75th Anniversary: 54) Research at the Rural Sociology Group:  Making a Difference

Dirk Roep

Overall, my main interest has been on how people come together, and, in collective action, (attempt to) make a difference – how they overcome the constraints they encounter in their everyday life, how in their practice they not only deviate from what is taken for granted or imposed but (try to) make what is considered impossible possible and how they can create meaningful differences and opportunities. Meaningful to themselves, but also as meaningfully novel, promising practices, opportunities in the light of all the challenges that humanity faces in making our earthly life more healthy, sustainable, equitable and inclusive – a better place for all. This points to agency as an intermediary between actors and structures and particularly to transformative agency.

Change is not inherently good – it can also be quite ugly. We are subject to all kinds of dynamically interacting processes that impact on our everyday life, human and non-human initiated and operating on different scales. We need to time and again scrutinise, evaluate and critically reflect on the impact that all these processes have on humans and non-humans, on all that matters. This is core to what rural and rural and agrarian sociology is about for me.

In this respect, the PhD thesis on two diverging styles of farming (Stijlen van Landbouwbeoefening: uiteenlopende ontwikkelingspatronen) by Van der Ploeg and Bolhuis (1985) was an eyeopener to me as a novice in the field. It demonstrated that farmers are indeed subject to all kind of ordering processes in which farming is situated, thus limiting the space for farming and even imposing or enforcing a particular mode of farming – but also that farming and farm development is not fully determined by these hegemonic processes.

Within the Technical Administrative Task Environment (TATE), as Bruno Benvenuti (1982) conceptualised the prescriptive structuring principles, there is space for resistance, deviation and divergence, a certain autonomy, although to what extent is not only an empirical question but also heavily debated. Farmers can indeed make a difference, by structuring their (family) farm labour in meaningful ways following a particular rationale based on more widely shared opinions, values and norms about how to best farm that are internalised and externalised in interaction as evolving patterns of ‘rules in use’ (Ostrom 1992).

Styles of farming can be seen as institutionalised ways of doing, thinking and feeling (Berger & Luckman 1967). This explains how diverging styles of farming, as different modes of ordering (Law 1994), emerge within (apparently) homogeneous settings. Farmers, as individuals but more often in collectives, both resist the structuring (political, economic and bio-physical) forces they are subject to in their everyday life and also build the individual and collective capacity to bypass these forces by creating relatively autonomous protected spaces or niches that provide them with the room for manoeuvre to differ, deviate and differentiate according to their rationale. This is how I became engaged in rural and agrarian sociology. The institutional imperative (Zijderveld 2000) has guided me since in understanding how continuity and change are inherent to action and how heterogeneity is reproduced in interactions between humans and non-humans, between society and living and dead matter with technology as an intermediate (Roep 2000).

In my (1989) MSc-thesis, ‘Stap voor Stap of in een Sprong’ (Step by Step or in one Leap), I explored differential growth patterns and family farm income strategies among farmers producing milk for the famous Parmigiano Reggiano, extending the PhD-research by Van der Ploeg, which was further elaborated in Van der Ploeg, Saccomandi and Roep (1990). This became the launching pad for a series of studies on farming styles – ‘bedrijfsstijlen’ in Dutch, following Hofstee – starting in the Netherlands with Van der Ploeg and Roep (1989). Not only were different farm development and family income strategies based on different rationales revealed by this work but also the differentiated impacts they had, such as on the environment through significant variations in nutrient losses. It was also revealed that farmers, within their institutional embedding, built different capacities when following different farm development paths. Farming styles did make a difference, and this made them politically relevant considering the challenges agriculture was, and it still is, facing and the search for more sustainable and even regenerative farming practices.

The farming styles research also showed that farmers on their own, in supporting networks and in collectives were pioneering alternative farming practices to escape the pressing income squeeze in ways other than by increasing production volume. During the 1990s, the Rural Sociology research team at Wageningen became engaged with various farmer-driven initiatives developing alternative farm development strategies and pathways for agrarian and rural development. These were subsequently mapped, first in the Netherlands and then later across Europe (van der Ploeg & Banks 2002). The broadening, deepening and regrounding of farm practices were identified as alternative income strategies to counter further marginalisation, and an alternative rural development paradigm emerged to the dominant productivist paradigm promoting scale enlargement, intensification and specialisation as the only viable strategy (van der Ploeg & Roep 2003).

