On 13 May 2022, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Rural Sociology Group of Wageningen University with a public event entitled “Rural Sociology: past, present and future”. The event took place in Akoesticum in Ede and was attended by approximately 130 people: current and former staff members, current and former MSc and PhD students, and current and former collaborators in (inter)national research projects. In addition to this event we wrote and edited a book entitled ‘On Meaningful Diversity: Past, present and future of Wageningen rural sociology’ and a group of (former) PhD students put together a PhD magazine. Both are open access publications.
The entire anniversary event was filmed and a 16 minute compilation video of the day can be found here:
In addition all presentations and talks are available online in order of the program of the day:
Opening by Arthur Mol (Rector Magnificus of Wageningen University)
Keynote by Han Wiskerke: Meaningful diversity: Past, present and future of rural sociology
Keynote by Haroon Akram-Lodhi: From peasant studies to critical agrarian studies
Rural Talk Show: Interactive session including invited guests and audience participation. The Talk Show was chaired by Matt Reed, with Jan Douwe van der Ploeg as a permanent table guest, and changing table guests around the following three themes:
Session 1– Societal engagement or academic distance; with Jessica Duncan, Aya Kimura, Han Wiskerke
Session 2 – Discussing the rural-urban dichotomy; with Henk Oostindie, Sally Shortall, Esther Veen
Session 3 – A continuing debate: agency and structure; with Bettina Bock, Bram Büscher, Mark Vicol
Keynote by Hannah Wittman: Bridging rural and urban through agroecological networks: cultivating agrarian citizenship in a climate crisis
Presentation of Research Agendas: Imagining the next 25 years of rural sociology. Interactive session around three research agendas, briefly pitched by RSO staff, followed by an open floor exchange of ideas and discussion:
Lisette Nikol, PhD candidate at the Rural Sociology Group
How do small farmers in the Global South secure their livelihoods? How do capitalist dynamics and agrarian movements striving for alternatives shape these livelihoods? How can agrarian transition pathways address possible tensions between the needs of rural development, sustainable agrarian futures and a growing world population? What role do and should farmers play in imagining and realising these transition pathways and agrarian futures? How do we analyse and explain agrarian transitions in general and the farming systems realised by agrarian movements in particular?
These abstract questions summarise my research interests. My interests are motivated by a concern for an agrarian future that is socially just and environmentally sustainable, in which our farming populations and natural environment can thrive rather than be exploited.
In my PhD research, I investigate diverse facets of an ongoing agrarian struggle in the wake of agricultural modernisation and the development of agrarian capitalism, paying particular attention to the concept of peasant autonomy. Peasant autonomy locates core critiques of modern agriculture with the commodity nature of production relations (Jansen et al. 2021). While the critiques alone are relevant, I find that research into agrarian movements is more interesting and useful if it examines how different agricultural systems promote distinct production relations and transition pathways that entail different dependencies on wider production relations, agro-ecosystems, social relations and agrarian movements. As a sociologist concerned with theory, I find it relevant to inquire into how various conceptual ideas of peasant autonomy, varying dependencies on diverse production relations and socio-material relations of farming systems can help us both explain ongoing transitions and imagine and realise future transitions .
Specifically, I am investigating an organic agriculture movement in the Philippines that is responding to the challenges posed by decades of Green Revolution-oriented agricultural policies. Providing alternatives to the agricultural modernisation programmes of the state, this farmer network facilitates a farmer-led rice breeding programme, trainings on organic cultivation and complementary livelihood-related aspects, and a Participatory Guarantee System to market organic produce locally.
I locate my work within a contemporary body of agrarian political economy that critically reflects on the broader effects of the capitalist dynamics in agriculture and the countryside (see e.g. Guthman 2004, Kloppenburg 2004, Bernstein 2010, Jansen 2015). Another body of theoretical work that informs my research agenda is an anthropology of technology development that looks at technological change in the context of agrarian development and transformation as contingent, society-technology relations (e.g. Bray 1986, Almekinders 2011, Jansen & Vellema 2011). Combining these two approaches allows for an interesting set of questions capable of addressing both social and material aspects that are vital to an overall understanding of agrarian movements and transitions.
