75th Anniversary: 8) Kyoto meets Wageningen, Political Economy meets Rural Sociology

Countryside excursion at the 2016 Graduate Workshop


The collaboration between the group of rural sociology at Wageningen University and the group of agri-food political economy at Kyoto University officially started in July 2014, when we signed a letter of intent to foster international cooperation in education and research. This was first materialised when Kyoto University invited Dirk Roep in February 2015, and Guido Ruivenkamp and Joost Jongerden in March 2015 (http://agst.jgp.kyoto-u.ac.jp/topics/report/376). Their visit to Kyoto kickstarted a series of intensive lectures given by invited RSO members as well as a series of joint workshops between the two groups either in Kyoto or in Wageningen, as explained below.

Our collaboration, however, informally started when I did my visiting research in Wageningen between 2002 and 2004. Although it was a different group (Agriculture and Technology Development Group), including Kees Jansen among others, who hosted me, there were Guido Ruivenkamp and Joost Jongerden in the group. Since then, we have been working together on various topics, ranging from the political economy and sociology of agricultural biotechnology development to the comparative study on mainstream and alternative agri-food systems between the Netherlands and Japan. We organised an international conference at Kyoto University in November 2007, based on which we edited and published a book: Reconstructing Biotechnologies: Critical Social Sciences in 2008. An online journal, International Journal of Technology and Development Studies (2010-2012), a successor of Tailoring Biotechnologies (2005-2008), was also edited together. The archive of these two journals is still available (https://ijtds.webnode.com/).

Whereas our initial and informal collaboration was largely on an individual basis, our ongoing collaboration has been institutionalised (now we have a university-level MoU and a school-level student mobility agreement), though not to a full extent as explained later, in a way that can be characterised as bringing different disciplinary perspectives as well as diverse geographical and cultural backgrounds together.

Cross-disciplinary Experiences

Entry to the Kyoto Campus

At the Graduate School of Economics in Kyoto University, I have been serving first as the vice director (or I would say, architect and designer), and then as the director of the International Graduate Programme for East Asia Sustainable Economic Development Studies since its launch in 2009. The programme, as explicitly suggested by its name, places a strong emphasis on the idea and policy of sustainable development as well as the region of East (northeast and southeast) Asia.

Although the concept of “sustainable” has become tired cliché and now challenged to be replaced with other concepts such as “regenerative” (Duncan et al. 2020), we dare to keep this concept with an aim to problematise it and encourage our students to seek out their own way of understanding and their own style of contributions to sustainable development. Sustainable development – briefly defined as a well-balanced development among different regions, different industry sectors, different socio-economic classes, different generations, etc. – is also about justice and equity, about diversity and mutual respect. Sustainable development in such a broader sense requires multiple perspectives and multidisciplinary approaches. It requires to be understood as “the product of many stories, worldviews, values, actions and perspectives which, to be fully appreciated, require a readiness to listen to others, respect differences, suspend established opinions and see others’ eyes while allowing other voices to resonate and be heard” (Blewitt 2015).

Materialising our idea of multidisciplinary education programme is arguably challenging, not only because it is within the school of “economics”, a discipline far from diversity, but also in general, especially if it would be designed for nurturing individual students and young scholars to have interdisciplinary skills and expertise. On the other hand, it should be possible to juxtapose different disciplinary approaches and perspectives (not in the sense of a relativistic way of thinking) within a team consisting of individuals with distinct disciplinary orientations, and encourage and promote communication and collaboration among them. If students find themselves in such a multidisciplinary or cross-disciplinary environment and involved in a “dialogue of values” (Blewitt 2015), they will develop their multidisciplinary sense and perspectives that are necessary to understand and contribute to sustainable development.

Although it may be an exaggeration when it comes to the relationship between political economy and rural sociology that crucially constitute critical agri-food studies, difficulties were anticipated given a history of conflicting approaches between structure-oriented political economy of agri-food systems on the one hand, and actor-oriented peasant studies or place- and practice-based rural sociology. Throughout the collaboration during the past several years, however, it has proved to be fruitful and productive, though still challenging. This reminds me of several statements given by key scholars:

Jennifer Clapp (2016) from University of Waterloo, a key scholar representing the agri-food political economy, mentioned that: “Taking a step back to the bigger picture, to look at the wider forces that shape the world food economy… helps to build a richer understanding of these other important dimensions of food systems. While there is always a risk of missing out on the specificity of particular locations when taking a global perspective, gaining an understanding of the big picture helps to contextualize the local… Both locally specific studies and global overviews are needed to gain a comprehensive picture.”

