Ethnographies of Supermarket and Logistics Revolutions

Convenors: Andrea Bottalico (University of Milano) & Martina Lo Cascio (University of Bergamo)


In recent years, studies on globalization have fuelled a debate that has revealed a definition of the accumulation mechanisms in the contemporary capitalism, and an interpretation of how these mechanisms affect people’s living conditions. One perspective, in particular, focuses on the productive networks of the firms as socio-political actors, in the time of the “disintegration of production and integration of trade” (Gereffi, 1994; Feenstra, 1998). Scholars who addressed the fragmentation on a global scale of the economic processes have emphasized the implications that global productive networks have on labour and the geographical mobility of capital as the result of the activity of a network of legally autonomous and territorially displaced firms that cooperate in the production of goods or services. These dynamics configure an international division of labour, affecting the processes of subordination and exploitation of the workforce (Borghi et al., 2017). Moreover, the shift from vertically integrated production structures to interconnected but autonomous networks of firms has created greater pressure on working conditions in the more peripheral levels of the value chains.

Along this line, the centrality of retailers (supermarkets, fast-food outlets, and other large-scale food retailers) is a certainty. Retailers are among the most powerful actors of the consumer driven chain, they have assumed the absolute dominant position in global food chain (McMichael, Friedmann 2007). This particular and dominant aspect is tackled in the “Retailing Revolution” studies, focusing on how the global supermarket chains and big manufacturing/food corporations have outsourced the most part of their production and have become mainly distributors (Harrison 1994; Gereffi 1994; Burch, Lawrence 2007).

The distribution sector has overcome the traditional responsibility for food distribution and now strongly influences production and consumption patterns. The supermarket plays a central role in food production in many ways but the most important are: 1) the development of a range of products with its own brand (the supermarket’s own brand), which directly competes with the products of established food manufacturers / food industries; 2) the definition of safety, quality and environmental sustainability standards for farmers and the food industry.

One consequence of the growing power of the retail trade is that supermarkets are determining what is produced, where, under what rules, where everything is sold. Supermarkets have a significant influence on consumption and become producers of meaning. Time and space are important in food production and the supermarket revolution because the processes of transformation within the agri-food system and the effect of the supermarket revolution have produced the coexistence of a food of no place and a food that comes from a certain place, or industrial and standardized productions.

The Supermarket Revolution is strictly linked to what has been called the “logistics revolution” (Bonacich & Wilson, 2008) or the “container revolution” (Cohen, 2014). Time becomes the new parameter to measure space. Quoting an American playwright, the authors of the Handbook of Logistics and Supply Chain Management (Brewer et al., 2001) have stressed that “time is the longest distance between two places”. The “logistics revolution” in brief means that ideally, there should be no point, from production to final sale, when goods sit around waiting for further processing. The flow from sale to ordering to production to shipping and to the next sale should occur in one smooth motion (Bonacich & Wilson, 2008: 15). Competition shifted from the firm level to the supply chain level (Allen, 1997; Bonacich & Wilson, 2008). It is the supply chain of a firm that is in competition with that of its competitors rather than the firms themselves (Christofer, 1992).

Both the supermarket and the logistics revolutions allow us to observe how labour dynamics in the global supply chains and the dynamic effects of the new paradigms of global circulation and production are changing. These two perspectives are complementary and provide a set of theoretical argumentations aimed at interpreting the changing dynamics in the logistics and agribusiness sectors.

In this panel, we invite to submit papers focusing on agribusiness and logistics sectors, particularly with regard to labour dynamics, the actors involved, governance, rules and effects on work organization, recruitment mechanisms, etc. We ask for ethnographic and / or qualitative contributions that could give a description of the system of governance and the impact on working conditions in these two strategic sectors.

Papers may include, but are not limited to, these topics:

- Working conditions along the maritime-logistics chains, included infrastructures of transports, logistics platforms, supermarkets, fast-food outlets, and other large-scale food retailers;

- Reorganization of work in all phases of the food chain from the field to the distribution;

- Technological impact in the reorganization of work;

- Retail apocalypse and the effect of e-commerce;

- Forms of conflicts and resistance at workplace;

- Power relationships, racialization and genderization at workplace;

- The issues of the ethnographic research in investigating these economic sectors.

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