Changing the Food System with Operational Theory

Amy Guptill co-authored a paper proposing a new theoretical approach to food systems using Luhmann’s Operational Theory in a leading interdisciplinary journal.

The paper is co-authored with Emelie Peine of the University of Puget Sound in the journal Agriculture and Human Values. You can read the full article online.



Current, prevalent models of the food system, including complex-adaptive systems theories and commodity-as-relation thinking, have usefully analyzed the food system in terms of its elements and relationships, confronting persistent questions about a system’s identity and leverage points for change. Here, inspired by Heldke’s (Monist 101:247–260, 2018) analysis, we argue for another approach to the “system-ness” of food that carries those key questions forward. Drawing on Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory, we propose a model of the food system defined by the relational process of feeding itself; that is, the food system is made of feeding and only feeding, and system structures are produced by the coupling of that process to its various contexts. We argue that this approach moves us away from understandings of the food system that take structures and relations as given, and sees them instead as contingent, thereby helping to identify leverage points for food system change. The new approach we describe also prompts us as critical agrifood scholars to be constantly reflexive about how our analyses are shaped by our own assumptions and subjectivities.

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