In September-October 2020, BSC provided an opportunity for sociology bachelor students from the University of Latvia to participate in the organisation of focus groups with consumers within the framework of the project SINFO (Social innovation in food provision: Pathways to sustainable production and consumption; Latvian Council of Science, Grant agreement lzp-2018/1-0344), thereby contributing to student training and involvement in scientific research.
Under the supervision and guidance of experienced BSC researchers the students implemented a full cycle of focus groups: developed research questions, elaborated guidelines, piloted focus groups, recruited participants, conducted focus groups in practice, prepared transcripts, wrote analysis, presented and discussed results. Altogether, the students conducted three focus groups: with the general consumers, with Russian speaking consumers, and consumers from innovative food and dietary initiatives. The focus groups and student analysis brought about valuable insights into consumer food habits in addition to knowledge generated through other SINFO methods (media analysis, population survey, business questionnaire, case studies). Particularly novel findings arising from focus groups relate to observations about peoples’ dietary choices and consumption habits, for example:
- Multiplication of places of food consumption, the situational character of eating and snacking, the time constraints related to dynamic lifestyles and mobility considerably influence and shape our food habits. This observation complements findings from the population survey which suggest that price and economic considerations are the main determinants when it comes to food choice;
- Meat consumption is an issue that triggers hot debate about the value basis and future orienteers of individual food practices. The topic of meat consumption divides consumers in two opposing groups – those who call for reduced consumption and production of meat for environmental or health reasons, and those who advocate the traditional ‘carnivorous’ diets;
- Sustainability of food consumption and production is mainly viewed by consumers through lens of impact on the environment and health. The focus group participants in particular highlighted the following meanings of sustainable food practices: vegan and vegetarian diets, tasty food, less packaging, seasonal products, locally produced food, products grown on certified organic farms, reduced and well-considered consumption, ethical attitude towards productive animals, food produced under good working conditions and well paid jobs
- Social innovations bear considerable potential to make food choices more sustainable in terms of promoting sustainable diets. They develop within the communities of values, by food movements that share common concerns and ideas. There is a strong knowledge background behind social innovation initiatives in terms of people knowing the impacts of food consumption, vulnerabilities of food production, etc. However, people participating in social innovation initiatives not always receive support from their family members.
In total 15 students received training during this exercise. The student work was appreciated both in terms of intellectual recognition of their contribution in any further publications and in a form of material renumeration. The student feedback suggests that they very much appreciated being involved in a practical task in a larger research project. The students commented that this module helped them to better understand the logic of scientific research, exercise the focus group method, and improve analytical skills while preparing the focus group reports.