A Near Future Approach to Social Change
Food and Media in the 20th and 21st Centuries
In the early 20th century, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle began a public conversation about food safety. The novel revolved around the experiences of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant who works in a slaughterhouse in Chicago to help make ends meet for his family. Originally intended to depict the harsh living and working conditions for immigrants, Sinclair’s novel piqued readers’ interest and concern about food safety practices in America’s meatpacking industry.
Over a century later, food safety and foodborne illness remain pressing concerns in public health. Current debates over these issues merge with conversations around sustainability, nutrition, genetic modification, safe working conditions, and the humane treatment of animals. In 2008, a 94-minute documentary film called Food, Inc. was released, first at film festivals and eventually in theaters. Director Robert Kenner guided viewers through a world where issues such as the health and safety of animals, factory workers, and individuals who consume this food were depicted. The film highlights elements of the industrial food production business and illustrates numerous health and safety concerns for animals, workers, and consumers. Food experts were interviewed along with farmers and everyday consumers of food. The film capitalized on a growing public conversation around food production in the US and as part of an increasingly corporate global food system. By November 2009, the film grossed approximately $4.5 million in the US and amassed much more through international release, DVD sales, and distribution deals with television and online streaming outlets. The film’s launch and distribution by Participant Media was accompanied by a social change campaign.
Participant Media partnered with the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, a media research center, in order to better understand the impact of their film and social action campaign. I was hired as a consultant for the center and helped to develop a study that examined the kinds of changes people had made after watching the film. We decided to approach the evaluation using a mixed methods approach, utilizing both quantitative and qualitative methods. For the quantitative portion, we used propensity score matching as a means of controlling for selection bias as we analyzed cross-sectional survey data for difference in knowledge, attitudes, and behavior. As a cultural anthropologist, I felt that it was important to capture the voices of the respondents in non-numerical terms. Given the international audience and breadth of reach that the film had, it was difficult to use traditional forms of qualitative data collection such as focus groups. I suggested qualitatively analyzing responses to an open-ended survey question rather than simply selecting one or two as anecdotal examples.
The survey was distributed online through Participant Media webpages, as well as through social media. All questions were in English and the questionnaire took about 10-15 minutes to complete, depending on whether respondents fit the criteria to complete additional sections. A total of 15,271 respondents took the survey; 4,835 viewers completed the open-ended qualitative portion. These responses were then coded and recurring themes were analyzed.
One of the key themes that emerged was a contrast between subgroups of individuals impacted by the film. Given the magnitude of the issues covered by the film, some viewers fell into great despair and hopelessness. Such hopelessness did not merit action because the problem cast such a dark shadow over any possibility of change in the present that could brighten the landscape of the future. Meanwhile, others who also understood the magnitude of the issues swiftly mobilized themselves, their friends and family, and their communities (online and offline) into action.
As I pored over thousands of comments, I began to see how hope could not be dismissed as a deferred promise (always propelled further away into the horizon of a far future) but had to be envisioned as a near future that could be different. The temporal location of hope in the near future anchored change more closely to the present and thus propelled action forward. In this research note, I explore how hope inspires and compels change when close attention is paid to its temporal location. I use a near future perspective to better understand the significance of temporal re-configurations in concretely linking present actions to future outcomes.
Making Meaning of Hope
Philosophers have long explored the theory and practice of hope (Kierkegaard 1847, Bloch 1986, Moltmann 1993). In recent years, anthropologists have returned to critically examine the implications of “hope” in ethnographic practice. Vincent Crapanzano linked it to possibilities in social and psychological analysis while also pointing out, “One can be so caught up in one’s hope that one does nothing to prepare for its fulfillment” (2003:18). Hope is both positive in its aspirational and imaginative quality and negative in its constant deferral to desire over actualization. But I argue that this critique of hope as paralytic deferral is only true in cases when hope’s temporal frame is focused in the far future. A distant future makes it difficult (though not impossible) for individuals to render action plans that cumulatively bridge toward an alternate possibility. However, if hope is explored as the reorientation of knowledge (Miyazaki 2006) individuals may re-orient knowledge of the present toward a hope that is focused in the near future.
