Food Quality and Normativity: A Discourse Analysis of the Concept of Quality Applied to Food

Aske Dinesen

Student thesis: Master thesis


The term “food quality” has been increasingly used in the recent years. In the public debate, it is often stated that the meals served in public institutions such as kindergartens, nursing homes, and hospitals need to be of a higher food quality. The term is also used to discriminate between products of different labels sold by supermarkets, where the supermarkets claim that some labels represents a better food quality. But what is food quality? The term is usually used in a way indicating that it is self-explanatory, but the quality a supermarket is referring to when trying to sell a product might not be equivalent to the quality that a nutritionist is referring to when advocating for quality of the food served to the residents in nursing homes. This thesis investigates the premises of the term “food quality” and why these premises might be counterproductive to describe the quality of food.
The first analysis is based on the discourse theory of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Their theory is used to show the different discourses relating to “food quality” and analyze how they compete to add meaning to the term. The main premise is that the discourses attempt to turn a subjective form into an objective form. The thesis concludes from this analysis that as a consequence of the many competing discourses (among others, ecology, health, ethics, aesthetics, and nationality), which in some cases are each other’s opposite, the term “food quality” overflows with meaning. Consequently, the discourses are locked in a continuing struggle over hegemony, they cannot be contained in the same discursive field, and as a result it is not possible to achieve a complete discourse regarding the term “food quality”.
Moreover, this master thesis explores how “food quality” can be used as an organizational tool based on the findings from the discourse analysis and on analyses of subjective tools being used as if they were objective. The conclusion is that the use of “food quality” as an organizational tool is unadvisable and will lead to a random implementation. Some of the disadvantages may however be diminished by the use of hypocrisy as an organizational tool, and “management from the side”.
Finally, the thesis suggests a radical different approach to the term “food quality”. When viewed from the work of Bruno Latour, the current thinking about “food quality” is founded in a traditional approach, where the food itself is the holder of quality. This thesis’ first analysis suggests that food itself can not contain quality, but is merely an element in a larger discourse. Consequently it seems more logical to move the approach and discussion of food quality to a setting where the food quality exists in the individual person in the same way as quality of art to some extent is accepted to be individual.

EducationsMSocSc in Political Communication and Managment, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2017
Number of pages57