Narrative Exchange as Knowledge Transfer: The Rhetorical Construction of Opposition to GM Crops in SW England

  • David Downing University College London
Keywords: GM food, GM crops, rhetoric, narrative, knowledge transfer


The release of genetically modified organisms into the environment and food chain in the UK has produced one of the most visible and enduring controversies of recent times. Amid ongoing claim and counter-claim by actors on either side of the GM ‘debate’ over the salient ‘facts’ or balance of risks and benefits associated with the technology, this controversy can be fruitfully seen as a struggle between contested networks of knowledge. Drawing on ethnographic data collected during recent PhD fieldwork, I focus on those, loosely defined as members of ‘local food networks’ in SW England, who perceive their values and cultural projects to be at risk from the deployment of this technology. In scrutinizing how distinctly ‘oppositional’ knowledge is created, exchanged and transformed particularly in relation to the construction and maintenance of cultural and historical boundaries, I suggest that in this arena a key vehicle of knowledge transfer is the narrative or story. A successfully deployed narrative can resolve uncertainties, or equally, dissolve undesirable certainties. Knowledge transfer thus becomes a matter of rhetoric, of persuasion, whereby skilfully deployed narratives can be viewed as analogical networks of associations - enrolling culturally appropriate characters, values and concepts - to move the targeted audience in the desired manner. I argue that such transfers must be seen not only as exchanges of networks of knowledge but also of networks of ignorance, for as the ethnographic data reveals, when the stakes are perceived to be so high, ideological coherence often outweighs empirical evidence and logical consistency. This raises a critical dilemma for the ethnographer. What should he/she do when confronted in the field by exaggerated claims or misinformation?

Author Biography

David Downing, University College London

David Downing was awarded his PhD by University College London in the summer of 2010. Alongside a broad interest in the anthropology of emerging science and technology, his particular research interests include genetics and biotechnology, the anthropology of food and food systems, environmentalism and protest, the internet and virtual sociality, actor-network theory, rhetoric culture theory and nature/culture debates.