The ability to see connections between present and future is an important mode of empowering individuals to change their own lives and promote social change. In individual health narratives, hope is a critical tool. For example, Eleonor Antelius writes:
It is through hope that we perceive possibilities and hence are able to look forward, into the future. The future holds the unknown and, with that, a possible recovery or cure. Because hope is generally directed toward the future, it refers to both temporality and action...What happens in the present creates a sense of meaning because one is then able to look forward, into the unknown future; the action taken in the present could thus bring about change in the future (2008:325).
In much of the communication for social change literature, we see comparisons between individuals who make changes and those who do not; key variables in measuring different potentials for change are included in self-efficacy scales (Sherer 1982, Bandura 1995). Beyond individual psychology, though, there may be an important messaging technique that is being overlooked in presenting interventions and campaigns for social change.
A social historiography of the future “could track horizons, the narratives and forms of belonging they inspire, and their impact on everyday practice in the now” (Gilbert et al. 2008:11). I argue that the tracking of horizons and their impact on everyday practice depends upon reorienting one’s knowledge toward the near future; the reorientation of hope in its timeline and trajectory may also aid in working beyond its dichotomization as either positive and optimist or negative and paralytic.
“Near future” is a term that I borrow from technologically innovative groups like the Near Future Laboratory whose goal it is “to understand how imaginations and hypothesis become materialized to swerve the present into new, more habitable near future worlds.” Their methods include mapping “possible future changes to highlight new opportunities and prepare for them [emphasis mine]. Using tools and perspectives from near future research, we look for emerging social and technological shifts that indicate possible changes” (Near Future Laboratory 2013). “Near future” is defined as the gap between 12 months to four years from the present that bridges short-term commercial product development and long-term research. While the pace of technological revolution and social change cannot always be interchangeable given the complex array of variables that might alter something like gender inequality, a near future-oriented hope is useful in thinking through social change. If we think about steps toward a healthier population, as emphasized in Kenner’s documentary film and Participant Media’s accompanying campaign, there needs to be a viable near future that creates space for envisioning the changes viewers are being asked to make.
Connecting the Dots
An initial theme that emerged was the recommendation to “start early with youth” when it came to individual behavior change and broader social change. One respondent wrote:
Heading to schools and presenting these ideas to children and teens will send strong messages and influence the children heavily. The earlier you can get these ideas into people heads the easier and more efficient it will be to make a lasting impact. Many adults are not effected [sic] too much because of the impact the food industries have had on them since they were children. You may not be able to change the current population, but you can raise the next generation to change all that.
These statements were powerful but not surprising, given the often-uttered phrase of both hope and lament, “the children are the future.” I say both hope and lament because this is precisely the type of statement that critics of hope point toward when they speak of hope being placed in a far-off horizon where things are better, but where the onus is on the next generation because the current generation is already beyond repair. Hope that lives on the horizon but disconnects from present change is hope that paralyzes; hope that lives in the near future is hope that actualizes.
But this is not the complete story. In addition to starting with the next generation because they are future leaders and decisions makers, starting with youth and teaching in schools seemed to be a way of strategically impacting the present. For example, one parent wrote, “My son watched this movie in school and was visibly moved by the movie. After him telling me about the movie made me want to watch it for myself. I will personally make an effort to buy more from my co-op and farmers market and buy organic foods.” Another respondent emphatically wrote:
REACH OUT TO CHILDREN! High school children are and have always been a force to be reckoned with. This movie COMPLETELY ALTERED THE LIVES OF 200 FRESHMEN! As a grade, we're starting by reforming our school store's food and likely will move on in an attempt to reach out to the community! We were motivated by Food, Inc. and anything we can do to support the cause we will try our best at!
And yet another participant explained, “Children go home and tell their parents or research for themselves; my daughter is a vegetarian because of this film, and most of her friends have seen this and stopped eating meat as well.”
Changing the minds of younger children was equated with changing the mind of a key decision maker in the house, and with children coming home from school educating parents, recommending the film, or simply demanding better food for themselves and consequently, their families. Although younger children may not have direct purchasing power, they have indirect power through influencing their parents. The prevalence of these themes challenges more cynical perceptions of youth as apathetic and instead describes them as more open to change than adults.
