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

Responding to the editors’ questions
Anne Murcott

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I am grateful to Isabelle Téchoueyres and her fellow editors of this issue of Anthropology of Food for the invitation to answer their questions and for their great patience in waiting for me to write up my responses. Once again, I am greatly indebted to Peter Jackson, Polly Russell and especially David Evans (for he commented on two drafts) for their comments and continuing, absorbingly interesting conversation. David’s trenchant suggestions in particular, were invaluable when I fretted about how to evade the unedifying spectacle of special pleading, boasting or embarrassing self-revelation. All three remain blameless where I have failed to avoid these pitfalls. I should also like to thank the many civil servants who have greatly helped my understanding of the work of, and surrounding, the UK Food Standards Agency, in particular Dr Jane Barrett and Dr Sian Thomas, who also provided helpful comments. I remain responsible for any inaccuracies.

Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.

C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination.

(People) make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.


1The set of questions posed to me by the editors of this issue of Anthropology of Food are important and interesting. They are also insufficiently frequently discussed in much depth, and very probably insufficiently researched – especially, perhaps, in respect of research on food. My response to the editors’ kind invitation is both to try and answer at least some of their questions directly but also, in the process, to go over familiar ground by way of unearthing for renewed future inspection some of the assumptions that appear to lie behind their enquiries. In the process, I have taken the liberty of re-grouping some of the questions sent to me.

2In effect, the object of investigation in the present context – and what the editors of this issue appear to be interested in – is the sociology and history of the production of scholarship on food. My responses, of course, cannot be that sociology and history - to conduct such work - requires a set of systematic research projects. Instead they include my attempt to assemble a few thoughts stimulated by the editors’ questions that might serve as preliminaries were such a group of research projects contemplated. My thinking about how to respond to the questions proceeds in what could be called the shadow of C. Wright Mills’ mid-twentieth century urgings for the development of good and relevant sociology, whereby study is to be located at the intersection of biography, history and social structure. As self-evidently the editors recognise, scholarship is produced by those with a distinctive biography at a particular period in history and in a specific social structural context – thus in circumstances not of their own making. It is important to note that my answers primarily derive from the viewpoint of greatest familiarity of conducting sociological research (always strongly shaped by anthropological beginnings) in the UK over the particular historic period of the mid-1960s to the present.

Curriculum Vitae

3Question: CV, a few words concerning your career, academic degree and specialty, employment in institutions and position, major fields of research (in relation to human food), notable research projects which you want to highlight.

4Anne: Very briefly, here is my CV. Note that it includes particular elements relevant to the discussion that follows. I was awarded a MA degree in Social Anthropology from Edinburgh University, and a PhD in Sociology, University of Wales. Working in the UK for virtually all my life, I spent the majority of my teaching career responsible for founding and running courses in sociology in medical schools (not only for medical students, but also dental, nursing, midwifery and health visitor students, together with postgraduate doctors training in public health and general practice) at the same time as teaching in sociology departments at both under-and post-graduate levels, including PhD supervision. I also have teaching experience in other countries including Australia, Finland and New Zealand. To my considerable frustration, it was not until I had retired from full time university employment that I was able to find the opportunity to teach a course in the sociology of food – or at least, one which did not mean I would be obliged to increase my teaching load beyond tolerable limits. This opportunity was part of the summer school programme of the University of Otago, in New Zealand.

5As to research posts, immediately on graduating, I held two successive research assistantships (the most junior grade) and ended full time employment before (active) retirement holding a research professorship (i.e. with limited teaching duties). With the exception of those last few years of full time employment, I have been continuously engaged in research throughout my career always alongside a full teaching load. I have held research grants from various agencies, including the UK Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), the Health Education Authority and the then UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (the government departmental responsibility for food consumption and production has since been reorganised). A major piece of work was service as Director of the ESRC’s £1.6M, 6 year Research Programme “‘The Nation’s Diet’ the social science of food choice” in the 1990s.

6I have served as editor of journals in the sociology of health and in social scientific work on food, published several books as well as many journal articles. Much of this work deals with research on the sociology of food (for selected, recent examples see bibliography).

7Currently I hold three honorary professorial positions and I am a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. I am an expert member of the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA)’s General Advisory Committee on Science (GACS) having also been a member of its precursor, the Advisory Committee on Research (ACR), from that committee’s inception in 2002, representing unbroken service in such a capacity for the Agency ever since. I served as Chair of the Review Panel, “Independent Review of the Infant and Follow-on Formula Controls”, Department of Health/FSA (2008-9) and as a member of the Steering Panel “GO-Science, Science Review of the FSA”, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, (2008-9). I am/have been a member of several FSA research projects’ Advisory Groups, including “Food and You” and “Kitchen Life” (FSA website – all websites are included in the bibliography).

