“Transparency becomes a hell of sameness” writes Byung-Chul Han in his recent essay The Society of Transparency.[1] He suggests that the increasing normative diffusion of practices of “transparency” indicates a paradigm shift in contemporary governance – the illusion that democratic politics can be replaced with an increase in technocratic measures of certification, standardization and evaluation.Small-scale farmers and neo-rural activists are particularly vulnerable in front of the ‘governance of transparency’: Those who aim to create sustainable lifestyles and produce quality food often find themselves in difficulties with tightening regulations regarding food safety and the certification of standards which are considered by many as favouring large industrial productions.Following Pierre Bourdieu’s[2] call to consider resistance as a lens to understand the evolution of contemporary forms of power, this project investigates innovative political activism related to the re-appropriation of the right to certify food. Conceptualized as an in-depth ethnographic research, we reconsider the role of rural peripheries as places of social innovation in relation to their capacity to elaborate alternatives to the contradictions of technocratic transparency.

In particular, the project will

  • (1) create sounded research inputs in order to shape current political initiatives that aim to recognise alternative modes to certify the quality of food as tools to lift the bureaucratic burden for small-scale farmers;
  • (2) raise the visibility of the concerns of independent small-scale farmers in Italy and beyond, as well as create new cross-European synergies between food activists in the UK and Italy.


Beyond the ‘metro-bias’ in the understanding of social innovation

Writing on social change in rural spaces remains often a linear story: depopulation, crisis in agricultural production and rural poverty are recurrent themes. Rural spaces are considered overwhelmingly as static and back-warded. Cultural innovation seems to take place only in cities, in dense metropolitan spaces. With this project, we hope to contribute to change this narrative. We focus our attention on innovative and experimental forms of political mobilization that take place in rural peripheries.

The objective of this research is twofold:

(1) The core innovation of the project derives from its ability to consider the novel phenomenon of alternative certifications through a theoretical lens that combines anthropological writing on food activism with critical studies of policy. This will allow re-framing food activism in relation to broader issues of governance, sovereignty and citizenship, rather than only in questions of identity and culture. In particular, it will allow us to question the implicit assumption of mainstream literature that a growing unidirectional standardization in many realms of everyday life is unavoidable.

(2) The broader interdisciplinary debate on innovative forms of activism focuses almost exclusively on metropolitan areas as arenas of innovation. This ‘metro-bias’ reinforces the centre-periphery divide by implying that rural areas are prevalently static or ‘backward’. This proposal, by contrast, brings dynamics in rural peripheries to the forefront of the debates on societal change.

[1] Byung-Chul Han, 2012, Transparenzgesellschaft, Matthes & Seitz, Berlin.

[2] Pierre Bourdieu, 2015, On the State, Polity, London.