How Do Discourses Affect Us ?
I have summarised discursive events on the previous pages - 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 this (drawn from my personal memory). Fifty years ago (1950),
animal nutrition was not an issue, even in agriculture. 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, 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 began to be 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.
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 all this discourse 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 all have to make our
own decisions in response to these risks - some have informed
themselves about the risks involved and changed their diets, others
- 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
contents of animal feed
use of animal spinal tissue in human foodstuffs was stopped
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
were inspected more thoroughly and more frequently. The government
is apparently trying to rationalise the slaughterhouse industry
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, that a reduction of animal numbers was wanted,
as the supply exceeded demand and was uneconomic.
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 generated finite
evidence and the Government has 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 (examples of Government Ministers eating meat
in public during the BSE crisis spring to mind here).