October 29, 2019, by Lexi Earl

Giving voice to farmers and producers: An interview with Associate Prof Anne Touboulic

Associate Prof Anne Touboulic researches sustainable supply chains from a social sciences perspective. She is based in the Business School and is a member of the Future Food Beacon leadership team. Dr Touboulic works often with rural food producers to co-create research to develop better food systems. In this interview, she talks with Lexi Earl about her career path, research plans, and teaching.

Tell me about your research career? Where did you start?

That is an interesting question I think! Currently I work in the Business School but I studied social sciences more broadly. My first degree was Politics, Philosophy and Economics and I was always really interested in issues of sustainability, and sustainable development and food. I am not sure where that all really came from to be honest! It might have been my upbringing in France. Everything in my childhood revolved around food, growing food, and things like that. I did my Masters dissertation on international food supply chains, I looked at Fairtrade, and then decided to apply for a PhD. I ended up doing a PhD in a Business School in an Operations and Supply Chain Management group. It was different from where I came from initially. My PhD was part funded by a large multinational company, PepsiCo. They were at a crucial moment in their relationship with farmers in the UK as they were starting to roll out a sustainability programme and they wanted to understand how they could work better with the farmers. So there was a large relationship angle to the project, a sociology lens, and then an operations lens too.

My PhD was very qualitative, using action research and approaches close to ethnomethodologies, but I was socialised into the field of OM&SCM (Operations Management and Supply Chain Management). I ended up getting a lectureship in the field, and now I am here still in an Operations and Information Systems group but with an interdisciplinary background that is probably quite different from most of my colleagues. My understanding of supply chains is perhaps more political than what you might normally find in Operations Management.

That is interesting though because that would mean you are thinking about things completely differently to how others in your department are thinking about things?

That is true. Generally, my colleagues are interested in techniques and solutions and models, and how to improve supply chains and operations. I am interested in how to improve supply chains but also in the underlying relational dynamics and the politics, the ethics, the inclusivity…

Methods used in social science research approaches

What teaching do you do?

I teach three modules, two at undergraduate level and half of a module at postgraduate level. The two undergraduate modules are introductions to Operations Management so that is about getting the students to understand how organisations work and make things happen, often behind the scenes. Both modules have a sustainability flavour but still cover basic concepts of OM. One is a very large module, first year, first semester so there are more than 300 students on the course. The other is optional and is shaped around a hands-on, creative assessment where students have to think about a sustainability challenge and how an organisation in a sector of their choice can deal with that challenge from an operations point of view. My second semester is the postgraduate module on Operations and Supply Chain Management, and I teach the whole supply chain side.

Tell me about your current research?

I’ve recently returned to focusing on the political issues within the supply chain so I am interested in exploring the power dynamics at play, particularly in food systems. These interests lead me to consider both global and local supply chains, issues around equity, ecological resilience, and pose questions around whose interests prevail in these systems and how can we change them to make them more sustainable? A lot of it has to do with food from a raw production point of view, working with rural communities, as well as with participatory research designs, trying to co-create visions for changing our food systems generally but involving different actors along a supply chain or system. I worked with farmers during my PhD and that enlightened me on how aspects of the supply chain can work or not work for them. My recent work with colleagues from the University of Birmingham and Queen’s University Belfast is the question of value; trying to expand our understanding of what is meant by the value of food in the context of the supply chain. Much research thinks about the economic value, but they do not define value or unpack what is behind that economic value and how value is much more than that.

Mapping as a research tool

What are your plans for future research?

There are several things developing at the moment, and these are emerging as three different streams. One is a bit of activism in my field. I am part of an organising committee for the Sustainable Operations and Supply Chain conference, which is being hosted at Nottingham in February 2020. With colleagues, we are trying to push for a critical, engaged agenda in that sphere so we are organising a third day for the conference which is around research activism, trying to get delegates to think about these issues which they don’t normally do in our field. My colleague Lucy and I were invited by the International Journal of Logistics Management to write something provocative for the community, for the 30th anniversary. We wrote on collective activism in our field, what it could look like, given the grand challenges in which we find ourselves, how we can think about research in a different way.

The second one is working with local and rural communities, linking up with researchers across the UK who do similar work around sustainable agriculture, trying to see how we can work together, especially given the way the food landscape in the UK is changing. The work on value that I mentioned earlier is part of this as well, and we are trying to shape the conversation in both the research but also policy field.