8I was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Uppsala in 2009.

Careers, employment conditions and development of research

9Q.: Research and personal experience. How you chose your research topics? For what reasons? Did you ever feel you had to adapt your choices of research objects/ topics to suit your funders, your hierarchy? Did you ever feel you had to adapt your results and findings to suit your funders, your hierarchy, decision makers, people in charge of carrying out policies? Your own experience with multi-disciplinary teams?

10A.: On the whole, I suspect the best way of thinking about careers, research and personal experience, is to realise that “it is probably all contingent anyway” (Atkinson 2012).

11Snatches of the way a career develops can sometimes be seen in authors’ acknowledgements. I always read these in full the minute I first pick up a book. Obviously acknowledgements shed light on “who’s who” in the writers’ academic network and sometimes they offer an instructive glimpse of home and personal lives. But they can also be particularly revealing about the circumstances in which the work was put together. Stephen Wilks’ is an unusually telling example: “I am grateful to my colleagues in the Politics Department at Exeter for, to put it bluntly, leaving me alone, and to the undergraduates for not leaving me alone. For the past eight years I have taught a third-year seminar on business and politics, which has allowed me to explore aspects of business power intensively and speculatively” (Wilks 2013: x).

12Perhaps the most auspicious collection of conditions and characteristics for a successful research career revolves around a simple, economic basic: having enough money to live on. In other words, being able to plan and try and decide in which direction the career may develop depends on the economic freedom not to have to take whatever employment is available simply to provide an income. At one extreme, that freedom means that a person may apply for whatever available jobs they want, i.e. those that look interesting, provide the opportunity of working with a group of like-minded others, are in prestigious institutions etc. – or even enjoy the ability to wait until an attractive job opportunity arises. At the other extreme, lacking that freedom limits a person to applying for unattractive jobs in order to pay the rent, support their partner financially, feed their children or accommodate personal commitments such as caring for elderly parents. Some might suggest that freedom to pursue preferred jobs is gendered, with women more constrained geographically and/or by periods of absence from the labour market in a context in which conventions persist that parental responsibilities for child care or for ageing parents are also gendered. The extent to which that freedom is variably enjoyed can only be suggested here, for it requires detailed evidence that is not obviously readily available. My own experience, alluded to in places below, is self-evidently inadequate a basis on which to generalise.

13Plausible hypotheses for investigations to help provide such evidence and the manner in which research and research careers are affected would need to take into account the following thoughts, at the least. Limits to taking one or other job means that those with less freedom to seek posts are more likely to have to apply for academic posts of lower status, in departments other than a person’s “own” discipline, including those requiring “service teaching” and an applied rather than pure research orientation. Low status posts are not simply less desirable by virtue of that status, but because the status is also likely to be aligned with power (or, more accurately, its absence) to determine how to dispose of the hours of the working week in respect of the balance between the four responsibilities of an academic (at least in UK universities) of teaching, research, management and “out-reach”/consultancy, as well as displaying what is sometimes colloquially known as “good citizenship” – the typically unpaid work of, for instance, journal editorships or standing for election as an officer of a professional association, all of which can none the less add to an academic’s prestige among peers. Low status posts are also much less likely to entitle the holder to features of working conditions which provide for a more productive research life such as access to administrative support or sabbatical leave.

14The freedom to choose which jobs to apply for can mean that an academic can opt for those which allow them to align their teaching with their research – the value of which Wilks well recognised. Correspondingly, it can also mean that there is a greater degree of autonomy in determining the direction of research. By contrast, low status jobs located in a department or institute run by or dominated by a discipline other than one’s own can severely limit such autonomy. And with it, low status jobs commonly curtail the ability to enter research collaborations as an equal partner rather than being obliged to accept some variety of inferior status. Worse, it can sometimes mean that colleagues in other disciplines have their, not your, version of your own discipline’s character, methods and approach. If very unlucky, this can even mean repeated and intensely frustrating battles to get heard and/or to be treated with any kind of legitimacy. Low status jobs may also restrict the opportunity not just for allocating writing time but also for prioritising writing commitments according to the logic of the research rather than according to the requirements of the institution in respect of forms of publication and/or types of approach.

