75th Anniversary: 46) Research at Rural Sociology: The everyday political economy of rural livelihoods in South and Southeast Asia

Mark Vicol

How do rural people make their livelihoods? What determines who prospers and who is left behind? How should we study and understand rural development and agrarian change? These questions are core to critical development studies of Global South countries with significant rural populations. The answers, however, often reflect deeply held ontological and epistemological differences and assumptions about what counts and what doesn’t (or what’s important and what isn’t) in the analysis of rural development. Despite parallel developments in social theory in recent decades to bridge these divides (e.g. Elder-Vass 2010), approaches to rural development in low-income countries tend to fall in one of two camps: those that emphasize structure; and those that privilege agency. Although there are exceptions that integrate across analytical approaches, two exemplars of this agency/structure divide in development studies are actor-oriented livelihoods analysis, and agrarian political economy. Each has been critiqued and often dismissed by the other for what they don’t do: livelihood or actor-oriented approaches critique agrarian political economists on grounds of determinism and for discounting the diversity of practices and actors at the micro level; while agrarian political economy dismisses livelihoods research for its failure to account for broader relations of power, production, reproduction and property. Both approaches also imply rather different outcomes for policy or praxis: the former focuses on increasing autonomy and individual choice; the latter focuses on the role of the state and/or class-based political movements.

According to Scoones (2015: 37), this debate is summarized by the question “what is more important: what people actually do or the factors that constrain or enable their actions?” This question has animated my research on small farming, rural development and agrarian change in South and Southeast Asia over the last decade. My research shows that not only, as Scoones notes, is the answer to this question quite obviously neither, but also that we can consider both livelihoods (agency) and political economy (structure) simultaneously in studies of rural development. The shortcomings of each approach correctly identified by the other should not be taken as further encouragement to retreat into theoretical or methodological fortresses. Instead, I argue it is possible to productively combine the contextual richness of livelihood approaches with the structural insights of agrarian political economy (Scoones, 2015). By moving beyond an agency/structure dualism in critical development studies, we can pay attention to both at the same time as part of the same process. Put differently, livelihoods are central to understanding agrarian change, and vice versa. We can therefore begin to ask questions such as what does it mean to be a poor or rich rural household? What do the livelihood pathways of different social groups look like? How do livelihood practices produce, reproduce or challenge patterns and processes of differentiation in rural areas? And, how do broader patterns of structural change in turn act back upon livelihoods?

In fact, the rationale for combining the insights of agrarian political economy and rural livelihood analysis can be read as coming from Marx himself. In the Grundrisse (1973), Marx argues that to arrive at a concrete understanding of historical change, one must dialectically move in from the abstract towards the “many determinations and relations” that make up the whole, what Marx called the “unity of the diverse”. The core questions that inform contemporary agrarian political economy (Who owns what? Who does what? Who gets what? What do they do with it? See Bernstein, 2010) are also inherently questions about livelihoods. The idea of a combined approach that asks these questions at multiple scales is that on the one hand, a deep understanding of rural livelihoods can unpack the complexity of everyday practices, whereas political economy can make concrete the ways in which social relations at various scales shape livelihood practices and trajectories and ultimately determine patterns of winners and losers in rural spaces. I have used such an approach, what I call the everyday political economy of livelihoods, to try and understand the multiple determinations of agrarian change and the everyday experiences of such change in smallholder farming communities in India, Myanmar and Indonesia (see Vicol, 2017; Vicol, Pritchard & Htay, 2018; Vicol et al. 2018; Vicol, 2019; Vicol & Pritchard 2021).

In India, this approach was applied to explore the implications of contract farming for household livelihood trajectories and broader patterns of agrarian change. In a case study of potato contract farming in three villages in Maharashtra, a wealth ranking exercise, along with household interviews, was used to construct local understandings of differentiation (Vicol, 2017; 2019). Participants in each village constructed three ‘wealth groups’ of best off, middle and lower households, with each category associated with particular landholding patterns, income sources, balance of on- versus off-farm livelihood activities, use of wage labour, and caste. Dominant narratives around contract farming typically conceptualize it as either ‘win-win’ (for farmers and agribusiness) or ‘win-lose’ (agribusiness wins, farmers lose). My research showed that a) participation in contract farming was concentrated in the ‘middle’ group of households; and b) that rather than sparking dynamic new processes of accumulation among contract farmers or leading to new forms of exploitation, contract farming is contributing to processes of agrarian change already under way. More specifically, participation in contract farming tended to reproduce the middling livelihood trajectories of middle households, while best off households concentrate on non-farm activities for their accumulation strategies (engaging in what Gillian Hart has called ‘diversification for accumulation’). These findings challenge existing policy narratives centered around ‘value chain development’ interventions such as contract farming that promote a simplified vision of ‘market-led’ agricultural development and agrarian change.

My research in India and elsewhere demonstrates that processes of rural development and agrarian change can’t be reduced to simplified narratives. Instead, it is the complex interplay of everyday livelihood practices and social and economic structures that shape patterns of winners and losers in agrarian spaces. To paraphrase Marx (1852; see also de Haan and Zoomers, 2005), what an everyday political economy of livelihoods reveals is that rural people in the Global South do make their own livelihoods, but not necessarily under conditions of their own choosing.


Bernstein, H. (2010). Class dynamics of agrarian change. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood.

de Haan, L., & Zoomers, A. (2005). Exploring the frontier of livelihoods research. Development and Change, 36(1), 27–47.

Elder-Vass, D. (2010). The causal power of social structures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marx, K. (1852/2008). The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: Cosimo.

Marx, K. (1973). Grundrisse. London: Penguin.

Scoones, I. (2015). Sustainable livelihoods and rural development. Rugby, United Kingdom: Practical Action.

Vicol, M. (2017). Is contract farming an inclusive alternative to land grabbing? The case of potato contract farming in Maharashtra, India. Geoforum, 85, 157-166.

Vicol, M. (2019). Potatoes, petty commodity producers and livelihoods: Contract farming and agrarian change in Maharashtra, India. Journal of Agrarian Change, 19(1), 135-161.

Vicol, M., Pritchard, B., & Htay, Y. (2018). Rethinking the role of agriculture as a driver of social and economic transformation in Southeast Asia’s upland regions: The view from Chin State, Myanmar. Land Use Policy, 72, 451-460.

Vicol, M., Neilson, J., Hartatri, D.F.S., & Cooper, P. (2018). Upgrading for whom? Relationship coffee, value chain interventions and rural development in Indonesia, World Development, 110, 26-37.

Vicol, M. & Pritchard, B. (2021). Rethinking rural development in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady Delta through a historical food regimes frame. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 42, 264-283.

75th Anniversary: 45) E.W. Hofstee and ‘Modern Environmentalism’ at WUR

Gert Spaargaren[i] (with illustrations by Emily Liang)

Modern Environmentalism’

Environmental problems are of all ages, but in historical perspective one could argue that the awareness that something can and must be done about the deterioration of soils, water and air quality is of rather recent origin. In his book on ‘modern environmentalism’, David Pepper (1984, 1996)[ii] identified three landmark publications that expounded the principle ideas of ‘modern environmentalism’ as emerging from the 1970s onward.