An important part of my research looks at peasant autonomy and food sovereignty questions as concerning farmers’ relations to their means of production. Agrarian movements seemingly aim to reverse the separation of farmers from their means of production, such as seeds and the wider agro-ecosystem, as achieved by agricultural modernisation and development following a capitalist, industrial model. But how do efforts to mend this situation play out in particular empirical settings? In this question, I centralise the material dimension of farming and agro-ecosystems in interaction with social relations and farmers’ practices. I address two important sets of production relations.
First, I analyse the sorts of relations around seed that emerge in situations where seed activist initiatives are realised. It is important to understand how these relations are caught between agrarian capitalism and seed activism. Second, I focus on soil fertility management – a core of organic approaches often presented as key to realising an autonomous agro-ecosystem – as a site of tension and performance. How does a view on farming as ‘performance’ (cf. Richards 1993) or simply ‘making do’ to survive relate to views on farming as performing political farming narratives?
Another aspect of agrarian movements I find intriguing is their functioning as organisations, themselves firmly embedded in relations with and among farmers. When the work of agrarian movements gains importance for the livelihoods of rural and agrarian peoples, how should we understand the relation between movements and members, or the movement’s practical work in the context of agrarian livelihood strategies? Additionally, movements take on emancipatory roles, organising farmers politically and advocating on their behalf at various levels of government (Nikol and Jansen 2020). How do their narratives of agrarian futures and rural development relate to the narratives of its differentiated constituency, as well as those of the government?
A last avenue of my inquiry looks into the dynamics shaping and participation of farmers in national organic sectors. Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) are promoted on a global scale as a cost-efficient and trustworthy alternative to third-party certification. Interestingly, the development of organic agriculture is caught in a tug-of-war between capitalist dynamics prompting its ‘conventionalisation’ and committed pioneers promoting values that critique the industrialised agricultural model (Nikol and Jansen 2021). I further investigate dynamics in the development of organic agriculture, specifically how PGSs seem a tool modelled after and complying with demands from conventional agriculture, as well as a tool to organise farmer participation, reclaim the narrative of organic agriculture and reorganise the relations that compose this sector.
How to explain ongoing agrarian transitions, and how to imagine and realise agrarian transitions in the future? In researching seed systems and plant-breeding, soil fertility management and integrated farming systems, the organisational and advocacy work of social movements and tensions between capitalist dynamics and ‘pioneer’ approaches in organic agriculture development, I aim to contribute relevant insights grounded in lessons from an agrarian movement in the Global South. These questions and the experiences of the Philippine organic movement, will no doubt continue to engage me in the future and inspire future contributions to the literature.
Almekinders, C. (2011). The Joint Development of JM-12.7: A technographic description of the making of a bean variety, NJAS-Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 57(3): 207-216.
Bernstein, H. (2010). Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.
Bray, F. (1986) (1986). The Rice Economies: Technology and Development in Asian Societies. Oxford [etc.]: Blackwell.
Guthman, J. (2004). Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California. Oakland: University of California Press.
Jansen, K. (2015). The Debate on Food Sovereignty Theory: Agrarian capitalism, dispossession and agroecology, Journal of Peasant Studies, 42(1): 213-232.
Jansen, K. and S. Vellema (2011). What is Technography? NJAS-Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 57(3): 169-177.
Jansen, K., M. Vicol and L.J. Nikol (2021). Autonomy and Repeasantization: Conceptual, analytical, and methodological problems, Journal of Agrarian Change (special issue on Autonomy in Agrarian Studies, Politics and Movements).
Kloppenburg, J.R. (2004). First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Nikol, L.J. and K. Jansen (2020). The Politics of Counter-Expertise on Aerial Spraying: Social movements denouncing pesticide risk governance in the Philippines, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 50(1): 99-124.
Nikol, L.J. and K. Jansen (2021). Rethinking Conventionalisation: A view from organic agriculture in the Global South, Journal of Rural Studies, 86: 420-429.
