75th Anniversary: 5) Sociology as Sociography

“Korenveld” by Lianne Koster – licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

When Evert Willem (E.W.) Hofstee, founding father of rural sociology in the Netherlands, started his academic career as lecturer at Groningen University in 1938, he defined his work as ‘sociography’ (Hofstee 1938). In this, he was clearly following in the footsteps of his teacher and tutor, Sebald Rudolf Steinmetz (1862- 1940), who had created the new discipline from a fusion of sociology and geography (Karel 2002: 2-3). Only later would Hofstee add the word “sociology” to the domain of his work. Thus, the department (“vakgroep”) he established and headed at the Agricultural University in Wageningen from 1954 onwards was named “sociography and sociology” before being renamed as “sociology”, and then, more precisely, “rural sociology”. Nevertheless, until the end of his life, he remained committed to the agenda of “sociography”: a grounded theoretical approach with low levels of abstraction and high probability of practical application (Hofstee 1938, Hofstee 1982; Karel 2002).


In the year after he obtained his PhD in 1937, a “sociography” of Het Oldambt, a region in the eastern part of Groningen province in the north of the Netherlands, Hofstee was appointed as an unsalaried university lecturer in sociography embedded within Groningen University’s Faculty of Law. In the public lecture preceding the start of his teaching there, he gave an overview of the development and meaning of sociography, the discipline in which he firmly positioned himself, and which had produced an impressive number of studies in the first decade after its establishment. Hofstee’s overview was imbued with the ideas of Steinmetz, the founder of this relatively new discipline. In brief, Hofstee argued that the sociography developed by Steinmetz and adopted by himself can be characterized as a field of study interested in the social life of people and the diversity emerging from this social life, following inductive methods (Hofstee 1938).

For Hoftee, Steinmetz’s and sociography’s primary objects of study are people’s social lives and their particularities. This interest is rooted in a concern for human beings, not what he refers to as an “abstract,” “systematized,” “schematized,” or “idealized” human being, but the “concrete, living” human beings; human beings in their diversity, with “their lows and heights” (Hofstee 1938: 5 ). While Hofstee identified the abstract and generalized with sociology, he considered the concrete and particular the domain of sociography. Hofstee’s peer and colleague, Sjoerd Groenman, had argued in a similar vein that sociology generalizes, while sociography studies the particular (Groenman 1948: 4). As an “individualizing sociology”, sociography focuses on “concrete situations” and “groups” (ibid.  7).  

Hofstee’s interest in the concrete, the lived and the particular, marked his inclination towards “inductive” research methodology, making in-depth descriptions of the social groups (Hofstee 1938: 7-8). He combined this with a comparative approach. In his own research, conceptualization from in-depth and comparative descriptions yielded the concept of “farming styles” in agricultural production (Groenman 1948: 11). In today’s language, we would refer to this inductive approach with its conceptualization from in-depth description as ‘grounded theory’.

Hofstee distinguished sociology and sociography as separate but related sciences, the one developing abstract theories beyond time and place and the other developing an analytical understanding of the particular. This distinction between the general and the particular (Hofstee 1938: 11) was rooted in the apparent distinction between theory and research as it existed in the 1920s and 30s, a distinction that formed the background for the separation of sociology and sociography (Doorn and Lammers: 53). Sociology’s tendency to abstraction, influenced by the philosophy-oriented German sociology, left the empirical field unexplored, now to be claimed by sociography. Yet Hofstee did not see sociography as an independent academic discipline but rather as providing the data for the sociologist, who would be able to develop fact based instead of speculative theory. The sociographer, collecting data – without theoretical assumptions or perspective (Karel 2002: 2-3) – does the ‘field work’ for the sociologist, making sociography the “auxiliary science” of sociology (Hofstee 1938 1105: 11, 15).

However, Hofstee did not only see the research oriented sociography as supportive towards theoretical sociology, he also considered sociography important for policy (Hofstee 1938 1105: 18). As the state increasingly intervened in people’s economic and social life, so too did its need to acquire knowledge about diverse groups in society so that policy could be better assessed: “Without study, study and more study,” the state is unable to properly fulfill its task (Hofstee 1938 1105: 20), and it is the sociographers who can supply the knowledge required (Hofstee 1938 1105: 19). For Hofstee, sociography was an applied science (Karel 2002). Social scientific research in support of ordering interventions in Dutch society (Winkels,1982: 79).