First and most important has been the ‘Limits to Growth’ report to the Club of Rome (Meadows et al, 1972)[iii]. With hindsight, this MIT[iv]-based modelling of the planetary limits to industrial societies must be regarded as the single most important trigger for environmentalism to become a permanent issue both for politicians and citizens around the world. It was ‘modern’ environmentalism since the report was science based and because it urged key actors in society to take their responsibility for a common future at risk. Secondly, the ‘Blueprint for Survival’ (Ecologist, 1973), a special issue of a journal published by the emerging environmental social movements in the UK, has been an important trigger. The ‘new social movements’ in the UK and Germany in particular aimed at translating the  Club of Rome message to the local (UK; EU) situation. They did so by translating the call for ‘limits to growth’ into a design for a strictly closed loops oriented, local, de-central, bounded network of eco-communities, sharing and caring for natural resources in a way we would later on come to refer to as ‘sustainable’ or ‘circular’. To underpin their design of the Blueprint Society with socio-cultural, economic and political arguments, they heavily relied on the third major source of modern environmentalism: Fritz Schumachers’  ‘Small is Beautiful’ book series (Schumacher, 1973; 1979)[v]. Schumacher was an enlightened British economist who resigned from a leading position in the energy (coal) sector to dedicate the rest of his life to the promotion of a radically different kind of society. His books became popular around the world and in the late 1980s, Schumacher himself came over to Wageningen to address a lecture hall[vi] filled with eager and critical students to discuss his core idea that recognizing limits to growth should lead one to consider new, small-scale, local, size-limited forms of (agro)industrial production and consumption from now on.

Three publications with a different character – one scientific modeling report, one NGO-article and one popular book series for a broad audience – but on a similar topic: the ‘environmental future of modern industrial societies’. From a contemporary point of view, they were positioned more on the sideline of society, were more Eurocentric, and  did not confront climate and biodiversity issues in ways we are familiar with today. But the idea of radical change, the framing of the planet as resource for future generations, and the sense of urgency and unconventional forms of action I would argue to be pretty much the same. It is the engagement with transitions and transformation as we know of them today, but at the background you should imagine the sound of the pop-music of the second half of the 1960s (Dylan, the Beatles, folk-music) and pictures of student revolts and the rise of the so-called counter-culture in the 1970’s.

E.W. Hofstee and ‘Modern Environmentalism’ at WUR in the 1980s

When I started my academic career in Wageningen in the late 1970s, all ‘engaged students’ were more or less familiar with the wake-up call that was represented by the three publications introduced in the above. So were staff members and even some professors…. Evert Willem Hofstee (1909 – 1987) being one of them.

Professor Hofstee was a social scientist who very early on recognized the urgency of environmental problems and the fact that the future of modern societies would be affected by problems of (air, water, soil) pollution and the exhaustion of resources. As early as mid-1971, he drafted an advisory Report for the Dutch Royal Academy of Science Committee on the task for social sciences to confront “Milieubederf en Milieubeheersing als maatschappelijke verschijnselen” (environmental deterioration and environmental control as societal phenomena)[vii]. During the period of redrafting this advisory report, the Club of Rome Report was published, and Hofstee in his preface to the final version of his KNAW report noticed that one of the remarkable characteristics of the Club of Rome report was the fact that it “hardly mentions the social scientific aspects of the environmental problem” (Hofstee, 1972, preface).  

Hofstee himself was in a position to do something about that. He was a respected professor in (rural) sociology at the Landbouw Hogeschool (the predecessor of WUR) and one of the driving forces behind the construction of the  Leeuwenborch-building as an anchor point for the social sciences. Hofstee was an empirical sociologist, raised in the tradition of demography and sociography e.g. historically informed, applied and policy relevant social science research. I was told that Hofstee was standing member of more than 150 committees and advisory boards that were involved in the socio-spatial redesign of the Netherlands after the second World War. So he knew ‘from within’ that policy makers were confronted with all kinds of expected and not expected negative consequences of the accelerating modernization process as it was happening in rural and urban spaces in the Netherlands and in Europe at the time. Hofstee noticed as well that in the Netherlands ecological/environmental issues were not eagerly taken up and given any serious theoretical or empirical consideration by sociologists. Only Nico Nelissen in Nijmegen and Egbert Tellegen – in collaboration with Peter Ester and later on with Maarten Wolsink-  in Amsterdam were publishing on ecological issues. Nelissen was building on the ecological sociology of the Chicago school in the USA, while Tellegen and colleagues depicted environment and energy as new societal issues, thereby providing  support for the new social movements without much theorizing. In his theoretical work however also Hofstee himself did not pay much attention to environmental issues. His (three volumes) reader we as students were instructed to read, was titled “Differentiële Sociologie” (Sociology of Differentiation) and it did not consider the modernization process from an environmental point of view. Wageningen sociology was first and for all agrarian, rural sociology, focusing on the differential adoption of modern ideas (on religion, family life etc.) and (life)styles – interior design, diets, styles of farming –  by different segments of the population in different parts of the Netherlands.[viii]

Sociology, Environment and Modernization at WUR after Hofstee

Because Hofstee was aware of the need for environmental sociology and because he was still leading the ‘vakgroep sociologie van de Westerse Gebieden’, it was decided that someone in Wageningen should be appointed as ‘environmental sociologists’  to confront the challenges put forward by the Club of Rome and the emerging  Environmental/Energy movements  in the Netherlands and Europe. Henry Hilhorst –  specialized in the sociology of religion – was asked to take environmental issues on board. He tried to make a start with a course in  environmental sociology in 1985, building upon the study of Hofstee (1972) on ‘Environmental Deterioration and Control’. Along the way however, he discovered that his heart was not in environmental sociology and the ‘material matters’ (flows of energy, water, waste, nitrogen, phosphate) associated with it. Henry left for a job in the sociology of religion in Utrecht, and in 1986 I was assigned the task of developing for the (chair)group ‘Sociologie van de Westerse Gebieden”  a Wageningen relevant version of environmental sociology[ix].

Since the course had to start right away and I only just took office as staff member, a guest lecturer from the USA was attracted to join me/guide me in giving the first course on ‘environmental sociology’/milieu-sociologie in Wageningen. Rabel Burdge came over to stay with me for a month, telling the students about ‘social’ (SIA) next to  ‘environmental’ impact assessments (EIA) as happening in the USA. He used the classes to discuss with the students his survey results of SIA-studies, but as well for sharing his family holidays pictures of lake Michigan and the natural beauty it represented…..The students liked his American style, his story telling and his holiday pictures in particular.  I was however not convinced that impact assessment would be the (restricted empirical) way forward for environmental sociology at Wageningen University. I used the first years to reflect on the society-nature interactions from a sociological perspective, using social ecology as well as ‘eco’- neo-Marxism as sources of inspiration.

