Dissertation Abstracts

The Biology of Markets: Clubs Apples and the Social Life of Varieties

Author: Legun, Katharine A, katharine.legun@otago.ac.nz
Department: Sociology & Community and Environmental Sociology
University: University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA
Supervisor: Michael M Bell
Year of completion: 2013
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: economic institutions , materialism , agriculture
Areas of Research: Agriculture and Food , Economy and Society , Environment and Society


Club apples are new varieties that are associated with licenses that restrict the ways that they can be grown and sold. While the types of clubs that are emerging in the apple industry are diverse, they all have some sort of social boundary associated with them that is matched to the biological differences between varieties of apples. The clubs offer growers a new set of rules to operate within, along with new opportunities and constraints. Using clubs and the apple industry as a case, I build a theory of the biology of markets that emphasizes the ways that biological materials play a role in the organization of industries and the structure of economic markets. While recent work in actor-network theory and the new institutionalism in economic sociology have emphasized how materials and rules, respectively, influence action, this work brings the theories together and emphasizes the particular role that living things may play.

The three articles in this dissertation use different frameworks to explain the emergence of club apples. The first paper demonstrates that biological distinctions can be used to shape social and economic boundaries. I consider how the maintenance of varieties in the market have generated booms and busts as the popularity of particular apples climb and crash, but how they also provide a foundation for clubs that seek to stabilize those cycles. In the second paper, I consider how new technologies shape economic agency, but are contingent on the ability to re-negotiate institutional rules that structure production. Using dwarfing trees and trellis systems as an example, I describe how technologies can expand the range of production activities, engender more customized orchard landscapes, and encourage more collaborative grower communities. I also suggest that these are only liberating insofar as they enable more control over markets. The last article suggests that clubs advance an economic ethic of varietal competition, where varieties act like brands and advance the interests of wholesale growers. The paper suggests that matter can act as a vehicle for institutional change. These three papers substantively contribute to a picture of a changing food industry, while providing insights into how biology matters for economic life.