Between unripe sociology and over-ripe geography

Only ten years after Hofstee’s public lecture at the University of Groningen, Hofstee’s close colleague, Sjoerd Groenman, had concluded in his inaugural lecture at Utrecht University that sociography in the Netherlands had not delivered on its promise to become a powerful support for sociology. The material it inductively obtained had been of very little use in making generalizations (Groenman 1948 1103: 4). In fact, as the product of an unripe sociology and an over-ripe geography (Doorn and Lammers), it had remained more like a chorography, the description of regions, than a description of forms of social living (Groenman 1948 1103: 4-5). Rather than taking social groups as its object of study, Dutch sociography had produced what were essentially geographically-based descriptions of regions (Groenman 1948 1103: 6), yet in a way it had provided hardly anything more than uneven, incidental data of an unequal kind and therefore not useful to the sociologist (Groenman 1948 1103: 6, 15). In short, sociography had fallen short of its self-assigned duty to sociology (Groenman 1948 1103: 16). Hofstee himself came to a similar conclusion at a conference on sociography he hosted at the Institute for Social Research of the Dutch People in 1953 (Hofstee 1953).

Sociography had not only failed to deliver, the distinction the practitioners of sociography had made between theory and research became less pronounced too. In the 1950s, the contradiction between theory and research, which had been the basis of the sociology-sociography distinction, had become less pronounced with the influence of American empirical sociology on the social sciences in the Netherlands. Moreover, several universities in the Netherlands started to offer masters in sociology – Utrecht 1951, Nijmegen 1953, Groningen 1955, the Free University (VU) of Amsterdam 1959, Wageningen 1962, and Rotterdam 1968 (Haan and Leeuw 1995). In short, the failure to deliver and to distinguish itself from geography as well as the empirical turn and institutionalization of sociology marked the end of sociography. In Utrecht, sociography  became part of social geography and in Amsterdam part of sociology (Doorn and Lammers 1958). In Wageningen sociography becomes rural sociology, the study of social groups and phenomena within a rural configuration. So in a period of only a few decades sociography became reduced to a specialization within geography or dissolved into sociology.

Sociography’s new cloths: Differential sociology

At the beginning of the 1980s, at the end of his academic career, Hofstee defined his approach as a “differential sociology”:

‘Differential’ sociological theory will in many respects be different from the currently existing sociological theories. First of all, as is already implied in the foregoing, ‘differential’ sociology does not aim at generalizations with a high level of universality. On the contrary, their validity will almost always be limited by time and place. Generalizations arrived at by ‘differential’ sociology will mostly not even function at ‘middle’ level but only at ‘lower’ levels of abstraction, since they have to remain directly applicable to the factual social reality. Otherwise, they will lose their capacity to explain the characteristics of a particular group. In other words, in comparison with general sociological theories, ‘differential’ sociology is much more concerned with social phenomena of greater complexity. ‘Differential’ sociology means a comparative study of more or less similar single groups. It is interested in groups as such, and not in abstracted and isolated social traits. Even if it is interested in specific group characteristics, it will try to interpret them against the characteristics of the group as a whole. (Hofstee 1982: 54)

Hofstee’s differential sociology, as he emphasized time and again, did not aim at high levels of abstraction, referred to as generalization, therefore, but at explanations of the social reality of a particular group in time and space. This low-level abstraction was supposed to contribute to an understanding of the social worlds of identified groups, in all their complexity. Hofstee’s concept of “farming styles”, a shared understanding about how to farm shared by a group of farmers and the way this materializes, was one such low-level abstraction, one that has proved useful to understand diversity in farming practices. With his description of differential sociology, therefore, Hofstee could not have given a better definition of sociography.


Doorn, J. A. A. v. and C. J. Lammers (1958). “Sociologie en Sociografie.” De Gids 5(2): pp. 49-78.

Groenman, S. (1948). Kanttekeningen bij de Voortgang van het Sociale Onderzoek in Nederland, rede uitgesproken bij de aanvaarding van het ambt van buitengewoon hoogleraar in de socilogie aan de Rijksuniversiteit te Utrecht op Maandag 1 november 1948 Meppel, Fa. Stenvert & Zoon.

Haan, J. d. and F. d. Leeuw (1995). “Sociology in the Netherlands ” The American Sociologist, Winter 1995: pp. 70-87.

Hofstee, E. W. (1938). De Sociografie, haar ontwikkeling en haar betekenis, Openbare les gegeven bij de aanvang zijner colleges en de opening van het sociologisch instituut gevestigd aan de Rijksuniversiteit te Groningen op 18 october 1938 Groningen, J.B. Wolters Uitgevers Maatschappij.

