Interview with Jennifer Barth

Jennifer Barth has recently joined the TCS Website team.

As Researcher, she’ll be reporting for us on the UK events that we’re following, and in which we hope readers of Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society will be interested.

Image: Jennifer Barth

You’ll be able to follow her reports and her interviews with guest speakers, visiting lecturers, conference convenors and exhibition curators on the TCS Blog and Website, but for now, here’s a welcome interview with Jennifer on her own research and on the sort of things she’s got in store for us.

Simon Dawes: You’ve just completed your PhD entitled ‘Taste, ethics and the market in Guatemalan coffee: An ethnographic study’ at the University of Oxford. Could you tell us a little about your thesis? What theoretical frameworks do you use and which theorists do you draw on?

Jennifer Barth: The DPhil thesis presents an argument for the plural and distributed agencies and processes involved in the production of markets for ethical coffee. Through an ethnographic study of Guatemalan coffee production, my research works to make visible the range and diversity of activities that, when brought into view, allow for political potentialities. The thesis points to the ways that producers and small entrepreneurs in Guatemala reconfigure the practices of cultivation, processing, and selling/buying in relation to circulating market indicators. They create locally situated attachments to the coffee through skill transfer and knowledge exchange and in this way they imitate and transform international valuations of coffee.

I began by questioning spaces in the UK where coffee professionals were speaking about ‘coffee’ and ‘ethics’ in terms of coffee supply networks that met current notions of ‘sustainability’ (e.g., Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and Direct Trade), that include commitments like better worker wages, access to education and medical services, and concerns with environmental impact. This led me to see an increasing importance in the coffee industry on the quality of coffee and a burgeoning area of purchasing and retailing that focuses on measures of taste. I found that there is a convergence of ethics and notions of taste in coffee markets: producers and retailers are making a connection between the activities of production that meet measures of sustainability that also result in a better tasting bean. Producers and other coffee professionals are responding to, and also transforming, this convergence. Such activities are pronounced in Guatemala with its ability to grow high quality Arabica coffee and an explicit focus on, and implementation of, programmes that meet existing indicators of sustainability. I traced the circulation of activities that make coffee ‘ethical’ and those that meet measures of good taste and high quality as one example of the diversity and performativity of coffee production. I found that these are path dependent, relational and inform and promote imaginative invention in places that we might not have expected. By considering coffee as vital and mobile, as an active producer of public effects rather than a passive object moved through the commodity network, coffee’s taste, or indeed any object’s materiality and affectivity, can inspire and provoke beyond its current considerations.

The work of Michel Callon (1997; 2005) and others has been instructive in considering the interaction between metrological processes, technologies and human and nonhuman nature as fluid; allowing for different movements among and between actors in the creation and negotiation of economies. I place importance on the people involved with coffee but also pay close attention to the technical devices to grow, process, measure and market coffee. Gabriel Tarde’s (1890/1903) dynamic theory of tracking minute detail allows temporalities to augment the flat surface of flows, attending to the not immediately observable. For example, the histories, politics and economies of Guatemala infuse coffee production and export today. With attention to the local and specific, one sees the potential for imitation and invention; I found in Guatemala producers and other coffee professionals actively engaged in inventing new ways to sell coffee. I developed the potential of coffee taste with insights from work on affective and informed materials like that of Hennion (2004), Barry (2005), and Bennett (2007). The thesis contributes to an interdisciplinary approach of economic geography and sociology, social and cultural political economy, and micro-political interventions through markets and global networks.

SD: What about the relationship between taste and coffee?

JB: The earliest motivation for this study was to seek spaces where coffee and ethics meet in ways that make ethical coffee less about its abstractions (labels, widely applicable notions of social and environmental practice) and more about the sensations and feelings, actions and attitudes underlying them. I found that taste, as one example of the range and diversity of processes and agencies involved in the production of markets in ethical coffee, both delimits what constitutes good coffee (including grading schemes and learning to taste) and deploys attachments to the coffee. Attachments engage sensibilities, metabolisms, beliefs, bodies, politics and economies; affective encounters between life and world, material and body. For example, selling coffee with an attached message of origins and farmers and the conditions of cultivation, a common practice among purveyors of high quality and/or ethical coffee, augments the taste in the cup: one drinks their ethics. Quality coffee is multiple in its ability to transport an ethical message and a particular combination of attributes meaning good taste.

SD: You’re also currently working as a consultant. Could you tell us about the sort of projects you’ve worked on recently?

JB: As a consultant I work with Smoothmedia as Research Director and social researcher. I use qualitative research methods, including rapid ethnographies, to help companies and organisations develop a strategy for social responsibility. Through research, organisations can visualise the less obvious relations between workers and the communities where they work. This contributes to building relationships with communities that will be sustainable over time and to invest in ways that respond directly to local requirements. I focus on opening new channels of communication and harnessing experiences and then relating these to a wider public. Most recently I completed a project among mine workers in Zimbabwe for a charitable foundation. The research contributes to a baseline understanding of the socio-economic situation where they work. The foundation will follow a five step strategy to develop and implement community programs and to ensure that they meet the needs of the workers. Research continuously informs the process.

SD: In your new role for the TCS Website, you’ll be reporting on events in the London, Oxford and Cambridge areas that will be of interest to readers of TCS and B&S. Could you give us a hint of what’s in store over the next couple of months?

JB: I plan to attend various events including public talks, conferences, seminars and exhibitions. A review of the recent Boris Groys talk at the ICA in London will be up on the website soon. It is part of a series of pieces we hope to showcase on Groys’ work to tease the forthcoming TCS special section. Readers can also look forward to a review of the Skin exhibition at the Wellcome Collection and coverage of conferences in London and at Oxford at the beginning of September.

Jennifer Barth is a social researcher at the School of Geography (University of Oxford), Research Director for Smoothmedia, and now Website Researcher for TCS

Simon Dawes is the Editorial Assistant of Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society, and the Content Editor of the TCS Website

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