Seemingly resonating her argument, Jan Douwe van der Ploeg (2016), a key scholar representing the actor-oriented rural sociology and peasant studies, also commented that interconnections between the two approaches should be constructed since “alternative agri-food economies are, time and again, materially triggered and driven forward by the dynamics of the dominant agri-food systems”, and continued to say that: “If this interconnection is left unexplored, the theories on alternative agri-food economies will remain too subjectivist: as if the creation and the further unfolding of new agri-food economies mainly depends on the willingness and perseverance of the actors involved”.

And very recently, Jessica Duncan et al. (2019, see also Levkoe et al. 2020) elaborate on the vital role of political economy, the gaps remaining to be addressed, and the possible ways to evolve political economy, saying that: “Political economy has been limited by its abilities to provide and explore potential solutions and alternatives to the dominant food system: unveiling power relation is not enough to transform socioecological systems and their related foodscapes. This limitation could be overcome if political economy practitioners actively engage with more diverse theories of change, not only tracing power relations but also contributing to greater methodological diversity and actualising more just and sustainable futures”.

Our collaboration and exchange activities actually have exemplified their suggestions and encouragement for constructing such “interconnections”.

A Series of Joint Graduate Workshops

A significance of this “going beyond the boundaries” is also true in geographical terms. In the same sense as “the global” is not an entity in its own right, but a construction of aggregated local events and discourses, neither of East Asia nor Europe as a region is ontologically given. They rather emerged through complex historical processes and spatial relations involving diverse social units and actors, which both from the “within” and the “outside”, are interacted and networked to construct and reconstruct something as “the regional”. East Asia, Europe or wherever as a region can be (critically) understood only relating it with other regions as well as delving into its diverse nationals and locals within. Although it is currently and completely disturbed under the Covid-19 pandemic, a series of KU-WU Joint Graduate Workshops have provided students and faculty members from the both sides with invaluable opportunities to see, feel, taste, touch and smell the culture and society of the other side so that they can deeply understand the other region while reflecting critically upon their own region. The workshops, needless to say, also include exiting opportunities for students to present their research, exchange ideas, and examine each other’s approaches.

The first joint workshop was held in Wageningen in March 2015 (http://agst.jgp.kyoto-u.ac.jp/topics/report/297), followed by the second one in Kyoto in May 2016, where Joost Jongerden, Jessica Duncan and Jan Douwe van der Ploeg attended (http://agst.jgp.kyoto-u.ac.jp/topics/report/629); the third one in Wageningen in June 2017, while taking part in the CSPS International Conference at De Wageningsche Berg; the fourth one in Kyoto in May 2018, where Joost Jongerden, Dirk Roep and Bettina Bock joined (http://agst.jgp.kyoto-u.ac.jp/topics/report/1611); the fifth one in Wageningen in May 2019 (http://agst.jgp.kyoto-u.ac.jp/topics/report/1909); and the sixth one in Kyoto, planned in September 2020 to be joined by Joost Jongerden and Esther Veen, but postponed due to the Covid-19 irregularity.

Session at the 2020 Workshop on Consumption and Sustainability

Apart from these joint workshops, Kyoto University organised the Kyoto Graduate Seminar on Economic Development and Sustainability Studies (http://agst.jgp.kyoto-u.ac.jp/topics/report/803) as a winter school in December 2016 and the Kyoto International Workshop on Consumption and Sustainability: Past, Present, and Future (http://www.econ.kyoto-u.ac.jp/kueac/courses/course-events-and-activities/kiw/) in February 2020, in both of which several graduate students and faculty members (Joost Jongerden, Oona Morrow, Anke de Vrieze, and Martin Ruivenkamp) from Wageningen were invited to play a key role. The latter was very successful thanks to a research intern from Wageningen (Iris van Hal). In these activities, some of the graduate students and faculty members from the KU’s Graduate School of Agriculture (Division of Natural Resource Economics also joined, but mainly Rural Sociology and Agrarian Philosophy group led by Motoki Akitsu) joined.

Individual-based exchange opportunities have also been offered to several graduate students from both sides, either as a research intern (mentioned elsewhere), as a visiting PhD student, or as an exchange master/bachelor student. Those who have had no chance yet to do their visiting research also have benefited from the collaboration through receiving useful thesis advice from the other side of faculty members. Jung Sungwoong and Anom Sigit Suryawan, among others of Kyoto PhD students, have presented and published their papers under the joint supervision between Jongerden and me.

