75th Anniversary: 24) Rural Sociology and the making of the Health and Society Group

The inaugural lecture by Maria Koelen upon taking up the post of Professor of Health and Society at Wageningen University on 10 March 2011 (source: Health and Society website)

By Maria Koelen (Professor Emeritus of the chairgroup Health and Society)

Belief it or not, but the young Health and Society Group has its origin in the 75 years old Rural Sociology of Wageningen University. In fact, Professor Evert Willem Hofstee, the founder of Rural Sociologie (1946) as has been mentioned often in this blog, started to pave the road to it. The Agricultural University (at the time Landbouw Hogeschool) developed a lot of scientific, technological and economic insights for farming practice, which was transferred to the farmers through agricultural extension educators employed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. The prevailing idea was that farmers would appreciate these insights and, from a kind of self-interest, would apply these insights into their daily practice. However, as Hofstee argued in 1953, just transferring these insights to the farmers would not suffice. He advocated an additional, sociological approach and to pay attention to social groups and culture. This idea caught on with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. To operationalise the idea, in 1955 the Ministry seconded its employee Anne Van Den Ban to the Rural Sociology group to advance this type of research. With his appointment, the foundation has been laid for a new interdisciplinary field “extension education”, in Dutch “Voorlichtingskunde”. In 1963 Van Den Ban obtained his PhD under supervision of Professor Hofstee and in 1964 he was appointed to be the first professor in this field.

Van Den Ban started with a small group of researchers and teachers, initially with a focus on agricultural extension, but throughout the years the focus extended towards sustainable development, environment, and importantly, also to health. As such he stood at the cradle of health education as a scientific discipline. Sociology, psychology and anthropology were the main perspectives in Van Den Ban’s research and education. Even though the university is based in agricultural sciences, many of the study areas were and are directly or indirectly linked to health: food production, food processing and food consumption, and the natural and built environment. The initial focus of health education was on increasing people’s knowledge about the consequences of risky behaviours, such as unhealthy nutrition, smoking or alcohol consumption. However, as Hofstee already argued in 1953, rational cognitive appeals do not possess enough power to motivate people to change their, often habitual, practices. People cannot be isolated from their social and material context. Behaviour has to be considered in the wider context of lifestyles and the focus broadened up to health promotion.

Throughout the years Wageningen University offered students from a variety of training programmes the opportunity to put together a study package with courses from beta- and gamma disciplines with health as the central theme. And many students took that opportunity. In the first years of 2000, the Executive Board of Wageningen University, and specifically the at that time Rector Magnificus Professor Bert Speelman, decided it was worthwhile to assemble the expertise of the university in the areas of lifestyles, nutrition, and the natural and built environment into a new training programme “Health & Society”. A lot of work has been put in the development of the programme by the late Professor Kees de Hoog of Sociology of Consumption and Households, Professor Iteke Weeda from the Rural Sociology group, and myself from Communication and Innovation Studies (the ‘new name’of the Extension Science group). The approval for this bachelor program was made  in 2005 by dr. Cees Veerman, by then Minister of Agriculture and former chair of the Executive Board at the WUR (1997 – 2002).  In 2007, the bachelor program was followed up by a master specialisation Health & Society. Today, both programmes attract a lot of motivated students.

As a logical follow up of the success of the bachelor and master programmes, the Executive Board of Wageningen University and Research took the initiative in its strategic plan 2007-2010 for the establishment of the chair Health and Society, since health and society was considered as one of the expertise priorities. And so it happened that in 2010 the Health and Society chair group was born.

Health and Society operates at the centre of societal and community changes. The focus of the chair is defined as “the sociological study of public health, health promotion and health protection, in resource poor and resource rich contexts, with emphasis on (1) the social, natural and built environment, and (2) the role of actors and social institutions in advancing health and well being.” At the basis stands the believe that people create and are created by their social, natural and built environment and so influence their own and other people’s health and well-being. It incorporates the physical, social, mental and spiritual dimensions of health and well-being. Health is considered as a process which enables people to lead an individually, socially, and economically productive life. It reflects the ability to adapt and self-manage in the face of social, physical and emotional challenges. Experiences during childhood, ageing, living and working conditions throughout life do have cumulative and interactive effects on health and well-being.

Today, the chair is positioned within the section and Centre for Space, Place and Society, which brings together researchers from four chair groups within Wageningen University –Rural Sociology, Sociology of Development and Change, Cultural Geography, and Health and Society. Professor Hofstee smiles from heaven.