Dynamics of Polycontexturalization in Commodity Chains

Nina Baur, Elmar Kulke, Linda Hering, Julia Fülling



In order to unravel the dynamics of polycontexturalization in the field of the economy, the paper analyzes commodity chains for fresh fruit and vegetables. Focusing on interactions between consumers from different social milieus in four Berlin residential neighborhoods (territorial space) and retailers (so-called “intermediaries”) as actors in the commodity chain (space of pathways), the paper reveals that there are (1) spatial conflicts between territorial space (neighborhood), the space of pathways (commodity chain) and the space of places (place of purchase, place of residence) that arise from the interweaving of the contexts of consumption, market withdrawal (sales) and production. (2) Knowledge (including spatial knowledge) plays a key role in maintaining circulation along the commodity chain (3) and is necessarily polycontextural, whereby (4) non-knowledge is a central strategy for resolving spatial conflicts in the everyday world. (5) Given the extent of actors’ non-knowledge, circulation along the commodity chain can only be maintained by symbols, social institutions and objectivations. These in turn decelerate the refiguration and steer it into path-dependent trajectories. (6) By analyzing the interplay of spatial knowledge and spatial arrangements, the paper specifies the concept of polycontexturalization and its reciprocal dynamics with translocalization and mediatization.

1. Introduction: Polycontexturality and the economy

In the course of modernization, societies have been becoming increasingly differentiated (Luhmann, 1997; Knoblauch, 2021), resulting in social interactions (also: “communicative action”) taking place in different contexts, which are characterized by their distinct historical developments, their specific spatial, economic, political, legal and cultural framework and the individual and collective actors involved in typical interactions (Christmann & Baur, 2021). Each context has a specific extension in physical space, and communicative action within the context is organized according to specific spatial logics (“Raumfiguren”, “Raumlogiken”) (Löw, 2020).

In order for modern societies to function, contexts are never isolated (Luhmann, 1997) but always linked to specific other contexts (Christmann & Baur, 2021) in interactions. Therefore, by necessity, any interaction is polycontextural, that is, actors have to simultaneously refer to multiple contexts and address their potentially contrasting logics (Knoblauch & Löw, 2020, pp. 279f; Knoblauch, 2021). Polycontexturality not only refers to actors’ knowledge but also to their actions (Knoblauch, 2021). As contexts are spatial, so is polycontexturality (Knoblauch & Löw, 2020, p. 281). Finally, as differentiation continues and the constitution of spaces is becoming ever more heterogeneous, one can observe a process of polycontexturalization, that is, both the number of contexts actors have to simultaneously refer to is continuously increasing and the way they handle polycontexturality is continuously changing.

Based on these considerations, in this paper, we will contribute to the aim of disentangling the mechanisms of handling polycontexturality and the dynamics of polycontexturalization in the field of the economy. In order to empirically investigate these dynamics, commodity chains for fresh fruits and vegetables—also called “fresh produce”—are particularly suitable:

  1. Translocalization (Knoblauch & Löw, 2020, pp. 281f) drives polycontexturalization (Knoblauch & Löw, 2020, pp. 279ff) because once different tasks are distributed to multiple contexts at different locations, these locations have to be linked again via interactions. For example, goods can only be circulated along commodity chains if locations are linked. Therefore, out of all social fields, the economy is likely the one in which translocalization started the earliest: The global trade in goods has been growing continuously for centuries. Within the economy, trade in fresh produce translocalized amongst the latest: For example, in nineteenth-century Germany, in the course of industrialization, local market systems emerged at the outset, and trade was first locally organized between cities—e.g., Berlin—and the urban hinterlands—e.g., Brandenburg—as so-called “Thune Rings”. The Thune-model describes the different intensity of agricultural land use surrounding a city, dependent on value and transport costs for products; in general, the land use intensity rises with reduced distance to the city (Kulke 2017, pp. 64f). Then, around the 1890s, the first transcontinental commodity chains for fresh produce were organized in order to transport tropical fruits considered as luxury goods—such as pineapples and bananas—in refrigerated ships. From the 1970s onwards, European integration and reduced transport costs induced a Europeanisation of trade in cheaper fruits and vegetables, as well. From around 1985 onwards, policies of national and international institutions—such as the WTO, IMF, World Bank—as well as new technologies and, from the 2000s onwards, the logistics revolution—involving the use of container technology and aircrafts for transporting goods—gave translocalization a new impetus and thus a new quality. As a result, closely interwoven global production, transport and market systems emerged. Since then, commodity chains (Gereffi et al., 2005) have consisted of very long and complex chains of interdependence (Elias, 2012 [1971]): As a rule, within the commodity chains, most actors typically do not and cannot interact directly—only the goods themselves circulate between all contexts.
  2. Commodity chains can be analytically subdivided into sub-contexts which in turn can be further divided into another set of sub-contexts and so on. For example, on a very general level, commodity chains consist of three main sub-contexts: the contexts of production, market withdrawal (purchase/sale) and consumption (Baur et al., 2020). On a lower level, the context of production can be further differentiated into multiple sub contexts, such as seed production, greenhouse building, freight logistics, food safety and so on. In each sub-context, very different actors interact in different spatial arrangements (“Raumanordnungen”), which are organized according to different spatial logics (Löw, 2020)—namely the logics of space of place (“Ortsraum”), territorial space (“Territorialraum”), network space (“Netzwerkraum”) and the space of pathways (“Bahnenraum”) (Löw, 2020). In order to keep up circulation along the commodity chain, actors have to accommodate themselves to these respective spatial logics.

