Professor Gianluca Brunori: Friends of RSO video series

In this second interview in the Friends of RSO video Series, we speak with Gianluca Brunori, Professor of Food Policy at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Environment, at Pisa University. In our interview, he reflects on the central role the RSO group has had on his career. He notes the impact of the group, based in part on the methodological approaches and a strong, critical view: the attempt to go beyond the common discourse to challenge situations, while also looking the alternatives.

He reflects on the blurring of disciplines and the challenges and opportunities this poses for Rural Sociology. He makes a plea for enhanced engagement with economies to enhance our understandings of alternatives, without losing the “hard core” of the discipline.

Professor Brunori shares an experience of a rainy group camping trip that led to the consolidation of professional relations that have spanned more than 30 years.

Many thanks to Gianluca for sharing his reflections and to Yanick Bakker for her editorial work.

Prof Myriam Paredes: Friends of RSO video series

Over the last 75 years, we have made a lot of friends from around the world. In this short series, we interview a few of these friends with strong roots in RSO and who have gone on to have internationally recognized scientific careers.

In this interview series, we ask them to reflect on their connection to the group, the legacy of the group, and the future of rural sociology more broadly.

In this first interview, Professor Myriam Paredes, of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, (FLACSO), in Ecuador, reflects on the novel approaches and contributions of the group to sociological debate, notably moving beyond traditional actor /structure dichotomies.

She also recalls fondly the deep conversations and good company she experiences while studying at RSO. She shares that students and staff would come together to debate the ageless question of what different realities mean, as a way to introduce non-sociological students into sociological debates.

She also shares her trajectory from MSc student to PhD candidate and reflects on the quality of the teachers, and ‘friends for life’ that supported her on her journey.

A special thank you to Myriam for sharing her memories and to Yanick Bakker for her editorial support.

75th Anniversary: 60) Research at the Rural Sociology Group: Engaging urban food initiatives in planning: Urban food planning in a complex, pluralistic society

Paul de Graaf

Examining urban agriculture projects in Rotterdam between 2008 and 2018, my research looks at the practice of urban food planning, its strategies, the actors involved and their roles and relations. Central to the research is the observation that in Western European society today, the increased participation of civic initiatives confronts planning with challenges related to governance, decision-making and representation. Sustainable urban food planning can be seen as a laboratory for planning concepts that deal with these challenges.

The purpose of my research is to investigate which conceptualisations of planning are relevant when 1) planning in and for a pluralistic, participative society and 2) planning for sustainable goals related to an unknown future. As there is no consensus in the planning field on what planning is or what it should do, conceptualisations of planning can range widely, from systems planning to advocacy planning and from collaborative to complexity planning. I work with a primary hypothesis that these concepts of planning are complementary rather than mutually exclusive and that in a complex, pluralistic society, different concepts of planning can be relevant in different circumstances.

The main research questions are as follows: What concepts of planning are effective in spatial planning for a common sustainable future when including multiple actors and stakeholders with a variety of frames and perspectives on sustainable food systems? How are different actors, their respective roles and action perspectives included in the decision-making process? What is the role of the planning practitioner in this, and what is the role of governmental planning at different levels?

The research is informed by my own position as a practitioner. Undertaking a professional PhD as an external researcher at RSO allows me to reflect upon and put in perspective my personal experiences in the field of spatial planning and design. Fifteen years of experience with promoting, researching, designing, planning and practicing urban food production in Rotterdam left me (and colleagues from the field) with many ideas and hypotheses on what municipal planners and urban food initiatives should and should not do when planning urban food production. Can municipal planning include the initiatives of societal actors (like myself and fellow urban farmers and activists) in their planning agenda? Would it be possible to do this in a way that respects the diverse world views of these actors? And can societal actors themselves operate in a way that aligns them with governmental planning agendas without losing sight of their own goals?

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Civic urban food initiatives represent a diversity of approaches to what a sustainable food system should be and how planning can contribute, but planners at different government levels struggle to facilitate and include these initiatives and their diverse approaches in their planning efforts. This has become apparent in Rotterdam but is also exemplary of a more general gap between bottom-up societal initiatives and top-down governmental planning in the Netherlands. Through a study of the Rotterdam urban agriculture movement – and taking the role of participant-observer – I examine this gap and address the questions above.

The case study of Rotterdam considers projects in which urban food production has been realised and focuses on the people involved in the planning process and their agendas and strategies, with a special emphasis on spatial planning. To avoid any bias due to my personal involvement in the object of study, I use a range of sources, including grey literature and interviews with different planners and societal actors. In terms of method, I combine this sociological approach with plan analyses (of the projects) derived from the discipline of urban planning. In combining different sources and methods from different disciplines, I try to incorporate the views of different actors and gain a more complete picture of what has happened during these past years and what lessons can be learnt for planners and urban food initiatives..

While the PhD is designed as a retrospective, transdisciplinary case study, it inevitably involves and interacts with my own practice as a designer/planner and, more recently, urban food forester. Interviewing planners about their ideas and influences and writing down their accounts of events has already provided insights that are informing my current work in urban agriculture and food forestry  (including advocacy, design and realisation). Although this can sometimes be problematic, the meeting of practical experience with academic and applied research is developing a relevant knowledge base. A professional PhD makes knowledge from practice available to academic research and offers a place of reflection to practitioners.

75th Anniversary: 58) Research at the Rural Sociology Group: Agrarian Movements and Transitions in the Global South

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.