This research explores ethnographically the everyday social interactions between the ‘users’ of a particular marketplace, the Buenos Aires Central Wholesale Market (BACWM). The ‘users’ of this marketplace are the social actors who work there everyday (chairmen, wholesalers, vendors, civil servants, porters, odd-jobbers, pedlars, etc.), and who bring (growers, middlemen) and buy fresh produce (other wholesalers, greengrocers, supermarket procurement officers, restaurant owners, street vendors and so on); it also includes others who go, for instance, to pick up fresh produce from the rubbish at closing hours. These ´users´ are the ´makers´ of the BACWM since, through their everyday practices, interactions and interpretations and knowledge, they socially construct this hub of distribution.
The choice of the BACWM as the object of study is based on its central role in the distribution of fresh fruit and vegetables in Argentina. This marketplace supplies to more than 11 million consumers, receives about 13,000 trucks per week from different production areas, both within and outside the country, and moves more than 1 million tons of fresh produce a year. Thus, this marketplace provides an interesting window on the complex changes occurring in the fresh produce net-chain in Argentina over the last years. By focusing on the interactions between people and the effect of these interactions on the distribution of fresh produce, this thesis addresses the following question: how do the ‘makers’ of the BACWM face changes in a context of fresh fruit and vegetable distribution?
By paying attention to local everyday social practices, it is possible to explain how multiple ways of fresh produce circulation are generated at the BACWM. This marketplace is a social product located not in one social space but in many, in fact, by an unlimited or multiple or uncountable set of social spaces, since its users perceived, conceived of and lived in this marketplace in different ways. It means that economic, social and cultural activities are embedded in an assemblage of people, fresh produce, trolleys, laboratory devices, phone cables, trucks, and so on that cannot be explained in terms of the flow of products alone.
Policy-makers conceive of the BACWM as an abstract space and try to control the everyday social practices developed around the fresh produce circulation through their own criteria of order. However, actors involved in economic transactions, such as wholesalers, vendors, buyers and porters, act according to their own conceptions of the marketplace. These complex social relations make it possible for the BACWM to be at once a place of chaos and of order.
The organisation of the BACWM is analysed through social interactions that involve both face-to-face and distanced relations. These relations allow for exchanges of material goods, such as fresh produce, money, boxes and bills, and non-material goods, such as knowledge, information, honour, feeling, passion and prestige. Hence, interpersonal networks cross-cut different points of reference that surpass rational explanations. Social encounters at the BACWM are full of social, cultural and economic discrepancies. They may involve the interplay of different ‘worlds of knowledge’, such as of wholesalers, civil servants, growers and buyers. These encounters cannot be studied as a linear and static process since they are the result of various struggles for power and knowledge.
Studies of encounters at the interface show how actors’ goals, interests and relationships are reinforced or reshaped by processes of interaction that go beyond face-to-face relationships and are in part affected by other actors, institutional and cultural frameworks, and resources that may not actually be physically or directly present. Social interactions at the interface have the potential to generate something other, an unplanned consequence. Hence, multiple interactions developed at the BACWM can promote contested realities, such as the proliferation of ways of distributing fresh produce and of organising wholesale activities.
The thesis is divided into eight chapters. Chapter 1 offers a general introduction to the research theme by analysing previous studies of wholesale markets and the latest food study approaches. By taking into account the expression of the global in local processes, this thesis strives to explain heterogeneities and diversities in rural and food spaces. The starting point of this research is the coexistence of different understandings and interpretations of experience. These multiple realities can be analysed only through an ethnographic understanding of everyday life, particularly in social interactions.
The BACWM is seen as a stage on which the set, the actors, the actions, the theatre and even the audience are constantly under (re)construction. The stage is a useful metaphor to analyse the different performances of each actor involved in fresh produce distribution and to understand the complexity. So, the thesis moves away from a description of the flow of products towards how different ways of fresh produce circulation are built through multiple social interactions.
Chapter 1 also offers an explanation of my work in the field and the process of reflexion, which enabled me to analyse the BACWM from the social actors´ practices and their frames of references, including my own point of view. The reflexive process between acts observed and my readings allowed me to analyse the BACWM situation without taking sides or distinguishing on a priori grounds between dichotomies such as ‘modern’/‘traditional’.
