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16.1: The Bottom-Up Approach

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  • When I started writing this chapter I was sitting in my local café, a Cubanthemed place with Latino music on the stereo and pictures of Communist revolutionary Che Guevara on the wall. In the newspaper was a story about the multinational drinks company SABMiller avoiding taxes in Africa. Visiting the supermarket later on with my family, we picked up sausages from Ireland, tinned tomatoes from Italy and peppers from Morocco. For dinner we cooked up a casserole, a dish with French roots, and sat in front of the television to eat. A celebrity chef was presenting a programme about diets in Japan and how the British could learn a lot from their healthy lifestyles. We wondered whether we might try sushi for our next family meal.

    These encounters with national cultures, current affairs and global supply chains can be thought of as the social foundations of international relations. They are foundational in two senses. First, they create the cross-border flows of ideas, people and goods that make international relations, or how people in different nations see and relate to one another. For example, debates about how to govern the international trade of food wouldn’t exist if people didn’t buy foreign products to begin with or care about the effects of doing so. Second, it is through these interactions that individuals come to know their political community and form opinions about what is best for it, helping to construct ‘the national interest’. This happens through multiple subject positions. In the story above, for instance, I was sometimes thinking from the perspective of a consumer, but at other times as a worker, a citizen, a cook, or a family member. This is important because different subject positions create different political priorities. Thinking as a consumer, I would prefer supermarkets to stock a wide variety of foods and keep prices as low as possible. But thinking as a citizen, I would prefer them to supply more food from local farmers and make sure everyone earned a decent living out of it. The bottom-up approach thus provides an alternative way of thinking about global food politics by analysing its social foundations. It recognises that important political decisions do not happen ‘above’ society, separately from it, but rest on the beliefs, opinions and actions of those who would be governed.