Representing the (post)colonial

Addressing the tension between colonial heritage and ethical concerns in the French specialty coffee market

Noa Berger


The proposed talk will ask how actors operating in the specialty coffee market approach the tension between the colonial past of coffee (and its lasting effects) with the moral and ethical concerns central to this segment of the coffee industry. To answer this question, the talk will analyze findings from a two-year-long ethnographic study of the French specialty coffee market, comprising of in- depth interviews with over a 100 actors (importers, roasters, coffee shop owners, baristas, designers, community managers), participant observations conducted in places such as coffee-shops and roasteries and events such as competitions, specialty coffee association meetings and “cuppings” and analysis of coffee brands social media accounts.

A part of ongoing research in the framework of my Phd in Sociology on the specialty coffee supply chain, the proposed presentation will discuss the question of the tension between coffee’s colonialist past and current ethical concerns through one aspect in particular: the visual representation of coffee and its origins, as apparent in Parisian coffee-shops’ design, coffee packaging and coffee brands’ social media accounts.

Looking at the question of post-colonialism through this prism will allow us to unravel the complexity of discourse and the diversity of approaches of actors in the French specialty coffee market. I will show that actors have varying perceptions of the tensions between the colonialist heritage of the coffee trade and the moral and ethical concerns prevalent in specialty markets. The diversity of perceptions is expressed in very different ways of branding and representing coffee visually on social media and through the design of coffee packaging and the coffee shop space.

More specifically, the presentation will explore the question of how actors mediate highlighting coffee’s origins with the growing trend of “nationalizing” coffee, in this case, rendering coffee “French” through a deployment of a local “past”, using aesthetic means such as the design of the coffee-shop. We will show that while this process may contribute to a neo-colonial dynamic, it may also contribute to changing this dynamic, generating value for producers by bringing specialty coffee to a wider crowd. We will also address the question of how these representations, increasingly available to producers through social media, are interpreted by them and participate in the relationship they have with the product and the supply chain, thus generating not only economic, but symbolic value for producers.

We will show that the visual representation of coffee certainly reflects central trends in the contemporary culture of consumption such as the creation of value by re-interpreting commodities through a mobilization of the past1, and that this indeed contributes in part to a regime where control over the material means of production is eclipsed by control over the means of symbolic production, thus disadvantaging producers2. However, we will also challenge this view by showing that these questions, at the heart of a lively debate within the specialty coffee market, are resolved in ways that may equally generate symbolic and economical value for producers at the same time as participating in disadvantaging dynamics.