Within the framing of this alternative paradigm, local grassroots initiatives developed the necessary but previously lacking capacity to develop and operate in experimental spaces or niches, supported by newly created alliances and networks. I became engaged with a group of pioneering farmers in the western peatland area that, inspired by renowned high added value products with a denomination of origin like the Parmigiano Reggiano and Comte, aimed to upgrade farm-made cheese, Boerenkaas, a speciality product with excellent but underdeveloped potential. Having turned completely towards bulk production, the Netherlands lacked both the capacity to produce and market high-quality speciality food products with a denomination of origin and the proper institutional setting to support this.

Based on this case, I argued in my PhD-thesis, ‘Innovative work: tracks and traces of capacity and incapacity’ (Roep 2000), that the narrowly focused productivist paradigm which had dominated agriculture and rural development since the 1950s and transformed Dutch agriculture and rural areas profoundly through its comprehensive capacity had, at the same time, resulted in an institutionalised incapacity. Diversity was long seen as an aberration, not as a rich source to explore alternative, promising pathways.

Thus, there developed a research agenda on the transformative potential of a wide range of novel practices in farming and food provisioning – or, the Seeds of Transition (Wiskerke & Van der Ploeg 2004). I have been involved in some of the research projects and publications exploring promising sustainability pathways and the new capacities being forged. We have identified and elaborated on various niches supported by alliances in new networks and the accompanying, co-evolving institutional reform (Roep & Wiskerke 2004, 2006, 2012).

The transformative capacity of grassroots initiatives and promising practices, the ability to make a difference and specifically the struggle with allies for and the creation of a favourable institutional embedding to counter unsustainabilities, degeneration, exclusion and inequalities make up the connecting thread throughout my research (Horlings, Roep & Wellbrock 2018; van den Berg et al. 2018). This was complemented by a relational approach, inspired by actor-network theory (ANT) (Law & Hassard 1999) and what Law and Mol (1995) dubbed ‘relational materialism’, and then by Massey (1994) and others with regard to place-shaping practices. This was foundational to the Marie Curie ITN project ‘SUSPLACE: Exploring the Transformative Capacity of Place-Shaping Practices’ (Horlings et al. 2020). Thence, the focus of my work has shifted from sustainable farming practices to sustainable food provisioning practices and sustainable place-shaping practices – and, more recently, from sustainability to regeneration as a future guide.

In line with the above, my current interest is in grassroots or citizens initiatives that aim to

  • Restore and regenerate agro-ecosystems, particularly pioneers in regenerative agriculture and regenerative modes of food provisioning;
  • New commons and commoning, particularly diverse forms of community farming.

And, not least, support and report once again on those initiatives engaged in making a difference.