15For sociologists, it has long been conventional wisdom that service teaching and/or employment elsewhere than in a department of sociology (or equivalent) are to be avoided if at all possible. Anecdotally, teaching engineering students is considered to be the pinnacle of especially thankless work, although there are some horror stories about teaching medical students too (I have my own, first-hand collection) the upside of which is that they such students are commonly very bright. Note that talking about teaching is relevant to discussing research careers, for in the UK as elsewhere, the academy is organised such that the vast majority of more secure positions (permanent posts do not exist in the UK as once they did) require the incumbent both to teach and conduct research. (Research-only careers are notoriously perilous, typically entailing the uncertainty of a succession of short term contracts along, at times, with lower status.) To the point here is that the reaction of students to the social sciences is liable to – and in my experience, commonly did especially in the 1970s and 80s – mirror that of their teachers. Many sociologists employed to teach in medical schools – especially those of us who in the UK were members of the very first cohort to be appointed in 1970 to newly created posts – faced, at best ignorance, misunderstanding and condescension from medical colleagues, at worst outright and open hostility. This was of the period. So too – and of which I have adverse personal experience – is that when I was first appointed to a permanent post in the medical school, questions asked of women candidates about their provision for child-care were not yet banned from job interviews and equal pay legislation had yet be enacted in the UK.

16So, many find their jobs face them with some or most of the distinctive features I have just listed which affect the shape of their careers – obviously adversely for some. In the past, some had the opportunity to adapt – or maybe, more gloomily, resign themselves – to research applying their sociological work to (in my case, medical) colleagues’ problems. Certainly, a careful check on the choice of research topics in the sociology of food literature shows that those based in nutrition departments or medical schools often gear their work to extra-sociological preoccupations of those other professions, presumably required by their employers – and are typically required to publish not in sociology but in nutrition or medical journals. Such requirements may often mean abiding by publication conventions unfamiliar, or even antipathetic to those in sociology, and may also result in their work’s becoming less well-known – and, if known, less well regarded – by disciplinary peers.

17Let me put all this in more positive terms. Those who can apply for academic posts which allow some freedom to specialise, offer more rather than less autonomy in aligning the topics of their research and teaching to concentrate on contributing to pure rather than applied research, being able to teach only students who elect to take your courses - as distinct from “conscripts” who are compulsorily obliged to sign up for one course in which they have no interest or worse to which they are actively hostile - are best placed to develop a career that is actively constructed. Those who cannot readily apply for such posts are likely to end up with a career that proceeds by fits and starts, sometimes against the odds and that can, in retrospect, look incoherent and unplanned. It is doubtful if anyone knows how many fortunates there are able to “tick all those boxes” – possibly only a minority enjoy this optimum.

18My CV indicates that, like a great many others, I have first-hand experience of employment circumstances that at times fell very considerably short of that optimum. This should, however, be viewed in terms of the history of the institutional development of sociology, especially in medical schools – limitations on space here preclude detailing more analytically the relationship between biography, institution and discipline that such experience illustrates. Equally, the trajectory my research has taken also reflects a history, this time of the last four and more decades of disciplinary developments – a point noted the particular case of the sociology of food below.

19Before continuing to the next set of questions, I should add that though I had – far too often, it still feels – to conform to developing work in directions not of my own choosing, I have never found myself required to adapt my results to suit anyone else.

What funding?

20Q.: Was that ever a difficulty? Can you account for an evolution over time? More simplicity or difficulty to find funding? More programmes available? More private or public funding? More inter-disciplinarity required?

21A.: Securing research funding is commonly taxing. There is an academics’ fantasy about how to spend a win of lottery millions – research funding without political strings attached and without having to write reports according to a pro forma or some exercise answering questions that seem beside the point when concentrating on good scholarship. Apart from such a fantasy, it is hard to imagine a source of research funding that does not have some sort of agenda in the form of a rationale for its existence/ purposes for which it is accountable for the suitable dispersal of funds entrusted to it. Naturally this applies whether it be government research funding, government ministries and departments, philanthropic trusts, major foundations or commercial enterprises.

  • 1 Note, of course, that my views are historically specific, and in any case academics’ experience var (...)