In the years to follow, a team of environmental sociologists was build. Kris van Koppen and Arthur Mol became close colleagues, and the first PhDs were attracted to build not just a relevant theory but to develop at the same time a body of empirical knowledge on Environmental Deterioration and Control. Ecological Modernization, with an emphasis on the environmental damage stemming from material flows running through socio/ecological systems, was the general heading of this theoretical and empirical work. It resulted from a critical confrontation with ‘small-is-beautiful’ (romantic?) thinking as the dominant paradigm in the grassroot environmental NGOs in Germany in particular. Instead of de-modernization, we argued that the environmental side effects of simple modernization should be dealt with by redesigning/reforming the agro-industrial structures of production and consumption. Enlightenment thinking versus Romantic thinking; Europeanization and Globalization versus localization; market dynamics next to policy dynamics etc. The debate on ‘how to green modern societies’ had begun.

The number of students and staff members were (gradually) growing.  In the meantime other social science groups in the Leeuwenborch started with research and specialized courses on  environmental topics. Next to economics, also history, law, extension sciences and spatial planning developed their own portfolios in the environmental field, with their activities being coordinated in the context of the so called Leeuwenborch Milieu Overleg (LMO).

By the end of 1990s, it was decided that the environmental sociology section of the Western Sociology Group should become a separate group, including not just sociologists but political scientists and cultural geography scholars as well. The Environmental Policy Group (ENP) – from 2000 onwards headed by Arthur Mol and since 2015 in good hands of Simon Bush – became one of the leading groups both within WUR and in the national and international social science (RC-24 of the ISA) arena’s. The excellent reputation of the ENP-group is based on characteristics that I would argue to go well along with Hofstee’s worldview, and they run as follows. First, look at differentiation (now at different regions of the global network society in particular). Second, combine innovative theoretical work always with sound empirical research. Third, try to investigate why social groups at different levels of society do or do not want to engage themselves with processes of change for a more sustainable world in the future. The present ENP-work on energy/water/sanitation transitions in different continents, and on global (fish) food system transformations can be regarded as adequate responses to Hofstee’s wake up call for the environmental social sciences in the 1970s.  Their education and research are examples of social science knowledges that help shape the ‘great transition’ towards a more ecological sound, reflexive, and global modernity.    

[i] I would like to thank Anton Schuurman for his useful comments on the draft version of the present text

[ii] D.Pepper (1984) The Roots of Modern Environmentalism. London, Croom Helm

[iii] The Limits to Growth (1972) D.H. Meadows et al. Potomac Associates.

[iv] MIT = Massachusetts Institute of Technology

[v] E.F. Schumacher (1973) Small is Beautiful. London, Blond and Briggs; E.F. Schumacher (1979) Good Work. New York.  Harpers & Row

[vi] The big lecture-hall of the Leeuwenborch building was named the ‘Hofstee-room’ at the time, but unfortunately this name is no longer in use to refer to the main lecture hall of the social science building of WUR.

[vii] E.W. Hofstee (1972) Milieubederf en Milieubeheersing als maatschappelijke verschijnselen; poging tot een overzicht van de maatschappij-wetenschappelijke problematiek van een actueel onderwerp. Amsterdam. Noord-Hollandsche Uitgevers Maatschappij

[viii] The concept of differentiation was offered by Hofstee as a critique of ‘generalizing, functionalist’ analyses of modernization as dominant in the USA (Parsons)  at the time. Mainstream drivers have to be specified – so Hofstee argued – in terms of time-space specific trajectories and dynamics

[ix] The chairgroup (at the time named ‘vakgroep’) Sociologie van de Westerse Gebieden already had several thematic sections to organize the empirical work. Next to the dominant rural sociology section, there were section on the sociology of family life, on the sociology of leisure, and on methodology.

75th Anniversary: 43) Een recreatieve tocht door het landschap van de Wageningse sociologie (1985-1995)

Jaap Lengkeek

De naam Hofstee was mij bekend. Iets over sociologie in Wageningen ook. Toen ik mijn afstudeeronderzoek deed in een klein plattelandsdorp in Noord-Holland, Twisk, las ik de studie van de Wageningse socioloog Jaap Groot over de leefbaarheid van een plattelandskern. Verder leerde ik, nadat ik aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam was afgestudeerd in de sociologie van bouwen en wonen, de Vakgroep Wonen van Prof. Van Leeuwen in Wageningen kennen. Desondanks bleef ik lang vrezen dat voorbij Utrecht de werkelijke academische wereld ophield.

Een advertentie voor een coördinator van de Werkgroep Recreatie van de Landbouwhogeschool Wageningen had desondanks mijn aandacht getrokken. Na mijn afstuderen had ik een aantal jaren onderzoek gedaan naar de relatie wonen en welbevinden bij het Instituut voor Preventieve Gezondheidszorg in Leiden. Daarna was ik beland in Den Haag bij een platform van organisaties op het gebied van vrijetijdbesteding, openluchtrecreatie en behoud van een gezonde leefomgeving, genaamd Stichting Recreatie. Daar kwam ik in direct contact met een levendige beleidssector op deze terreinen van de verschillende overheden. Bovendien ondersteunde de stichting een netwerk van onderzoekers aan de Nederlandse en Vlaamse universiteiten. Recreatie en vrije tijd waren belangrijke maatschappelijke thema’s geworden. Ik wilde graag terug naar de universiteit, vandaar dat ik solliciteerde naar de geadverteerde positie in Wageningen.

In Wageningen was openluchtrecreatie als onderzoeksthema nadrukkelijk op de kaart gezet als onderwerp van naoorlogse zorg voor een leefbaar en beleefbaar platteland, dat onder de snelle modernisering onder druk was komen te staan. De aanleg van grote recreatiegebieden in de buurt van en tussen grote steden naar voorbeeld van het Amsterdamse Bos was een substantiële oplossing geworden voor het verdwijnen van ruimtelijke kwaliteit en bruikbaarheid in de naoorlogse nota’s voor de ruimtelijke ordening. Intergemeentelijke samenwerkingsverbanden, de zogeheten Recreatieschappen, dienden zorg te dragen voor uitvoering en beheer. Sociaalgeograaf Theo Beckers was in 1976 aangesteld bij de vakgroep Sociologie van de Westerse Gebieden en had zich beijverd om recreatiegedrag en -beleid op te nemen in het curriculum. Hij schreef in 1983 een prachtig proefschrift waarin het belang van recreatie werd duidelijk gemaakt, als een vorm van vrijheid, en bracht deze vrijheid in verband met de recente geschiedenis van het overheidsbeleid en met een solide theoretische kijk op planning. Bovendien stond hij aan de wieg van een samenwerkingsverband van Wageningse studievelden waarin openluchtrecreatie een aandachtsgebied werd of moest worden, van sociologie, landgebruiksplanning, ecologie, economie, psychologie en landschapsarchitectuur. Het samenwerkingsverband werd wettelijk (Wet Universitaire Bestuurshervorming) verankerd in de Werkgroep Recreatie. Ik kreeg de baan.

