"Believe Me!" : An Ethnography of Persuasive Interaction at the Farmers' Market

by Benjamin Garner

Institution: University of Kansas
Department: Communication Studies
Degree: PhD
Year: 2014
Keywords: Communication
Record ID: 2025978
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/1808/14592


Farmers' markets have been growing in recent decades and one contributing factor is that customers have more interpersonal contact with sellers at farmers' markets than they do at grocery stores. Increased interpersonal interaction means customers gain more personalized service, the ability to befriend farmers, and the opportunity to build community (Hinrichs, Gillespie, & Feenstra, 2004; Hunt, 2007; Robinson & Hartenfeld, 2007; Sommer, Herrick, & Sommer, 1981). While researchers have demonstrated that farmers' markets offer a social experience, few scholars have critically analyzed the customer-farmer relationship as an object of study on its own. In other words, existing research offers limited generalizations about markets as a social, interpersonal space (Hunt, 2007; McGrath, Sherry, & Heisley, 1993; Robinson & Hartenfeld, 2007). Some scholars romanticize customer-farmer relationships without articulating the potential negative dimensions of these relationships (Robinson & Hartenfeld, 2007). Researchers have conducted an abundance of survey work on markets. Existing survey research categorizes customer preferences, but it fails to interrogate how farmers use persuasion to influence customers and make sales (Andreatta & Wickliffe, 2002; Feagan & Morris, 2009; Hunt, 2007; Trobe, 2001). Customer-farmer interaction is predicated on farmers persuading customers to purchase products. By analyzing the Downtown Lawrence Farmers' Market in Lawrence, Kansas, I provide a richer understanding of interpersonal relationships and the persuasive dynamics that occur between farmers and customers. Using ethnographic methods, I interviewed 36 participants, conducted 100 hours of market observations, and wrote 282 pages of double-spaced fieldnotes. Results revealed the five dominant messages that farmers sent to customers were: (1) the quality of the products is superlative, (2) the market is an educational space, (3) the market is a personal place to shop, (4) local consumption is beneficial, and (5) family farms are important. In many cases, farmers sent messages that encouraged customers to trust farmer expertise, credibility, and friendliness. I also uncovered an educational dynamic that situates the farmer as the expert and the customer as the student. This power differential further encouraged customers to trust farmers' credibility and expertise. However, when farmers presented statistical and scientific claims, customers displayed more skeptical attitudes. In cases where customers were not simply relying on farmer credibility, customers used quick evaluations like visual and taste cues to determine if a product was fresh, beautiful, or flavorful enough to purchase. At the conclusion of this project, I examine how the elaboration likelihood model (ELM) of persuasion (Petty & Brinol, 2011; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986; Petty & Wegener, 1999) serves as an effective interpretive tool to analyze both farmers' persuasive messages and customers' reactions to farmers' messages.