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Guy Cook and colleagues, Julia Gillen, Elisa Pieri, Matt Reed, Peter Robbins and Alison Twiner have run a series of ESRC-funded research projects investigating the language and rhetoric of food politics.   The idea is to assess how misunderstandings and conflict arise from particular communication choices, and how an understanding of this can contribute to education about food issues, both inside and outside institutions, and more generally to democratic participation in decision making.

Two early projects examined the debate over Genetically Modified (GM) food.  The first one investigated how GM scientists communicate and justify their activities to non-specialists, and how these non-specialists assess and react to the arguments.  A second project studied press coverage of the GM debate during 2003, and public reactions to it.  These two projects led to the publication of several articles and chapters, and the book Genetically Modified Language (Routledge 2004).

A current project ‘The Discourse of Organic Food Promotion’ (2006-2007) is looking at the communication strategies used to promote organic food, both by commercial producers and by environmental NGOs.  Findings will be published in June 2007.

A new project (2007-2008) ‘The Discourse of the School Meals Debate’ will look at the language of  the movement for school meals reform.  Of particular interest is the relation between the very various discourses in which this issue is discussed:  from celebrity TV shows, through official documents and reports, to parents’ campaign groups, school newsletters, and children’s conversations. 

All of these projects use an innovative methodology combining close linguistic analysis with elicitation of the views of  text producers and their audiences.  We have assembled extensive electronic databases (around 2 million words in total!) of  language used in these debates. In addition to storing documents (food labels, newspaper articles, reports etc), we interview text producers (GM scientist, organic marketers, head teachers  etc.) and hold focus groups with members of the public, including - in the new project - school children.  All interviews and focus groups recordings are transcribed for analysis.  The databases  can be searched automatically using the latest corpus-linguistic software to reveal recurring words and phrases.  After coding for content, they can also be searched for frequent and related themes.  Our analysis relates the intentions of the text producers  to the actual effects of their choice of words.

We believe our work has an important role to play in furthering understanding of public debates about food, and more generally the role of education in promoting democratic participation in decision making.


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