Voor de functie was ik ondergebracht als medewerker bij de Vakgroep Sociologie, met een kamer op de Leeuwenborch. Daar trof ik een gezelschap collega’s die onder Hofstee waren aangesteld, Ad Nooy had de leiding ervan, Jelle Lijfering, Berry Lekanne dit Deprez, Iteke Weeda, Rien Munters, en een recente lichting met Jaap Frouws, Gert Spaargaren, Jan-Willem te Kloeze en Henk de Haan. Jaap Groot en gezinssocioloog Gerrit Kooy waren zojuist vertrokken of gingen met pensioen. Mijn herinnering aan die tijd is niet helemaal zuiver meer na zesendertig jaar. Mijn belevenissen bij de vakgroep zullen daarom eclectisch en impressionistisch zijn. Terwijl ik me met medewerkers van verschillende vakgroepen bezighield, bleef mijn kijk op de collega’s van sociologie beperkt. Een helder ijkpunt vormde het hoofd van het secretariaat, Ada Hink. Zij beleed haar trots en trouw aan de groep en aan Hofstee in het bijzonder door mij te vertellen dat ze altijd op haar post zou zijn om Hofstee, als hij graag nog dagelijks in zijn kamer kwam, bijtijds zijn koffie te brengen. Niet duidelijk werd me wie een oudere man was, die ook ergens in een kamer zich door data heen zat te werken. Een assistent van Hofstee of zo iemand?

In de ochtend van mijn eerste werkdag in Wageningen parkeerde ik mijn auto op het parkeerterrein van de Leeuwenborch. Ik was benieuwd naar wat ik daar aan vervoersmiddelen zou aantreffen. De faam van milieuvriendelijkheid van de Landbouwhogeschool was tot mij doorgedrongen en ik vermoedde eenvoudige auto’s aan te treffen, deux-chevauxs, simpele Opels, een bescheiden Renault, of zoiets, en natuurlijk veel fietsen. Ik zelf was sinds kort in het bezit van een zescilinder, zilverkleurige Chevrolet Malibu, met roodlederen banken in plaats van stoelen. Ik verwachtte daarmee een ernstige dissonant te vormen. De auto slurpte benzine, verbruikte liters olie en maakte het geluid van een oceaanstomer. Maar de leden van de Werkgroep Recreatie pasten er precies in. Op weg naar geschikte onderzoeksgebieden reden we door het land en de stemming in de samengepakte wagen was opperbest. De Chevrolet heeft waarschijnlijk mijn beste bijdrage aan teambuilding betekend.

Auto, echtgenote en ik

Helaas moest die al vrij snel worden ingeruild omdat van de zes cilinders bij een scherpe bocht naar rechts er steevast twee uitvielen.

De Landbouwhogeschool werd Landbouwuniversiteit en de vakgroep sociologie trok een nieuwe generatie medewerkers aan. Van de oudere medewerkers was Rien Munters degene die hen vooral theoretisch inspireerde. Hij had zich verdiept in het werk van de Britse socioloog Anthony Giddens, waarvoor hij twee van zijn studenten had weten te enthousiasmeren, Hans Mommaas en Hugo van der Poel. Deze twee hadden zich na afstuderen naar de universiteit van Tilburg gespoed als zendelingen van Giddens, die hun missie daar met succes toepasten op het terrein van de vrijetijdwetenschappen. Na enige tijd, in 1987, volgde Theo Beckers hen naar Tilburg als hoogleraar Vrijetijdswetenschappen. Rien Munters bleef hun goeroe op afstand.

Rien was één van de medewerkers waar ik meer mee optrok. We gingen met enige regelmaat na afloop van het werk samen naar Nol in ’t Bos, om daar een jenevertje te drinken, met bitterballen, waarbij ik hem ook af en toe een klein sigaartje mocht aanreiken.  We spraken weinig over het werk, wel over amusantere onderwerpen. Zo vertelde hij anekdotes over Prof. Den Hollander, die ik als hoogleraar sociologie in Amsterdam had meegemaakt en die zijn studenten grote schrik placht aan te jagen, bijvoorbeeld door namen van de presentielijst op te noemen om de betreffende persoon tijdens het college een spitsvondig antwoord te laten geven. Menig student dook onder de bank. Ook liet hij een studente met gips om haar been uit de collegezaal verwijderen omdat ‘dat been’ hem stoorde. Deze handelwijze is hem bij de grote revolutie van de late jaren zestig duur komen te staan. Tevens memoreerde Rien dat hij ooit in het ziekenhuis was beland nadat hij een boomtak afzaagde waar hij zelf op zat. Over de wonderlijke hallucinaties die hij daarna kreeg raakte hij niet uitgesproken.

Ook met Albert Mok had ik goed contact, die als deeltijdhoogleraar organisatiesociologie was aangetrokken. Ik kende zijn naam van een boek over sociologie, dat hij samen met De Jager had geschreven en dat gewoonlijk werd aangeduid werd als ‘de mokkendejager’. Ikzelf was opgevoed met het boek van Van Doorn en Lammers en later het werk van Norbert Elias. Ik volgde Mok’s colleges en nam er af en toe één voor hem waar. Hij was een liefhebber van jenever. Bij mijn promotie gaf hij me een hele doos met flessen exquise Belgische jenever.

De nieuwste lichting medewerkers bij de vakgroep oriënteerde zich sterk op Jürgen Habermas, die het werk van Max Weber verder had uitgewerkt en actueel gemaakt. Het terrein waarop deze jongere generatie zich begon te bewegen raakte enigszins verwijderd van het agrarische. Milieusociologen werden ze. En, in mijn ogen, met een bewonderenswaardige inzet en begeestering. Ze mengden zich actief in de onderzoekscommissie voor milieuvraagstukken van de International Sociological Association (ISA). Voor een ISA-conferentie stelden ze een ‘marsroute’ op, zo vernam ik,  waar elk van hen naar toe zou gaan om een bijdrage te leveren. Ikzelf nam met meer gemakzucht deel aan de commissies voor vrije tijd en voor toerisme en vond me vergeleken met hen een lapzwans.

