Michael A. Haedicke

 

On his book Organizing Organic: Conflict and Compromise in an Emerging Market

Cover Interview of November 09, 2016

The wide angle

C. Wright Mills argued that sociological research often springs from the intersection of personal biography and history. My book is no exception.

I come from a family that bought organic foods before they were cool. I remember trips to a tiny neighborhood organic foods co-op retailer in the late 1980s. We would finger misshapen (but organically grown) vegetables and help ourselves to nuts and dried fruit from bulk bins. For us, shopping organic was part of an upper middle class, slightly Bohemian lifestyle that also involved alternative education, progressive politics, and skepticism of all things mainstream.

I also remember experiencing changes in the organic foods market that took place a few years later. While in high school in the early 1990s, I lived in a community that hosted one of a new breed of grocery stores known as “supernaturals.” Bread & Circus (a forerunner of Whole Foods Market) combined the size and inventory of a supermarket with an emphasis on natural, organic, and gourmet foods. Shopping at this store was less of a chore, more of an experience, and it offered a diffuse glow of environmental virtue to accompany its premium product prices.

Fast forward a decade, and my graduate training in organizational and cultural sociology coincided with federal regulation of organic farming and the organic trade. My attention was caught by the quixotic efforts of Arthur Harvey, an organic blueberry farmer who sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture over these regulations, but it was my scholarly goals that sparked my professional interest in this topic. I wanted to study how environmental concerns and beliefs can shape the development of new markets, and the organic sector seemed like a good place to do this.

My book situates its study of the organic sector in the context of two broad sociological ideas. The first of these concerns what are known as “institutional logics.” Sociologists who study markets and other organizational sectors have become increasingly aware that people in these social settings may have very different ideas about the nature and purpose of their activities. This is because these settings may possess competing cultural templates (or logics) for organizing their members. Is book publishing an art or a business? Is medical training about learning to care for patients or about learning the science of disease? Does organic farming seek social transformation or the diffusion of new techniques?

The institutional logics perspective is useful, but its Achilles heel is its lack of attention to the details of human behavior. I use a second sociological idea, that of “strategic action fields,” in order to connect broad cultural logics to the things that people in the organic sector actually do. This idea focuses attention on the alliances, interpretations, and struggles that people engage in as they navigate a shared social environment.

In the organic sector, the rival logics of transformation and expansion constitute cultural resources that people use to construct strategies of action and to understand the world in which they operate. In turn, their actions may affect the relative influence of the different logics over time. Thus, by blending the two sociological ideas, my book offers a framework for understanding “logics in action” in the organic sector and in other social environments.