collective narrative were not the post-facto outcome of the project researchers but rather of all the participants.

48We have underlined the unique context upon which the critical narrative was based, i.e. metaphor. The scope of the metaphors used in the collective creation process was key in the sharing of emotions with a wider collective, i.e. the audiences of the theatrical performances. Beyond the empathetic link, the use of metaphor allowed for sensitive critical discussion, i.e. linked to individual pathways. The set of metaphors associated with the supermarket—a trip to a distant country, entry through customs, the need for papers and the cost of living—made the supermarket a metaphor for the migration trajectory and the host country. The collective creation process thus enabled participants to express themselves to the audience on their experience regarding cooperative supermarkets, as well as from the standpoint of their immigrant perception of these structures.

49One of the aims of action theatre approaches is to provide ways for participants to gain empowerment, which is also the thrust of participatory food democracy oriented approaches. While this experience did not markedly change participants’ representations of the cooperative supermarket, it provided them with a space for expressing and legitimizing their criticism of the structure, which does not always emerge in traditional group interviews. The theatrical performances offered participants spaces to publicly showcase their feelings of injustice, while also providing a means for more widely sharing debates that normally remain in-house. The sociocultural justice principles put forward within the cooperative supermarket were challenged via this public debate. These principles were questioned with respect to the diverse range of experiences, conceptions regarding ‘organic’ food and justifications for its price and, more broadly, with respect to stances in terms of the societal model (‘transformative’ stance for the cooperators vs. ‘integration’ stance for the participants). This diversity thus questioned the capacity of the cooperative supermarket to genuinely constitute an inclusive food system and, more broadly, an equitable model of society from the standpoint of all of the concerned actors.

50Food democracy is not, however, simply limited to giving a voice to those left out of a sustainable food transition, and its objectives are not fulfilled if this is the case. By definition, it allows for better consideration of the food experiences of actors remote from public deliberation arenas (Paturel & Ramel 2007). This highlights the need for spaces for dialogue that foster the expression of divergent standpoints and their consideration for action. In addition to reproducing economic resource inequalities, e.g. by maintaining high basic foodstuff prices, or structural inequalities in access to citizen participation arrangements (Fourat et al. 2020), these new forms of food governance have difficulty overcoming inequalities in possibilities for voicing opinions and decision making. Moreover, the establishment of structures in neighbourhoods where immigrant families with modest incomes have been living for one or more generations is still not a guarantee of sociocultural diversity. They may be viewed as invasive and even broaden the gap between neighbourhood inhabitants and these places, which they may perceive as spaces reserved for white people (Slocum 2007; Guthman 2008).

51Building a more inclusive and fairer food system thus means setting up the conditions that will guarantee the power to act and transform the system for everyone, regardless of income, class, gender or ethnicity.

52The spaces for dialogue between the neighbourhood inhabitants and the cooperators provided via this collaborative research enabled a change in certain aspects of the supermarket’s operation. For instance, a solidarity system for sharing volunteer time was set up. Similarly, new know-how is now taken into account and valued with respect to the time spent participating in the structure, such as cooking for the collective kitchen. In order to more fully address the sociocultural inclusion issue, an approach similar to that described in this article could be applied to explore—in collaboration with all the actors concerned (cooperators, producers, consumers, etc.)—possible linkages and the implementation of a diverse range of justice principles in order to be able to jointly define a modus operandi that is considered fair and equitable by all.

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1 Since 2015, the Brussels Institute for Research and Innovation (Innoviris) has been funding action research programmes to foster urban resilience and sustainable food in Brussels, including the FALCOOP action research project (Promoting access to sustainable, quality food for people representative of the urban diversity through the local implementation of an innovative cooperative supermarket model) for a 3-year period from November 2016 to November 2018. This action research project was geared towards supporting the implementation of the sociocultural inclusion objectives of a cooperative supermarket in Brussels.

2 Action theatre emerged in French-speaking Belgium in the wake of the May 1968 social uprising in Europe (Biot, 1996; Brahy, 2019). The aim was to offer an alternative framework for a culture that was considered exclusively elitist.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. Examples of images produced by the participants.
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Credits Photo source: Estelle Fourat 2017
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Electronic reference

Estelle Fourat and Frédérique Jankowski, « Action theatre to explain and debate food democracy injustice », Anthropology of food [Online], Articles VARIA, Online since 08 August 2022, connection on 25 September 2022. URL :

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About the authors

Estelle Fourat

sociologist at CEESE, ULB, Brussels, over the concerned research period;

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Frédérique Jankowski

socioanthropologist, CIRAD, UMR SENS, F-34398 Montpellier, France. SENS, CIRAD, IRD, Univ. Paul Valery Montpellier 3, Univ. Montpellier, Montpellier, France;

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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