Prof. Anne van den Ban is generally regarded as the founding father of the Wageningen communication sciences. He was appointed as Professor of extension communication (‘Voorlichtingskunde’) in 1964, which became the cradle for a rich and influential array of academic endavours at the intersection between communication, innovation and change in the sphere of health, environment and agriculture. These activities have continued until today and now take place across several chairgroups and sections at Wageningen University.
While Prof. Van den Ban certainly deserves a lot of credit for developing the new discipline and building an internationally recognized group, it is important to acknowledge the contribution of Prof. E.W. Hofstee in getting Van den Ban started. Hofstee was promotor of Van den Ban’s 1963 PhD dissertation on the communication of new farm practices in the Netherlands, and he no doubt inspired Van den Ban in choosing his topic. In fact, already in 1953 Hofstee wrote about the importance of studying ‘sociological aspects of agricultural extension’ in the first (!) ‘Bulletin’ that was published by his group (Hofstee, 1953). He was also in touch with the public extension services that had been established by the Ministry of Agriculture a few decades earlier, and gave lectures to Ministry staff on the significance of group-based agricultural extension approaches (e.g. Hofstee, 1960). Reading these early works by Hofstee made me -as one of the successors of Van den Ban- realize how much we still owe to Hofstee today.
In essence, Hofstee criticizes the then prevailing extension services and practices for assuming that farmers take decisions according to an individualistic economic rationale. He points to the importance of social, collective and cultural dynamics in shaping what farmers do or do not, and also to the importance of social differentiation and regional ‘farming styles’ in explaining farmers’ economic activity. In order to be effective, extension organisations and professionals should -according to Hofstee- understand the importance of such ‘sociological aspects’ and anticipate these in their work (Hofstee, 1953). This implies that extension workers should look at extension and knowledge transfer as an inherently social process rather than as a series of communicative ‘tricks’ and also be reflective about their own social positions (Hofstee, 1960) The concern with the ‘effectivess of extension’ (or better: the lack of it) demonstrates Hofstee’s commitment to the post second world war modernisation project and his own normativity in this regard. Despite his sensitivity for social and normative issues, he continued to talk in terms of ‘good, progressive’ and ‘bad, backward’ farmers (Hofstee, 1953), thereby (re)producing the paternalistic connotations of the Dutch word for extension communication: ‘Voorlichting’. This term literally means something like ‘holding a light in front of someone to lead the way’ assuming apparently that people are ‘in the dark’ and need to be ‘enlightened’ by those with scientific training.
While today’s studies on communication, innovation and change have arguably left this ‘enlightenment’ and ‘deficit’ thinking behind, we also see traces of Hofstee coming back in our current work. We still criticize simplistic individualist conceptualizations of change, as is reflected in today’ attention for ‘social-technical configurations’, ‘system transformation’ and ‘responsible innovation and scaling’. Similarly, Wageningen trained communication scientists are known for their interactional and socio-political conceptualization of both professional and everyday communication and meaning making, and for their interest in the social challenges to facilitating dialogue among different interpretative communities. These sociological perspectives on communication and change have now spread to other Universities in the Netherlands and elsewhere. The continued prevalence of sociological connotations is not surprising if one considers that most of Van den Ban’s successors indeed had a sociological training as well. Clearly, that is not accidental but part and parcel of Hofstee’s legacy.
*Cees Leeuwis is Personal Professor at the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation group, Section Communication, Philosophy and Technology
Hofstee .E.W. (1953) , Sociologische aspecten van de landbouwvoorlichting. Bulletin 1, Afdeling Sociale en Economische Geografie, Landbouwhogeschool, Wageningen.
Hofstee .E.W. (1960) Inleidende opmerkingen over de voorlichting: Groepsbenadering in de voorlichting. Voordracht gehouden op de Tuinbouwdagen 1960. Mededelingen van de Directeur van de Tuinbouw, 23, 10, pp 621-624
Van den Ban, A.W. (1963) Boer en landbouwvoorlichting: De communicatie van nieuwe landbouwmethoden. Pudoc, Wageningen.