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Research/ethics environment in social and human food sciences : debates, constraints, limits and lessons

Chantal Crenn, Frédéric Précigout and Isabelle Techoueyres

This call intends to examine the complex relationship between the scientific community and the « choice » of research topics. The focus is on social and human sciences in the field of food research.

Beside the question of scientific stances lies a societal issue that has to do with ethics, and is all the more central in the field of food research because this field lies at the heart of daily life of the people directly concerned by this research, be it privately or publically funded.

  • 1 Foucault (2004).

In fact such a theme raises several questions that can be examined via the multiple aspects of human food habits and behaviours: regulations, norm implementation, governmentality1, economic development, identity, and also citizen participation in the co-production and dissemination of scientific knowledge bounded and influenced by the relationship between research conditions and the construction of its objects of research.

The construction of knowledge

Food and food behaviours are linked to the current economic situation. Food is at once an object of daily consumption, a cultural object and a public health concern. We are interested in comparing funding sources and research topics cross-culturally, so as to examine underlying social mechanisms.

Papers that explore how food knowledge is collectively built are encouraged, in different historical periods and national contexts, by States logics and different systems of governmentality, local, national or transnational institutional actors, field professionals and targeted audiences. Examples from the field of applied social work dealing with food will be welcome (i.e. shared gardens, culinary workshops, social food shops, citizen forums). Within this frame the use of social sciences by social practitioners could be a focus of the analysis.

  • 2 cf. La volonté de savoir, 1976.

We are also interested in papers dealing with the ways in which social science knowledge is used by public authorities or businesses. For example, how are the social sciences used to gauge the reception of nutritional messages? This will highlight the concept of «power-knowledge », which Michel Foucault2 (1976) showed was central to the understanding of contemporary societies.

Besides we would like to see in this issue contributions questioning the influence of research upon social representations and the evolution of social and culture categories of thinking (like « obesity », « food fears », « migrations », « food heritage »,…).

Commissioned research

The call is looking for papers which explore the social construction of « knowledge » and the way it is used by public authorities or businesses, and caught in relations with funding institutions (public, corporate, associations) which are directly « interested » in the results. With what kind of reciprocity are we dealing?

  • 3 New combinations of public and private funding have emerged in various places (like the PPP -Privat (...)

The way States, or transnational organizations (WHO, FAO) have organized scientific research over the past in the field of food (during the colonial period for instance) and organize it today, and how public research institutes (development policies in the North and in the South) manage their collaborations with private corporations, may lead us to debate about the « decision » for commissioned research – « for whom ? », « why ? », « who by ? », « how ? »…3

We welcome articles that examine the issue of scale in funding. What can be said about relations between European/ regional funding as compared to previous national frames? What is the shift in emphasis? What are the changes in research topics?

We also welcome papers that examine why certain topics (like obesity, migration, poverty, etc.) are of concern to actors in both private and public institutions, while other topics are rarely approached or remain confined in the field of social work. Why do some themes never find funding? How does funding take shape within the diverse disciplines of the social and human sciences (history, sociology, anthropology, geography, etc)?

A contrario, particularly in the South, to what extent does commissioned expertise impact food policies in different countries or international organizations?

Sciences and politics

  • 4 For instance the increasingly precarious situation of researchers-experts.

Articles that take into account professional career stakes and their evaluation, the need for following trends are also part of this call. We want to examine the constraints with which researchers who answer project calls, or involved in research-actions, have to work. What are the factors influencing the choice of topics and the quality of the results? How have new food representations emerged (for instance the « birth » of « calories » in the USA in the 19th century). What external factors, i.e. the situation of professional vulnerability of some researchers (independent or without official status) that may influence the choice of subjects and the quality of results?4

  • 5 Generally urban people, caring about their health and not devoid of stereotypes.

What reasons or arguments explain the omnipresence of certain themes in project calls, and to what extent do such recurring topics, selected by political instances, shape social science research and knowledge? In other words, articles questioning the permeability between social sciences and politics will be of interest. Of course, the researchers themselves, as members of the studied societies5 or on the contrary, as strangers, also take part in the orientation of a chosen topic.

In all cases tackling issues of (power) relations between researchers and commissioners are at the core of this call, from public as well as private sectors. What lessons can be drawn from the commissioners’ influence in drafting research questions or research methodologies?

The following questions may be examined :

What type of funding and for what type of research? How has the type and source influenced the research and the methods?

What is the place of quantitative research and representative samples? How do researchers in the social and human sciences address and work with the demand for quantitative research?

To what extent do research programmes on food create problematics that condition objects of research ?

How to negotiate acceptable compromises for both parties that leads to the creation of a research object and posture while enabling to keep a critical distance necessary for research?

