Consumer ethos and representations of food consumption in daily press - a German perspective

S. Wahlen, G. Casimir

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingAbstract


In the European Union, governmental food policy aims at safeguarding the consumer. Food safety is a major issue on the political agenda, with re-occurring food scandals substantiating the need for policy measures and initiatives protecting consumers. In most of these measures and initiatives, information is a key instrument towards safer food: only informed consumers can make informed choices. The underlying understanding embedded afore is the preconception of the what, who and how of consumers, an ethos as way of thinking about the consumer. In traditional economic thought, the rational consumer participates in market exchange and therefore needs to be empowered by information and education in order to be able to make informed choices that maximise utility. This is also the case for safe food. Accordingly, the underlying thought assumes consumers having particular capacities to process the information on the characteristics and consumption of safe food. In this research we move beyond the hegemony of the rational consumer, scrutinizing the ethos as collective ways of thinking of and about consumers. Empirically we examine representations of the consumer in daily press. We approach the collective ways of thinking and representing the (food) consumer, analysing a unique set of data, consisting of a daily newsletter that is issued by the Federation of German Consumer Organisations (Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband – vzbv). The newsletter highlights newspaper articles published in national and regional newspapers or magazines that are attributed to a particular consumer interest. The newsletter is structured according to different consumption categories or clusters, such as mobility, finances, digital world, health as well as food. Each category appearing in the newsletter includes up to five newspaper articles, depending on what is currently debated in the media: most often there are one or two articles per category and day. We collected a total of 244 daily newsletters discussing food, issued over the course of the year 2014. Subsequently, we analyse the newspaper articles using atlas.ti, a computer programme that assists us to uncover the ways of thinking about the consumer in a systematic way. We conduct a discourse analysis in order to understand underlying ways of thinking about the consumer in the food consumption context. We can consequently explain how the newspaper articles construct an argument around food consumption within wider social practices. The results of our analysis come across with consumer ethos discussed in the German context during 2014. In order to set up policy measures, such as above mentioned food safety, it is crucial to know about underlying representations and ways of understanding the consumer. We propose answers to what is important and how the relevance of different aspects of food consumption can be considered in a given context. Further, we need to understand how public debates and discourses assemble the consumer in order to further develop policy initiatives and measures, thereby moving beyond considering information as the key to consumer sovereignty. Our results highlight the consumer as being shaped in and by daily press: how words and images are used in journalism to represent ways of thinking about the (food) consumer. Thereby, patterns of knowing and talking about food consumption practices and appropriate ways of eating can be scrutinised, in order to, for example, promote safer food. We have to know about the norms and values included in the ethos, to be able to see what is relevant for coming to a desired end.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBook of Abstracts Food in Society and Culture: Research across the Social Sciences and the Humanities
Publication statusPublished - 2015
EventConference Food in Society and Culture, Helsinki, Finland -
Duration: 4 May 20156 May 2015


ConferenceConference Food in Society and Culture, Helsinki, Finland


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