Hofstee, E. W. (1953). Sociografie in de Practijk. Sociografie in de Practijk. S. Groenman, W. R. Heere, E. W. Hofstee et al. Assen, Van Gorcum & Comp. N.V.: pp. 1-6.

Hofstee, E. W. (1982). Differentiële Sociologie in Kort Bestek: Schets van de differentiële sociologie en haar functie in het concrete sociaal-wetenschappelijk onderzoek. Wageningen, Mededelingen van de Vakgroepen Sociologie van de Landbouwhogeschool.

Karel, E. (2002). “Rural sociologists and their theories on the Dutch agricultural development after the Second World War.” Paper presented at the European Economic and Social History Conference in The Hague. February 26th – March 2nd, 2002.

Winkels, J. (1982). ISONEVO: Het Instituut voor Sociaal Onderzoek van het Nederlandse Volk. Amsterdam, SISWO.

75th Anniversary: 4) Some thoughts on the overhead projector

This is a picture of Professor Hofstee. It is clearly an old picture: it is black and white (no filter!), and the clothing looks rather outdated and overly formal. But what also stands out is the phone. I wonder whether he was really making a phone call here, or whether this was staged for the picture. In any case, this bakelite phone (‘bakeliet’, have you ever used the word for something else than a phone?) made me wonder how technology has changed over the last 75 years. How differently we must be writing, teaching, researching, reading, searching for literature than the generations before us! Many of us will have cursed our computers or have been annoyed with having to use yet another digital tool, but for sure technology has made our lives easier in several ways. I can’t imagine having to do my work without email, or having had to type (or hand write!) my PhD thesis.

One piece of technology that brings back fond memories of my early student days, is the overhead projector. In fact, I can see myself as a first-year student in the ‘Hofstee-room’ (C64), with the overhead projector on stage and a professor bending over it to replace the see-through plastic sheets on which notes and drawings were scribbled in a not-necessarily readable handwriting (sometimes in mirror image). While a quick google search shows that new overhead projectors are still for sale, they seem to belong to a past that has long gone, somewhere between the bakelite phone and Zoom-meetings. Ruthlessly replaced by powerpoint, beamers and smart screens. More modern presentation options offer us features as the option to include photos, clips, and links, the ability to send and save presentations for later study, and of course the use of readable letters. However, they just don’t arouse such nostalgic feelings, perhaps because they are so much less clumsy, less personal.

But then again, the technological revolution after my beloved overhead projector does do us a great favour in corona-time. Most of the teaching staff at the RSO group has had to teach over the internet, and it has shown our combined creativity. Life classes were given in an online environment, or recorded to be watched at any convenient time, discussions were transferred to a digital space, including whiteboards and other discussion tools, excursions were taped or could be followed on an online-link. We got to use various different sharing, talking, discussing, recording and thinking tools, and discussed the best ways to invite online discussions. Of course we all missed face-to-face interaction with students, and chatting with colleagues besides the coffee machine. But teaching during a pandemic would have been so much harder if we would only have had the overhead projector at our disposal.

75th Anniversary: 3) In the beginning there was E.W. Hofstee or the birth of Rural Sociology in Wageningen

Photo: E.W. Hofstee on the shoulders of the sociologists Ad Nooij and Rien Munters at the occasion of the 25th anniversary

The history of rural sociology in Wageningen goes back to the appointment of Evert Willem (E.W.) Hofstee as professor in economic geography. His appointment by Royal Decree took place on May 9, 1946. He started to work at the university on September 15, 1946, though his formal employment did not start until October 1, 1946. Hofstee gave his inaugural lecture “On the causes of diversity in agricultural regions in the Netherlands” on October 30, 1946.

The appointment of E.W. Hofstee not only marked the beginning of  rural sociology in Wageningen, his work also laid the foundations for the social sciences department at this university. Moreover, Hofstee played an important role in the development of rural sociology in Europe. He was the co-founder and first president of the ‘European Society for Rural Sociology’ (1957) and co-founder of the journal ‘Sociologia Ruralis’ (1960).

Hofstee’s original teaching assignment was ‘Economic and Social Geography and Social Statistics’. The position for an economic geographer, who would also do social statistics, went back to a pre-advice of a committee led by professor Edelman to the Senate of the Wageningen Agricultural University on September 21, 1945. The committee recommended the appointment of a professor in economic geography.  A few days later, on September 27, 1945, the rector requested the ‘Committee for the Restoration of the Agricultural University’ (‘College van Herstel van de Landbouwhogeschool), responsible for the post-World War II re-establishment of the university, to open a vacancy for a professor in economic geography.