Intussen bedreigde het College van Bestuur de studierichting Sociologie met bezuinigingen of zelfs opheffing. Hetzelfde lot trof Landschapsarchitectuur, een succesvolle en in Nederland unieke academische studierichting. Ad Nooy, zo hoorde ik,  stelde voor een deel van zijn leerstoel in te leveren om financiële ruimte te creëren. Hij en hoogleraar landschapsarchitectuur Vroom waren volgens mij integere hoogleraren van het oudere stempel, die hun posities vanzelfsprekend achtten. Geen doordouwers of gewiekste strategen. Landschapsarchitectuur ging op in een gezamenlijke studie met landinrichtingsplanning. Doodzonde. Hoe het met sociologie ging weet ik niet meer. Wel, dat Jan Douwe van der Ploeg als hoogleraar werd aangesteld en hoofd werd van de vakgroep. Hij vatte zijn rol op met veel elan en voortvarendheid, met een sterke visie op agrarische regionale ontwikkeling en met een gedegen netwerk binnen en buiten de universiteit. In een landelijk tijdschrift beschreef hij zijn plannen en merkte op dat er onder de medewerkers, die hij geërfd had,  veel ‘dood hout’ zat, dat nodig weggekapt moest worden om gezonde groei mogelijk te maken. Een mens kan zich vergissen, ook een hoogleraar. Het dode hout dat hij ontwaarde bleek een verzameling wandelende takken te zijn. Wandelende takken leven en eten zo nodig zelfs hun eigen kinderen op. De bedoelde medewerkers, waaronder ik,  zijn later hoogleraar geworden, één zelfs Rector Magnificus. De nieuwe hoogleraar Van der Ploeg was hoe dan ook van zins snel flinke beslissingen te nemen, wat stuitte op argwaan en actief verzet van de milieusociologen. Ze vonden dat, in habermasiaanse termen, niet voldoende ‘communicatief werd gehandeld’. Inmiddels was ik secretaris van de vakgroep en mij werd gevraagd om in het ontstane conflict te bemiddelen. Het is allemaal wel opgelost, al weet ik niet meer hoe.

De recreatiesociologie ontwikkelde zich verder. Aanvankelijk werd veel onderzoek verricht in opdracht van rijks-, provinciale of gemeentelijke overheden naar recreatiegedrag. Theo Beckers entameerde en begeleidde onderzoek naar vrijetijdsgedrag van huisvrouwen in de stedelijke omgeving. Stedelijke recreatie was een hot item. Zelf kon ik een aantal onderzoeken op dat terrein uitzetten en begeleiden.

Bovendien liet ik studenten onderzoek doen naar de provinciale recreatieve ontwikkelingsplannen. In die tijd was er veel geld beschikbaar van de overheid om onderzoek uit te voeren, met een duidelijk praktisch doel. Later ging het onderzoeksgeld naar de DLO-instituten. Aan publiceren in buitenlandse of in landelijke wetenschappelijke tijdschriften werd nauwelijks gedacht. De wetenschappelijke belangstelling ervoor was in Nederland ook niet groot. Zoals Theo Beckers het ongeveer verwoordde ‘de recreatiestudie bewoont geen hoofdvertrek in het gebouw van de alma mater’. Ook internationale tijdschriften van allure verschenen in het buitenland nog maar mondjesmaat. Een eigen reeks publicaties van de werkgroep leek al heel wat. Omdat ik de theoretische invalshoek van sociologen en antropologen in de studies van het toerisme interessant, zo niet als mondiaal verschijnsel interessanter vond dan vrije tijd en recreatie was ik begonnen op mijn kamer werkgroepen sociologie van het toerisme te geven, met vijf alleraardigste en gemotiveerde studenten. Na het vertrek van Theo Beckers werd een bijzondere leerstoel Recreatiekunde ingesteld, waarop sociaalgeograaf Adri Dietvorst werd benoemd. Hij nam de leiding van de Werkgroep Recreatie over en ik bleef als secretaris ervan bij de vakgroep sociologie. Om het aspect toerisme meer gewicht en aandacht te geven werd René van der Duim aangetrokken, die in Tilburg sociologie had gestudeerd, docent was geweest aan het Nederlands Wetenschappelijk Instituut voor Toerisme en Recreatie in Breda en vervolgens mij had opgevolgd bij de Stichting Recreatie. In 1994 promoveerde ik op een studie naar het belang van Recreatie en Toerisme. Eén van mijn paranimfen vond het predicaat van de promotie ‘met lof’, tenslotte een gezonde groente, voor een landbouwuniversiteit wel te verwachten.

De positie van Adri Dietvorst werd geformaliseerd in een gewoon hoogleraarschap. De Werkgroep Recreatie werd een zelfstandige eenheid en gevestigd in gebouw De Hucht, waar ook Planologie, Landgebruiksplanning en Landschapsarchitectuur verbleven. De studie van recreatie en toerisme werd een interdisciplinaire aangelegenheid. Jan-Willem te Kloeze, René van der Duim en ik verhuisden van de Leeuwenborch naar De Hucht. De leeropdracht Recreatiekunde werd Sociaal-ruimtelijke Analyse (veel later veranderd in Cultural Geography). Het vervolg is inmiddels geschiedenis waar met tevredenheid op terug kan worden gekeken. Ik volgde Adri Dietvorst op, met een eigen leerstoelgroep, een masteropleiding Leisure, Tourism and Environment (één van de twee eerste opleidingen in Wageningen volgens het BaMa stelsel) en later nog een gemeenschappelijke Bachelor Tourism, samen met de University of Applied Sciences Breda.

De bakermat van dit alles blijft de vakgroep Sociologie van de Westerse gebieden. Wat ik tastbaar ervan bewaard heb hoort bij de professorale parafernalia. Van de weduwe van professor Kooy kocht ik diens toga en baret. Omdat de toga veel te groot was nam ik ook de toga over van professor van Mourik, emeritus planoloog, die deze weer had gekregen van hoogleraar Bijhouwer, de eerste hoogleraar landschapsarchitectuur. Dat ensemble vertegenwoordigt treffend mijn werkzaamheden in Wageningen, tussen sociologie, planologie en landschapsarchitectuur. De baret van Kooy, met zijn naam nog binnenin, ben ik eerbiedig blijven gebruiken.

75th Anniversary: 39) Protesting Farmers

In our previous blog, we wrote that to understand the overall evolution of farmer protests around the nitrogen crisis, Jaap Frouws’ doctoral dissertation Mest en Macht (Manure and Power, 1994) is highly relevant.  Among others, his work provides a an important entry point into the history and the crisis of farmers’ representation and cooptation in agricultural policies in the Netherlands.  

Master student Emil Dutour Geerling delved into this question of representation in his recently defended thesis on the contemporary farmers’ protests. At the time Jaap Frouws did his important work on the politics of the manure crisis in the 1990s, the first cracks had become visible in the bulwark of farmers’ representation. Today, almost three decades later, the landscape of representation has changed dramatically. The long-time alliance between national farmers organizations, political parties and the ministry of agriculture, has become history.  Feeling under- or not-represented, and, importantly, not heard, discontented farmers established a defense force. This Farmers Defense Force was able to mobilize thousands of farmers, who were prepared to take a more confrontational approach, blocking highways and retail distribution centers, and converged on provincial government buildings.

In his work, Dutour-Geerling explains the form the protests take from the crisis in representation. Yet, he explains the cause of these protests in terms of a crisis of accumulation.  Many of the protesting farmers have built their business strategy on the idea of continuous growth, yet the new nitrogen and phosphate regulations make this business strategy untenable.

This crisis of representation and crisis of accumulation creates a ‘biographical disruption’: the future that farmers perceived for themselves and their farms is not feasible anymore. This asks for a reconsideration of their idea of farming, and their self-perception as farmers. Changing their farming strategy is, if possible at all, costly; the rethinking of their farmers’ identity painful. This explains the fierceness of the protests.

