Communicating to Oppress and Liberate, Reproduce and Transform: A Study of Food Insecurity as a Material-Discursive System

Liliya D Yakova, Purdue University


This study seeks to investigate food insecurity and food assistance in the United States. Specifically, this dissertation expands the interdisciplinary literature on food insecurity and addresses recent calls in the communicative study of hunger to uncover the deeper communicative dynamics of hunger and conceptualizing food insecurity in new ways, so that there is a more nuanced understanding of how communication constructs food insecurity. To address such calls, I propose a guiding theoretical idea that I name food insecurity as a material-discursive system, or a dynamic configuration of subsystems including organizations, individuals, materialities, internal/external structures, institutions, policies, human activities. Theoretically, this study is also guided by structuration theory and liberation perspectives/lenses, an umbrella concept for an interdisciplinary set of ideas about scholarship targeting social marginalization. I situate this research in a mid-sized town in the northwestern part of Indiana, United States. I took a qualitative approach and collected (a) two-year observations of activity in a local church food pantry, (b) one-on-one interviews with people in food insecurity and food pantry volunteers in this town, (c) material artifact data in the form of transcribed video footage of the online C-SPAN archives regarding the U.S. food stamp policy, and (d) reflective journal notes. Through such data collection methods, the dissertation aims to understand how communication reproduces and transforms the food insecurity system, as well as how communication manifests in oppressive and liberating ways for the system stakeholders. Since this study conceptualizes food insecurity as a system, it also aims to understand the structural dynamics of the system so that it can clarify how communication reproduces and transforms the system, oppresses and liberates in the system. Communication reproduces the food insecurity system in three ways: by mediating the implementation of system rules, by supporting system adaptation and management, and by confirming and replicating system assumptions. Simultaneously, when system stakeholders interact in the system, they transform the system as their interactions result in selective compliance with system rules or a full digression from system expectations. Through their discourses, system stakeholders try to transform the system by strategically challenging system logics. Furthermore, the study shows that communication in the food insecurity system can have oppressive impacts for food insecurity stakeholders when it promotes alienation, marginalization of stakeholder voices, and uneven distribution of system resources. However, communication can be liberating to system stakeholders as it can be a tool to promoting community, shaping solutions to food insecurity, and fostering reflexivity that recovers system stakeholders’ tarnished images. The results also suggest that a number of external and internal structures shape the food insecurity system, and many of these structures operate in the system in communicative ways. The dissertation has theoretical contributions for the study of food insecurity more generally and as a communication phenomenon. The dissertation also contributes to practice in the arena of food assistance and community interventions addressing poverty.^




Patrice M. Buzzanell, Purdue University, Stacey L. Connaughton, Purdue University.

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