With regard to the necessity of such a position, the appointment advisory committee stated on January 26, 1946 that together with the increasing role of the state in the economy, “there is a growing need for agricultural engineers who have received economic and socio-geographical training. Knowledge of the structure of countries and peoples that compete with Dutch agricultural, horticultural and forestry products as well as knowledge of the structure of agricultural society in our own country and the Dutch-Indies is necessary.”

Hofstee was one of the 13 candidates who applied for the new position and became the appointment advisory committee’s first choice. The committee argued that Hofstee was a good speaker, had didactic skills, did important research and had strong letters of recommendation. Moreover, the committee was looking for someone who would be able to develop his research agenda with determination and perseverance and thought Hofstee was the right person for this.

Hofstee had clearly explained his ambition in his application letter and the job interview. He told the committee that the task of the professor should not remain limited to doing what most economic geographers did – making a ‘product topography’  – or ‘bringing together existing knowledge’. His ambition was higher. The agricultural engineer of the future, Hofstee argued, needs to understand the factors that determine the nature and scale of production. He considered it important that students learn how economic questions relate to social phenomena of a non-economic nature.  Another important task, Hofstee argued, was to train agricultural engineers to become independent researchers of ‘concrete issues’ . Hofstee’s ultimate ambition was to develop the university into a center of research on rural regions and agriculture. He considered the terms economic and social geography outdated, but had to wait until 1954 until his teaching assignment was given the name he preferred: sociography.

Following his appointment in 1946, Hofstee not only developed rural sociology in Wageningen, but also made important contributions in the fields of demography and household studies, history, planning, and GIS.  He was a board member of the Agricultural Economic Institute LEI, today’s Wageningen Economic Research (WEcR). Although he did not like the designation  ‘Wageningen School’, he laid the foundations for a specific approach that was characterized by an interest in agency, meaning and diversity – an approach which continues to characterize rural sociology in Wageningen.

(A Dutch version of this text was published last week)

75th Anniversary: 2) In den beginne was er E.W. Hofstee – het ontstaan van Rurale Sociologie in Wageningen