Emil Dutour Geerling. 2021. Understanding the Dutch protesting farmer: A politically informed actor-oriented research into the perceptions of Dutch protesting farmers, Master Thesis Rural Sociology in partial fulfilment of the degree of Master of Science in International Development Studies at Wageningen University, the Netherlands

Book Review: States of Dispossession

States of Dispossession is a book about protracted violence in the city and the rural surroundings of Mardin, a region in the southeast of Turkey, close to the international border with Syria. The book discusses various ways which people navigate death and injury, are haunted by memories of genocide, excavate and value its remains, and trade compassion for benefit. Biner discusses this violence and/as dispossession in daily lives settings, from the deprivation of life to the appropriation of homes, from the treasure hunting of valuable remains to dispossession through heritage making, and a range of debt creating practices, in which a variety of actors are involved, among these military, provincial governors, jinn, diggers, real estate developers, tribal leaders, and village guards. The result is a staggering picture about the ways in which property, memory and bodies are disowned in daily practices of nation-state building and neoliberal multiculturalism.

Read more here:

75th Anniversary: 38) Rereading Jaap Frouws’ Mest en macht (Manure and Power) in 2021

Kees Jansen

While writing the first sentences of this blog (7 July 2021), more than hundred tractors of angry farmers drive through the lawns of the campus of Wageningen University as one of many farmer protests against proposed Dutch government policies to reduce nitrogen emissions in agriculture. A farmer spokesman states that this university is an extension of the Ministry of Agriculture (LNV): Wageningen university is writing reports on request of the government against the interests of farmers and it is just suborned to defend environmentalist positions. Farmer protests on the campus grounds are something new as far as I know, but not farmer protests against restrictive environmental policies.

To understand the overall evolution of farmer protests around the nitrogen crisis, Jaap Frouws’ doctoral dissertation Mest en macht (Manure and Power) (1994) about the politics of the manure crisis in the Netherlands is highly relevant. Three reasons inspired me to write here about this academic work on agrarian corporatism written two and a half decades ago. First, when I was a master student Jaap Frouws provided an example that academics can be intellectually inspiring and accessible, kind, and humble at the same time. I consider him as an important figure in the 75 year history of the Rural Sociology group and his untimely death has been a great loss for Wageningen rural sociology. Second, Mest en macht provides a key entry point into the history of farmers’ representation in the conflict between agricultural and environmental demands and after three decades it has lost nothing of its urgency. Finally, Frouw’s pioneering work has become a point of reference for later researchers on manure narratives, such as Marian Stuiver’s PhD thesis (2008) and Janne Hemminki’s  recent master thesis (2021) on the current nitrogen crisis. But not everybody reads Dutch, so this blog hopes to draw the attention of English readers to Frouw’s classic Dutch text. One may not be able to read it but could become interested in reading some of Frouws’ articles derived from it.

The main theme in Mest en macht is the nature and decay of agrarian neo-corporatism represented by the Board of Agriculture (Landbouwschap) in the Netherlands. Founded in 1954, the Board of Agriculture―composed of representatives of the three major farmer unions and the labour union of agricultural workers―represented the interests of the whole agricultural sector as a public law organization. Interesting is how Frouws analyses how the state constructed the organization of farmer representation, rejecting to negotiate with an amalgam of different representative bodies and deciding to negotiate and collaborate with one composite organization only. Through this horizontal union model the farmer organizations as a whole became co-responsible for government policy. For several decades this structure would incorporate and reduce the autonomy of vertical product-based, specialized associations. Frouws analyses how this neo-corporatism was structured through a set of resources and rules that resulted in a strong cooperation between state and representative organizations. The representational monopoly was strengthened through providing early information about planned policies to the Board of Agriculture and giving it privileged influence. The strong involvement of farmer organizations via the Board of Agriculture provided legitimacy to government policies as the Board was functional in disciplining the farmer organizations’ constituencies.

Environmental crises, however, have increasingly affected this representational model. One key problem has been the excessive amount of manure produced by the livestock sector which could not all be incorporated into soils due to new environmental regulation. The key argument of Mest en macht is that the growing ‘manure problem’ created or deepened rifts in the so-called ‘Green Front’. It was increasingly difficult for corporatism to keep divergent interests under political control. For example,  views of farmer organizations in the North of the Netherlands clashed with those from the South. Farmers in the North had relatively more space to apply to the field their manure whereas the South had more manure surplus regions. Consequently, they had divergent views on the use of duties (to be paid to handle the manure surpluses) for, for example, transport subsidies. Such differences in interests led repeatedly to political confrontations and consequently to obstruction of policy consensus regarding the amplitude and pace of manure policies, the distribution of financial contributions to transporting and processing manure surpluses, and the regulations on buying and selling manure ‘quotas’. Within the state, policy formulation in this domain became less dominated by the Ministry of Agriculture which for a long time simply had organized and defended farmer demands through delegating policy formulation to the Board of Agriculture. Other voices speaking for environmental interests and, for example, members of parliament, gradually became less excluded from policy formulation around the manure crisis.

Frouws does not perceive this decay of agrarian neo-corporatism as a single monocausal unidirectional process. Instead, via an exhaustive empirical study of interview data, minutes of meetings, a survey of farmers’ perception of representation, and participant observation in meetings, Frouws describes the many twist and turns, and tensions, deadlocks and contradictions over time.  He reveals many examples of an effective lobby by livestock interest groups to soften or delay restrictive policies. Hence, while on the one hand the neo-corporatist policy-making community could not resolve the manure crisis and its political control of the issue lessened, farmer activism resulted on the other hand in delaying strategies and obstruction of policy formulation to address the manure crisis. Crucial questions regarding the restructuring the livestock sector were pushed aside in favour of maintaining the competitiveness and the export capacity of livestock production, thus precluding any discussion of reducing its volume.

Reading the empirical details of these confrontations, delays, and obstructions as presented by Frouws―with an emphasis on what happened in the 1980s―leaves the impression not of Manure and Power (Mest en macht) but of Manure and Powerlessness (Mest en onmacht). The issue of manure surplus was not resolved, the state was not able to envision proposals for restructuring of the livestock sector, and farmer representation fragmented. While Frouws did not predict anything about the future of the Board of Agriculture, the pivot of agrarian neo-corporatism in the Netherlands at that time, he rightly observed its decay. Not so long after his dissertation was published, the Board would be dissolved and the representation of farmer interests shifted to a more diffused model driven by specialized, product-based farmers’ associations.

Mest and macht is most important for what it offers in terms of empirical data, the analysis of neo-corporatism, and a political sociology of agriculture. The thesis centralizes the political sociology of representation whereby the technicalities of the manure problem are relegated to an appendix. Today with all the talk about assemblages or hybrids, nature/technology-society interaction would likely get a more pronounced treatment in a thesis. Instead, Mest en macht offers a middle range sociological theory about agrarian neo-corporatism and it is Frouws’ history of manure policies which provides us with interesting questions of how to look at the contemporary political upheaval which made farmers invading Wageningen University’s campus.

