The Potato Wasters: A Sociological Study of the UK Potato Industry

  • Patrick Gould

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis records a sociological study of the United Kingdom's potato industry with a focus on waste. Combining two dominant approaches in sociological research on food waste, political economy and posthumanism, it presents a critical single commodity study of the potato. Drawing on an actor-network theory methodology, ethnographic fieldwork at different sites across the potato industry and secondary data are combined to analyse and describe the political economic shifts in the potato industry. In turn, these shifts are subjected to a critical interpretation from a posthumanist approach. In doing so, this research presents the concept of a 'potato regime' as a critical alternative to the 'potato industry' or the 'potato supply chain'. Focussing on waste, the dominant, intuitive and common-sense conceptualisations of food chains are questioned and critiqued. A conceptual framework is developed to interpret and understand the complex commodity flows of the potato under hyper-globalisation; three core conceptual parameters of power, efficiency and materiality are synthesised with enabling concepts to provide a rich and interpretive understanding of how waste is generated and managed. Paying attention to human/nonhuman relations, and specifically human/potato relations, this research emphasises the symbiotic relations between people and potatoes; how biological characteristics of the potato shape, and are shaped by, the relations, processes and practices within a contemporary potato regime that is structured to overproduce and waste. Understanding how complex meanings of potato waste are negotiated by potato regime actors, this research focusses on the role of 'supply-side' or industry actors in the semiotic contestations of waste. As such, this study 'moves beyond the household' to counter dominant perspectives in academic and non-academic research and policy interventions that focus on consumption. Contributing to sociological research on food waste, three notions of waste are put forward: disguise, transfer and deferment. Coupled with strategies for the management of waste, these notions are used to document the significant role of industry and production in fuelling the waste stream and the unequal distribution of responsibilities in response to a 'crisis of waste'. In conclusion, 'The Potato Wasters' is presented and discussed, emphasising the intimate and interconnected waste relations across the potato regime which lead to accumulation and overproduction.
Date of Award31 Dec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorAlan Warde (Supervisor) & Luke Yates (Supervisor)


  • Posthumanism
  • Potatoes
  • Rural sociology
  • Political economy
  • Excess
  • Surplus
  • Waste
  • Environmental sociology

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