A Series of Intensive Courses

In addition to the above-mentioned exchange activities, we also have arranged a series of intensive courses, though it has remained one-sided, i.e. Kyoto University has invited Wageningen scholars to give their intensive courses for Kyoto students to broaden their intellectual horizons. These intensive courses include the following:

  • Guido Ruivenkamp on Political Economy of Biotechnology Development and Commons (Spring 2015)
  • Jan Schakel on Agricultural Science and Society (Autumn 2015)
  • Jan Douwe van der Ploeg on Agrarian Change and Peasant Studies (Spring 2016)

During his stay in Kyoto to give his lectures in May 2016, Van der Ploeg contributed also to the 2nd Joint Workshop’s special session on Agroecology and Peasant Agriculture as a Promise for the Future, which was co-organised by the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (1) who invited Miguel Altieri (University of California, Berkeley) by chance in the same period. The detail of his lecture, the 2nd Joint Workshop, and its special session can be found here: http://agst.jgp.kyoto-u.ac.jp/topics/report/629.

  • Joost Jongerden on Spatial Thinking in the Social Sciences (Autumn 2016)
  • Jessica Duncan on Global Food Security Governance (Spring 2017, http://agst.jgp.kyoto-u.ac.jp/topics/news/1101. For her lecture we had assistance from another research intern from Wageningen, Joëlla van de Griend)
  • Bettina Bock on Inclusive Rural Development (Spring 2018)

Some others were planned but could not take place: Han Wiskerke on Critical Food Studies (Spring 2019), Stephanie Hobbis on Comparative Development (Autumn 2019). Another one possibly planned in 2020 has been postponed to sometime in 2021 (and will probably be given online) due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Looking Forward

On the basis of these experiences and achievements, we have been negotiating officially (i.e. involving the executive board members of both universities) during the past few years to set up a double degree master programme as a way to further institutionalise our educational collaboration. This attempt has turned out to be remarkably difficult and now is put on the shelf. We are not sure how our institutional collaboration will be going in the coming years, but what is certain is that we value the experiences and achievements of our exchange activities, and the current and future students of both sides are looking forward to being part of the collaborative learning and research for critical rural sociology and political economy of agriculture, food and rural development in Wageningen and in Kyoto.

Shuji Hisano, Kyoto University, Japan


1) Research Institute for Humanity and Nature is an inter-university research institute corporation, also located in Kyoto. Miguel Altieri was invited by its Small-Scale Economies Project (2014-2017), led by Junko Habu, and the FEAST Project for Lifeworlds of Sustainable Food Consumption and Production: Agrifood System in Transition (2013-2020), led by Steven McGreevy. Especially, the FEAST Project (https://www.feastproject.org/en/) has been a part of Kyoto-Wageningen collaboration and its members actively participated in joint workshops and intensive courses. In turn, some of research interns from Wageningen, including Guilherme de Sa Pavarini Raj, partially worked for the FEAST Project in 2018. Furthermore, Hisano, Akitsu and McGreevy (2018) was published in Journal of Rural Studies, as part of a special issue edited by Paul Hebinck (2018), to which Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, Joost Jongerden, Dirk Roep, Henk Oostindie, among others, also contributed.


  • Blewitt, J. (2015). Understanding Sustainable Development, 2nd edition. London and New York, Routledge.
  • Clapp, J. (2016). Food, 2nd edition. London, Polity Press.
  • Van der Ploeg, J. D (2016). “Theorizing Agri-Food Economies.” Agriculture, 6(3): pp.1-12.
  • Duncan, J., C. Z. Levkoe and A. Moragues-Faus (2019). “Envisioning New Horizons for the Political Economy of Sustainable Food Systems.” IDS Bulletin 50(2): pp.37-55.
  • Hebinck, P. (2018) “De-/re-agrarianisation: Global perspectives.” Journal of Rural Studies, 61: pp.227-265.
  • Hisano, S., M. Akitsu, and S. McGreevy (2018). “Revitalising rurality under the neoliberal transformation of agriculture: Experiences of re-agrarianisation in Japan”. Journal of Rural Studies 61: pp.290-301.
  • Levkoe, C. Z., A. Moragues-Faus, and J. Duncan (2020). “A Political Economy for Regenerative Food Systems.” In: Duncan, J., M. Carolan, and J. S. C. Wiskerke, eds. Routledge Handbook of Sustainable and Regenerative Food Systems. London and New York, Routledge.