2. Spatial arrangements and spatial logics of the different sub-contexts of commodity chains

2.1 Production context: Space of pathways

In the production context, suppliers, manufacturers, processors, logistics and retailing companies and other actors in the commodity chain—hereafter referred to as “producers”—have to coordinate themselves (Beckert, 2009) in order to transport goods along the locations of the commodity chain from the original location of production to the location of sales—for example, Berlin (Germany). Commodity chains can be very short if the goods come from the urban hinterland—for example, Brandenburg (Germany)—, or they can be very long if they come from geographically very distant countries—for example, Kenya or the Caribbean (Baur et al., 2020; Hering & Fülling, 2021).

The production context is necessarily organized as a space of pathways: The organization of translocal commodity chains requires a logic of transit (“Logik der Durchquerung”) in order to overcome space-time disparities, dichotomous demarcations, adaptive associations and conflictual intersections. This in turn allows for stable units—such as a container of goods (Buss, 2020; Hering & Fülling, 2021)—to circulate along a fixed route.

Economic geography and sociology as well as historical sociology have shown that translocal commodity chains—organized as a space of pathways—are highly stable and inflexible and usually only change in the longue durée (Braudel, 1958). This was further revealed during the Covid-19-induced lock-down, which, from the point of view of the economy, can be considered an external shock: Until spring 2020, the German working population typically ate at least one meal—usually lunch—outside their home—for example, at work, school etc. For these meals, canteens and restaurants were the end-points of the commodity chain. When people were forced to work from home during the Covid-19-induced lock-down, they also had to buy more groceries and more often cook themselves, thereby increasing the demand for fresh produce in supermarkets. As actors of the commodity chain needed some time to reorganize the chain, the results were empty supermarket shelves in spring 2020 (Hering, 2020a).

Commodity chains are not only stable in their spatial and organizational form but also in terms of the power balances (Elias, 2006 [1969]) between the actors. In the course of translocalization, a power imbalance has emerged that is structured by (1) multinational companies (MNCs) in retailing, logistics and the food industry having an advantage over (2) suppliers (farmers), which results in lower incomes and greater vulnerability of farmers and thus a potential risk of poverty (Lawrence & Burch, 2007; Richards et al., 2012). Commodity chains therefore reproduce social inequality.

The specific spatial structure of commodity chains results in social inequality, too, being spatially structured in two ways: In addition to (1) an urban-rural divide, (2) colonialism has brought about a global center-periphery structure, meaning that even today, in the Global South, agriculture is the main source of income for the poor rural population. Agricultural production in the Global South is characterized by unequal access to labor and natural resources and thus socially, economically and ecologically unsustainable (Brand & Wissen, 2017). Farmers from the Global South are increasingly trying to improve their position of power within the commodity chain—so-called “upgrading”. However, the ongoing interplay between actors of the commodity chains is currently only shifting the power balances between farmers and intermediaries within the Global South in particular, but not between actors of the Global South and the Global North (Baur et al., 2020). Even fair trade does not change these power balances: While fair trade provides farmers with a better income, it is still the consumers in the Global North who have the power to decide whether or not they want to buy these higher-priced goods, and therefore consumers can always opt out, while farmers cannot. Regardless, this conflict-ridden constellation in the Global South has negative side-effects for the whole value chain, among them growing pressure on European farmers who increasingly have to face competition from the Global South (Kulke, 2016, p.73) as well as territorial struggles of interest (Reiher & Sippel, 2015), which revolve around financialization processes, food market shocks in regional economies or the value of food itself (Barlösius, 2016).

There are various explanations for the stability of the overall structure of the commodity chain—such as power balances within the world system (Wallerstein, 2004); constructions of citizenship as a category of inequality (Boatca, 2015); spatial strategies of transnational elites (Korzeniewicz & Payne, 2021); the agglomeration of infrastructure and institutions in regional innovation systems (Storper, 2021); and local economic conventions (Baur et al., 2014; Baur & Hering, 2017). As we will elaborate further below, there are at least two more possible causes for the stability of spaces of pathways and the associated reproduction of global inequality, which point to polycontexturalization: non-knowledge (“Nichtwissen”)—especially of the more powerless actors in the commodity chain—and the role of material infrastructures—especially transport routes.

2.2 Consumption context: Space of place embedded in territorial space

In the consumption context, food is stored, processed into meals and consumed, after which waste is disposed of. Like the production context, the consumption context, too, is only changing slowly in the longue durée (Baur et al., 2019). As, in Central Europe until the 1950s and in the Global South until today, for many people “poverty” means “lack of food security” (Barlösius, 2016), the commodity chain is not only linked to social inequality via the production context but also via the consumption context, and, as our own empirical work reveals, even in Germany today, the lower classes pay close attention to food prices when buying groceries, and, within cities, the access to food is unequally distributed between neighborhoods: In some neighborhoods, there are either no supermarkets or no shops selling fresh produce. Due to a lack of public transport, this makes it hard for residents of these neighborhoods to keep a healthy diet, regardless of their financial means (Augustin, 2020)

Irrespective of social class, consumption is still predominantly local (Reiher & Sippel, 2015), and this is where actors interact in everyday life. In all cultures, food and meals are of great symbolic and social significance in reproducing local identity (Barlösius, 2016; Rückert-John & Reis, 2020), which is why, in the following, we will focus on one specific cultural context—Germany.