Richards, P. (1993). Cultivation: Knowledge or performance? In M. Hobart (Ed.), An Anthropological Critique of Development: The Growth of Ignorance,pp. 61-78. London:Routledge.
Claudia Oviedo, PhD candidate at the Rural Sociology Group
Mexican coffee policies of recent decades have been highly criticised. Farmers, coffee organizations, academics, and development organizations have claimed that programmes implemented to promote coffee production in Mexico have been limited to assuring mere survival of farmers rather than promoting the necessary transformation of their livelihoods. One of the main criticisms of such programmes is that while the state provided plants, fertilizer, and sprayers through farmers’ organizations, due to clientelism many farmers did not receive the inputs they had been promised. Other criticisms include that such programmes have failed to involve effective commercialization strategies and have not provided adequate technical assistance, particularly with respect to disease management.
In December of 2018, “leftist” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) took office. Criticising previous neoliberal administrations’ lack of attention to rural areas, he promised his administration would benefit small farmers and that he would end corruption. To achieve this, his administration implemented the rural programme Sowing Life (Sembrando Vida) through the Ministry of Well-Being, providing approximately €250 monthly to farmers to plant deforested areas with fruit trees and annual crops using agroecological practices. The Ministry of Agriculture also launched the programme Production for Well-Being (Producción para el Bienestar), which also promotes sustainable coffee production, although with a much lower amount.
This PhD research analyses coffee policies implemented in 2019—he first year of AMLO´s administration, addressing the state’s conceptualization of farmers—essentially based on the size of their landholding—as well as its strategy for incorporating them principally into the organic market. Based on a Value Chain approach as well as Political Economy concepts, I found that those that farmers the state considers to be “small-scale” vary with respect to their level of control over the means of production. Furthermore, I conclude that selling to the organic market does not necessarily benefit all farmers and suggest the need to re-conceptualise the approach of public policy to “incorporating” coffee farmers into the market.
This study also addressed the political configuration of coffee programmes by unpacking the relationship among farmers, the state, and the coffee processing industry—namely Nestlé, as well as the interests of each of these actors and their strategies for obtaining their objectives. Two coffee trajectories were identified: one involving production of high-quality organic coffee and a high level of participation by the state and farmers´ organizations in policy development. The other trajectory is that of instant coffee, involving sale of lower-quality coffee to Nestlé. While several farmers’ organizations reject the latter trajectory, many farmers perceive benefits from cultivating coffee for this industry. Therefore, I urge policymakers and development agencies to allow for a variety of productive options rather than pre-determining a single production system.
Finally, this study addressed AMLO´s policy to reduce involvement of intermediaries by providing subsidies directly to farmers rather than through farmers´ organizations. Given that during previous administrations many representatives of these organizations retained a large part of the subsidies, many farmers welcomed this policy. However, its implementation has been characterised by operative problems and tensions between organizations and state personnel. Some farmers´ organizations assured that not all such organizations are clientelistic; rather, they hold that they provide an essential mechanism for farmers to access more profitable marketing options. Meanwhile, the reactions of personnel from Sowing Life and Production for Well-Being contrasted significantly: as Sowing Life is extensively promoted by AMLO, and it does not stem from previous programmes, most personnel supported the reduction of intermediary policy. However, some staff of Production for Well-Being defended the work they had developed with farmers’ organisations and highly objected to the changes.
A Just Future for the Global Countryside? by prof. Michael Woods, Aberystwyth University, Thursday March 31, 2022, 12.00-13.30 (CET).
The talk is part of the Rural Sociology 75th Anniversary webinar series ‘Looking back, Looking Forward: Setting a future agenda for rural sociology’. Watch recordings of the webinars series at Rural Sociology Youtube channel.
The event will be streamed by Teams. Email to email@example.com to register yourself.
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.
Law, J., and Mol, A. (1995). Notes on Materiality and Sociality, The Sociological Review, 43: 274-294.
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.