De geschiedenis van rurale sociologie in Wageningen gaat terug tot de benoeming tot hoogleraar van Evert Willem (E.W.) Hofstee per Koninklijk Besluit van 9 mei 1946. Volgens eigen zeggen begon hij zijn werkzaamheden op 15 september 1946, maar zijn formele indiensttreding was op 1 oktober 1946 en het einde van die maand, op 30 oktober 1946, hield Hofstee zijn inaugurele rede met de titel “Over de oorzaken van de verscheidenheid in de Nederlandsche landbouwgebieden”. Hofstee kan met recht beschouwd worden als de grondlegger van de rurale sociologie in Wageningen, maar misschien ook wel van het departement maatschappijwetenschappen aan deze universiteit. Ook speelde Hofstee een sleutelrol in rurale sociologie in Europa. Hofstee was medeoprichter en eerste president van de European Society for Rural Sociology (1957) en medeoprichter van het tijdschrift Sociologia Ruralis (1960).
Hofstee zijn oorspronkelijke leeropdracht was de ”Economische en Sociale Geografie en de Sociale Statistiek”. De positie voor een economisch geograaf, die de sociale statistiek erbij zou doen, ging terug tot een preadvies van een commissie onder leiding van de Wageningse Hoogleraar Edelman aan de senaat van de Landbouwhogeschool op 21 september 1945 om een professor economische geografie aan te stellen. Nog geen week later, op 27 september 1945, verzocht de rector het naoorlogse ‘College van Herstel van de Landbouwhogeschool’ een positie te creëren voor een professor economische geografie. Over de noodzaak en invulling van een dergelijke positie, schreef de benoemingsadviescommissie 26 januari 1946 het volgende:
“Naarmate de volkshuishoudingen meer door de overheid worden geleid ontstaat er meer behoefte aan landbouwkundigen met economische en sociaalgeografische scholing. Kennis van de structuur van landen en volken welke me onze land-, tuin- en bosbouwproducten concurreren als wel kennis van de structuur van de agrarische samenleving in ons eigen land en Indië is noodzakelijk”. 
Hofstee is een van de 13 kandidaten die op de functie solliciteert. De commissie acht twee kandidaten voor de functie geschikt, maar Hofstee is de eerste keus. Hofstee, zo motiveert de commissie haar besluit, is een goed spreker, hij heeft didactische vaardigheden, heeft belangrijke onderzoek gedaan en sterke geloofsbrieven. De commissie denkt verder dat de andere kandidaat
“zich vermoedelijk gemakkelijker dan Hofstee [zal] richten naar de wensen van zijn collega’s; Hofstee zal meer zijn eigen weg gaan; hij ziet die reeds vrij scherp voor zich en beschikt vermoedelijk over het nodige doorzettingsvermogen om zijn doel te verwezenlijken”.
De commissie zoekt iemand die zijn leeropdracht op eigen wijze weet in te vullen en denkt hiermee in Hofstee de juiste persoon te hebben gevonden.
Hofstee had in zijn sollicitatiebrief op de functie en in het daaropvolgend gesprek zijn visie helder uiteen gezet. Zo maakte hij duidelijk dat de taak van de professor zich niet zou moeten beperken tot een “productentopografie” waartoe de economische geografie maar al te vaak aanleiding geeft. De taak zou ook niet beperkt moeten blijven tot het bij elkaar brengen van kennis. Hofstee meende dat gezien de toekomstige functie van de landbouwingenieur, het van groot belang was dat deze inzicht krijgt in de factoren welke aard en omvang van de productie bepalen. “Economische verschijnselen”, zo stelt Hofstee, “moeten gezien worden in samenhang met de maatschappelijke verschijnselen van niet-economische aard”.  Een andere belangrijke taak, schrijft Hofstee, is studenten op te leiden tot zelfstandige onderzoekers van concrete vraagstukken. Hofstee gaf verder aan de Landbouwhogeschool zoveel mogelijk te willen maken tot een centrum van het onderzoek van het platteland en de landbouw. Hij vindt de termen economische en sociale geografie verouderd, en stelt de naam sociografie voor, maar hij moet tot 1954 wachten tot zijn leeropdracht deze naam krijgt.
In de jaren die volgden op zijn benoeming in 1946 zette Hofstee de rurale sociologie op de kaart, als wel de demografie en gezinssociologie, geschiedenis, planologie, en GIS. Ook was hij bestuurslid van het landbouweconomisch Instituut LEI, het huidige WECR (Wageningen Economisch Research).  Hoewel hij niet gecharmeerd was van de benaming ‘Wageningse School’, legde hij de basis voor een specifieke benadering die zich liet kenmerken door de aandacht voor agency, betekenisgeving en diversiteit. 
Foto: Hofstee op de schouders van de sociologen Ad Nooij en Rien Munters ter gelegenheid van het 25 jarig jubileum in 1971. 



75th Anniversary: 1) an introduction to a year of celebration events and activities

In September 1946 Evert Willem Hofstee, the founding father of Rural Sociology at Wageningen University, started as Professor and Chair of Social and Economic Geography and Social Statistics.

In the years that followed, the department was reorganized and renamed (e.g. Agrarian Sociology of Western Areas; Sociology) several times, with Rural Sociology being the official name since the late 1990s. Hofstee was also one of the founders and the first President of the European Society for Rural Sociology.

The Rural Sociology Group of Wageningen University will celebrate its 75th Anniversary on the 24th of September 2021. On that day we will organize an international conference at which we will present, discuss and reflect upon the past, present and future of rural sociology in an interactive setting. And we will, of course, also have a party in the evening of the 24th of September 2021 to celebrate 75 years of rural sociology at Wageningen University with current and former staff members, PhD students and graduates, former and current students and colleagues with whom we collaborated in national and international research projects. So SAVE THE DATE if you want participate in our conference and join our party. More details about the conference program will be published on this website soon!

The conference and party will not be the only activity that we will organize to celebrate our 75th anniversary. Starting today, we will arrange a variety of events, activities and outputs leading up to our main festivity on September 24th 2021.

  • A weekly blog (on this website) about the past, present or future of Rural Sociology. This may be about a specific theory, a research project, an event, or something else;
  • A seminar series (online or blended) with agrarian, rural and food sociologists from other universities;
  • A series of rural field trips in the Netherlands, visiting, for example, rural sociology graduates that have become farmers;
  • A PhD Day with and for PhD graduates and PhD candidates and a PhD Magazine with an overview of all PhD graduates, their PhD thesis and career after completion of their PhD thesis;
  • An anniversary book about the past, present and future of Rural Sociology in Wageningen.

We are looking forward to a year of celebration activities and events and hope many of our (former) colleagues and students will do so too. And we hope to welcome you at our celebratory event on the 24th of September 2021. So stay tuned to this blog and get to know more about the past, present and future of Rural Sociology in Wageningen in the forthcoming 12 months.