A historical-sociological analysis of the consumption context in Germany reveals that, whereas the production context is organized as a space of pathways, the consumption context is primarily organized as a space of place. German diets typically consist of three meals—breakfast, lunch and dinner. Since the Middle Ages, most Germans have been mainly preparing food and eating two out of three or all of these meals in their own places of residence—such as their houses or flats or, more precisely, specific rooms reserved for specific activities, namely their cellars or storerooms (storage), kitchens (cooking) and dining rooms (eating). Furthermore, since industrialization, food has been mostly consumed in the context of the nuclear family (Kulke & Baur, 2021). As a result of the ideology of “male breadwinner/female homemaker” and the associated separation of spheres that unfolded in parallel to industrialization, German families increasingly practiced a gender division of labor within the nuclear family, separating the place of work—associated with paid work—from the place of residence—associated with unpaid housework and carework—and at the same time linking work, consumption and gender practices. Shopping and cooking have henceforth belonged to housework, and eating and cooking became central activities for doing gender in everyday life. After the transition from an economy of scarcity to one of abundance during the post-war period, gender roles and associated gender practices—including gender-specific responsibilities for shopping and cooking—were renegotiated and have since then diverged between different social milieus: Egalitarian gender roles became the symbol of a modern lifestyle (Baur et al., 2019). However, as egalitarian gender roles imply that both partners work, the separation of places of work and places of residence resulted in increased commuting times and distances for both partners (Kulke & Baur, 2021).

In parallel, since the nineteenth century, different social milieus in Germany (Schulze, 1996; Otte, 2008) increasingly both segregated themselves and were simultaneously segregated by urban planning (Uttke, 2009) into different neighborhoods—that is, territorial spaces. The logic of intersection (“Logik der Überlappung”) at the place of residence has since taken place within the logic of demarcation (“Logik der Grenzziehung”) in the neighborhood. An almost ideal model case of this typical spatial figure of social segregation of social milieus can be found in Berlin, which is why we deliberately focused on the city to conduct more detailed empirical analyses between 2018 and 2021. Specifically, based on ethnographic city walks and statistical data, we sampled four Berlin neighborhoods as empirical cases, each of which is both characterized by a particular dominant building structure and dominated by a particular social milieu. Namely, we chose “Lichterfelde West/Schweizer Viertel” (stand-alone building structure, conservative high-brow culture), “Kollwitzplatz/Winsviertel” in Prenzlauer Berg (modernized nineteenth-century block structure, modern high-brow culture), “Marzahn Ost” (large housing estates, traditional working class) and “Donaustraße/Flughafenstraße” in Neukölln (refurbished nineteenth-century block structure, modern working class) (Fülling & Hering, 2020). The sampling process revealed that in sociological discussions, it is often unclear whether “neighborhoods” stand for a certain building structure or social milieus—an aspect that we will empirically reflect on in section 4.

When analyzing how the consumption context is entwined with the other contexts of the commodity chain, it becomes apparent that the way in which the consumption context is socially and spatially organized influences not only the consumption context itself but also both the way the sales context is organized (Kulke & Baur, 2021) and possibly also the production context (Hering & Baur, 2019). In other words, there might be multiple spatialities with varying spatial arrangements. This becomes clear when contrasting the German consumption context with that in Southeast Asia—for example, Singapore or Thailand—, India and Africa—for example, Kenya or Tanzania:

  1. The context of consumption is not limited to the home but may also occur in spaces of place outside the home. For example, many middle-class Southeast Asians eat all their meals in cook shops or buy them from street vendors. These professional cooks are additional intermediaries who are more professional and possibly know more or different things about food than a German housewife. This in turn may change the power balance within the sales context (Hering & Baur, 2019).
  2. Actors within the place of residence need not be restricted to a nuclear family of a specific social class. For example, many Indian and African middle-class families employ servants who shop and/or cook. For the sales context, this alternative household division of labor may potentially be relevant because, firstly, in service economies, the lower classes act as an additional intermediary —similar to the cook-shop owners in Southeast Asia—who might change market dynamics as they potentially pay more attention to the price than to other characteristics of the goods. Secondly, the segregation of social classes in different residential quarters is at least partially removed and thus spaces of place are no longer nested into territorial spaces but interwoven in different ways. For example, in Germany, members of the working and middle classes might interact at places of work, but their places of residence are segregated into distinct neighborhoods. As they typically shop for groceries in their neighborhood, a place of purchase will typically only serve customers of one specific social class, which in turn allows for very targeted marketing. In contrast, in countries where middle-class families employ servants, the servants do not only enter the place of residence but also commute between neighborhoods. This in turn may give places of purchase a different meaning than in Germany: While the servants in the Global South likely still buy groceries for their employers at local markets, middle-class families stigmatize these markets as chaotic and unhygienic. In contrast, the “modern” supermarkets become a place of distinction for the middle-classes which practice social exclusion—here, servants are never allowed to shop alone but only when they accompany their employers, and middle-class women want to keep these places exclusive (Keck, 2015). For supermarkets, this would mean that they would have to develop strategies of how to keep “unwanted” customers out.

2.3 Sales Context: Spatial conflicts between territorial space and space of pathways at the place of purchase

The production and consumption contexts are coupled in the context of market withdrawal (purchase/sale). Interactions of consumers and producers are mediated by so-called intermediaries, which in turn can take many forms: If consumers buy groceries and prepare food at home themselves, intermediaries range from non-stationary online retailers—e.g. vegetable boxes, Amazon Fresh—to semi-stationary retailers—e.g. market stalls at a weekly market—to the many types of stationary retailers—e.g. supermarkets, discounters, organic shops, migrant businesses. In addition, food can also be consumed outside the place of residence, e.g. in pastry shops, bakeries, snack bars, cafés, restaurants, school kitchens, cafeterias and canteens.