22Over the last half century or so in the UK, an idea has circulated among social scientists that the funding source that is least likely to constrain research in the way that the editors’ are asking about are the seven research councils (RCUK website)1. These, of course, are the agencies via which government funding for research is channelled. The source of research council funding held to be the least directed is the so-called “responsive mode” supporting “pure” or “basic” research, whereby the research questions, methodological approach, etc. are selected by the researcher, primarily in the name of the pursuit of scholarly knowledge “for its own sake”. Social scientists in the UK also tend to regard research council funding as the most prestigious and valuable type of funding (e.g. in recognising and funding world class research of the highest standard) equal to the major foundations, superior to charity, or commercial sources of funding – not least, perhaps, because securing one of their grants is highly competitive – given that they provide for responsive mode funding, thus offering researchers greatest freedom. All there same there are still limits, exemplified currently by requirements for “user engagement” and “impact”.

  • 2 A good example is The Joseph Rowntree Foundation which originates from the social reforming concern (...)

23Major foundations are widely thought of as free from the strings attached to funding from a commercial source, but at times are also viewed as not always offering the freedom of the UK research councils’ responsive mode. Currently an exception is The Leverhulme Trust, distinctive in that most of its awards are in responsive mode (Leverhulme website). Some foundations are/ have been more inclined to have themes or topics for which they wish to attract research which some researchers also regard is a constraint on their freedom to determine what and how they study2. In addition some charities have distinct food related missions; e.g. the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation aims to “find an alternative system that produces higher quality food in ways that are better for people, the environment and livestock” (Fairbairn website).

24The view that research council grants afford the greatest freedom co-exists with another: that commercial funding sources are most likely to constrain research, by shaping the questions or looking for results which endorse a corporate viewpoint, etc. In the absence of evidence, it is not possible to examine how justified this view may be. Certainly, academics (including myself) are very cautious indeed about even contemplating funding from commercial sources, no matter what freedoms may be assured. The reason is simply that the public image of accepting such resources risks casting doubt on the scholar’s integrity and independence. I have never looked for commercial research funding. The closest I have come is when, almost 20 years ago, a major UK retailer sought me out as a researcher who was independent (presumably of political, commercial or ‘food activist’ associations) to discuss a consultancy for 10 days p.a.. I listened astonished not just by the enormous (to me) amount of money they mentioned, but also by their wanting to bar me from accepting work from anyone else. They heard me with puzzlement when I observed that this last would compromise the very independence they declared they valued. The conversation went no further.

25While these variations between research councils, charities and foundations (without even beginning to develop discussion of government ministries/departments or further reflect on commercial sources) are very familiar, a point to bear in mind is the general context in which prevailing views on the relative merits of funding sources exists in 21st- century UK (and probably in parallel ways in France, the US or New Zealand). Research funding from governments, whether or not channelled via Research Councils or their equivalent, cannot at all historical periods be considered to afford the greatest freedom. The very obvious lesson of The Frankfurt School’s (founded with the help of a private fortune) position vis à vis commercial vs government funding in the early 1930s should not be forgotten (Jay 1973).

26In any case, even when applying for “pure” research responsive mode funding, it is not so much having the good research ideas and simply submitting a proposal regardless of any other considerations. It is more working out how to shape the good ideas in order to fit the best understanding as can be secured of the interests and inevitable agenda of the funding agency in question (along with the wider political context). An example is a very modest Social Science Research Council (SSRC, now ESRC) funded the single-handed study I undertook in 1979-80. It built from initial, unfunded work begun in the mid-1970s that had arisen from my identifying a major absence of attention to food and the social organisation of eating in the English language literatures of the sociologies of everyday life, of communities in Britain, and of the domestic division of labour.

  • 3 In complete contrast to the position nowadays, the official view in the UK at the time, was that, i (...)
  • 4 Views vary as to how persistent the Haldane principle is. It was expounded in the early years of th (...)

27Given the almost complete absence of prior sociological research on conceptions of food and eating in the UK at the time, the work was designed as a feasibility study and, partly to help secure funding (for other reasons see Murcott 2011) it focussed on expectant/ new mothers. In this way, it signalled policy relevance, even though the proposal was submitted and the grant awarded under the responsive mode. In the process it required writing the application to give the committees and referees involved reason to understand why such novelty was important and to indicate where extra-academic interests lay – particularly those of public policy3 – in other words, to “educate” them. Accordingly the study was adjusted to align it with what was believed to be the need for the SSRC (probably more so than all the other research councils then and now) to be seen by political masters to be relevant4. At the same time, the adjustment was made without, as far as could be guessed at, compromising the intellectual integrity of the study. The political expediency of displaying such relevance was arguably just as significant for securing funding in the 1970s as it is at the time of writing.