The third is around food poverty and food deserts. I had done a piece of work on that when I was working in Cardiff, and now being involved with the Future Food Beacon that has come up again. In Cardiff we worked with three disadvantaged communities in Wales. We had a participatory research angle, and we worked with communities in Cardiff and the valleys, trying to understand from their point of view what issues they were facing in terms of access to healthy food. It led us to the Welsh government as well as third-sector and private actors within Wales to influence the agenda in terms of a portfolio of solutions and interventions that could work for those communities. It has tended to be very top-down led solutions so our contribution was very much a bottom-up perspective. Communities have very specific reasons why interventions do not work so how do we overcome those? And now I am continuing this, as part of my work with the Future Food Beacon, from a more international perspective, working with Dr Tereza Campello.

I think this involvement with communities and working with Tereza has allowed me to reflect on the role of research. The way we have constructed science and knowledge, and what they are, is very interesting. What is valid and what is not valid knowledge? And then we are often surprised when things do not work in practice.

How did you become involved in the Future Food Beacon?

I attended the launch event of the Innovation Challenge last year, because most of my research is focused on food. While there, I met Prof Tim Foster who knew my colleague Dr Sally Hibbert, and we then met up to talk about the Beacon and he asked if I would be interested in joining the Leadership team. I thought it would be a great opportunity to be involved in the Beacon but to also get a sense of what it is that the hard sciences actually do in that space. I’ve been trying to connect the Beacon with social sciences and humanities, and to get involved as much as possible.

What are the challenges that you face in trying to get interdisciplinary conversations going?

There are many challenges. Dr Matt Jones and I were trying to create an opportunity for social science and humanities researchers to come together to talk about their work on food, because we obviously don’t know what everyone else is doing. But we were trying to organise this at the same time as a funding call came out from AHRC, and so the funding call took over our ambitions to do this. The university’s, and even the Beacon’s, key performance indicators do not seem to be around facilitating conversations, or at least they do not always help. So you have to navigate this landscape and we never ended up having those conversations.

Research workshop with Dr Anne Touboulic

That is interesting because those conversations are a really crucial part of forming a grant. You need to have them if you are going to have a successful bid.

Yes, so we took a step back and decided to leave it for now. It is difficult to have your voice heard sometimes. Working across disciplines exposes me to different discipline cultures. There is a very different culture in the sciences than in social science, and sometimes you do not get a chance to say much. Social science and humanities are also cheap! We can do very good research with very little money so we are not as attractive as the sciences because £200,000 from AHRC or ESRC are huge things for us but in the sciences, that is tiny. And the push is always on outcomes, rather than building foundations.

Do you have any advice for young social scientists? Or for people choosing between social science and science?

I think it is all about knowing yourself and getting to know yourself. It is not easy because the system does not give you time to do that, and then sometimes you can find yourself registered onto a course that is not at all for you. There is no such thing as a mistake, you can change your path if you find it is not for you so get to know yourself and your values, knowing where you stand. Take the time to find out what you really care about, what you are passionate about. Are you solution driven? Problem focused? At the risk of falling into broad brush representations, it seems the hard sciences are more solution-driven whereas social sciences are perhaps more focused on trying to understand the fundamentals of the problems before jumping to a solution. That doesn’t mean that you cannot do solution-driven research in the social sciences! And these are quite simplified views. It is all about knowing yourself, finding the right people, finding the right project and advisor when you get to postgrad level.

Do you have a greatest career moment?

I feel like I am learning constantly. I never feel like I’ve ever reached where I need to be. It is quite nice that more and more students in our Masters want to research on sustainability and food, and that is great because I am pretty much the only person they would’ve encountered during that year who is doing that so something has filtered in! Getting invited to submit that paper on activism, maybe it is not a greatest career moment but getting the confidence to speak up in a discipline that is quite conservative, that took a few years and now I worry less about the consequences.

How does your research affect ordinary people?

I hope that I am inclusive enough in my research design that I don’t actually design a research project without the input of the people who are facing the challenges that I research so in that way, I am hoping it will have an effect on them. But that kind research does take a lot of time, and when you think about all the pressures that you face in the university environment, you might get completely side-lined into short-term publication track. But hopefully it will make a difference. I know the work on food deserts in Wales has already made a difference because we were able to access the key people who hold the power and resources to get these initiatives going and get them around the table, and we managed to pilot some of those initiatives. The work I did through my PhD, where the farmers, as suppliers, had a forum and space to express their feelings, was very important. And it made a difference I think, or at least that is what they told me. I am not driven by making money for the corporations, but if I can give space to people to have a voice then that is it.

Posted in InterviewsMeet the Beacon