In the following, we will focus on food retailing, since Germans still mainly cook themselves. Within German fresh produce retailing, non-stationary and semi-stationary retailers still have relatively small market shares and most consumers still buy fresh vegetables at places of purchase in their neighborhood within a radius of two kilometers from their home (Kulke, 2014; Martin, 2006; Reiher & Sippel, 2015). Thus, between 2018 and 2021, we applied a complex mixed-methods design (Thierbach et al., 2020) combining cartographic methods with photo-documentary methods (Fülling et al., 2021), ethnographic methods (Wetzels, 2021) and qualitative interviewing (Weidenhaus & Norkus, 2021) in order to empirically analyze the interactions between consumers and stationary food retailers in the four above-mentioned Berlin neighborhoods. This empirical analysis revealed that all spatial arrangements suggested by Löw (2020)—namely space of place, territorial space, network space and space of pathways—are relevant and collide in the sales context:

  1. Fresh produce is purchased at a specific shop—the place of purchase. Interaction between consumers and retailers in the shop follows the logic of intersection (“Logik der Überlappung”): Shops not only serve as places of sale that supply consumers with groceries, but also as neighborhood meeting spaces (Steigemann, 2019) and as means for explicating and demarcating one’s identity: By buying specific goods in a specific type of shop, consumers express belonging to a specific social milieu in the sense of demonstrative consumption (Schenk, 2020). In this context, customers prefer both to be treated as special individuals but also—as we will discuss in more detail in the following sections—to buy “local” or “regional” goods. In addition, shops function as hinges mediating between production and consumption (Hering & Baur, 2019).
  2. When going shopping, consumers link different shopping locations—baker, butcher, organic food shop, discounter, supermarket, etc.—and locations relevant for other activities—doctor’s office, registration office, dropping off children at the kindergarten, place of work—on their way from their place of residence through their neighborhood and back to their place of residence (Kulke & Baur, 2021) and thus span a network space. As nodes in these networks, the places of purchase have a homogenizing effect, but at the same time produce a surplus of practices and meanings.
  3. As already mentioned, consumers from different social milieus are segregated in residential neighborhoods and move largely within their neighborhood or working area when shopping fresh produce. This logic of demarcation (“Logik der Grenzziehung”) creates a territorial space. Economic sociology has shown that companies have a strong interest in creating market niches (White, 1981; 2002; Baur, 2013a). One of the main means for this is to reinforce or at least maintain this logic of territorial space (Fligstein, 2001): By defining market boundaries both institutionally and in physical space, the number of competitors is reduced, which in turn improves their own competitive advantage and also makes the market manageable, thereby enabling retailers to target marketing. Our analysis reveals that not only do companies territorially demarcate markets on the level of nation states (e.g. Nessel, 2020), but, within cities, retailers also draw boundaries and construct neighborhoods as actual market spaces and space of competition. Thus, in the neighborhoods studied, the number of grocery retailers who in theory compete with each other was reduced to about 20 to 80 shops, depending on the neighborhood (Fülling & Hering, 2020)—our interviews with grocery retailers revealed that, in practice, grocery retailers have even fewer “real” competitors, namely two to three other stores. This territorial delimitation makes it easier for retailers to develop marketing strategies, tailored to specific customers via “narrative competition” (Mützel, 2007) with very specific competitors (Baur, 2013a; 2013b). However, this also has consequences for consumer choice because, in the course of strategic marketing, retailers can tailor the range of goods offered in a specific neighborhood to what is actually likely to be sold. For groceries this is especially important because not only is story capacity limited, but, in addition, the goods will be spoiled if they cannot be sold fast enough. However, for consumers this means: They cannot buy anything they want, as not everything is offered everywhere—this in turn means that consumers experience social inequality in everyday life based on what specific goods they can or cannot buy (Pike, 2009).
  4. Retailers not only interact with customers and competitors but also have to coordinate with producers to transport goods along the space of pathways (commodity chain). Modern consumer markets—including markets for fresh produce—are organized as mass markets. This not only means that large amounts of goods have to be moved along the commodity chain, but also that, in the course of competition, goods are produced as cheaply as possible—which in turn implies that, usually, they cannot be produced in socially or environmentally sustainable ways because that would cost more. Fresh produce is transported to the place of purchase from all over the world in order to ensure its availability all year round. In addition, in order to better facilitate the handling of these goods for shipping, they are produced as standardized as possible and often harvested when they are not yet ripe, and—depending on the fruit—transportation might take several weeks (Hering & Fülling, 2021).

A closer look at these spatial logics reveals that there are at least three spatial conflicts in producer-consumer-interactions:

