The staff of life: Women baking for social change. An ethnography of the Basic Kneads Wholegrain Bakery

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Marjorie DeVault


Sociology, Social research, Womens studies

Subject Categories

Work, Economy and Organizations


This study focuses on the creation and maintenance of an alternative business organization that rejects hierarchy, makes decisions through a consensus process, and purposefully employs only women. The study is an ethnographic, analytic account of a whole-grain bakery active in food politics and a network of cooperative organizations in its local area. The study examines the structure of organizations, the influence of its gender composition, and internal forces that de-stabilize the organizational agenda for social change.

The study is based on qualitative research methods including twenty-seven formal interviews, nineteen months of weekly volunteer shifts at the bakery, and attendance at business meetings and special conflict resolution meetings. The study is guided by an interactionist interpretation of human relationships and social structures. It also offers a reflexive analysis of the role of the researcher in the research and the development of the organization studied.

Three major research questions are addressed in the analysis: (1) What does the commitment to working collectively mean for the structure of the business and the organization of work? (2) What, if anything, is significant about the fact that this collective is all women? and (3) What pulls the organization apart and threatens its stability? The analysis suggests that non-hierarchical organizations do have structures that are essential to their maintenance. It also shows how limiting membership to women is seen by the participants as a benefit, and examines a hesitancy to make that characteristic a publicly stated principle. Finally, the analysis suggests that intra-group conflict is to be expected in this type of organization and there is a need to develop more systematic ways of addressing conflict. The analysis draws together the study of organizational dynamics with the study of movements for social and political change, and suggests the fruitfulness of viewing sustainable alternative organizations can be seen as social movement organizations.


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