Similar dynamics as described by Frouws shape the current episode of the manure/N-emission crisis. The farmer protests in 2019, initiated by relatively small farmer activist groups, resulted in a momentary new Green Front, when the government negotiated about nitrogen emission policies with the Landbouw Collectief (the Agricultural Collective), a newly formed platform composed of many different farmer organizations. Like half a century ago, the government preferred to negotiate with just one representational body of farmers only. However, within months the participating organizations disagreed about the structure of the Landbouw Collectief and it felled apart as quickly as it had emerged. The strategies of ‘talking with the government to co-develop policies’ and ‘political activism to demand respect and farmer freedom’ turned out extremely difficult to combine. Of course, not everything is the same, as nowadays many farmers have incorporated ‘sustainability’ in their farm operations. But the challenges defined by Frouws of getting farmers involved in environmental regulation, “accepting responsibility for ‘general’ interests such as the protection of nature”, and accepting the need to discuss a restructuring of the livestock sector, remain as big and as relevant as 25 years ago. It might help to face these challenges if activists, policy makers, and politicians would read Frouws’ classic on farmer representation and environmental crisis.

Frouws, Jaap (1994). Mest en macht: Een politiek-sociologische studie naar belangenbehartiging en beleidsvorming inzake de mestproblematiek in Nederland vanaf 1970. Wageningen University (PhD Dissertation).

Hemminki, Janne (2021). The Nitrogen-crisis and social differentiations in the Dutch livestock sector. Wageningen University (unpublished MSc thesis).

Stuiver, Marian (2008). Regime change and storylines : a sociological analysis of manure practices in contemporary Dutch dairy farming. Wageningen University (PhD Dissertation).

75th Anniversary: 36) Hofstee’s puzzle: an innovation for socio-geographic research

In the 1950s Professor E.W. Hofstee from the former department Sociology and Sociography developed a tool to create maps with statistical data of the Netherlands. You could consider this technique as a predecessor to today’s GIS. In this video Anton Schuurman, Associate Professor of Rural and Environmental History at WUR, explains how the puzzle was used and why it was so unique.

75th Anniversary: 33) “Together” and a rural sociology research agenda

“And we will, together, be.”

No, this is not a mantra from a self-help book for success or therapeutic healing but rather the final sentence in Ece Temelkuran’s new book Together, 10 choices for a better now. The book is a collection of ideas woven into stories that help to think new ways of relating to each other. The book invites the reader to think beyond the individualizing millstones of neoliberalism, which divides by reducing us to a-social transactional entities, and beyond those of the populist right, whose parochial cultural pride separates us into belligerent communities. Spinning and weaving moments and experiences of many kinds, novelist and commentator Ece Temelkuran presents 10 threads through which we can start doing and thinking another future in the here and now. Food for thought for rural sociologists.  

The opening of the book recalls the phrase attributed to Frederic James, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine a political alternative for the economic and political system causing the world to end. This is what Temelkuran refers to as the magical ability of a status quo to make people believe that if the political and economic system we live in collapses, everything else will collapse with it. Around us we find mesmerizing experts who warn us like fearful ancient sailors that if we dare to sail into uncharted waters, we will fall off the edge of the world, notes Temelkuran. The “build back better” calls for post-pandemic times seem to confirm this atrophied imagination, that there is simply no alternative to the current economic and political system.  

Fast backward. When, in 2001, George W. Bush called Americans to get over the 9/11 trauma, he found no better words than ‘go back shopping’, as Zygmunt Bauman reminded us. Consumption is the medicine. Today, no one has to tell us to go shopping, as the smart and less smart lock-downs are experienced first and foremost as a restriction of our ability to consume, now defined as the primary, sometimes only pillar of ‘freedom’. As the fullness of life has morphed into taking our fill of enjoyment and entertainment we queue to be allowed into Zara, Primark, or Footlocker, performing the entry rituals at disinfection stations. We do not even have to feel the guilt of collaboration with the dictates of consumerism since it has now become our very duty to consume with a larger mission: to save the economy through our marketplace activities and, in so doing, bail out the sinking ship of capitalism.

Ece Temelkuran’s sharp contextual sketch forms the starting point for series of key questions. Can we reshape our existence to survive a world that has transformed itself into a corporation? Can we imagine an economic policy beyond private property, one that renders the accumulation of capital both illegal and immoral? Can we learn to see the world again from an ethical perspective instead of a consumerist one? Yes, we can, she argues; we can reinvent ourselves and the world through even the smallest things, and not just to tranquilize our discomfort. All the small things we are actually already doing in which we address precarity and vulnerability can determine our future. Yet, the reader of this book should expect no recipes or prescriptions. Together offers leads, ideas from which we can start to further explore and give words to new possibilities and other futures.

One such lead is dignity, something our economic and political system not only does not value but also cannot come to terms with since, Temelkuran explains, it has no idea of the good. Another lead is enough, a term that she borrows from the novelist Kurt Vonnegut and which invalidates the contemporary ‘consumer’ identity through which we have learned to conceive ourselves. Yet another lead is faith, which Temelkuran contrasts with hope, or better, I would say, with messianic hope, which i) pacifies (as it puts the expectation of salvation onto others outside ourselves and submits to some higher power), ii) subjugates (since the hope that justice will be done keeps people obedient), and iii) procrastinates (since while hope remains unfulfilled, we are condemned to waiting). What Ece Temelkuran refers to as ‘faith’ could also be characterized as a ‘critical hope’, which is based on doing, questioning, and learning, a hope grounded in (daily) social practices and struggles.

In Together, economic and political morality emerge through the “10 choices” in addressing what Ece Temelkuran refers to as a “housing problem”: the national and international institutions through which we inhabit the world. These are worn out and offer no solutions. The question she raises is that of how to reinvent new ways to inhabit the world, together, to create new institutions based on a moral, political, and economic triangulation. The end of the book, however, also carries a warning: those who work with words have a responsibility to be careful in what they write and say. Mismanaged words have a habit of destroying lives – as the crushing weight of ‘modernization’ narratives in our own field of rural sociology has shown.

For a rural sociology celebrating its 75th anniversary, Together is a timely work. It raises questions about the world, this world, and the relentless economic and political foundations on which its rests. Importantly, this book also opens up an imaginative of possible futures in the now that develop the principles from which they are made in our daily living and social struggles. Thus, Ece Temelkuran has taken her writer’s responsibility seriously, presenting us with carefully selected words that have something important to say, also for the research agendas of our own discipline. 

Ece Temelkuran, 2021. Together, 10 choices for a better now, 4th Estate: London, ISBN 978-0-00-839380-9, 199 pages.

