Theses Doctoral

Cultivating More Than Coffee: Interrogating Market-based Development, Gendered Empowerment, and the Role of Social Capital in Fair Trade Co-operatives in Nicaragua

Kruger, Rebecca Anne

Recent years have witnessed a proliferation in the number of products receiving specialized ethical certification labels, even though scholars have underscored that the actual effects of such labels are not well understood. (Luetchford 2012) In the area of coffee in particular, case studies have highlighted that Fair Trade labeling seems to operate in unexpected ways, beyond its straightforward financial incentives. This has led to a call for deeper investigation into the specific mechanisms—particularly the extra-economic and social processes—through which Fair Trade acts on coffee growers and their communities. This is seconded by recent studies that have noted a lack of equality between men and women members of Fair Trade co-operatives, in stark contrast to the label’s advertised aims of advancing gender equity and women’s development. (Bacon 2010; Lyon 2008)

This friction has contributed to the emergence of separate, all-women’s Fair Trade co-operatives in coffee-growing regions around the globe, and the specialty marketing of their coffee (e.g., Café Femenino and Las Hermanas from Nicaragua) as specifically empowering for women. (Fair Trade USA 2012; Bacon 2010; Lyon 2008) Yet, as with other ethical labels, the actual processes through which these women’s co-operatives affect their members is under-studied and in need of deeper ethnographic investigation. (Hanson et al. 2012; Lyon 2008)

In order to address these gaps in the literature, this study captures the complex social processes set in motion by Fair Trade through a comparative ethnography of a traditional mixed men and women’s co-operative and a newer, all-women’s co-operative in neighboring coffee-growing communities in northern Nicaragua. This research positions the sociological construct of social capital as a robust theoretical lens capable of illuminating diverse dynamics within these groups and their larger structural contexts. The use of social capital theory not only allows access to critical and unexplored insights into the “associational life” created by Fair Trade co-operatives, but also presents an opportunity to explore a “strategic site” of social capital in action and extend the theory by addressing debates surrounding its oft-contested definitions and relationship to gender. (Putnam 2000:60; Portes 2010:2; Burawoy 1998)

Specifically, this research examines three perspectives on social capital: Bourdieu’s (1986) resource framework, Coleman’s (1988:108) description of social capital as a platform or “appropriable social organization,” and Putnam’s (2000) notion of social capital as trust. Further, this study critically interrogates the characterization of social capital as a kind of “women’s capital,” and its promotion as both a means and an ends to gendered empowerment. (Maclean 2010:498)

In pursuit of these aims, this research both draws on and adds to the literature in the areas of ethical consumption and Fair Trade studies, economic sociology, the sociology of globalization, gender theory, gender and development, men and masculinities, local and transnational feminist movements, empowerment frameworks, and the social determinants of health. This extended case method ethnography links microprocesses to macroforces, through a localized understanding of globalization—in this case the impact of Northern ethical consumption practices and ideologies on producer communities in the Global South. In addition, as an applied ethnography in the tradition of public sociology, this study provides analysis that is useful not only to scholars, but could directly inform further setting-appropriate development efforts.

Geographic Areas


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2027-11-15.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Sociomedical Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Nathanson, Constance A.
Hirsch, Jennifer S.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 23, 2022