Research

Mission and identity
The research programme of the Rural Sociology Group focuses on the complex whole of transformation processes in rural and metropolitan regions and in the food supply chain. In this, specific attention is paid to the different levels (from local to supra-national) at which these transformation processes are shaped and to the different (rural and urban) actors and institutions involved. The Rural Sociology Group studies and analyses these transformation processes from an interpretative/constructivist and predominantly micro-sociological perspective, using different qualitative and quantitative research methods. A common denominator in empirical research, analysis and theoretical development is the focus on differential dynamics and processes of institutionalisation. Research projects of the Rural Sociology Group are often of a multi- or inter-disciplinary nature, embody an international and comparative dimension and are, in many cases, carried out in close collaboration with (organisations of) stakeholders. Our research policy, which reflects our identity, can be characterized as follows:

  1. A combination of theoretically inspired empirical research and empirically grounded theory building.
  2. A comparative research approach, with the aim of understanding both the contextual and the more general factors exerting influence on rural and regional development practices and processes.
  3. An emphasis on dynamics, particularly linking the present to the past, as contemporary phenomena (and their robustness or fragility) can only be understood by tracing their development over the course of time.
  4. The threefold relevance of our research programme: it should contribute to the scientific development of our field and our scientific discipline(s), it should be relevant to rural and regional policy and it should provide support for people and organizations whose day-to-day work is to implement rural and regional development.

Changing focus
Since the 1990s the research programme of the Rural Sociology Group aimed to explore, describe and analyse the diversity, dynamics, impact and potentials of agricultural and rural development practices in Europe by means of a multidisciplinary comparative approach. In recent years the Rural Sociology Group is gradually changing its focus from agrarian based rural development to rural and regional development in a broader sense, including non-agricultural issues and actors.
This change was inspired by a combination of a) new theoretical interests and emerging themes in the social sciences, and b) changes in the socio-political context of our research domain. Relevant new theoretical interests and emerging sociological themes are: i) a resurgence of interest in the region (with specific attention for ‘regions of knowledge’ / ‘learning regions’), ii) socio-economic inequalities and socio-spatial stratification, iii) urban-rural relations and interactions, iv) social movements (with specific attention for regionalisation as a countertendency), v) social capital, and vi) food as an integrated domain (linking food to public concerns such as public health, environmental quality, employment, social inclusion and quality of life). Regarding the socio-political context the following changes are highly relevant: i) the regionalization of rural policies in Europe, ii) the evanescence of the urban-rural distinction in contemporary Western societies and the associated transition from rural to regional development policies, and iii) the growing involvement of cities and metropolitan regions in the development and implementation of food and rural development policies (with specific attention for food-related health, social and environmental problems).

Research themes
The research programme is divided into 3 research themes:

  1. Agrarian and rural dynamics in metropolitan regions
  2. Dynamics and sustainability of regional food networks
  3. Rural images and identities

Below the themes are briefly described and for each theme an overview of recently completed and/or ongoing research projects is given. Please note that some projects can relate to more than one research theme

Theme 1 – Agrarian and rural dynamics in metropolitan regions
Many countries are facing processes of urban sprawl and counterurbanization. One implication of these processes is that traditional divisions and distinctions between urban and rural are disappearing. The notion of metropolitan landscape (i.e. the spatial interweaving of densely populated urban centres and green open spaces) is used to conceptualise the emergence of this new spatial setting. The rise and growth of metropolitan regions has a range of implications for the agricultural and rural sector in these regions: it can create all sorts of constraints for agricultural and rural development, but also new opportunities may arise. This project focuses on the role of agricultural and rural activities, products and services in metropolitan and peri-urban regions and examines if and how agriculture and the rural can fulfil newly emerging urban needs and the growing demand for public goods (health care, leisure, education, nature & landscape, food quality, etc.) and the ways in which different forms of agriculture and other rural business activities contribute to sustainable regional development (with specific attention for quality of life issues).

Projects related to this theme are:

Theme 2 – Dynamics and sustainability of regional food networks
Fluctuating food and fuel prices and the increase in urban food-related health and environmental problems are raising an urgent need to devise more effective and sustainable agri-food policies and development strategies. By focusing on food industrialization, standardization and globalization, many contemporary socio-economic food studies tend to neglect the emergence of an alternative (as opposed to globalisation) food geography. Characteristic for this alternative geography is the creation of alterity (or otherness) in the food system and the modification of the modes of connectivity between the production and consumption of food, generally through reconnecting food to the social, cultural and environmental context of its production. This theme addresses the dynamics underlying this alternative food geography by focussing on the socio-cultural, economic, political and spatial dynamics and impacts of food (re)localization as well as its multidimensionality and territoriality. That is, food is multidimensional as it is related to many policy domains such as public health, education, quality of life and environmental quality and it is territorial as the food sector has a significant impact on the regional economy and as food-related problems and solutions are characterized by regional specificity. With this research theme we aim to reduce the enormous knowledge and skills deficit that is negatively affecting the capacity to design and deliver appropriate political and developmental solutions in the crucial fields of food security, food democracy, public food procurement, public health and sustainable urban and regional development.

Projects related to this theme are:

Theme 3 – Rural images and identities
The countryside as an ideal is deeply rooted in the imagination of Western societies. For most people in an urbanised society the ‘countryside’ is spatially and symbolically distanced from everyday life. It represents a real or imagined different world that inspires the attribution of specific identities to rural places. These images are becoming increasingly important to the production and consumption of rural places. In order to attract tourists, investors or sell farmers’ products, rural entrepreneurs and governments promote urban-rural differences by employing symbols that draw upon such rural ideals as natural beauty, authenticity and quality of life. This conversion of symbolic and cultural capital into employment and economic growth constitutes the basis for the commoditisation of rurality. The dynamics of the post-productivist or consumption countryside differ fundamentally from those structured by the spatial code that defined the rural uniquely as a medium for maximising agricultural production. The integration of agriculture in national and global production-consumption chains created abstract, distance links between urban and rural areas, which were further strengthened by a planning policy based on spatial separation. The rediscovery and subsequent renaissance of the countryside show that this dominant spatial code has not resulted into an image of the countryside as an empty, neutral milieu. The present discourses of agriculture and the countryside demonstrate a powerful narrative of values and ideals that promise a reappropriation of space through practices that reflect both rural-urban difference and symbiosis. This theme aims to study and analyze the implications these trends towards the creation of new ruralities have for people living, working and/or recreating in rural areas. How new ruralities affect people’s sense of belonging and identity, how it alters urban and rural practices, and how it engenders new conflicts and forces urban and rural people to think and act in creative and active manners will be the main topics studied in this theme.

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