Agricultural systems are deeply embedded in social processes and the institutions that govern them. Measuring these processes and understanding the extent of that embeddedness is critical to crafting policy for sustainable agricultural systems. The bulk of measurement in sustainability research, however, focuses on economic and environmental indicators such as farm profitability and water quality. Since policy is most often aimed at what is measured, it tends to focus on issues like price, production, and market access. And while those are important, policies aimed at social issues such as community reciprocity are often outside the scope of policy design.
The gap between social measurement and policy is not for lack of care; the importance of social dynamics is well known. Yet due to the difficulty of measuring complex social systems— How does one measure values?—more straightforward economic and environmental measures dominate research and policy. When social systems are measured, as, for example, with the social capital or sustainable livelihoods frameworks, they often do so using economic methodologies and indicators. Such economic-based social indicators are important but focus heavily on outcomes such as poverty or profitability. Accordingly, the complex social processes that lead to such outcomes such as culture, heritage, tradition or generational dynamics are often overlooked.
These policy and methodological difficulties present a problem: measurements import the theoretical framing of their intellectual development. Economic methodologies are largely rooted in an atomistic theory of human behavior in which individuals are selfishly motivated by economic gains. While individuals do seek economic success, they are also motivated by social connection, reciprocity, values, and culture. The institutions governing these social processes and the degree to which individuals and businesses are embedded in society are incredibly important, yet poorly understood and measured.
This paper outlines a theoretical framing for understanding these complex social processes and develops a methodology for measuring social embeddedness in local and regional agricultural systems. Coined by sociologist Karl Polanyi, embeddedness is the extent to which economic systems like markets are governed by non-economic systems such as culture and social cohesion. While markets and their price and output components are well understood and widely measured, the non-economic institutions like culture and values that support and govern markets have tended to be seen as non-measurable. This has important policy implications for rural agriculture.
Accordingly, this paper develops a tool for measuring the social embeddedness of producers and consumers in ten agricultural sectors in Vermont that can be replicated across New England. The tool uses a Likert scale survey designed to understand the degree to which producers and consumers are motivated by self-interest—what we call Instrumentalism—and the extent to which they are market-oriented—what we call Marketness. Survey responses are analyzed using a Factor Analysis to generate Instrumentalism and Marketness scores for each survey respondent on a scale of -1 to 1. The Embeddedness Type Matrix consists of a vertical Instrumentalism axis and a horizontal Marketness axis that together create four quadrants that represent different types of embeddedness: embedded, underembedded, disembedded, and overembedded. Individual consumers and producers are plotted on the matrix based upon their respective Instrumentalism and Marketness scores and yield an embeddedness type given their quadrant. Plotting all producers and consumers of a particular industry on the Embeddedness Type Matrix provides an understanding of the motivations, values, actions, and interactions of the individuals in that industry.
This paper provides researchers and policy makers in Vermont and New England with a tool to understand and measure the social aspect of agricultural sustainability in multiple industries. This approach allows for the design of policy aimed at aspects of the food system outside of price, production, and market access alone.
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Ament, Joe; Tobin, Daniel; Merrill, Scott; Morgan, Caitlin; Morse, Cheryl; Liu, Tung; and Trubek, Amy, "Operationalizing Embeddedness for Sustainability in Local and Regional Food Systems" (2021). USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Center. 6.