The application of ‘valence’ to the idea of household food insecurity in Canada

November 13, 2018


Household food insecurity (HFI), lack of access to adequate food due to financial constraint, has been studied extensively in Canada and is well-recognized for its negative impacts on population health.

Despite considerable high-level political recognition, the issue has evoked little substantive policy deliberation. We suggest that Béland and Cox’s recently articulated construct of ‘valence’ may be useful in examining why the idea of HFI has motivated little policy response. Valence is defined as the emotional quality of an idea. According to valence theory, ideas with a high emotional intensity, positive valence acquire importance in policy debate, and those with high intensity, negative valence are ‘unthinkable’ as a policy idea. We compiled four datasets in which HFI was discussed (verbatim legislative excerpts, parliamentary committee proceedings, government reports, interviews with HFI policy entrepreneurs), representing different kinds of political forums for debate.

We analyzed what was said with respect to the valence of the idea of HFI. We found that discussions about HFI were on the whole generally subdued and of low emotional intensity. High intensity negative valence pronouncements were found among legislators’ statements and parliamentary committee evidence. Regardless of emotional intensity level, speakers usually talked about the idea of HFI in ways that elicited a negative valence.

Positive valence in discussion of the idea of HFI was limited and invoked comments about individual aspiration, prosperity, and community spirit. Our findings suggest that the negative valence of HFI is an inherent trait of the idea that makes it unattractive to policy makers. We suggest that HFI may be a better metric than a policy problem and that aspirational goals with positive valence related to poverty alleviation might better use HFI as an outcome rather than the focus of action.

Access the article at:
McIntyre L, Patterson PB, Mah CL. The application of ‘valence’ to the idea of household food insecurity in Canada. Soc Sci Med 2018;