What are the relational dynamics between parties? In this view, the question of pluridisciplinarity is crucial. While the pooling of knowledge stemming from different disciplines (social sciences, medicine, epidemiology, nutrition), as encouraged by commissioners, may be fruitful, how do researchers manage to work together and avoid the domination of one discipline by another ? (for instance, in the case of social and human sciences and medical and epidemiological sciences). How are common research frameworks produced by these asymmetric relations, how are problematics worked out?

How are these ‘problematics’ checked with the users of research, if at all? Is this a function of the social science and the public understanding of science?

  • 6 cf. L.Vidal

How to accommodate the time requirements for researchers (field immersion, data production, analyses, writing, readings, scientific valorisation,..)6 and for decision-makers –pressed by action?

  • 7 This matter has long been the object of many debates within the profession.
  • 8 cf. Callon et al.
  • 9 Roqueplo 1996

The issue of applied sciences: Can scientific knowledge concerning food be applied ? And, can commercial research have a place in the social sciences? Can it be transferred to economic, social actors and populations ? Under what scientific and deontological conditions7? For indeed applied social sciences are supposed to turn knowledge into action. By tradition or training, are researchers able to transform knowledge into action or recommendations ?8 Is it possible to place action (political, for example) and analysis on the same level9.

What interests do we share as researchers? And what are the specific issues we have to deal with according to contemporary national contexts and research traditions? Because this call is written by French researchers, it is necessary to collect points of views from other countries.

Please send article proposals (15-20 lines) before November 15,2013 to Chantal Crenn, Frédéric Précigout and Isabelle Téchoueyres : ; ;

NB: An answer to your proposition will be sent beginning of December. Deadline for submitting completed articles will be February 28th 2014.


Albaladejo Christophe., Geslin Philippe, Magda Danièle, Salembier Pascal, (coord.) 2009, La mise à l'épreuve : Le transfert des connaissances scientifiques en questions, ed. Quae, coll.Update sciences et technologie, Paris.

Baré Jean-François (dir.), 1995, Les applications de l'anthropologie, Karthala, Paris.

Berlivet Luc, 2004, « Une biopolitique de l’éducation pour la santé : la fabrique des campagnes de prévention », Le gouvernement des corps, sous la direction de D Fassin et D Memmi, ed. de l’EHESS, : 39.

De Certeau Michel, 1990, L'Invention du quotidien, 1. Arts de faire et 2. Habiter, cuisiner, éd. établie et présentée par Luce Giard, Gallimard, Paris.

Draetta Laura et Labarthe Fabien, « La recherche sur commande et le dilemme expert chercheur : une analyse réflexive de l’implication du sociologue dans la mise en œuvre d’une politique publique de l’innovation », Revue Interventions économiques [En ligne], 43 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2011, consulté le 19 septembre 2011. URL :

Foucault Michel, 1976, La volonté de savoir, Gallimard, Paris.

Foucault Michel, 2004, Sécurité, territoire, population. Cours au Collège de France, Gallimard, Paris.

Lascoumes Pierre, Callon Michel, Barthe Yanick, 2001, Agir dans un monde incertain, essai sur la démocratie technique. Seuil/la couleur des idées, Paris.

Lassave P, Desage F, Les sociologues et la recherche urbaine dans la France contemporaine ; 2003, in Politix, vol. 16, n° 63, 3è tri 2003, pp. 208-211.

Roqueplo Philippe, 1996, Entre savoir et décision - L’expertise scientifique. INRA, Paris.

Noiriel Gérard, 2007, Racisme la responsabilité des élites, Ed Textuel, Paris.

Sardan (de) Jean-Pierre Olivier, 2008, La rigueur du qualitatif. Les contraintes empiriques de l'interprétation socio-anthropologique, Academia-Bruylant, Louvain-La-Neuve.

Sunderland Patricia and Denny Rita, 2007, Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research, Left Coast Press, California.

Traimond Bernard, L'anthropologie appliquée aujourd'hui, PUB, 2006, Bordeaux

Vidal L, 2005, « L’instant de vérité. Glissements de l’objet à son écriture en anthropologie », L’Homme : 47-74.

Zimmermann, Bénédicte (2004a). Introduction, dans Bénédicte Zimmermann (dir.), Les sciences sociales à l’épreuve de l’action. Le savant, le politique et l’Europe, Paris, Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, pp. 1-21.

Zimmermann, Bénédicte (2004b) (dir.). Les sciences sociales à l’épreuve de l’action. Le savant, le politique et l’Europe, Paris, Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.

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1 Foucault (2004).

2 cf. La volonté de savoir, 1976.

3 New combinations of public and private funding have emerged in various places (like the PPP -Private Public Partnership- in Great Britain since the 1990s).

4 For instance the increasingly precarious situation of researchers-experts.

5 Generally urban people, caring about their health and not devoid of stereotypes.

6 cf. L.Vidal

7 This matter has long been the object of many debates within the profession.

8 cf. Callon et al.

9 Roqueplo 1996

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