Here's an overview of what I'm doing:
Traditionally, supply chain managers and SCM scholars define supply chains as a set of three or more "nodes" that facilitates the flow of goods, information, and services between producers and consumers. SCM is different from logistics management because, whereas logistics deals more or less with a company's internal movement of stuff ("intrafirm flows"), SCM deals with external movement of stuff between and among firms ("interfirm flows"). Those the basic definitions. From there, practitioners focus on very specific aspects of the supply chain (e.g. procurement, marketing, warehousing, wages, etc.), and very few people make decisions for an entire "supply chain," especially in complex examples like cocoa. Similarly, researchers usually use abstract mathematical models to understand relationships between different elements of SCM (again, e.g., procurement, marketing, warehousing, wages, etc.). These models can either be simple descriptions of the entire supply chain, which yield very broad, theoretical results, or they can be extremely complicated models of particular relationships, which can then be tested using various data.
Now, I have a hunch - and this is the main theoretical part of my dissertation - that this way of thinking about supply chains and supply chain management is going to result in a lot of unsolvable problems, the same kinds of inconsistencies and contradictions that have defined the history of capitalist development and caused a bunch of serious crises along the way. The difference, of course, is that while capitalism generally thrives on these crises (crises reveal capital's flaws and lets it self-correct), a crisis in SCM will be devastating because of the particular moment of capitalist development we're currently in, what Anna Tsing calls supply chain capitalism, and because of the inherently connective nature of supply chains that makes a domino effect likely. That's a shame, because unlike finance capitalism or industrial capitalism, supply chains and supply chain capitalism more broadly integrate different kinds of workers in relational systems that are smaller, more visible, and easier to meaningfully engage with. The encounters between different workers represents encounters between different forms of labor, encounters that have historically been violent or revolutionary but that now (in supply chain capitalism) form the system's backbone.
My theory, then, is that SCM should be recast in terms of the various labor formations that constitute the supply chain. I haven't exactly figured out how I'm going to support this theoretically, but I suspect it will be something like this:
Marx argues that labor is the source of value via the abstract concept of socially necessary labor that is embodied in the commodity. Value for the capitalist comes from exploiting the worker's labor - by paying her for less work than she provides. From there, I move on Walter Benjamin and some French literary and aesthetic theorists, who I think do a really good job of explaining why people are willing to exploit themselves, arguments that are as compelling today as they were in the early and mid-twentieth century. To show what it means for a worker to exploit herself (and, just as important, what it means for one person to exploit another), I mostly skip over the classical phenomenologists, jumping straight to contemporary affect theorists and the new materialists, who do an amazing job describing and understanding experience, emotion, and feeling. They pay close attention to how different ways of knowing (epistemology) and different ways of being (ontology) interact (onto-epistemology) and are politicized (ethico-onto-epistemology) to define and redefine experience. There's a lot of political potential in this that I'm excited to explore.
So, is my research not just going to make it easier for rich, Western supply chain managers to exploit workers who are affected by their decisions? That's why I'm ultimately focusing on sustainable supply chain management (SSCM), which has emerged in recent years as the foremost model of complex supply chain management. Thanks to the voluminous literature on sustainability and sustainable development, I'll be able to critically examine SSCM's research and practice. I suspect that will push me beyond "sustainable" SCM, which, as the name suggests, simply sustains existing power dynamics between different forms of labor. Instead, I'll propose an ecological supply chain management, which is a bit corny but nevertheless does a better job at integrating human and non-human work and experience.
Stay tuned for updates!