  1. Spatial conflicts between the space of pathways (commodity chain) and the space of place (shop): The way retailers market fresh produce to customers is almost the exact opposite of how they are produced and transported along the commodity chain: While goods are mass products, retailers try to give customers the impression that they are treated as highly valued individuals receiving high quality products, that is, fresh(ly harvested), regional and sustainably produced fruits and vegetables.
  2. Spatial conflicts between the space of pathways (commodity chain) and the territorial space (competitors in neighborhoods): While retailers organize competition as a territorial space and thus engage in demarcating boundaries, in parallel, they have to dissolve these boundaries in order to coordinate with producers to transport goods along the space of pathways (commodity chain). In order to facilitate this mass transportation of goods along the space of pathways (commodity chain), retailers have to dissolve territorial boundaries. Specifically, they coordinate with other retailers to better organize purchasing and transportation of goods. This might take the form of cooperation between retailers who market in different territories, even if they are not organized as a single company—for example, the retailing brand “Edeka” consists of legally independent supermarkets which buy goods together. This might also manifest itself in the way that the same shops competing in a specific neighborhood buy their goods at the same wholesale market. Both of these forms of cooperation create an implicit spatial conflict, as the space of pathways partly dissolves the clear demarcations of the territorial space: Firstly, a retailer from another neighborhood might enter the neighborhood and become an additional competitor. Secondly, if all competitors mostly offer the same goods, despite marketing efforts, it is almost impossible to ask different prices for these goods. So, in fact, despite the number of competitors being very limited in a specific neighborhood, price competition is actually very high (Baur, 2013b; 2013c). As a result of this price competition between retailers within a territorial space, the so-called “reference prices” [2] have been continuously sinking for decades, which means that it is almost impossible for retailers to increase food prices—rather, they typically have to continuously lower them (Baur, 2013c), resulting in German households only spending 10% of their consumer expenditure on food—in Europe, expenditure for food ranges from 8% (United Kingdom) to 42% (Ukraine); on a global scale, consumer expenditure for food ranges from 6% (United States) to 63% (Mauritania) of overall consumer expenditure (Destatis, 2021). As retailers cannot ask (much) higher prices from consumers, they have to put pressure on other actors of the commodity chain to lower their prices, which is usually only possible by standardizing even more and by decreasing the standards for social and ecological sustainability.
  3. Spatial conflicts between space of place (shop) and territorial space (competitors in neighborhoods): A third spatial conflict arises because competitors need to follow different spatial logics when interacting with customers and competitors: In order to really fulfil customer demand for high quality, that is sun-grown, tasty, fresh and sustainable products all year round, retailers would have to demand high prices. However, this is not possible due to price competition within the territorial space of the neighborhood. As a result, consumer goods—including fresh produce—become more and more standardized over time and are typically neither produced in ecologically nor in socially sustainable ways. Moreover, for large parts of the year, fresh produce cannot come from local regions, as (almost) nothing grows in Germany from October until March due to the specific climatic conditions. However, retailers cannot be honest about this to their customers, as this would counteract the individualized marketing strategies at the space of place (shop).

So, all in all, fresh produce markets are polycontextural by definition, and spatial conflicts are inherent in market logics. Surprisingly, these spatial conflicts create much less tensions in everyday market interaction than one might imagine—on the whole, modern fresh produce markets work more or less smoothly. This raises the question of how market actors manage to do this, or in other words: How do they handle polycontexturality?

3. The key role of (spatial) knowledge in handling polycontexturality

Retailers (and other actors of the commodity chains) partly resolve these spatial conflicts by interacting with different types of actors in different contexts, which in turn follow different spatial logics—for example, retailers interact with consumers in the frontstage of the shop and with other actors of the commodity chain either in the backstage of the shop or on the wholesale market. However, as the above discussion shows, this simply hides the spatial conflicts and creates a new problem, as all in all, in order to maintain the circulation of goods along the commodity chain, market actors still have to coordinate themselves (Beckert, 2009) and—in doing so—link the three contexts—production, sale, consumption—and reconcile their respective, very different spatial arrangements and spatial logics. When, in an interaction situation, different spatial arrangements—which Knoblauch (2021) also calls “contextures” and which should not be confused with “contexts”—come into effect simultaneously, spatial conflicts arise—such as the conflict between space of place and space of pathways at the shopping location—which must be resolved, i.e. the actors must both act under polycontextural conditions and simultaneously create polycontextural situations. Furthermore, actors have to manage the complexity of the commodity chain, which comes about (1) through the sheer length of the chain of interdependency, (2) the interaction being distributed translocally and (3) the large number of individual and collective actors who are either competing or have to coordinate themselves. For example, in each of the neighborhoods studied, between about 20 and 80 food retailers compete for between about 18,000 and 30,000 consumers who live in the respective neighborhoods (Fülling & Hering, 2020). (4) This complexity is further increased by the sheer number of goods: For example, in 2017, an average German supermarket offered around 11,000 different types of goods, and a discounter offered around 2,000 different types of goods (HDE & IFH, 2019). It is therefore almost impossible for individuals to even keep track of this abundance of goods, let alone compare them in terms of quality and price. In addition, by its very nature, the commodity “food” varies in quality—for example, no two apples are the same—and this very variation is an essential quality feature. (5) Very different criteria have to be weighed against each other when selecting goods while shopping, such as price, individual taste, the available time budget, attitudes towards sustainability and the social milieu’s social norms (Fülling, 2020). Moreover, in recent decades, the complexity of commodity chains and the resulting demands on actors in terms of spatial constitution have increased significantly due to translocalization. Increasing mediatization (Knoblauch & Löw, 2020, pp. 278f) and a rising awareness of questions of social and ecological sustainability also put pressure on actors to reflect more strongly on the polycontexturality of commodity circulation (Hering & Fülling, 2021). In order to be able to act at all, this complexity must be reduced in everyday terms.

So, for market actors, reducing complexity, linking the three contexts meaningfully and resolving spatial conflicts in everyday interactions are of upmost importance. The economic sociological approach of “Economics of Conventions” (EC) (Diaz-Bone, 2018)—which in recent years has been successfully combined (Ouma, 2015) with the economic geographic approaches of “Global Value Chains” (GVC) (Gereffi et al., 2005; Coe et al., 2004) and “Global Production Networks” (GPN) (Coe et al., 2008; Yeung & Coe, 2015)—has shown that market actors do this by referring to specific bodies of knowledge—so-called “quality conventions.” Based on these findings, we asked in our own empirical analysis: Which actors in the commodity chain have which type of (spatial) knowledge? When and how do they act upon this knowledge in order to maintain or change the circulation of goods and thus the spatial arrangements? What role do knowledge and power balances play when coordinating commodity chains?