Through empirical evidence, Chapter 2 proves that the BACWM is the result of different negotiations and cognitive struggles between policy-makers, civil servants, growers, porters and wholesalers. They have been developed multiple interactions in order to surpass uncertainties since the inauguration of the BACWM (1984). The baggage of experience and knowledge of BACWM users allow them to easily adapt and start working at the BACWM. They were able to face the uncertainties of the new marketplace by constructing and reconstructing old and new networks.
Chapter 3 describes both the facilities and the everyday practices of particular social groups working at this marketplace. This description attempts to situate the reader at the scene where social actors create their own domains. Domains are central methodologically in order to understand how social and symbolic boundaries are created and defended at the BACWM. They represent for people some shared values that absolve actors from the need to explain themselves to each other. Despite the use of a common language, they do not always share the same representations, intentions and interests. In sum, Chapter 3 shows that the BACWM is more than a group of buildings and facilities and a commercial space where fresh fruit and vegetable are sold; the BACWM is a place of livelihood for most of its users.
Chapter 4 presents the wholesalers as a heterogeneous group with its multiple realities. The wholesalers are the backbone of fresh produce distribution as they have the capacity to build networks with different kinds of social actors, opening up the BACWM to growers, retailers (greengrocers and supermarkets) and food-service entrepreneurs (hotels, restaurants and institutions).
The individual biographies and practices of wholesalers explain in part how they are able to survive and even do good business in challenging times. Their multiple practices and creative strategies are related to their different ways of learning and the capacities to construct networks and invest in facilities, primary production, logistics and brands. Wholesalers strive to sell not only fresh fruit and vegetables but also their ‘brand-name’, offering good service and quality to their suppliers and buyers. This variety in strategies gives opportunity to small as well as large growers and buyers to fulfil their economic expectations.
By focusing on wholesalers’, civil servants’ and chairmen’s discourses and interactions, Chapter 5 shows that the BACWM is a place where discipline and order (hierarchy, abstract spaces) attempt to overcome the heterogeneous associations of people intertwined in multiple interactions. Norms and regulations implemented by the hierarchy give rise to different reactions from wholesalers, generating multiple conceptions of how to organise the BACWM. These ideas about organisation vary from complete control to horizontal network activities.
Social discourses give the impression that hierarchy is linked to the visibility of the BACWM’s organisation, represented by the activities of chairmen and civil servants (the so-called ‘public’ sphere), while horizontal and informal relationships are related to business matters (the so-called ‘private’ sphere). Wholesalers classify themselves as ‘private sector’, efficient and competent actors and they exchange symbols of disapproval for the way in which the administration is organised. The interface stresses the dynamic and potentially conflictive nature of social interactions. In this case, between the hierarchy (BACWM’s administrators) and the workers’ network there is a battle of interests and power to impose each’s own criteria of ‘order’.
Chapters 6 and 7 focus on the interactions between wholesalers and buyers. Chapter 6 gives a clear example of how ‘external’ or geographically distant actors shape social processes, strategies and actions at the BACWM. This is illustrated through the evolution of the interactions between specialised wholesalers and supermarket procurement officers. These social actors cope with the reorganisation of fresh produce distribution in a new competitive space. By giving close attention to their practices, this chapter analyses how knowledge is internalised, used and reconstructed.
By tracking social actors’ practices, Chapter 7 explains the construction of quality through the interactions between wholesalers and their buyers. Quality is constantly negotiated through social interactions. Buyers’ capacity to deal with complex criteria of quality generates an economy of variability guided by economic and non-economic elements. Parts of these elements are located in the wider context (public interventions, seasonality, economic crisis, etc.) where these social transactions take place.
At the BACWM, social actors qualify and re-qualify fresh fruit and vegetables according to their individual knowledge, experiences and business acquaintances. These interactions generate heterogeneous assemblages where ‘modern’ and ‘precise’ food distribution procedures (large producers and supermarkets) coexist with a variety of ‘other’ distribution circuits (greengrocers, wholesale distributor, food services). In other words, by analysing how quality is constructed at the BACWM, this research has shown the coexistence of homogeneous and heterogeneous spaces.
Finally, Chapter 8 presents the main conclusion and discussion of the book. By paying attention to the social actors’ practices, it is possible to note that the BACWM’s resilience is based on the complex and heterogeneous interactions developed between different actors. This complex and shifting assemblage has allowed the BACWM to survive and face a variety of crises over the years.
In sum, by enacting social practices into economic spaces such as the BACWM, this thesis may encourage academics and policy-makers to enlarge their sources of knowledge about the complex and multiple ways of distributing fresh produce in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan area.