What has been the role of poor rural people in the periphery in changing the world? How can the world change so that poor rural people are no longer poor? How does putting the social inclusion or exclusion of poor rural people front-and-center change how we understand politics, planning, methodology, and epistemology? And what happens to these questions when we place them in the broader framework of ecology and the ecological crisis? These questions have been central to development theories over the last decades or even the last century, and have inflected discussion of the agrarian question, in its political, social, ecological, and national aspects. Yet there has remained a nagging gap between (1) work on decolonization, including contemporary epistemological inquiries; (2) work dealing with macro-economic planning; (3) work on agro-ecology, food sovereignty, pastoralism, and sustainable livelihoods.
Over the last decade, I have tried to address these questions in a variety of ways. Spatially, I have worked outwards from Tunisia to North Africa, the Arab region as a whole, and world ecological crisis. In terms of disciplines, I have worked outwards from rural sociology into historical ecology, the intellectual and social history of planning, and the intellectual history of heterodox post-colonial theories of development.
My dissertation research (Ajl 2019a) started with a puzzle: why and how did Tunisia come to be a poor country, and specifically how did state policies reproduce rural poverty? It tried to understand this through the phenomenon of state price engineering. Yet prices reflected social and political power balances, and the origins of those balances were unclear to me: why and how had poor rural Tunisians been excluded from development? This led to work on the political-historical sociology of anti-colonial revolt, decolonization, and post-colonial political management, especially focused on how the political mobilization of the peasantry/pastoralist population of Tunisia was sheared and blocked from becoming inclusion in Tunisian developmentalism.
In parallel, I worked on other cases in the Arab region, including Syria (Ajl 2019b; Ajl et al. 2020), Yemen (Ajl 2018a), and the Arab region more broadly (Ajl 2021a) tracing how different constellations of social forces, domestically and internationally, led to different agrarian trajectories: partially rural-incorporating as in Syria and Egypt, for example. Or, how the Green Revolution manifested in the Arab region (Ajl 2017; Ajl and Sharma Forthcoming). These studies showed the agrarian question was central to world geopolitics, with more rural-incorporating governments understood as antagonistic to the established order because of their partial endogenization of productive forces. In this way, they showed that national agrarian question were local expressions of a global process (McMichael 1997), wherein political shifts in some Arab nation-states changed the parameters of agrarian/developmental politics in others. In this way I was able to think about how to break from methodological nationalism not only at the level of capitalist accumulation (Wolf 1969) but also resistance to it.
Examining the politics of national liberation and post-colonial planning led me into critiques of those processes from heterodox planners, agronomists, and economists in the Arab region, extending to West Africa and especially Senegal, the home of Samir Amin. In a series of essays (Ajl 2021b, 2019c, 2018b, 2022) I have examined notions of self-reliant or auto-centered development. This idea is based on the diagnosis that countries’ insertion into global capitalism pushes them to pursue policies inimical to the well-being of their poorest sectors. It would follow that more auto-centered policies, focusing on fulfilling the basic needs of the poorest, would lead to superior development outcomes. I examined this idea theoretically through the work of Amin and at the level of intellectual history, as it emerged in planning proposals from Chinese-influenced Egyptian and Tunisian planners.
A third ‘track’ has been my concern with climate change, in particular how to connect the problems of Northern planning and social and ecological crisis with southern aspirations for national popular and ecological development planning. This has resulted in a book (Ajl, 2021c) and a series of articles and chapters (Ajl 2021d, Forthcoming; Ajl and Wallace 2021; Tilley and Ajl 2022) focusing on various aspects of this question: critiques of green modernization, green demographic management, intervention in pastoralist livelihoods, and above all a program for national development planning North and South: bringing what I have learned into Tunisia about popular planning, developmental needs, and appropriate technologies into the northern planning conversation, to think about how to make a world big enough for everyone, North and South.
Ajl, M., 2022. Food Sovereignty, the National Question, and Post-colonial Development in Africa, in: Ben Gadha, M., Kaboub, F., Koddenbrock, K., Mahmoud, I., Samba Sylla, N. (Eds.), Economic and Monetary Sovereignty in 21st Century Africa. Pluto, London, pp. 238–258.
Ajl, M., 2019a. Farmers, Fellaga, and Frenchmen (PhD). Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
Ajl, M., 2019b. The Political Economy of Thermidor in Syria: National and international dimensions, in: Syria: From National Independence to Proxy War. Springer, pp. 209–245.