The analysis revealed that market actors’ knowledge plays a key role in coordinating commodity chains, directly influences their interactions and thus decisively influences the spatial organization and social order of commodity chains (Baur et al., 2020). Note that from a sociology-of-knowledge-point-of-view, it does not matter whether actors’ knowledge is “objectively” true or measurable, but rather that actors believe it to be true and act upon this conviction. For example, many consumers are convinced that “regional” products are organic and thus more environmentally friendly, which is only objectively true under certain conditions—like seasonality or growing method—which are mostly not taken into account or not evaluated due to a lack of information. However, as consumers base their purchasing decisions on this belief, it is still relevant to the market. Furthermore, knowledge can be explicit—i.e. codified and formalized by means of numbers, writing, words or labels—, implicit—i.e. embedded in social routines and interpretation schemes—or non-existent (“non-knowledge”) so that consumers need to base their purchasing decisions on risk or find alternative means such as labels (Fülling, 2020). Our results also confirm previous findings in economic sociology (e.g. Polanyi, 1967) that indicate that increasing explicit knowledge through information is not sufficient to improve market actors’ ability to act because this explicit knowledge must still be decoded through implicit knowledge, transferred into actors’ relevance systems and thus be made usable (Ermann, 2015).

Coordinating commodity chains not only requires general knowledge, but also, specifically, spatial knowledge, because market actors have to be able to meaningfully link different places and spaces of production, purchase and consumption, and synthesize them into spatial arrangements. This spatial knowledge is part of the general knowledge about a commodity. For example, designations of origin—e.g. “Dutch tomato”, “Belizean asparagus”—evoke certain associations, both with regard to the method of production and with regard to taste and other quality characteristics, such as environmental compatibility or morality of production (Ermann, 2004; Pike, 2009).

The spatial knowledge relevant for market coordination refers either to the place of origin of the goods—e.g. “Dutch tomato”, “Belizean asparagus”—or to the spatial arrangement of the commodity chain itself—for example, if one buys “regional” products, the commodity chain is short, whereas for “Fairtrade” products, it is long because the products by definition come from the Global South. In addition, spatial knowledge is necessarily polycontextural because production, sales and consumption contexts are interlinked along the commodity chain and each have different spatial logics.

Consumers’ spatial knowledge predominantly refers to the place of purchase (“supermarket”) or place of origin (“Dutch tomato”) and can be either irrelevant to the specific consumer or positively or negatively connoted, for example in relation to a specific product quality or working conditions. This in turn can inform a decision for or against purchasing a certain product or buying at a certain place of purchase.

In contrast, knowledge about how goods are transported is anecdotal at best and the space of pathways either remains invisible or is negatively connoted: Retailers only make logistics and transportation visible to customers if they are legally required to do so, for example by stating names and control numbers of packing stations which are more or less meaningless to most consumers.

Thus, contradictory logics of valuation emerge, stemming from conflicting quality conventions simultaneously serving the low-price industrial convention (“food from nowhere”) and the high-priced artisan convention (“food from somewhere”) (Campbell, 2009). Accordingly, it is not surprising that spatial proximity (“regionality”) symbolizes social and ecological sustainability or high product quality. Therefore, spatial knowledge can be ambivalent. For example, “regional products” can evoke different meanings for different people, such as short (and thus ecologically sustainable) transport routes, good taste, feelings of home, and support for local farmers or organic production.

Retailers face even more challenges in having to resolve spatial conflicts arising from different spatial logics—as stated above, they have to simultaneously personalize interaction with customers at the place of purchase, compete in the neighborhood and organize transportation of standardized goods in the space of pathways. When interacting with consumers, retailers do this by consciously exploiting the multidimensionality of (spatial) knowledge, for example by increasingly including “regional products” in their product range in order to address different customer segments simultaneously with one single designation, thereby creating trust. In contrast, they fade out large parts of the (industrialized) production context, and thus of the space of pathways, by placing their trust in experts and certificates.

4. Non-knowledge as a strategy for handling polycontexturality

As already mentioned, market actors’ (spatial) knowledge explicitly includes non-knowledge (Fülling, 2020). In fact, non-knowledge (“Nichtwissen”) is a key strategy of handling spatial conflicts. In order to understand why this is so, it is important to keep in mind that non-knowledge is not the opposite of knowledge but rather constitutes a part of knowledge for two reasons:

  1. Actors are often aware of their non-knowledge—non-knowledge is thus a “not-yet-knowledge”. Should not-yet-knowledge inhibit actors’ ability to act, they can actively expand their knowledge (Groß, 2007). If this attempt fails—for example, because of the complexity of the topic—actors may accept their not-knowing (for the time being) and act on the basis of uncertainty and risk. This is why non-knowledge in the form of decreasing control, unpredictability and unintended side-effects is central to modernity (Beck, 1996).
  2. Non-knowledge can be caused by knowledge being embedded in everyday routines and being so strongly habitualized that it guides interaction without people consciously engaging with it. In the case of strong habitualization, knowledge may no longer be directly accessible to consciousness (Knoblauch, 2014, p. 352). This is especially true for knowledge that is both institutionally and materially engrained in a local spatial arrangement (Kulke & Baur, 2021), internalized in the course of socialization (Elias, 2012 [1939]) and typically only changes in the long run—as a result, actors lack temporal or spatial categories of comparison, and everyday routines as well as the knowledge associated with them are perceived as static (Braudel, 1958; Koselleck, 2018).

