Watch what you say (Agriculture vs the Public – Part 8)

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.

Linguistics and the agricultural discourse

The function of language and the discourse used within the agricultural industry has been studied by scholars from the fields of sociology and english studies (Jepson, 2008; Swan & McCarthy, 2003; Stibbe, 2001; 2003). To date, the literature provides an overwhelmingly negative analysis of the agricultural, and wider animal industry, discourse, suggesting that operators within the industry use language to reproduce discourse that naturalizes the oppression and exploitation of animals (Bell, 2015; Jepson, 2008; Swan & McCarthy, 2003; Milstein, 2009; Moore, 2014; Stibbe, 2001; 2003).

The focus of this research largely has been on the impact of discourse on animals, particularly how those within the agricultural industry reproduce discourse to socially construct animals with the intention of maintaining their oppression. Little research has investigated how the language and discourse used by the industry is functioning to socially construct people within the animal agriculture debate, both those supporting the industry as well as those opposed to it.

What work has been produced has not come through linguistic analysis, but through observation, such as Vanhonacker et al. who noted that people involved with animal production have a tendency to position themselves as knowledgeable and rational actors, while they dismiss the concerns of the lay person as emotional and uninformed (2007). Kendall et al. advised that such assumptions also can polarize the public, who view their own perspective as ethically and morally motivated, and those within the industry as driven by economic gain (2006).

Cook, Pieri, and Robbins (2004) studied the discourse of three stakeholder groups (experts, non-experts, and outside advisers) within the genetically modified (GM) cropping industry to understand perceptions of non-expert knowledge and views, explanations of opposition to GM technology, and their ideas on how to communicate and justify their research to non-specialists.

An analysis of the discourse revealed “rhetorical devices (were) used by scientists to characterize and ultimately undermine participation by non-experts in areas including rationality, knowledge, understanding and objectivity” (p. 433). Furthermore, scientists (treated as experts) were found to engage with the public “from their own linguistic and social domain, without reflexive confirmation of their own status as part of the public and the citizenry” (Cook et al., 2004, p. 433), which ultimately was reasoned by the author to be creating barriers in communication.

While the results of Cook et. al. (2004) were not intended to be generalized across the animal agriculture industry, it is within reason to propose that individuals within the animal agriculture industry may be behaving in a similar manner, under the concept of naturalistic generalization (Stake & Trumbull, 1982). Naturalistic generalization refers to the potential applicability of qualitative research in a similar context (Stake & Trumbull, 1982) where “readers make choices based on their own intuitive understanding of the scene, rather than feeling as though the research report is instructing them what to do” (Tracey, 2010, p. 845).

Burr (1995, as cited in Stibbe, 2001) wrote that “language itself provides us with a way of structuring our experience of ourselves and the world” (p. 33). We use language to construct not only our own identities, but those of other beings around us, both human and non-human. Furthermore, language also creates categories for both enacting and recognizing identity (Butler, 1990).

Therefore, language and the discourse that an individual, or industry, operates within affects how they make meaning of the world, and how they communicate that meaning.

While scholars have studied the discursive representation of animals within an agricultural context, it remains that no work has sought to understand how language is functioning within the agricultural discourse to construct the identities of participants in the animal agriculture conversation and influence power dynamics.

In 2008, Croney and Reynnells urged the poultry industry to “objectively and aggressively evaluate the discourse of farm animal production to ensure that what is conveyed is accurate and intended” (p. 387), stating thatindustry communication is, at times, “obfuscating” and of ethical.

It is just as important for those within the industry participating in the animal agriculture conversation, more often than not in a debate-style exchange, to be conscious of how their language choices may be functioning to position themselves and other participants with regards to authority, and how this affects their communication, and the industry as a whole. As Fairclough (2001) said, “consciousness is the first step towards emancipation.”