Ajl, M., 2019c. Auto-Centered Development and Indigenous Technics: Slaheddine el-Amami and Tunisian delinking. Journal of Peasant Studies 46, 1240–1263.
Ajl, M., 2018a. Yemen’s Agricultural World: Crisis and prospects, in: Crisis and Conflict in Agriculture. CABI.
Ajl, M., 2018b. Delinking, Food Sovereignty, and Populist Agronomy: Notes on an intellectual history of the peasant path in the global South. Review of African Political Economy 45, 64–84.
Ajl, M., 2017. Field Notes on Tunisia’s Green Revolution. Viewpoint Magazine.
Ajl, M., Forthcoming. Everything Changes While Everything Stays the Same. Development and Change.
Ajl, M., Haddad, B., Abul-Magd, Z., 2020. State, Market, and Class: Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, in: A Critical Political Economy of the Middle East and North Africa, !!046316523!School for Advanced Research Advanced Seminar Series. Stanford University Press, pp. 46–67.
Ajl, M., Sharma, D., Forthcoming. Transversal Countermovements: The afterlives of the Green Revolution in Tunisia and India. Canadian Journal of Development Studies/Revue canadienne d’études du développement.
Op maandag 31 januari om 20.00 uur organiseert Pakhuis De Zwijger in samenwerking met Trouw De Duurzame 100 onder de titel ‘Grond van Ons’ een gesprek over de waarde van een gezonde bodem voor burgers.
Zonder gezonde grond, geen gezond voedsel. Op steeds meer plekken staan burgers op om samen grond te kopen en duurzame productie van voedsel door boeren mogelijk te maken. Verschillende initiatieven hebben letterlijk het heft in eigen handen genomen, want de betrokken burgers werken soms mee en brengen de producten rechtstreeks van het erf naar de keuken. In overleg met lokale bewoners en boeren ontstaat een nieuwe sociale gemeenschap. Deze ontwikkeling legt de basis voor de democratisering van de landbouw. De stad en het platteland, de burger en de boer raken weer met elkaar verbonden. De volgende vragen staan centraal in deze bijeenkomst. Zijn deze initiatieven dé oplossing voor verduurzaming onze bodem? Hoe gaan deze initiatieven te werk? Waar komt de toegevoegde waarde van deze initiatieven terecht?
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.
My doctoral research explored the role of urban gardens in people’s food provisioning practices, framing them as spaces of diverse food economies operating largely outside the market. In order to understand how gardens work as food sources, I observed the food provisioning practices of 27 households involved in gardening in Brno, Czechia, throughout a period of one year.
The research contributes to the broader discussion about more sustainable ways of food production and consumption, alternative food networks and urban agriculture. Research on sustainable food systems is often biased towards initiatives embedded in market relationships (Rosol 2020). Literature on urban gardening in global North mostly focuses on a specific kind of this practice (community gardens), and it discusses the multiple non-productive functions of these spaces, such as community building (Veen et al. 2016), place-making (Koopmans et al. 2017) or the improvement of urban environment (Timpe et al. 2016). Another stream of literature presents urban gardens as activist spaces questioning the status quo of neoliberal urbanism (Tornaghi 2017, McClintock 2013). This literature recognizes the potential of urban gardens to contribute to localized and sustainable food provisioning (Kosnik 2018). Nonetheless, actual data on food self-provisioning (FSP) in urban areas of the global North remains insufficient (Taylor and Lovell 2013).
Furthermore, some geographical areas seem to be excluded from the debate. FSP is wide spread in the post-socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE): 50% inhabitants of the region grow some of their food, compared to 10% in Western European countries (Alber and Kohler 2008). Despite this potential, lessons from CEE are only recently appearing in the literature on urban gardening or alternative food networks. This discrepancy can be explained by an unequal geography of knowledge production, in which CEE rarely figures as a source of original knowledge (Jehlička 2021). In light of the failed experiment of state-socialism, CEE countries are often regarded as underdeveloped and in need of catching up with the West (Kuus 2004, Müller 2019). This transition discourse results in the framing of local informal economies (such as FSP or informal food sharing) as remnants of the past which will be eventually substituted by market economy (Alber and Kohler 2008, Acheson 2008). My research adds to more emancipatory works showing the relevance of these traditional practices for sustainable food provisioning (Jehlička et al 2020, Goszczyński et al., 2019, Mincyte 2012).
