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Bringing “evidence” to the agri-food debates: an interview with Prof. Allison Marie Loconto

Since its first issue 31 years ago, the International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food (IJSAF) has been known as the flagship journal of the Research Committee on Sociology of Agriculture and Food (RC40) of the International Sociological Association (ISA). Some of the seminal works that have shaped the trajectories of sociology of agri-food are originated from this journal. It has also become one of the sources of references for postgraduate students and early career scholars – including myself - to learn about the current development of the discipline.

And yet, the challenges that this journal faces nowadays have been rather overwhelming. Not only should the journal compete with top-tier journals within the field, but it should also adapt to new approaches in agri-food studies, one that embraces an interdisciplinary (or even transdisciplinary) nature. This goes in accordance with the daunting task of keeping up with journal ranks and metrics. Lucky for us – IJSAF is now indexed in SCImago Journal Ranking (SJR: 0.12) and ranked within the third quartile (Q3) for Cultural Studies and fourth quartile (Q4) for Sociology and Political Science.

To understand the contemporary world of sociology of agriculture and food, and the ways in which it influences how IJSAF is managed, I came up close and personal with the current Editor-in-chief of IJSAF, Professor Allison Marie Loconto (AL), who was also the President of RC40 from 2014 to 2018. Here is the excerpt of our interviews.


Q: Could you tell me about yourself?

AL: I am currently a Research Professor at the French National Institute for Research on Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE) and the Co-Director of the Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Science, Innovation and Society (LISIS) at Gustave Eiffel University in Paris. I obtained a Habilitation to Direct Research in Sociology from the University of Toulouse in 2021, a PhD in Sociology from Michigan State University in 2010 and in 2002, a MA in International Affairs and Development from American University in Washington, DC. I started my career working with NGOs and the UN on questions of citizen participation and international development. After six years in the “development industry” I decided to pursue an academic career in order to work more collaboratively with colleagues around the world – particularly in Africa and Latin America – to coproduce knowledge about equity and responsibility in globally connected food systems.


Since a professional move from Italy to France in 2011, I have built a research program that focuses on the governance of transitions to sustainable food systems, specifically on the metrics, indicators, standards and systems of certification that are part of emerging institutional innovations. I have been working recently on trying to better understand the role of intermediation in governing food system transitions towards sustainability. I am working to better understand how some actors voluntarily take on the responsibility to prioritize these values when they innovate in food system sustainability. To build this program, I spent one year as a Science, Technology and Society Fellow at Harvard University and six years as a Visiting Scientist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).


(Image taken from http://umr-lisis.fr/membre/allison-loconto/)


Q: Could you tell us about the latest IJSAF issue, in terms of the diversity of topics brought by the papers?

AL: We are in the midst of publishing the second issue from 2022, which will include at least four original research articles and an editorial introduction. At IJSAF, we are trying very hard to keep the range of topics of interest to agri-food scholars represented in the articles that we publish. This means that in this issue we learn about the trade-offs that migrants face between quality and quantity when they move from Mexico to the US. From this paper, we move to two papers about livestock farming and risks related to animal welfare and disease – one from the US and one from Vietnam. These two articles offer very different perspectives on the ways in which the health of animals is intimately tied to farmer livelihoods. Finally, the outgoing RC40 Board wrote the Editorial introduction, which brings their perspective about our field the IJSAF readership.


Q: What do you think changes in the field of sociology of Ag and Food over the past 30 years or so?

AL: The field of sociology of agriculture and food has always been a field that has been open to theories, methods and debates that unfold in sister disciplines – like agricultural economics, geography, anthropology, history, gender studies, science and technology studies and environment studies. While we have a long history of engaging with Marx, Weber, Polanyi and Latour – there is a recent movement towards practice theory, consumption and cultural studies that have shifted a strong agrarian focus towards food policy, food environments and systems theories that cut across rural-urban divides. The widespread and global digitalization of society and the ‘platformization’ of the economy are emerging topics that were not a daily reality for agri-food scholars 30 years ago.


Q: What are the challenges/opportunities that sociologists of agriculture and food now facing in this current era?

AL: I think that much more is being asked of scholars today in terms of public engagement, scientific production and the training of future citizens and scholars. Social movements that are mobilizing around agricultural, food and environmental issues are increasingly relying upon knowledge co-produced with sociologists – which offers both opportunities in terms of unprecedented access, but also challenges to scholars who need to balance their time among these somewhat competing demands.


Q: In your work, through the interaction with a multi-disciplinary team (such as in the UN), how do sociologists play their role in an ever more complex world? and how do practitioners/scientists from different disciplines see the role of sociology of Agri-Food?

AL: Action-research and participatory approaches have long been promoted and practiced by agri-food scholars, which is how we have traditionally contributed to working with other disciplines and practitioners. The situations from which society is constantly emerging and (re)producing itself have always been complex, but the legitimate knowledge mobilized to study and intervene in these situations has not always included sociological knowledge or alternative forms of knowing that can be produced through co-creation processes or from indigenous knowledge. In the international expert fora and policy arenas around global food security, climate change and biodiversity, I see an increasing recognition of the role of sociologists in finding solutions that work.


Q: Do you think IJSAF plays an important role for the wider audience (e.g. practitioners)? and if so, in what way?

AL: I think that IJSAF can play a role for wider audiences, beyond academic circles. Our authors write in a very accessible style, even if the main audience is scientific. The efforts that we are making to translate the research findings published in our journal into blogs and social media posts will enable practitioners to be up to date. It is important also to recognize that “evidence” has become very important in food and agriculture policy debates and practitioners are freq