  • Benvenuti, B. (1982) De Technologisch-Administratieve Taakomgeving (TATE) van landbouwbedrijven. Marquetalia, 5, p.111-136.
  • Berger, P.L., and Luckman, T. (1967). The Social Construction of Reality; A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Penguin Press.
  • Hermans, F., Klerkx L., Roep, D. (2016). Scale Dynamics of Grassroots Innovations Through Parallel Pathways of Transformative Change. Ecological Economics, 130: 285-295.
  • Horlings, L.G., Roep, D. and Wellbrock, W. (2018). The Role of Leadership in Place-Based Development and Building Institutional Arrangements, Local Economy, 33(3): 245-268.
  • Horlings, L.G., Roep, D., Mathijs, E., Marsden T. (2020). Exploring the Transformative Capacity of Place-Shaping Practices, Sustainability Science, 15: 353-362.
  • Law, J. (1994). Organizing Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell.
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  • Law, J., and Hassard, J. (Eds.) (1999). Actor Network Theory and After. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Methorst, R.G., Roep, D., Verstegen, F.J.H.M., and Wiskerke, J.S.C. (2017). Three-Fold Embedding: Farm development in relation to its socio-material context. Sustainability, 9: 1677.
  • Massey, D. (1994). Space, Place and Gender. Cambridge (UK): Polity Press.
  • Moschitz, H., Roep, D., Brunori, G., and Tisenkopfs, T. (2015). Learning and Innovation Networks for Sustainable Agriculture: Processes of co-evolution, joint reflection and facilitation, The Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension, 21(1): 1-11.
  • Ostrom, E. (1992). Crafting Institutions for Self-governing Irrigation Systems. San Francisco: ICS Press.
  • Roep, D. (1988). Stap voor Stap of met een Sprong: Bedrijfsstrategieën in het landbouwstelsel van de Parmigiano Reggiano. Doctoraalscriptie Agrarische Ontwikkelingssociologie. Wageningen: Wageningen University. (Dutch)
  • Roep,, D. (2000). Innovative Work: Tracks of capacity and incapacity. PhD thesis. Wageningen: Wageningen University. (Dutch)
  • Roep, D., van der Ploeg, J.D., and Wiskerke, J.S.C. (2003). Managing Technical Institutional Design Processes: Some strategic lessons from environmental co-operatives in the Netherlands, NJAS Journal for Life Sciences, 51(1-2): 195-217.
  • Roep, D., and Wiskerke, J.S.C. (2004). Epilogue: Reflecting on novelty production and niche management in agriculture, in J.S.C. Wiskerke and J.D. van der Ploeg (eds.), Seeds of Transition: Essays on Novelty Production, Niches and Regimes in Agriculture, pp. 341-356. Assen: Van Gorcum.
  • Roep, D., and Wiskerke, J.S.C. (Eds.). (2006). Nourishing Networks; Fourteen Lessons About Creating Sustainable Food Supply Chains. Rural Sociology Group. Wageningen/ Doetinchem: Wageningen University and Reed Business Information.
  • Roep, D., and Wiskerke, J.S.C. (2012). On Governance, Embedding and Marketing: Reflections on the construction of alternative sustainable food networks, Journal of Agriculture and Environmental Ethics, 25: 205-221.
  • van den Berg, L., Roep, D., Hecink, P., and Mancini Teixeira, H. (2018). Reassembling Nature and Culture: Resourceful farming in Araponga, Brazil, Journal of Rural Studies, 61: 314-322.
  • van der Ploeg, J.D., and Bolhuis, E.E. (1985). Boerenarbeid en Stijlen van Landbouwbeoefening; En socio-economisch onderzoek naar de effecten van incorporatie en institutionalisering op agrarische ontwikkelingspatronen in Italië en Peru, Leiden Development Studies, 8: 511.
  • van der Ploeg, J.D., Saccomandi, V., and Roep, D. (1990). Differentiële Groeipatronen in de Landbouw: Het verband tussen zingeving en structurering. Tijdschrift voor Sociaal wetenschappelijk onderzoek van de Landbouw, 5: 108-132.
  • van der Ploeg, J.D., and Roep, D. (1990). Bedrijfsstijlen in de Zuidhollandse Veenweidegebieden: Nieuwe perspektieven voor beleid en belangenbehartiging; Koninklijke Land– en Tuinbouwbond en Vakgroep Agrarische Ontwikkelingssociologie Wageningen University.
  • van der Ploeg, J.D., Long, A., and Banks, J. (2002). Living Countrysides. Rurale development processes in Europe: The state of the art. Doetinchem: Elsevier bedrijfsinformatie.
  • van der Ploeg, J.D., and Roep, D. (2003). Multifunctionality and Rural Development: The actual situation in Europe, in G. van Huylenbroeck and G. Durand (Eds), Multifunctional Agriculture: A New Paradigm for European Agriculture and Rural Development, pp. 37-53. Farnham (UK): Ashgate Publishers.
  • Wiskerke, J.S.C., and van der Ploeg, J.D. (Eds.). Seeds of Transition: Essays on Novelty Production, Niches and Regimes in Agriculture. Assen: Van Gorcum.
  • Zijderveld, A.C. (2000) The Institutional Imperative: The value of institutions in contemporary society. Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam.