Philip McMichael Research Spotlight

Philip McMichael

Philip McMichael

International Professor
Faculty Fellow, Cornell Center for Sustainable Future
Full Profile for Philip McMichael

My research addresses world political-economic history, focusing on food and agricultural systems, and developing alternative comparative-historical methods. Trained as a historical sociologist, I examine capitalist modernity through the lens of agrarian questions, food regimes, agrarian movements, and, most recently, the global land grab for food and biofuels. This work centers the role of agri-food systems in the making of the modern world, including an examination of the politics of globalization via the structuring of agri-food relations. Along the way, I have worked with the FAO and UNRISD, the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty, and the international peasant coalition, La Vía Campesina.

My research program subdivides into the following areas:

Politics of Globalization

While globalization is a centuries-old phenomenon, it assumes historically specific forms. Building on previous research on the construction of British hegemony in the nineteenth century, my more recent research has focused on neo-liberal globalization as a project to institutionalize a hegemonic order via the global market. This has included comparative analysis of the 'development project' (1940s-1970s) and the 'globalization project' (1980s-2000s) – terms I coined in 1996 for a textbook. Each project involves an organizing principle, and a particular institutional ordering of international political-economy, realizing development (via inequality) until it unravels via inherent social, political and ecological contradictions – expressed in part in the phenomenon of counter-movements. Relevant publications include:

Agrarian Questions

Lecturing on the 'Development Climate' at the University of Salerno, Italy, in 2008.

The political consequences of agrarian transition in the modern world center on class formation and the fate of the peasantry. While nineteenth-century agrarian questions were framed nationally, in context of industrialization and associated rural transformations, more recently the peasant question has assumed international dimensions, as trade liberalization has subjected smallholders everywhere to competitive relations with heavily subsidized agribusiness. An increasingly visible global peasant coalition has politicized the organization of the world market. My research follows these contours, and is represented in the following publications:

Comparative Methodology

Trained as a (world)historical sociologist by the late Terence K. Hopkins, my work embodies a comparative perspective, which I term 'incorporated comparison.' This alternative to the conventional comparative method compares social units, processes, and/or discourses as relational (rather than separate or isolated) entities. These entities are mutually conditioning and interact as 'parts' of a self-forming 'whole,' such as a historical structure, conjuncture or episteme. With the growing recognition of global interdependencies, incorporated comparison is widely used, explicitly or implicitly. I have developed this method of incorporated comparison in conceptual terms, and across space and time, in the following publications:

Food Regimes

Terra Preta
Terra Preta Side-Event at 2008 World Food Summit, Rome, via International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty.

The political role of agriculture and food circuits in the making of the world capitalist economy is usefully understood through the lens of the 'food regime.' Harriet Friedmann and I conceptualized such ordering from the late-19th century through to the present, in the form of episodic food regimes expressing hegemonic or dominant (geo-political) organizing principles institutionalized in the world economy. The theoretical point is that the capitalist transformation of agriculture is non-linear and of global consequence. An invitation from UNRISD to prepare a report on the world food crisis of 2007-08 from a food regime perspective underscored the currency of food regime analysis. New directions in food regime analysis emerged recently in a special issue of Agriculture and Human Values, with related perspectives on nutrition, ecology, finance and regime transitions. Some of my publications in this vein are:

Social Mobilization with a Twist

My experience of the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, 2001, was that (a) unity in diversity is possible, and (b) there are many forms of social mobilization, many of which would not command the attention of social movement analysts. Conventional social movement analysis tends to focus on organizational forms and resources, and outcomes, of social mobilization. In this method, movements themselves become objects of generalizing analysis to develop social movement theory within a modernist narrative. My own work, along with current and former graduate students, inverts that process by examining social mobilization as a lens on political orders or historical conjunctures, allowing a variety of struggles to count. Relevant publications on this theme include:

Politics of the Land

Via Campesina Agrocology Training Workshop, Malaga, Spain June 2008.

Land is increasingly at the center of international political-economy in an era of confluence of food, climate, energy and financial crises. Arguably these crises are different dimensions of a more general social and ecological crisis of capitalism – in which a profound struggle between market and ecological paradigms is underway. My research and movement work seeks to interpret and reconceptualize this conjuncture, involving questions of political ecology, green fuels vs. food security, food sovereignty vs. neoliberal/corporate food regime, and multifunctional agriculture. Some relevant publications include:

Local Food Systems

12 October 2010, Rome - Committee on World Food Security (CFS) Side Event on Competing Views on Strategies on Global Land Grabbing. FAO headquarters (Iran Room). Photo credit: FAO/Alessandra Benedetti

I am participating in a 5-year USDA/AFRI grant, entitled 'Food Dignity' that examines local food system sites from east to west coast (in Brooklyn, Ithaca, Laramie and Oakland) with an emphasis on food justice. Within this project, I am co-PI on a curriculum project to establish a set of core and elective courses across the Cornell campus for an undergraduate minor in food system sustainability studies, including engagement with local community organizers and activities.

  • 2011. 'Effects of industrial agriculture on climate change and the mitigation potential of small-scale agro-ecological farms," 14 co-authors, CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources, 6, No. 020: 1-18.
  • 2011. 'Revaluing low carbon cultures: learning to live with the earth,' Development, 54(2): 169-171.