75th Anniversary: 21) Geographies of power and rebellious social sciences

Garfagnana, Italy – picture by Jordan Treakle

by Jordan Treakle

My path to WUR’s Rural Sociology Group (RSO) differed from most of my fellow Masters students when I first arrived to Wageningen in August 2015. As a second-year student in the International Masters in Rural Development (IMRD) programme[1], I had spent the first year of my programme nomadically exploring the academic halls of the University of Ghent (Belgium), Humboldt University (Germany), and the University of Pisa (Italy) with my 27 fellow IMRDers. This unique and fast paced academic tour of Europe gave me a range of academic lens on agricultural economies and cooperative development in food systems that were enriching and informative. But these perspectives generally had not touched on the complex geographies of power and agency that I found most compelling. Luckily WUR’s small but worldly campus, with all of its contentious influences of corporate agribusiness research and rebellious social science scholarship, offered a critical forum to both intellectually digest the lessons of the other academic institutions I had visited during the first year of my programme, as well as dive into rural sociological concepts that reconfigured my relationship to place and later guided young career in farmer advocacy and agricultural policy.

Relational power dynamics and spatial identies

Much has been written about RSO’s departure from traditional structuralist approaches in the field of rural sociology, choosing instead to increasingly focus on the sociology of place and issues of agency, relational power dynamics, and spatial identities. These place-based theories reshaped my understanding of rural geographies when I enrolled in RSO’s ‘A Global Sense of Place’ course, in which Joost Jongerden and Dirk Roep opened the door to the writings of Doreen Massey and J.K. Gibson-Graham which encouraged conceptualizations of spatial or geographical places not as static or fixed but “as dynamic territorial fora (with loose ecological boundaries) in which identities, practices, relations, and materialities are negotiated, shaped, and exchanged.”[2] By centering the focus of analysis on the relational dynamics between both human and non-human actors in a territorial context, this scholarship changed how I saw Wageningen, but also how I interpreted some of the field research I had done earlier in my Masters programme in the Garfagnana region of central Italy with the University of Pisa. So with these new analytical tools, in 2015 I set off to reflect on and re-explore some of my previous field research and pose some more complicated questions to the Italian farmers I had met the proceeding summer; here are a few insights I learned:

Field research in the Garfagnana region

The Garfagnana region, located between the Apuan Alps and the Apennine mountain ranges of northern Tuscany, is well-known for its small-scale farming and local food systems. The trajectory of change of the territory’s food system is closely linked to collaborative efforts between local farmers and institutions to both strengthen historically rooted agricultural practices and values, and adapt these practices to new socio-economic and environmental dynamics impacting these rural communities.[3] For example, as farmers have worked to preserve the traditional breed of sheep for local cheese, meat, and fibre production, local institutions have supported this revalorization effort through regional branding. Meanwhile, apiarists contend with their beehives and honey changing flavor in response to an encroaching forest canopy, invited by rural abandonment, which in-turn leads them to find ways to diversify their operations through foraging of new forest fruits, marketed through publically-sponsored agro-tourism. Like so many, these small-scale farmers are constantly navigating the pressures of market economies increasingly shaped and consolidated by powerful agribusiness interests. But different forms of agroecological adaptation, by both the older generation of farmers and some younger new arrivals, have led to an array of socio-ecological, (diverse) economic, and institutional relationships that have proven resilient to market pressures. For this analysis, multifunctional agriculture theory was used to consider how three case-study farms represents a range of adaptive shifts away from agricultural productionist trends, and toward a diversified farming approach oriented around non-capitalistic practices. Place-based theory was then used to demonstrate how these multifunctional agriculture practices engage local histories, relationships, and materialities to embed these farms in place-based identities and geographies, and in-turn reshape community development trajectories in Garfagnana.

As mentioned, my initial focus on multifunctional agriculture practices in Garfagnana had given me an intriguing perspective on the changing landscape of small-scale farming in central Italy. But in revisiting the research and layering a complementary place-based theoretical framework to my analysis, I gained a deeper understanding of the territory. These lens together helped illuminate how the multifunctional agriculture practices in Garfagnana are part of a broader set of non-capitalist exchanges and reciprocal socio-ecological relationships among farmers, the local communities, and the non-human territorial landscape that were reshaping Garfagnana’s local food system. In this way I found my time at RSO, and the place-based concepts I learned there, pulling together some of the different academic threads I had learned on other university campuses to help me see rural places from new angles.

Governance and advocacy

Following this Garfagnana research project, I found these lessons in place-based theories continuing to reshape my own networks of relationships and sense of place after leaving Wageningen. Soon after completing my Masters programme in 2016, I had the opportunity to follow Dr. Duncan’s RSO Capita Selecta course on global food security policy and governance, which involved visiting the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security (CFS) annual plenary in Rome, Italy. This experience, together with Jessica Duncan’s research on how farmer organizations negotiate international policy with governments at the CFS, shed light on an informal network of scholar-activists[4] who are using scientific research to both analyze and support social movements advocating for systemic transformation of corporate food systems through policy advocacy. This complex web between academia and advocacy immediately caught my interest. And in the years since leaving Wageningen, it has been a site of liaison between the people I met and concepts I learned at RSO, and my post-academia work in advocacy. Today, working for the National Family Farm Coalition, I have the opportunity to regularly collaborate with some of these scholar-activists, as we collectively push for human rights frameworks and agroecology in the CFS and other United Nations policy spaces. Thus despite the geographical distance and lapse of time, the complex questions of power, agency, and place that I began exploring in Wageningen continue to unfold through my relational connections to RSO.

  • [1] Note that WUR no longer participates in IMRD
  • [2] Treakle, J. (2019). A place-based turn in multifunctional agriculture: The case of Italy’s Garfagnana region. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 9 (Suppl. 1), p.4
  • [3] Camilli, F. & Pieroni, S. (2016). The Garfagnana model for exploiting agrarian and cultural biodiversity: The white Garfagnana sheep breed, a case study of sustainable local development. In M. Agnoletti & F. Emanueli (Eds.), Environmental History vol. 5, Biocultural Diversity in Europe (pp. 321–338). Basel CH, Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-26315-1_17; Rovai, M. & Andreoli. M. (2016). Combining multifunctionality and ecosystem services into a win-win solution. The case study of the Serchio river basin (Tuscany–Italy). MDPI Agriculture, 6(4), 49. https://doi.org/10.3390/agriculture6040049
  • [4] For insight into the work of some of these scholar-activists check out IPES –Food