Neoliberalism, the 'obesity epidemic' and the challenge to theory

Michael Gard

Research output: Book chapter/Published conference paperChapter (peer-reviewed)

Abstract

How should we understand the 'obesity epidemic'? It is customary and necessary for academic analyses to locate comparatively specific social and cultural phenomena, such as the emergence of the 'obesity epidemic', within broader theoretical frameworks. For example, concepts such as risk and governmentality have been influential amongst critically minded public health scholars. At the risk of offering a crude gloss, in this chapter I will bundle these ideas up into what I will call the critique of neo-liberalism. I do this while acknowledging the hugely diverse and contested meanings scholars assign to the term neo-liberalism. In fact, the term is perhaps more contested than many of its current aficionados imagine given its origins in post-Great Depression Germany of the 1930s. Here, neo-liberalism was formulated as an antidote to what its adherents called 'vulgar liberalism', their term for unfettered capitalism and what they saw as its inevitably destructive tendencies.For many contemporary scholars, however, neo-liberalism is not so much an antidote to free-market orthodoxies but rather an expression of their growing hegemony. In the context of day-to-day life and personal consumption, the focus of this volume, the critique of neo-liberalism holds that individual citizens are increasingly called upon to manage their personal conduct in the interests of the neo-liberal state. In the words of one of the editors of this volume:A central feature of the neoliberal focus on self-regulation involves the displacement of questions of social responsibility away from government and corporations onto individuals and their lifestyle 'choices', reflecting a growing 'ethicalization of existence' (Rose 1989, 263'4). The centre of political life has shifted, then, towards the private sphere with citizenship increasingly seen as being 'produced by personal act'[d]ownsizings and values', a shift that Berlant sees as citizenship to a mode of voluntarism' (1997, 5). (Lewis 2008; p. 227)So, to what extent does this explanatory framework adequately account for the emergence of the 'obesity epidemic'? To what extent has a preoccupation with economic efficiency and down-sizing the role of government produced widespread concern about obesity? And if not the cause, to what extent do the forces of neo-liberalism sanction the reconfiguring of ethical mores such that the 'obesity epidemic' is framed as a problem for individuals, and not governments or corporations, to solve? Closer to the concerns of this volume, I also want to consider the 'obesity epidemic' in the context of growing anxiety about the nature and ethics of Western patterns of consumption. In other words, to what extent should we understand the 'war on obesity' as a proxy for other concerns about Western over-consumption? In general, my argument in this chapter will be that, in part because of the radically inconclusive state of obesity science, we need to see the 'obesity epidemic' as an arena of ideological contestation in which the forces of neo-liberalism and the critics of consumption are only part of the story. Nonetheless, pervasive anxieties about excessive consumption are shaping both the questions that researchers ask as well as the anti-obesity public policies being proposed. But while it is important to isolate and render intelligible the discursive threads that constitute social phenomena, we must also keep multiple and even antagonistic lines of analysis open if our purpose is to understand both the history and the future of the 'obesity epidemic'.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEthical consumption
Subtitle of host publicationA critical introduction
EditorsTania Lewis, Emily Potter
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherRoutledge
Chapter5
Pages71-84
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic) 9780203867785, 9780415558242
ISBN (Print)9780415558259
Publication statusPublished - 2011

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