75th Anniversary: 23) On RSO education: 75 years teaching rural sociology

Diving into the archives of Wageningen University Library, I stumbled upon overviews and information on education. I was particularly interested in the teaching of rural sociology at the university. This is the first of a few blogs on RSO Education: the historical overview of sociology and specifically rural sociology at the Wageningen University timeline.

The pre-sociology era (1918-1956)

First students at the Landbouwhogeschool in 1879 (source: wur.nl)

In 1918, the Wageningen University was still called the Landbouwhogeschool (Agricultural College). Students could choose 5 study programmes: Dutch Agriculture, Dutch Horticulture, Dutch Forestry, Colonial Agriculture and Colonial Forestry. These remained the study programmes of the university for 24 years. It was not until 1945 that the university evolved into wider oriented institute. In 1946, sociology gained grounds through a new study programme on home economics. In his book chapter, Kooy (1971) calls this an “entrance in disguise” sociology was always marked with the adjective “agrarian”.  This marked the beginning of sociology in the educational programmes of the university. In 1956, The university added 11 new study programmes to the Wageningen university. Two of these additions were the study programmes Agrarian Sociology and Agrarian Sociology of Non-Western Areas.

Hofstee is seen as one of the bigger influencing factors in this shift in educational programmes. He stressed that sociology at the university did not just have to focus on agriculture. More important was that Wageningen trained sociologists were able to connect their knowledge to the wider practical world and the natural sciences in general. Hofstee stated that sociologist from other universities allegedly could not speak some of the language of the natural science, Wageningen sociologist should be able to make bridges between the different disciplines.

The early years of social studies (1960-1970)

The influence of social science continued to grow. First, all the study programmes included 1 common propaedeutic programme that all students had to take. This preliminary programme focussed primarily on maths, physics and chemistry. In 1970, The university added more propaedeutic programmes, including one for social science students. This programme called Natuur- en Maatschappijwetenschappelijke Propedeuse (Environmental and Social Science) included non-agricultural courses such as psychology and law and some natural science courses disappeared. This was the first time students could choose social science courses without the agricultural focus.

The revolutionary years (1980)

The beginning of 1980 marked new changes where the 5-year doctoral study was turned into a 4-year study programme. The propaedeutic programme Environmental/Social Sciences was split up in an Environmental and a Social Sciences programme. The social study programme remained the same as well as its specialisations. But in general, more room was given to free choices and different combinations of courses. The then 20 study programmes of the university included 94 orientations and around 300 study profiles. This also marked the beginning of the study advisor as students were sometimes confused with the large amount of options.

Around this time, the university had to deal with severe budget cuts and was forced to look critically at the large amount of study options and offered education. In these days, there was also a tendency to focus stronger on the green and agricultural image of the university. Consequently, the budget plans proposed to enforce the Plant and Animal Sciences of the university and to decrease funding to the Environmental and Social Sciences. These cuts and a green focus would imply that the social study programmes as well as the chair groups of the social sciences could become redundant. This ignited a series of harsh protests in which buildings of the university were occupied and a truckload of manure was delivered at the doorstep of the university’s main building. The opposition to these plans was so fierce that the university decided to not fully go ahead with their plans to remove social science from the educational programmes.

The student protest in the 1980 (source: resource.wur.nl)

The university did decide, however, that Economics was renamed into Agrarian Economics. They set up a new study programme on Agrotechnology. And the two specialisations Sociology of Western areas and Agrarian Sociology of Non-Western Areas were merged into one specialisation called Applied Sociology and later Rural Sociology in 1985. Remarkably, the study programme of Rural Sociology was set up in such a way that a student could only graduate as a rural development sociologist. To graduate as a rural sociologist a student had to choose a free specialisation: an approved combination of courses picked by the student themselves.


The study programme rural sociology did survive the budget cuts but changed into Rural Development Studies and was categorised under a new propaedeutic programme called Development and Tropical studies (also known as the O studies) in 1988. Rural development was from that moment on explicitly linked to an international perspective. What followed in the 1990 and onwards was a time of internationalisation: the transformation from Dutch doctoral studies to the international bachelor/master system and the increase in international students. The shift to Bachelor/Master removed the need for a common propaedeutic year. Rural Development Studies was renamed into the bachelor and master International Development Studies (The BIN and the MID respectively). Both programmes offer a sociology specialisation of which rural sociology is an important part.

The Leeuwenborch in the 1990s – the Social Science building where most of the rural sociology education took and still takes place (source: beeldenvanwageningen.nl)

The role of rural sociology in education seems to have changed considerably, yet also stayed the same. The major changes are the disappearing of a clear social science programme at the university. In the early days, students from the Environmental and Social Science propaedeutic programme almost automatically flowed from the general preliminary courses to the courses of the study program to the courses of the specific specialisations. The boundaries seemed clear and the diversity in study options small. From the 1980s and onwards this changed: the freedom to choose different subjects and courses is a frequently used right at the university and the number of programmes to choose from has increased. The courses on sociology are not only given within the domain of social sciences studies but also in study programmes from the natural sciences like Food Technology and Organic Agriculture.

But some elements in rural sociology education have stayed somewhat the same over all these years. The international perspective already included in the 1956 through specialisations in agrarian sociology in western and non-western areas has remained prominent in the current international focussed bachelor and master programmes. Additionally, we see the continuation of a strong link with agriculture. Particularly the Bachelor and Master International Development include many courses on agrarian sociology, sociology of farming or sociology of food. What was once dubbed as “the entrance in disguise” of sociology at the university because of its link with agriculture, remains a continued and important element in our teaching of today. And finally, and in line with the argumentation by Hofstee, we still value that Wageningen trained sociologist can connect their knowledge to the wider world. Rural Sociology thus teaches several large courses in the more technical master programmes which in turn leads to many enthusiastic thesis students from non-social study programmes. In the end, we get the best of both worlds: we train sociologist that are able to interact with the natural sciences and we train natural science students that enthusiastically write high quality thesis reports at Rural Sociology.

Sources of information

  • Observations and experiences from formers students and current staff at Rural Sociology
  • Kooy, G.A. (1971) Een kwart eeuw Wageningse Sociology. In: Hofstee, E.W, and G.A Kooy. 1971. Gemengde Bedrijvigheid : Een Kwart Eeuw Wageningse Sociologie, 1946-1971 : Aangeboden Aan Prof. E. W. Hofstee Ter Gelegenheid Van Zijn 25-Jarig Jubileum Als Hoogleraar Aan De Landbouwhogeschool. Miscellaneous Papers / Landbouwhogeschool Wageningen, 10. Wageningen: Veenman.
  • Haar, J. van der, and M.E. de Ruiter. 1993. De Geschiedenis Van De Landbouwuniversiteit Wageningen. Vol. Dl. 1, Van School Naar Hogeschool, 1873-1945 / J. Van Der Haar ; Met Medew. Van M.e. De Ruiter. Wageningen: Landbouwuniversiteit Wageningen.
  • Haar, J. van der, and M.E. de Ruiter. 1993. De Geschiedenis Van De Landbouwuniversiteit Wageningen. Vol. Dl. 2, Verdieping En Verbreding, 1945-1970 / J. Van Der Haar ; Met Medew. Van M.e. De Ruiter. Wageningen: Landbouwuniversiteit Wageningen.
  • Faber, J. A, and M. E. de Ruiter. 1993. De Geschiedenis Van De Landbouwuniversiteit Wageningen. Vol. Dl. 3, Van Revolutie Naar Rendement, 1970-1990 /. Wageningen: Landbouwuniversiteit Wageningen. http://edepot.wur.nl/210364.