  • 5 Other reactions were distinctly uncomplimentary, including dismissive comments that I was only inte (...)

28What was also striking is that embarking on research on conceptions of food (the way that the original focus was articulated) did not, at the time, attract the involvement of colleagues in the medical school. Other topics I had mooted entailed risking loss of control over the research agenda, taken over by those who sought to turn it to their interests – and it is supposed – their advantage. In the early 1970s, food, it seemed, was not sufficiently high status. That it was considered trivial and not a proper topic for academic investigation among colleagues in the humanities and social sciences is commonly reported – and I certainly frequently encountered such reaction5. By contrast, it could have been supposed that in the medical school the view would be different. It was not. I imagine this is partly because food was at the time not a population-wide public health concern. Moreover especially in the case of my initial study, the work was coupled with pregnancy and/or infant feeding – health provision for which is normally located in the community rather than the hospital.This too placed it in the low status realm of prevention rather than clinical work. All in all, I was only too relieved to be left alone to get on with it.

29It probably occurred to none concerned at the time – and most certainly never crossed my mind for many years – that this extremely small grant would have far reaching results in several ways. Obviously there were publications (e.g. Murcott 1982, Murcott 1983a and also Murcott 1983b) but along with work such as Charles & Kerr (1988) or Beardsworth & Keil (1992) and most particularly Mennell (1985), mine contributed to the emergence of research in a so-called sociology of food in the UK, dateable to the early 1980s. Bill Whit has even gone so far as to describe my work as pioneering (Whit 1995). It is notable, however, that for almost a decade, the main attention to my research that had initially been thus modestly funded was international, not national, and, for a long time came from those in nutrition, dietetics and public health far more than from fellow sociologists. All such observations testify to the novelty of sociological approaches to the study of food at the time, evident in retrospect but now in all likelihood disappearing into the pre-history of the field.

30Funding in the UK for research in the sociology of food has of course evolved since the early 1970s. Since I discuss an interpretation of its background in Murcott (2011) I shall not repeat it here.

The construction of knowledge. Commissioned research. Sciences and politics

31Q.: According to your own opinion and experience, how is food knowledge collectively built ? (food transformation, cooking, relation to health, agriculture….) How is social science knowledge used by public authorities or private corporations? What lessons can we draw as researchers from the commissioners’ influence in drafting research questions or research methodologies? Can scientific knowledge concerning food be applied? And, can commercial research have a place in the social sciences?

32A.: Asking how food knowledge is collectively built prompts more than one answer. One is that if all or any knowledge is indeed collectively built, then whatever is meant by food knowledge is built in the same way. Another begins from the distinction between an emic and etic level of food knowledge(s). The former refers to the knowledge(s) produced at any one period in history in any one set of socio-cultural circumstances anywhere in the world in the social interaction between those who people the setting in question – knowledge(s) that every social group develops about which items are poisonous, about how to grow grains or husband livestock, about preserving and cooking foods, about conventions of who is to eat with whom, what foods are appropriate for which occasions, what counts as healthy eating, who is to be trusted to provide food and much more besides. The etic level refers to knowledge that is self-consciously produced – in this case in the social sciences – as a central component of the scholarly enterprise (itself a historically distinctive, socio-cultural and political phenomenon). In this view, the relation between the two is that the etic level is where efforts at scholarly appreciation, explanation and interpretation of phenomena belonging to the emic level are pursued (knowing, all the while, that those who pursue it also live their lives at, and are immersed in, emic levels). Those dedicated to the etic level are enjoined to take very careful (i.e. theorised and methodically investigated) note of the emic, and may expect to add something distinctive to it.

33What that distinctive addition can be reflects, to some extent, the starting point. For the relation between the emic and the etic loops round in many ways, not least in that what begins as scholarly work may become incorporated into the non-academic world. That it does, makes answering a question about it hard, for finding the evidence will take resources that are unlikely to be available to devote to the task sufficiently systematically. Looking at the matter another way leads to thinking about applied research which, by definition, requires a specific version of that looping back between emic and etic. In any case, increasingly it seems, scholars are expected, often as a condition of their funding, to disseminate their work beyond the academy – or indeed expect it of themselves as a matter of social responsibility, especially if they are in receipt of public research funds. In any event, looking at the loop from yet another angle, there is the long-established tradition that academics seek to align themselves with one or other political position before they start – or as a reason for starting – and expect their work to make some contribution to social change or amelioration of one kind or another. Without entering the (irresolvable?) discussion about epistemological incompatibilities, the politics of research or the impossibility of escaping a fundamental position that by definition is value-laden, just one question – rarely heard – is raised here. How common is it that among academics (i.e. a community of the inevitably comparatively socially advantaged) one researcher’s laudable commitment to investigating a food-related problem, say “food poverty”, works to silence fellow researchers’ equally laudable commitment to assuring standards who thereby, for instance, want to examine critically the quality of the research and/or seek to have its author make explicit both the criteria underlying their assumptions or indeed the assumptions themselves?

