The results are in! (Agriculture vs the Public – Part 9)

Written by Steph Coombes, Central Station editor

In 2015 and 2016 I attended Kansas State University, studying a Master of Science in Agricultural Education and Communication. As a part of my degree, I was required to undertake a research thesis.

It wasn’t difficult for me to choose a research topic. I’ve been a passionate “agvocate” (agricultural advocate) since 2012. Our industry has had a lot of “agvocates” – spurred on by the live export ban and subsequent continuous dialogue ever since about “social license”.

Here’s the thing though – while I love to advocate for agriculture, I see a lot of people doing it  poorly – to the point where it really frustrates me, and I think they are doing more harm than good for our industry.

The following is an excerpt from the literature review component of my Masters’ Thesis, “Discursive features of animal agriculture advocates”. I’m going to post it over a series of blogs, and I sincerely hope this research challenges the way you think about communicating to the public about agriculture.

You can find the whole thesis here.

Find all 11 articles here.

Conclusions by research question

The following is a brief conclusion of the results as they relate to the research questions presented in Chapter One. Though research questions 1 and 4 were different, the answers to them will be discussed together because the answers demonstrated an interrelationship. Research question 1 sought to prompt how participants used discourse to enact and depict the identities of themselves and other groups in the study. Research question 4 sought to prompt how language and discourse were used to justify the participant’s authority, which was found to be highly related to identity.

RQ 1: How are the three groups using discourse to enact and depict the identities of each themselves, the other groups in the study, and the other participants in the conversation?

RQ4: How does each group use language to argue and justify their authority as it relates to the practice of agricultural communication?

The three groups in the study (academic experts, professional communicators, and agricultural advocates) used language to construct themselves as authoritative, credible and guided by the “truth” and the “right” motivations. It was unknown before the study if each of the three groups would use language to differentiate themselves from the other groups of participants – this was not the case. Instead, each group acknowledged the other two groups as being similar to them, but clearly differentiated themselves from people with opposition to animal agriculture as well as the general public. This created an in-group/out-group effect, whereby anybody who supported the animal agriculture industry was in the in-group, and thereby granted varying levels of authority and credibility.

Language was used both explicitly and implicitly. Some participants made references to people in opposition as unknowledgeable, spreading misinformation, and as being liars. Other participants instead referred to their own level of personal experience in the industry and their desire to communicate the “truth” – “we just have to be able to offer the truth” – implicitly stating that people in opposition did not share the same qualities and motivations, and thus should not be granted authority or credibility.

Participants claimed the authoritative ground on the topic of animal agriculture by emphasizing the importance of having hands-on experience in animal production, implicitly stating that those without such experience lacked credibility. The motivation behind communication proved to be more meaningful than hands-on experience. Those with little to no hands-on experience could, at times, be granted credibility and authority when their motivations aligned with the industry.

RQ2: What power dynamics exist within the animal agriculture conversation, how is power constituted, and how is discourse functioning to enable this?

While participants claimed the authoritative ground on the topic of animal agriculture, they also positioned themselves, and the industry overall, as being disempowered, marginalized and the underdog. Most participants made reference to how less than 2% of the United States population was involved in agriculture, that perhaps 2% of the population was opposed to animal agriculture specifically, and that they needed to reach and educate the remaining 96% of the U.S. population – creating a sizeable and overwhelming task for any individual, organization, or industry. At the same time, the extensive human and financial resources of activist organizations were highlighted, furthering the construction of the animal agriculture industry as an underdog.

The dedicated human resources of the agricultural industry to the effort of agricultural communication and advocacy, as well as financial resources from both the public and private sectors, were not discussed. Instead, agricultural advocates, who often work as volunteers in addition to regular employment, were acknowledged as the industry’s primary opportunity to rebut activists, constructing the idea that the industry was reliant on volunteers working overtime to fight its fight. Power as knowledge was constituted through hands-on experience and empirical objectivity – the animal agriculture industry claimed power as knowledge, as only their experience and objectivity was deemed valid. Power as influence was constituted through the perception of money and human resources – in this case it was awarded to organizations opposed to animal agriculture, even though the animal agriculture industry has its own significant funding and human resources support.

RQ3: How does each group use language to explain opposition to animal agriculture from other participants in the conversation, and how does this work to reify power dynamics?

A binary explanation was offered for those in opposition to animal agriculture; people were either extremists or they were uneducated and being manipulated by extremists. Seldom was time spent discussing or exploring the spectrum of reasons as to why an individual may be opposed to animal agriculture. The philosophical, moral, and ethical factors that many individuals and organizations identify with were briefly acknowledged by less than half of the participants; financial motives for ending animal agriculture were instead highlighted. Members of the general public who displayed any level of opposition to animal agriculture were constructed as well-meaning, but uniformed, misled, and ignorant. This worked to undermine and delegitimize the opinions and contributions of people in opposition, and have power remain with those within the industry.