How Do Discourses Affect Us ?
I have summarised discursive events - on the one hand ‘discourse causes events’, but also, some ‘events cause discourse’. A series of such events forms the history of the discourse (and often provides a shorthand for commentators).
Let us take Animal Nutrition and the BSE outbreak as an example of how discourses can affect us (this is drawn from my personal memories). Fifty + years ago (1950), animal nutrition was not an issue, even in specialist agricultural circles. It was relatively fixed and settled. Animals grazed in the fields in the spring, summer and autumn, the farmer made hay, and grew some special root crops to feed them through the winter. There may have been some technical and specialist discourses about exactly how to get the best results from this, and there may have been some imported animal feeds. However, for the public, this was a discourse that had ‘dried up’.
At that time, the ‘overall societal discourse’ on food in the UK was almost entirely homogenised – we wanted more and cheaper food, and there was a homogeneous UK diet of meat, potatoes, and two vegetables – the whole system was almost entirely fixed and unchanging (and voluntarily so by nearly all the consumers !)
However, in the 60’s, silage began to replace hay as the primary animal feed, there were the first battery chicken farms, and these were generally hailed as great improvements by all the consumers (who got cheaper and more plentiful chickens and eggs)
In the 1970’s, there were the first hints that all was not well, and that animals were being kept in unsuitable ways (in cages that were too small) and fed with unsuitable products (at the time, fish meal was extensively fed to chickens and other animals). There were the first counter-movements of animal activists, vegetarians and back-to-the-land advocates, and the diet of the general population started to change as well – the old discourse changed.
As we now know, there were indeed problems with what was being done, which showed up later with the BSE outbreak.
This was a major discourse event, taking many millions of column inches and hours of prime-time television worldwide.
But how has the discourse about BSE affected us, individually and collectively ?:-
- Firstly, we have each become aware that eating food may involve some cumulative risk. Perhaps a new discourse of risks and food has arisen that never existed before. We have to make our own decisions in response to these risks – some have informed themselves about the risks involved and changed their diets, others have not.
- There has been a continuing switch towards ‘white meat’ (poultry) and away from red meat (beef, lamb). This was occurring anyway as ‘white meats’ have lower cholesterol, and a ‘health discourse’ has tried to reduce consumption of this.
- There was a collapse in the market for beef, and many countries banned the import of British beef. There are still ongoing cases at the European Court where the UK Government is trying to remove the last restrictions on beef imports (especially by the French), and is campaigning to ‘prove’ to the world that UK beef is now safe by re-launching and re-marketing British beef.
- The government introduced emergency research into the causes of BSE, and eventually an understanding was reached that BSE was linked to cattle feed, as recycled proteins (meat) from other animals had been included in the feeds. In particular, it is thought that BSE is related to scrapie, which is a persistent (and not very serious) disease in sheep kept in very wet pastures. It is thought this scrapie virus was in cattle feed and mutated to affect cattle, although other theories have also been proposed. However, the Government introduced tighter controls on
- The contents of animal feed
- The use of animal spinal tissue in human foodstuffs was stopped
- Animal tracking schemes were introduced so that animals could be traced better, and the treatment of each animal throughout its life could be recorded, so that in future, the problems could be analysed and the causes found more easily
- Slaughterhouses were inspected more thoroughly and more frequently. The government is apparently trying to rationalise the slaughterhouse industry
- Emission of effluents from farms is more tightly controlled, especially into watercourses, to reduce risks of other routes of transfer of diseased materials to humans
- However, there has also been a major tendency for small farmers to leave the agriculture sector – the new regulations and systems need professional managers to implement them, small farms have become relatively less efficient and economic, and generally ‘the playing field is not level’ - it appears to favour large farms with capital-intensive operations.
- Reporting of animal conditions became of greater interest to the media – I recently saw a TV exposure of illegal slaughterhouses and illegal animal trading
Unfortunately, there has since been an outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease, which tends to imply that either:-
- The controls introduced so far are insufficient
- Or, the farmers are cheating the systems
- Or, perhaps, a reduction of animal numbers was wanted, as supplies exceeded demand and this was bad for the economy.
This brief introduction to a discourse event shows the way it has been used in a variety of discourses, and the way that these discourses have affected the general public. Often, the discourse only has a subtle and background effect on society and on our own personal decisions. There is seldom a direct link between discourse and everyday life, except in the cases where the discourse has led to research which has generated finite evidence and the Government has then introduced legally binding regulations.
The closest link between discourse and life is perhaps the idea that ‘we all knit along together’, we keep up to date, adjusting our own personal discourses, levels and roles to external events. This process can be seen as orchestrated by the media, and the sum total of this forms public opinion, which sensitises the politicians, who might create legislation corresponding to the majority position (discourse), or they might try to influence the public by use of the media (the example of Government Ministers eating meat in public during the BSE crisis spring to mind here).