4.1 Not-being-able-to-know

In this context, non-knowledge can take the form of “not-being-able-to-know” and initially stem from the simple inability of actors to grasp commodity chains and their spatial arrangement in their entirety in the face of their ever-increasing complexity (Fülling, 2020). Actors’ capacity for knowledge is unequally distributed along commodity chains in favor of the intermediaries (retailers, MNCs) and to the disadvantage of consumers and farmers (Callon & Muniesa, 2005; Lawrence & Burch, 2007; Legun, 2017). This knowledge asymmetry both generates and is the result of power balances and conflicts within commodity chains (Kulke et al., 2020), as MNCs actively conceal or dissociate in order to disguise certain aspects of the commodity chain and its spatial arrangement in order to increase the commodity’s value (Ibert et al., 2019). They thereby also stabilize the spatial arrangement of and power relations within the commodity chain. In other words, spatial conflicts are resolved by differentiating interaction situations and restricting them to different contexts. While the commodity chain as a whole is intrinsically polycontextural, single interaction situations become monocontextural. An example would be the above-mentioned practice of retailers to interact with consumers (space of place) in the frontstage of the shop and with other actors of the commodity chain (space of pathways) either in the backstage of the shop or on the wholesale market. These strategies succeed vis-à-vis consumers, firstly because consumers only have limited time budgets and are overwhelmed by the chain’s complexity and, secondly, because consumers enter into an implicit complicity with MNCs (Fülling, 2020).

4.2 Not-wanting-to-know

In other words, not-knowing can also take the form of “not-wanting-to-know” and be a conscious strategy for reducing complexity (Schulze, 1996), maintaining social routines (Knoblauch, 2014, p. 352) or dealing with uncertainty, fears and dissociations of unpleasant and unwanted knowledge (Ibert et al., 2019). When it comes to food, consumers are confronted with a multitude of often conflicting demands, ranging from cost constraints and taste preferences to ethical and moral evaluations. For example, if consumers want to consume both according to their spontaneous appetite and in an ecologically sustainable way at the same time, they might want to ignore or at least not actively look for certain kinds of information (like the origin or production method) to avoid cognitive dissonance (Ibert et al., 2019, p. 50). Likewise, consumers’ favorite foods may not meet the social milieu’s ethical and moral standards (Fülling, 2020). Consumers may consequently resolve spatial conflicts by “monocontexturalizing” and consciously or unconsciously opting for “geographical ignorance” (Harvey, 1990, p .423) or “social forgetting” (Billig, 1999, p. 315)—that is, by not reflecting certain aspects of the commodity chain or by not acting upon these aspects (Ibert et al., 2019, p. 50). In doing so, consumers may maintain their capacity for enjoyment and action by rejecting responsibility for social and ecological consequences. This in turn makes it possible to delink the commodity (chain) from the original context, to relink it in other contexts with other bodies of knowledge (outside of the original body of knowledge) and to symbolically recharge it (Fülling, 2020; Hering & Fülling, 2020).

4.3 Non-knowledge and maintenance of circulation

Since knowledge plays a key role in maintaining circulation along commodity chains, the follow-up question is how actors coordinate themselves under conditions of non-knowledge. Our data suggests that three interrelated mechanisms are primarily used for this purpose:

  1. Both consumers and retailers use symbols which serve as judgement devices (Karpik, 2010) to ascertain quality. These can be—as in the case of the retailers—symbolized by experts and certificates. But quality conventions can also be symbolized by special places: Consumers use the place of origin (“from the region”, “from Italy”) to link the question of the “where” to the “how” of production, for example by attributing characteristics such as special environmental or social compatibility to regional products. By choosing specific places of purchase, they delegate (time-consuming) research and evaluation of the complex product biographies to the shop or shop staff (Fülling, 2020; Schenk 2020).
  2. The strategy of using judgement devices can only work because knowledge is inscribed in social institutions that determine, among other things, how interaction in everyday routines is coordinated—“coupled” (Kulke & Baur, 2021)—in time and space. The coordination of commodity chains, just as the consumption of food, is oriented, among other things, towards institutional frameworks (e.g. marketing norms) and quality conventions that sometimes follow contradictory logics.
  3. These social institutions are materially solidified and thus objectified (Kulke & Baur, 2021) in so-called form investments (Thévenot, 1984) which stabilize the logics of evaluation actors share across individual situations in time and space. Examples are the goods themselves, shops, neighborhoods and transport routes.

5. Interaction of polycontexturalization with translocalization and mediatization in the process of the refiguration of spaces

The investigation of how market actors polycontexturalize and resolve spatial conflicts reveals some general patterns concerning the refiguration of spaces (Knoblauch & Löw, 2020) regarding its speed, timing, rhythm and trajectories. One can particularly learn about how polycontexturalization interacts with translocalization and mediatization and how these processes drive each other.

5.1 Translocalization and polycontexturalization

As stated in the introduction and in contrast to other fields of social life, the translocalization of the economy started centuries (maybe even millennia) ago in the form of long-distance trading of durable luxury food and has gained new impetus and a different quality in recent decades, resulting in the increasing differentiation of different contexts with specific spatial arrangements and spatial logics. Specifically, the separation (1) of the contexts of consumption, purchase and production and (2) of the territorial spaces of the “neighborhood” and “city” and (3) the translocal space of pathways or “transport route” has resulted in polycontexturalization being inherent to market logics since the nineteenth century at the latest. Since then, producers and retailers have had to simultaneously pursue strategies of opening borders—to maintain circulation in commodity chains—, of closing borders—to reduce competition—and of localization—to adapt the supply of goods to very different customers with very different needs, depending on the location. Ever since, efforts to resolve the resulting spatial conflicts—for example through non-knowledge, institutionalization and objectification—have been driving the refiguration of commodity chains for fresh vegetables and their spatial arrangements.