My theoretical approach is further inspired by the diverse economies framework (Gibson-Graham 2008) which points out that economic practices are not limited to capitalist markets and monetized transactions, and which calls for attention to alternative, nonmarket and informal economies. This approach is increasingly adapted in the study of more sustainable food provisioning, which recognizes the importance of economic arrangements fostering social justice and environmental wellbeing (Rosol 2020, Tornaghi 2017, Morrow 2019). It is also particularly pertinent for the post-socialist context, seemingly caught between the gloomy heritage of state socialism and the sweeping neoliberalization of the last three decades.
Recent representative surveys show that the share of Czechs involved in FSP remains steady at around 40% of the population, spread equally across income groups and educational levels (Smith and Jehlička 2013, Jehlička and Daněk 2017, Sovová et al 2021). Unpacking these statistics, my research assessed the role of FSP in terms of quantity of food produced as well as its position within broader food provisioning practices and the diverse economic arrangements they constitute. Inspired by the perspective of social metabolism (González de Molina and Toledo 2014, Burger Chakraborty et al. 2016), I used food logs to monitor the flows of fruits and vegetables entering and leaving respondent households. These flows were categorized based on the type of economic arrangements as non-market, alternative-market or market economies. Using conceptual borrowings from social practice theory (Reckwitz 2002, Shove et al. 2012), I further investigated the meanings and competences these material flows entailed.
The field work consisted of four rounds of data collection of one month, spread over the course of one year. During each round, respondents recorded fruits, and vegetables which they produced at their gardens or obtained from other sources. Next to the amount, type and source of food, they also kept track of the use of these foods, i.e. own consumption, preserving, sharing or other forms of distribution. The purpose of the multi-staged research design was to observe seasonal variations and to gradually build theory with the respondents’ participation, accompanying the quantitative accounts with a qualitative understanding of their food provisioning practices.
The results reveal complex interactions between gardens, other food sources, respondents’ eating habits and dietary preferences. FSP plays a central role in gardeners’ food provisioning practices. The gardens provide a significant amount of food, covering on average one third of fruits and vegetables consumed in gardeners’ households – results consistent with a national survey using self-reporting (Sovová et al 2021). In addition, respondents’ experience as producers shapes their food provisioning practices beyond FSP. Home-grown food is seen as the best in terms of taste, freshness and transparent origin. This creates a hierarchy of food sources, in which FSP and other nonmarket and semi-formal food provisioning practices (e.g. receiving home-grown foods from family and friends, foraging or buying directly from producers) are preferred over shopping for food in conventional venues. Alternative food networks typically associated with conscious consumerism (community supported agriculture, farmers’ markets, organic food shops) were marginal in respondents’ shopping practices. Instead, they provisioned food from a number of diverse channels spanning market and nonmarket relations, in which social relations merged with environmental considerations and subjective notions of food quality. The centrality of FSP in these practices also resulted in strong seasonal patterns in both food sources and diets.
None of the respondents aimed to be fully self-sufficient, nor did they grow their own food in order to save money. Instead, they saw gardening first and foremost as a hobby. The link of this way of food provisioning to leisure, fulfilment, and, broadly speaking, gardeners’ identities, strengthened the position of FSP in gardeners’ food provisioning practices. Similarly, other informal and semi-formal food practices were often grounded in social relations, such as visiting family and acquaintances in the countryside. Gardeners’ food practices also contributed to fostering social relations, for instance when they shared home-grown food with others, a practice which was common for most respondent households. Indeed, FSP is a generous practice in which the joy of sharing and appreciation of home-grown food prevails over expectations of reciprocity or economic considerations, as also documented by Daněk and Jehlička (2017) or Pottinger (2018).
