Social brokerage: Encounters between Colombian coffee producers and Austrian Buyers – A research-based relational pathway

Xiomara F. Quiñones-Ruiz (2021)

Geoforum, 123, pp. 107-116

Abstract. The usual economic analyses skip the web of social relations where economic but also social influences are equally relevant. Reinecke et al. (2018) offer a conceptual perspective to study social brokerage (the ‘social turn’) across global value chains. This paper aims: 1) to reveal how Colombian producers and Austrian roasters start social ties (i.e. through social brokerage) and eventually become business partners with the illustrative example of specialty coffee chains, 2) to propose a research-based relational pathway for social brokerage, and 3) to unpack how encounters between producers and roasters originated and developed as well as to identify the required knowledge and coordination devices used. The encounters follow an ethnographic approach relying on participant observation (e.g. in Vienna, Austria and in selected Colombian coffee regions). Coffee is one of the many commodities suitable to analyze social interactions across global chains. Colonial patterns are still embedded in the economic geography of global value chains. The involvement of researchers (including non- Europeans) was key to enhance social brokerage (e.g. structural holes, boundary work) and in that way allowed disadvantaged chain actors to uninhibitedly voice whatever discomfort resulted from those interactions. Although material quality is paramount in the trade of specialty coffee, it shall not be the only guiding coordination device and knowledge construct to be followed by chain actors. Building collaborative relationships is not an easy or static task. Nonetheless, it is key to encourage knowledge sharing, to yield a sense of fairness and humanity across global chains and to cope with opportunistic gatekeepers.

Extract: “5.3. Mutual understanding through quality knowledge Coffee producers consider the direct exchange and negotiation with roasters and buyers as fundamental to understand material quality (i.e. based on the used conventions with certain orders of worth (Diaz-Bone, 2018; Thévenot, 2007)). Indeed, some producers clearly justified their actions based on green conventions in form of organic production rules. An important construct for chain actors to participate in value added markets, such as those of the specialty coffee, is quality (Daviron and Ponte, 2005; Ponte, 2016). Ponte (2016, p.13) looks at quality conventions as systems of reciprocal expectations about the behavior of others. According to Diaz-Bone (2018) conventions might be explained “as culturally established frames for the interpretation and evaluation of ’what is going on’ in situations.” (p. 115)

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