Social scientific food knowledge and its place beyond the academy

  • 6 From the mid-1990s onwards, I gradually discovered that several biological scientists and others in (...)

34One of the editors’ questions centres on the way that “social science knowledge (is) used by public authorities or private corporations”. Part of the answer has to note a variability in these organisations’ attention to such knowledge. The food industry and its institutions appear content to commission its social research from commercial research companies – market and marketing research6. They seem only infrequently to be interested in academic sociological research on food (unlike an interest in psychology, especially in respect of sensory studies, or in economics). This may already be changing, or may change in the future should, for instance, a corporate social responsibility agenda become more significant. Among those commissioning research on food by social scientists in a sustained fashion perhaps the most prominent have been policy makers and government departments/ agencies, e.g. ministries of agriculture, health or education.

35So saying leads on to consider sociological research on food in relation to policy making. Many social scientists share the aspiration that “(We need to) help set policy agendas, not just respond to them.” (emphasis added, Maclean 2014). Clearly implied is a shift in the relation between researchers and policy makers from passively addressing existing policies to actively changing them.

36Possibly more commonly paraded is a familiar pair of observations about that relation, caricatured here for speed’s sake. On the one hand, academics seem fond of complaining that policy makers (civil servants, politicians) ignore social scientific research and, even after having commissioned a study, leave it on a shelf to gather dust. Policy makers seem to be fond of complaining that academic researchers use jargon needlessly, only come up with what everyone already knows, publish in esoteric, inaccessible journals, live in “ivory towers” preferring only to talk to each other and in any case work unduly slowly.

37Add to this the chronic difficulty of the public understanding of the social sciences. Perennially, the social sciences, perhaps sociology in particular, have to find a way of living with the consequences for their reception by the non-social scientific world, that its subject matter is, prima facie, neither obscure nor unfamiliar. On the contrary, sociologists study the world everybody knows and about which everybody necessarily has some sort of understanding as part and parcel of their belonging to it as competent members. Sociologists studying food – especially the consumption side, shopping, meals, eating, etc. – study a facet of everyday life everybody also knows and, similarly routinely, has some kind of knowledge of as part of their membership of it. This difficulty can complicate the relation between researchers and policy makers still further. For like everyone else, policy makers have prior understandings along these lines which can result in their either remaining oblivious to the existence of social research on a topic they are interested in, or in leading them not even to recognise the need for it – or, indeed, not realising that it is sociologically researchable.

Social scientific food knowledge and its place beyond the academy: the case of the UK Food Standards Agency

38By way of concluding these answers to the editors’ questions, some very brief observations on the place of the social scientific expertise in, and social scientific research commissioned by, the UK Food Standards Agency (henceforth FSA or the Agency) are presented.

39Note that these observations do not represent the Agency or anyone else’s views and are based on my own, individual experience of association with the Agency, primarily as a member of a Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) augmented by membership of several projects’ Advisory Groups, etc. (see CV above).

40Inaugurated in 2000, the FSA was created as an agency that is non-ministerial, governed by a Board and thus “at arms’ length” from government. It was created in the wake of the BSE crisis in the UK so that policy attention to food production (now the responsibility of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) was organisationally separated from food consumption. The Agency is committed to: “putting the consumer first; openness and transparency; (being) science - and evidence-based; acting independently; enforcing food law fairly” (FSA website).

41Although, as far as I am aware, the history has yet to be written, the FSA’s relation to the social sciences amounts to a story of considerable success and impressively rapid progress. It is a history with which I am very familiar, having lived it since 2002. Note, however, that I am in the worst position to evaluate whatever part I have played in it which, together with any resulting bias in my views, needs a historian’s dispassionate eye. The progress I have witnessed amounts to a demonstrable shift to commissioning far more thorough, higher quality social scientific research that is much more fully embedded in the relevant literatures.