Local involvement was another key theme. This code included any activity or interest in participating at the local level. The range of activities included everything from volunteering at community-based organizations and participating in community gardens to policy change through local governing bodies. Respondents who emphasized local action saw value in individual change and immediately accessible social change. One respondent stated, “Offer local clubs within a city in each state. Get some kind of gathering of the people who have seen the movie. I would love to discuss this further with people, get more people aware and hopefully make some difference locally if not globally.” Another wrote, “Make it global. I am from Canada and would love to get involved locally. You could also give some sort of map to how people can find locally grown food, or how close their local farmer's market is. Offering some menu ideas would be good too. Recipes that you can make for different seasons based on what's available.” Note that codes for the local did not exclude the global; in fact, respondents who could articulate the localization of activities as part of global interconnectedness and collective change were the ones that seemed more active.
Finally, a major recurring theme highlighted the difference between responses coded as overwhelmed or cynical and therefore immobilized and responses coded as empowered (hope mobilized into action). The individuals who seemed more hopeful that they had the power to change things articulated the belief that tiny individual actions contributed to collective action.
When respondents did not see a direct set of steps, they felt helpless. One participant wrote, “I just don't know what I can do to help. I wish there was a more direct set of steps I can take. I feel so helpless when I see how powerful the companies are in comparison to the individual. I just wish some major change could happen. I don't know what to do.” Another individual seemed to be transitioning from a feeling of despair to a feeling of empowerment as the following statement was written: I feel so small against this reform to agribusiness and yet so passionate that our well beings and current lives depend on it. I need to know more about what can I do? I also need to find ways to surround myself (even physically) with like-minded individuals. I'm simply human and because of that I know that I am not alone in how I feel. I need my children to live in a better world than I have. I need the help of others to make this happen.
Another individual shared:
I really appreciated the closing statements concerning the power individuals have in food production; that each purchase is a vote towards one way of food production or another. It has encouraged me to make more of an effort in my shopping. Currently, I shop at 3 different markets just to be sure that I can get safe and healthy food; I will now add my local farmer's market to that list. As one person, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and I think if more people knew how much power they hold, more people would feel confident that their choices can bring about change. Thank you so much!
Yet another wrote, “Keep making movies with a call to action at the end in which they explain simple ways in which people can get involved. Many times people are intimidated if they think they have to do something big, but just showing small ways in which they can be involved makes a big difference.”
Hope, When It Draws Near
Across these three themes: change beginning with youth, global change through local action, and the differentiation between clusters of empowered versus disillusioned viewers, an articulation of hope emerged. I emphasize the near future as the critical component of a hope that actualizes because hope that is far-future oriented might still register as knowledge and attitudinal change in traditional impact studies. An individual might understand the message (knowledge change) but feel disillusioned (falling shy of attitudinal shifts). Taking this a step further, I argue that an individual might feel hopeful, register an increase in knowledge, and even begin positively moving toward behavioral changes – and yet, still fall shy of action. This attitudinal change occurs when hope remains far in the future, depending on the next generation and waiting years or decades for them to grow up and have the chance to take action as adults.
But, when individuals reorient themselves and their knowledge toward a near-future hope, they see a future that is possible; it is this proximal alternate reality that compels action. A near-future perspective allows individuals to see children as today’s change agents, and to see how global change is possible through local action in one’s neighborhood. In this way, exploring near-future possibilities in articulations of hope – both in theoretical and practical discussions – allows us to move reconfigure aspiration into actualization.
Hope promises a better future but only becomes a present reality when it draws near.
- Antelius, Eleonor. 2008. The Meaning of the Present: Hope and Foreclosure in Narrations about People with Severe Brain Damage. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 21 (3): 324-342.
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- Kenner, Robert. 2008. Food, Inc. Beverly Hills, CA: Participant Media.
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- Sinclair, Upton. 2001 . The Jungle. USA: Dover Publications.
- Weber, Karl and Participant Media, eds. 2009. Food, Inc.: A Participant Guide: How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer-And What You Can Do About It. New York: Public Affairs.