While practiced as a hobby, FSP is mobilized as a food provisioning practice through a number of specific competences. Using the conceptualizations of social practice theory, I interpret FSP as intersection of two sets of practices, those relating to the garden (‘gardening’), and those relating to the kitchen (‘food provisioning’). Based on both quantitative and qualitative data, I identified four different types of relations between gardening and food provisioning. Put simply, some respondents were keen gardeners but did not necessarily integrate their harvest into their diets. Others strived to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables but were not always successful in their gardening efforts. Gardens are multifunctional spaces which hold different meanings for different users. Using the gardens as food sources requires not only gardening and cooking skills, but also coordination and integration of both on a daily as well as seasonal basis.
My research shows that when thinking about sustainable food provisioning, scholars and practitioners need to look beyond market venues and beyond people’s roles as consumers. The search for future-proof urban food systems cannot be restricted to environmentally-minded affluent Westerners, but it needs to consider everyday practices already existing in diverse contexts. I have shown that there is a plethora of under-researched informal food practices whose potential for sustainable provisioning, diverse economic arrangements and mutually beneficial human–nature relations merits further investigation.
It is almost 44 years since my first research project; it considered the position of women in non-academic positions at the University of Nijmegen. More studies into gender and professions followed; in academia and public service, as well as technical and assumedly masculine occupations such as woodwork and firefighters, and eventually farming.
Women farmers stole my heart – first in Italy and later in the Netherlands when working on my PhD on the role of women in rural development practice and policy. They were so creative and courageous, developing new business activities and conquering a position in a sector in desperate need of transition but often so stubbornly holding on to conventions. In this case, the conventional image and success formula of the male farmer running his farm as a modern business striving to increase production and growth, with the farmwife offering assistance. In the early 90s, some women stood up against these beliefs – men being the head of the farms and farming as regular businesses interested in increasing production and profit. There were women pioneers innovating agriculture by initiating a new model and paradigm of farm diversification and multifunctionality. They introduced new income-generating activities and created new markets with direct communication between producers and consumers. In doing so, these women farmers and their partners developed new knowledge and skills and adapted their agricultural production methods, with less monocultural and more environmentally friendly production methods. Hence, women significantly contributed to the continuity of farming financially through such new business activities, others by gaining off-farm income. Initially, the turn towards diversification and multifunctionality met a lot of criticism and suspicion by mainstream farmers and the farm union – this was not real farming anymore, they said. Or this meant the end of agriculture as a real business and profession. As a result, many women farmers downplayed their activities as hobbies or downplayed the importance of their money. In time, however, the success of these new businesses became evident, and multifunctional agriculture became formally recognised even by the farm unions.
In academia, the role of women in multifunctional farming was cherished in two ways: first as a proof of long due empowerment and recognition of the vital role of women in agriculture; second as one of the elements of the transition of farming, with multifunctionality, high-quality production and direct marketing as the way forward, and thirdly as proof of the sustainability of family farming. Studies into gender relations in agriculture confirmed the presence of more equal gender relations on farms engaged in diversified productions and novel production methods. The situation is quite different in most production-oriented farms that remained conventional also in terms of gender relations. The political interest in women farmers diminished over time, at least at the national level. The EU continued to call attention to the position of rural women, stressing their vulnerability and the importance of strengthening their position in farming and rural areas. However, gender agriculture and rural development did not figure prominently in public, political or academic debates for a long time – in Europe. In international development debates, this was quite different, and gender remained a prominent issue and target of policymakers, donors and academics. Women were presented as important actors, able to enhance production and warrant food security, yet needing support to overcome traditions and realise their potential. Maybe, the global South was again ahead of the North when it came to gender debates – as they were when research into gender and agriculture took place in Europe in the seventies.
Most recently, the interest in gender and rural development seems to be reawakening also in Europe. Looking into a recently published HORIZON, the EU expresses high hopes for women’s engagement in innovations. They expect women to ensure the future of agriculture and rural areas and significantly contribute to climate change mitigation and, hence, our future. It is interesting to see that women who figured in agricultural and rural policies so far, mainly as a vulnerable group, become suddenly framed as our saviours. However, as the EU calls for ways to boost women’s innovations, women are still expected to need a hand to realise their potential, with many hurdles arising from what we may best identify as institutionalised sexism.