  • 7 With an economist that meant there were just two of us out of about 10, who were not biological or (...)
  • 8 One of the pressures felt towards using commercial social research companies is that their organisa (...)

42When my association with the FSA began in 2002 (I joined its Advisory Committee on Research at its inception as the social scientist member7) most of the social research commissioned seemed most readily classifiable as market research8 typically conducted by commercial research companies. It was not simply that most of the social research commissioned appeared to be market research, it was that this state of affairs seemed to have no counterpart in microbiology, toxicology or the other disciplines in which the Agency also commissioned research. The biological scientific work would, as often as not, be commissioned from university-based scientists as much if not more than scientists based in a commercial company or research institute funded, say, by industrial memberships. I was extremely puzzled by the Agency’s apparently almost completely overlooking the academic constituency of social scientists.

43It is important to note that I have always taken the view that it is unduly limiting and limited for policy makers primarily to rely on market research for the provision of the evidence needed. It is not that market research is somehow inferior to academic research, simply that it serves entirely different purposes. At issue are the associated significant differences between market research and academic social science, including, notably: different attitudes to the research questions; variation in the extent to which the academic literature is consulted or even known, thus frequently neglecting subject-specific knowledge; and, perhaps most important of all, contrasting arrangements for quality control.

44The Agency’s progress between 2002 and 2015 is signalled in several ways. One is that in respect of the commissioned social scientific research a notable accomplishment is replacing a less dependable “consumer survey” with something far closer to the standard expected for social surveys (known as “Food and You”). Based on a representative sample, it is planned as a biennial time series with Wave 3’s reports published in 2014. Second, closer attention is now paid to ensuring that the research approach is the most suitable for the research question. As a result, the range of social scientific research approaches has been extended so that, for instance, they include a study of domestic practices completed in 2013 based on researcher- observation, visual methods and extended qualitative interviews (known as “Kitchen Life”).

45The progress also includes the creation in-house of a Social Science Research Unit, employing civil servants who hold degrees in one of the social sciences (e.g. political science, social anthropology, social policy). Added to that, the Agency has also created the Social Science Research Committee, a new SAC, initially chaired by the late Roger Jowell and currently by Peter Jackson. In line, with FSA commitment to openness and transparency, it holds its meetings in public as does the Board and other SACs – with agendas, minutes etc. publicly available. Furthermore, the understanding is becoming increasingly well-established in the Agency the social sciences are not only valuable in helping understand “consumers” but are just as relevant and informative about features elsewhere in the food system. Further evidence of this progress is the interest in the work of the Social Science Research Committee taken by the European Food Safety Authority during its Executive Director’s 2015 visit to the FSA.

46Living this history has meant being in the invaluable position of being able to learn something of the way the Agency works. A significant example is provided by the very slow process of unravelling that initial puzzlement at the Agency’s early apparent very heavy reliance on market research – a puzzlement that persisted for several years. Eventually I discovered that in large measure it turned on the rules for governments’ procurement of research. And these rules are European not national. At some time, somewhere in the European Union, someone must have persuaded everyone else that social research was no different from market research, and the rules for public procurement for research on anything social – unlike those for the biological or natural sciences – should set the default as market research, requiring a special set of arguments to elect for an alternative route.

47My 13 years of experience of association with the FSA has reinforced several important lessons academics engaged in research on food would be wise to think very hard about if they are interested in the successful use of social scientific knowledge by public authorities. Essential is communication between academic researchers and policy makers (often primarily the civil servants) on a sustained basis (thus surviving the sometimes rapid turnover of civil servants whose career progression moves them between government departments) allowing the creation of collaborative working relationships. This does not mean forsaking an academic stance – on the contrary, that would undermine everything. It does however mean listening actively and carefully, requiring among other things making strenuous efforts to understand the position of civil servants, in particular the requirements of their political masters that can constrain their room for manoeuvre. And it is beholden, I would argue, on sociologists in particular, to bring as much of their disciplinary expertise to bear – in, notably, the sociology of organisations and in political sociology – to augment their experience and observations. All that can be slow, for it means taking part in many meetings, observing as carefully and thoughtfully as possible, as well as amassing many conversations to unpick in order to make explicit, and learn about, the inevitably unspoken assumptions of everyone (oneself included) involved.