5.2 Polycontexturalization and mediatization

Mediatization does not change these spatial conflicts, but rather exacerbates the need to handle polycontexturalization in two respects:

In Germany, it has been possible to order fresh produce online from vegetable boxes since the 1990s, and from platforms of large chains—such as Amazon Fresh—since around 2015. Online platforms—that is, non-stationary, digital places of purchase—comprehensively change consumers’ shopping practices (Kulke, 2019) and radically alter their physical-bodily experience of shopping. For example, online platforms offer special visual impressions, sometimes additional information about the goods and their production locations, and often appealing and extensive storytelling about the concept of the online provider. At the same time, consumers have to delegate selecting, e.g., specific tomatoes and apples, to delivery service employees. Online platforms construct the illusion of a seemingly placeless and timeless digital consumption (Hering, 2020b). Since groceries still have to be physically delivered, the spatial conflict between territorial space and space of place, on the one hand, and the space of pathways, on the other hand, intensifies: Food-related logistics becomes a core competence for retailers, inner-city delivery traffic increases, and logistics becomes even more invisible. For the employees who work in so-called “dark stores”—large warehouses that remain inaccessible to customers—, the tasks change: Packing ordered goods into deposit baskets or cardboard bags is like assembly line work and requires developing new routines of interaction. Nevertheless, not everything is delivered everywhere. Even despite the Covid-19 pandemic, fresh vegetables can still only be bought in neighborhoods with stationary shops with established supply chains. Rural areas are often completely excluded from online platforms, which is paradoxical because the supply of stationary retailers there is often much worse than in the city (Dannenberg et al., 2020).

Mediatization also changes market actors’ spatial knowledge, or more precisely, it makes it more difficult for consumers to resolve spatial conflicts via non-knowledge, in the sense of “not-wanting-to-know”, thus intensifying spatial conflicts: Mediatization forces consumers to reflect on the commodity chain and distant places of production and increases consumers’ awareness of ecologically questionable production methods of food as well as poor working conditions of farm workers in the Global South (Hering & Fülling, 2021). At the same time, mediatization suggests that consumers can access a larger global range of goods. This in turn also increases spatial conflicts for producers and retailers, as it makes it more difficult to separate different interaction situations and to monocontexturalize. Instead, retailers increasingly also have to address and integrate the space of pathways in their marketing strategies: At the place of purchase, goods are made into a symbol for the place of cultivation or the chain of goods. For example, retailers create associations between places where Caribbean bananas are grown surrounded by idyllic beaches and social aid projects and integrate these images into their promotional storytelling. Seemingly, “food from nowhere” becomes “food from somewhere” (Campbell, 2009). This, too, exacerbates spatial conflicts because commercial bananas are still standardized and mass-produced. This polycontextural spatial knowledge in turn affects circulation and the social order of the commodity chain, as producers are forced to adapt it to consumers’ new spatial knowledge in order to resolve the spatial conflicts (Hering & Fülling, 2021). Especially from a historical perspective, it becomes evident that supply and demand are continuously mutually adjusting and influencing each other and are, moreover, forced to continuously adapt their coping strategies to address spatial conflicts arising from polycontexturality.


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[1] The paper is based on our joint research within the project “Knowledge and Goods: Consumers’ and Producers’ Spatial Knowledge” (A03) which is part of the Collaborate Research Centre “Re-Figuration of Spaces” (CRC 1265) and funded by the German Research Association (DFG) (project number 290045248).

[2] Even though consumers sometimes systematically compare prices, they typically do not decide whether a specific product (e.g. a specific red apple) is inexpensive at a specific retailer (e.g. Kaiser’s Tengelmann in Berlin-Pankow) by systematically going to all retailers in their neighborhood, comparing all prices for all the goods they want to buy and then going back and buying the cheapest goods at different shops. Instead, consumers base their assessment of whether a product is “expensive” or “cheap” on the so-called reference price, which is a guideline for what a specific product (e.g. a red apple) approximately costs. As people also typically have trouble with statistics, they do not memorize prices relationally, e.g. “apples in shop A are 50% more expensive than in shop B”. Instead, they memorize a reference price for each product in each store and brand separately, e.g. “apples are 2.00 Euro per kilo in shop A in summer and 4.90 Euro per kilo in shop B in winter”. Accordingly, if the next time they go shopping, apples are 5.50 Euro per kilo in a shop, they classify the apple as “expensive”, if they are 1.90 Euro per kilo, they classify them as “cheap”. Even if consumers—for example, because they appreciate personal service—prefer to buy in slightly more expensive stores, the following applies for goods which are evaluated as belonging to the same category: If the specific price for a good in the store exceeds the reference price by too much—the tolerance threshold varies depending on the consumer and type of good—, customers usually will not make the purchase. On the other hand, if a product is offered for less than the reference price, customers believe they are getting a bargain: They are more likely to buy it and in larger quantities than they normally would. However, the price must not drop too low either, otherwise customers will believe the good is of inferior quality and will not buy it (Baur 2013c).


Baur, Nina, Elmar Kulke, Linda Hering und Julia Fülling (2021): Dynamics of Polycontexturalization in Commodity Chains. In: sozialraum.de (13) Ausgabe 1/2021. URL: https://www.sozialraum.de/dynamics-of-polycontexturalization-in-commodity-chains.php, Datum des Zugriffs: 25.04.2024