This interview is part of a new feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholar Interviews” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) are interviewed by graduate students or other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.
Scholar Interviews: Laura J. Miller, Building Nature’s Market
By Nino Bariola, UT Austin
I had the amazing opportunity to talk with professor Laura J. Miller (Brandeis) about her book Building Nature’s Market: The Business and Politics of Natural Foods (Chicago UP, 2017), and her work about consumer culture more generally.
Professor Miller received the 2018 Consumers and Consumption Section’s Best Publication Award for Building Nature’s Market. The book traces with rich detail the intricate history of “natural foods” in the U.S.—how they went from a thing of hippies, body builders, and zealous religious sects to having an almost ubiquitous presence in elite grocery stores and popular supermarkets. More than a third of foods produced in America, Miller says, have a label that invokes some form of “naturalist” language—yes, this includes that organic coffee you’re drinking, the all-natural granola bar you’ll enjoy later, and all those things without additives or preservatives you prefer.
Miller reminds us that natural foods were not so long ago mocked or ignored by most. How then did these foods find their way into the everyday diet of many Americans? Using a wealth of data from archival research and interviews, Miller makes a compelling argument that challenges the conventional wisdom that puts social movements and market actors inextricably on opposing sides: In the case of natural foods, committed individuals and business organizations collectively mobilized to promote cultural and social change.
Nino Bariola: How did your interest in the natural foods industry emerge?
Laura J. Miller: I started working on the topic when I was in graduate school. I took a social movements seminar with Joe Gusfield. He had a particular interest in the natural foods movement, especially the nineteenth century, which at the time I knew little about beyond the fact that my father was in the health food business. So I wrote a paper on this. I was really struck by the idea of a “lifestyle movement,” a social movement that aims to build and legitimize a particular lifestyle. But I didn’t see the project as having any real connection with the research I was doing for my dissertation then, so I dropped it for over ten years.
NB: And your dad, as your say in the preface, was an important source of “impetus” for the project.
LJM: Yes. When I was starting to see the end of my first book, Reluctant Capitalists, I had the opportunity to apply for a small research grant for a new project. I wasn’t sure at the time what my next project should be. But my father was getting older, and I really liked the paper I had written about health food businesses way back. So I thought it was a great opportunity to do an oral history with my dad while he still had memories about the industry. I figured at the time it would just be an article and nothing more. But I ended up finding it much more interesting and complex than I realized at first.
I started noticing parallels with the work I had done about the book industry in Reluctant Capitalists: The ways in which small businesses were all of a sudden in an environment in which large corporations were threatening them; the ways in which people in these industries were very much committed in a moral and political sense to what they were selling. So I began thinking it would be an article, and I actually ended up doing years and years of research. We scholars have grand ideas about how research develops. But in many cases it is just a series of accidents.
NB: Even considering your father was part of the businesses you study, it is clear throughout the book that you remain distant from the industry’s goals and ideals. In a moment in which there is a conversation about objectivity in the discipline, I think your book provides an interesting example of how can we can aspire to produce objective knowledge about very personal issues.
LJM: Well, my father got involved in the health food industry when he was fifteen years old. This was during the Depression. His father had died, and the family was fairly destitute, so he quit school in need of a job. He had an interest in health foods—which was very quirky at the time. He got a job at one of the few health food stores that existed at that time in New York. After WW II he moved to California, and by then he had some contacts in the industry over there, so he became involved with different companies, and then with a health food distribution business. He worked in the industry as a consultant even after retiring because he just couldn’t leave it behind.
However, my siblings and I never had any intention of joining his business. When I told him I was thinking of doing research about natural food businesses, he was happy to help in any way he could—and he did so primarily by supplying a long list of contacts who knew him in the business or knew his company’s name. It was wonderful, because people remembered him, and it led to people who were not necessarily publicly visible but had years of experience and important perspectives. And because I had grown up in that world, I knew some health food references, which helped put them at ease. I’m not a fan of work based on autoethnography. I never had any intention of doing anything like that. In my case, I was in a position where I understood enough about the topic to be “fluent” with these folks. But, as I say in the book, I wasn’t particularly invested in any specific outcome of the story.
NB: You visited more than ten archives for the project—including one here at UT Austin—, and you also did interviews. How did you combine data coming from these different sources?
LJM: Interviews are great for helping us understand the meanings people attribute to particular phenomena. They can be also helpful for providing some clues about historical developments. But people’s memory is fallible, so you can’t just rely on it alone—especially when trying to provide a detailed account of events. So the archival work I did was just as important as the interviews in shaping the argument and narrative of the book. I found—as often happens when doing historical research on business—that for the natural foods world there is not a lot a documentation out there.
That’s why I relied on diverse repositories, and I was not joking in the book when I say that I relied on eBay. I actually got so much material there—a lot of commercial ephemera, which up until very recently libraries were not very interested in collecting. So it was really about piecing together a lot of different strands, from both the interviews and archival work I did. A lot of it involved using trade literature to the extent that I could as well. This kind of research can be very circuitous, but I find it enjoyable. It’s very time consuming though. It can be kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack.
NB: It’s indeed like finding a needle in a haystack. But in doing archival research one usually has to confront the issue of figuring out even where to begin. There are lot of haystacks, so where to start searching for the needle? How did you know where to begin?
LJM: It’s somewhat easier now than when I began this project, because there are databases like ArchiveGrid, which are great for searching materials across multiple repositories. But when I started this research, I did a lot of footnote chasing. Footnotes, of course, aren’t always reliable, and I sometimes discovered inaccurate information that over time has been repeatedly reproduced. But through well-researched older books I learnt for instance that Michigan State had a great number of materials. It’s about being persistent and trying every avenue you can.
NB: How did you come to be interested in issues of consumption?
LJM: When I was in graduate school I took a class outside of the sociology department on the culture of consumption. I was really fascinated by it. It started my thinking about how central consumer culture is to understand the American condition, and, of course, the whole world. I think it’s really important when thinking about cultural change as well as cultural obsessions. However, this wasn’t the theoretical frame I used in my dissertation—the research that later became Reluctant Capitalists. It was only after graduate school, when I began building on that research towards the book, that I realized that a consumer culture frame really made sense for understanding what I was most interested in. And I have taught courses on consumer culture ever since. It remains a central part of my interests.
NB: What has been particularly interesting about consumers in the industries you have studied? What would you say has been the role of consumers and consumption in your work?
LJM: For me, what has been consistent is an interest in the relationship between consumption, culture, and politics. There are many questions about consumption that I’m fascinated by, and that I teach about. But in my own research I tend to be especially interested in the role of producers and sellers of consumer goods in helping to shape the meanings of consumption. I don’t focus so much on the really obvious point—they want people to buy more goods. To me that’s so obvious that it is not very interesting, and it diverts us from more interesting things: the ways in which consumer goods can be intertwined with ideas about human nature, moral commitments, utopian and dystopian visions.
I think also that the relationship between consumption and politics is not so obvious. Consumption can be a motivating force for engaging in self-conscious political activity both on the part of consumers, and on the side of producers of consumer goods. But beyond that, it really help us understand how mundane, everyday life is inherently political. Consumption is so central in our everyday lives since we have no option but to be consumers to some degree. Consuming in that sense shapes our understandings of who we are in fundamental ways.