48The scope for generalising to a wider consideration of the relation between policy making and social scientific research on food from the case of the FSA is limited. Arguably, the Agency’s rapid progress is in key part a result of its distinctive constitution that has enabled smoother and swifter relevant changes to be made. Although the “success story” told above is compressed into a handful of paragraphs, it usefully helps illustrate one vitally important point if anyone wishes to have social scientific knowledge about food actively taken up by policy makers. Simply summed up in the old cliché, it requires learning the others’ point of view and starting from there. If more social scientists did so they might help render the stereotypes of academics and policy caricatured above more rapidly outdated.

  • 9 This requires formal application followed by formal interview and is competitive.
  • 10 Note that the remit for FSA’s SACs is to provide “advice and challenge” i.e. including freedom to c (...)

49Many would endorse Maclean’s sentiments that social scientists should be emboldened to help set policy agendas rather than simply react to them. Note, however, that although I could have applied for membership of the Food Standards Agency’s Board – the body responsible for policy – I have never done so since I do not regard myself sufficiently expert a policy analyst. Instead, I opted to apply9 for membership of a SAC10 dedicated to assuring the quality and relevance of the science. If Maclean’s is a direction in which others wish to move there is an extremely strong case for arguing that it will be as well for them to attend to developing thorough, careful and good quality research as a basis for contributing to discussions of whatever new policy agendas they are to help make. My conviction remains unshakeable that seeking evidence and assuring its quality is vital, representing a place where social scientists need to ensure they remain securely located wherever and whenever they undertake research on one or other aspect of food.

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1 Note, of course, that my views are historically specific, and in any case academics’ experience varies as to the extent of (political) constraints.

2 A good example is The Joseph Rowntree Foundation which originates from the social reforming concern with poverty of the late nineteenth century Quaker chocolate family. It gears its funding in directions consonant with the terms of its creation to ameliorate poverty and thus is “not a grant-making organisation and generally does not accept speculative enquiries for funding” instead issuing its own directedcalls for proposals” (Rowntree website).

3 In complete contrast to the position nowadays, the official view in the UK at the time, was that, in respect of food policy, supply posed no particular problems. In respect of nutrition policy, the nutritional status of the general population was thought to represent no public health anxiety and it was only special groups – including notably pregnant women and new mothers – whose nutritional status required particular health education and/or clinical intervention and/or policy attention (see Murcott 1994, 1999).

4 Views vary as to how persistent the Haldane principle is. It was expounded in the early years of the 20th century, which (among things) accorded decisions about what was to be funded to researchers not politicians (for recent reference to it see BIS 2014).

5 Other reactions were distinctly uncomplimentary, including dismissive comments that I was only interested in the topic because I was a woman, or joking (so I like to think) that it was merely a temporary mental lapse from which I would soon recover.

6 From the mid-1990s onwards, I gradually discovered that several biological scientists and others in the UK food policy community (this primarily includes government, industry, NGO activists and academics in food related disciplines other than the social sciences) thought of market research as the same as academic social scientific research. In the end I wrote a document for the 2008-9 GO Science Review of the FSA to help characterise the differences. The relevant web pages for that Review are apparently no longer available; interested readers are invited to get in touch should they wish a copy.

7 With an economist that meant there were just two of us out of about 10, who were not biological or medical scientists. That I was known as the social scientist member reflects the UK government’s classification of social research into four: social science, economics, statistics and operations research – a categorisation that scarcely maps on to those in universities and/or the ESRC.

8 One of the pressures felt towards using commercial social research companies is that their organisation allows them to respond to a call for research and to complete a project to a more flexible timetable. Academics are typically tied in to an annual cycle of teaching and who have (possibly especially in the social sciences) to fund their junior research staff on what can too commonly be an intermittent basis despite every efforts to assure continuity and some sort of career progression. By contrast, those running commercial research companies seek to organise them so that they can generate enough income to employ a sufficiently large research staff, with enough spare capacity to be able to second someone to a 6 month project at short notice at most times of the year, thus able to respond to calls requiring a project to begin within a couple of months far more readily. Civil servants may have to respond rapidly to requirements for evidence from Ministers and MPs.

9 This requires formal application followed by formal interview and is competitive.

10 Note that the remit for FSA’s SACs is to provide “advice and challenge” i.e. including freedom to criticise.

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Electronic reference

Anne Murcott, « Research / ethics environment in social and human food sciences: debates, constraints, limits and lessons  », Anthropology of food [Online], 10 | 2016, Online since 09 February 2016, connection on 20 June 2018. URL :

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About the author

Anne Murcott

Food Studies Centre, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London,

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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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