Cooperative or Uncooperative Cooperatives? Digging into the Process of Cooperation in Food and Agriculture Cooperatives
AbstractCooperative organizing around food and agriculture is nothing new (Knupfer, 2013). However, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in the cooperative legal form. This research has followed this rebirth in a region in the western United States where rural producers and urban consumers, gentrifying communities of color, and environmentally minded communities strive to improve other communities and food futures. As part of these efforts, it can be easy to assume cooperation within a legal status. Yet, as this research examines, cooperatives can be quite uncooperative in practice. Through extensive field work, we found that food and agriculture cooperatives struggle to make decision-making inclusive, may reproduce inequities through leadership performance, and may unevenly distribute the emotional work necessary to cooperation. These patterns also relate to how cooperatives access resources and point to tensions in expanding networks. While homogeneity can make interactions smoother—thereby making trust and day-to-day activities easier—it also limits a cooperative’s (co-op) resource access. Resource access can be improved through partnerships, such as with nonprofits. However, these connections can lead to certain leadership performances that delegitimize cooperative efforts from the perspective of structurally disadvantaged community members. Further, the anonymity that consumers have become accustomed to creates challenges for recruiting shoppers because co-ops take more emotional work. A disproportionate amount of emotional work falls on staff members, contributing to resentment and insincere performance. We make a number of suggestions about how cooperatives can work to improve both organizational and interactional forms of cooperation.
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