What does that mean for academics like me who have fallen for these amazing women who experiment with new ideas, innovate new products and methods, and institutions? Should we worry about their instrumentalisation, as some warn us (reference)? I always have difficulty with that argument – because are we instrumentalised if we choose to do what needs to be done? Do we not all carry the responsibility to be instruments in the realisation of a better world? And is women’s agency to innovate against all odds not in itself transforming structures, identities and relations, self-empowering? Is innovation, hence, not their instrument of empowerment? Yes, they deserve more respect, reward, and support. What they do is valuable and critical, and we need to ensure their engagement has an impact.
In my view, it is not up to me as a researcher to protect women from instrumentalisation. However, I can be of more assistance when understanding what drives, enables and hinders them and where change is essential to realise their potential. The transformation of gender relations is part and parcel of that process, be it explicitly or implicitly. We should also not forget that women do not necessarily view their actions as individual or independent; farm women often feel part of the family business, and many collaborate with others and men. The latter does not make gender equality less relevant yet nuances women’s interest in gender transformation. And what about the kind of innovations in which women engage? Many are novel, of course, but not all are about agroecology or climate change. Or that might not be the leading motive. Women’s primary reason is often to assure the business’s profitability, and not all they do is good for the environment. Does that mean we should then not support their initiatives and engagement in innovation? Do women only as saviours deserve support? The right of agenda-setting is another matter to consider. Which issues should politics and science address, and when are women ‘invited’ to join? Even formulating the question is awkward as, of course, women have the right to set the agenda. Reality is more complex. Generally, interest groups are involved in such negotiations, and as studies report time and again, women farmers are hardly represented in farm organisations.
Intriguing questions that are difficult to answer. As an academic, I might argue that my first task is to understand how innovations emerge when ‘female’ agency fights traditional structures, irrespective of their motive. On a more personal note, I believe it is our responsibility as scientists, policymakers, and practitioners to choose which innovations to support, whether promoted by men or women. In today’s world, it is irresponsible to support innovations that add to the problem of climate change and social injustice.
Some suggestions for overviews of rural gender literature
Asztalos Morell I. and BB. Bock (2008) (eds), Gender regimes, citizen participation and rural restructuring, Elsevier: Rural Sociology and Development Series, pp. 3-30
Bock B.B. and S. Shortall (2006) (eds), Rural Gender Relations: Issues and case- studies, Oxfordshire: CABI
Bock, B.B. and S. Shortall (2017) (eds), Gender and rural globalisation: international perspectives on gender and rural development, Oxfordshire: CABI
Bock, B.B. and M. van der Burg (2017), Gender and international development, in B.B. Bock and S. Shortall (eds) Gender and rural globalisation: international perspectives on gender and rural development, Oxfordshire: CABI
Bock B.B. (2016), The Rural, in: I. van der Tuin (ed.), MacMillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks: Gender, volume 2: Nature, MacMillan, 199-216
Cornwall, A. , E. Harrison and A. Whitehead (2007) (eds),. Gender myths and feminist fables: the struggle for interpretive power. Gender and Development, 38(1998) (special issue)
Mohanty, C.T. (2003), Feminism without borders; decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity, Durham & London: Duke University Press (reprint from 1984)
Pini B., B. Brandth and J. Little (2015) (eds). Feminisms and Ruralities. London: Lexington Book
Plas van der L. and M. Fonte (1994) (eds). Rural gender studies in Europe. Assen: van Gorcum
Sachs C. (2019) (ed.), Gender, agriculture and agrarian transformations, changing relations in Africa, Latin America and Asia: London: Routlegde, Taylor & Francis Group
Shortall S. and B.B. Bock (2015) (eds) Rural, gender and policy; Rural women in Europe: the impact of place and culture on gender mainstreaming the European Rural Development Programme; Gender, Place and Culture, 22(5), special issue