75th Anniversary: 32) 100 PhD graduates

The 75th anniversary of the Rural Sociology Group also marks another milestone: 100 completed and successfully defended PhD theses. The first PhD graduate was Jan Doorenbos, who successfully defended his PhD thesis entitled ‘Opheusden als boomteeltcentrum‘ (Opheusden as tree-growing centre) on 14 June 1950. His PhD study was supervised by Prof. E.W. Hofstee. The 100th PhD graduate was Lucie Sovová, who successfully defended her PhD thesis entitled ‘Grow, share or buy? Understanding the diverse economies of urban gardeners‘ on 13 October 2020. Her PhD study was supervised by Dr. Esther Veen, Dr. Petr Jehlicka and myself. Below the covers of the 1st and 100th PhD thesis.

In this blog about 100 PhD graduates in 75 years Rural Sociology at Wageningen University, I want to present and reflect on some trends related to these 100 PhD graduates. In another forthcoming blog I will present and reflect on some trends related to the content and focus of these 100 PhD theses.

Trend 1: from less than 1 to close to 4 PhD graduates per year

The 100 PhD theses that were completed in the last 75 years are not evenly distributed over the years, as the figure below shows. In the first 50 years 23 PhD theses were completed, meaning that the average number of PhD graduations was below 1 per year (with no PhD graduations at all in the years 1966-1970 and 1986-1990). This increased to approximately 2 per year in the 1996-2005 period and to almost 4 per year in the last 15 years. There are multiple reasons for this. First, until the 1980s having a PhD degree was not that important for an academic career as it is now. When I did my Masters in Wageningen in the late 1980s and early 1990s a large part of the courses I took were taught by assistant, associate and even full professors without a PhD degree. Nowadays, having a PhD degree is a prerequisite for an academic career. Second, in the early 1980s the Dutch government introduced the so-called ‘Two-phase structure’ for university education, with the second phase referring to a 4 year PhD program. The ambition was that 20% of the MSc graduates would continue with a PhD, and as a result universities created more PhD positions (which were then called assistant-in-training or researcher-in-training positions). Alongside, tenured staff without a PhD degree was also encouraged to write a PhD thesis. While these two reasons may explain the increase from the early 1990s onwards, they do not explain the relative high numbers in the last 15 years, with an average of 3 to 4 PhD graduations per year. These figures are a result of: a) the growth of externally funded research projects in which (part of) the research was/is carried out by PhD students; b) the acquisition of specific PhD programs with multiple PhD projects (NWO-WOTRO, INREF, and EU Marie Curie Training Networks); c) the internationalization of our PhD community (more about this below) with a growing number of PhD scholarships funded by NUFFIC and national governments in Asia (mainly China) and Latin-America. In addition, there has been an internal push for more PhD students due to PhD supervision criteria for RSO staff in Tenure Track. And last but not least, the PhD graduation allowance that we get from the national government (currently approximately € 60,000 per PhD graduate) also implies that there is a financial incentive to have a steady and preferable high inflow of PhD students and outflow of PhD graduates.

Trend 2: The average age at which a PhD degree is obtained remains the same (but becomes more diverse)

The average age at which a PhD degree is obtained has remained fairly stable over the past 75 years (just below 40 in 1950 and just above 40 in 2020), but has become more diverse in recent decades (ranging from 27 to 76 years). When making this overview I had actually expected that the average age at PhD graduation would have shown a downward trend as I assumed that the role of the PhD thesis had changed from someone’s life’s work (a middle- to end-career achievement) to a first stepping stone (an early-career achievement) in an academic career. The latter certainly holds true for a large group that obtained their PhD degree at the age of 35 or younger. However, among the PhD graduates of the last 20 years, the PhD degree has also been an important mid-career stepping stone. Many, in particular international, PhD graduates, who got their PhD degree at the age of 40 to 50, have moved up to senior academic or management positions. And throughout the years we’ve had PhD candidates that embarked on their PhD study more towards the end of their career or even after retirement (with two obtaining their PhD degree at the age of 76). For this relatively small group the PhD thesis has remained a life’s work.

Trend 3: From men only to more gender balance

One aspect that has really changed over the past 75 years is the male/female ratio of PhD graduates. In the past 75 years we’ve had twice as many male graduates as female graduates, as the figure below shows.

However, this 2:1 male-female ratio has not been like that over the past 75 years. In the first 55 years the vast majority of PhD graduates were men (32 men versus 2 women), and this changed considerably in the last 20 years (34 men versus 32 women), as the figure below shows. It clearly reflects the changing male-female ratio of BSc and MSc students at Wageningen University (and most likely also at many other universities in and outside the Netherlands). And this also has had an impact on the gender balance within the current academic staff at the Rural Sociology Group.

Trend 4: From mainly Dutch to ‘all over the world’

Over the past 75 years the PhD community at the Rural Sociology Group has really become international. Although there were a few non-Dutch PhD graduates in the early years, in recent years PhD students come from all over the world: other European countries, Latin America, Africa and Asia (see figures below: Europe refers to all European countries excluding the Netherlands). A large number of the PhD projects of these international PhD students are projects jointly supervised with staff members of the Sociology of Development and Change group, which traditionally has a strong network in Latin America and Africa. The former chair of Rural Sociology, Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, also has a large international network, in particular in Italy, several Latin American countries and China, and this has clearly contributed to the inflow of PhD students from these parts of the world. The aforementioned growing importance of external research funding and international PhD scholarships has also contributed to the internationalization of our PhD community. I also assumed that the international focus and status of Wageningen University, with all its MSc and part of its BSc programs taught in English, would have contributed to the internationalization of our PhD community. However, hardly any of our international PhD students has an MSc degree from Wageningen University.

In addition to looking at the countries/regions where our PhD graduates come from, I have also made a figure of where they are currently residing/working or where they were residing when they retired. This basically shows that the vast majority of PhD graduates is residing/working in the country/region where they originate from. Some have moved to other countries and a few of the international PhD graduates have stayed in the Netherlands.

Trend 5: From government official to academic/researcher

A last topic related to 100 Rural Sociology PhD graduates I want to present is their current or last (in case of retirement) sector of employment. Is a PhD degree really a stepping stone for an academic or research career or does it result in careers in a variety of sectors? This has been summarized in the figure below, which shows that many of the PhD graduates in the early years continued their career in government. To be fair, many of those PhD graduates actually had a government job and were given the time and space to do their PhD research while keeping their job as government official and continued as a government official after obtaining their PhD degree. Since the 1990s the PhD degree seems to have been favorable for a career in academia/higher education or at a research institute. Many of our international PhD graduates now have tenured positions at foreign universities as assistant, associate or full professor or as senior scientist or senior manager at a research institute. Some are self-employed as advisors/consultants and a few ended up working for a NGO or in the private sector (in or related to agriculture or elsewhere). But as the primary aim of our PhD program is to train PhD students to become independent researchers/academics, it is great to see that so many do indeed succeed in building a career in (academic) research (and higher education).

A People’s Green New Deal

The idea of a Green New Deal, a set of proposal to address climate change and its effects, was launched into popular consciousness by US Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018. Evocative of the far-reaching ambitions of its namesake, it has become a watchword in the current era of global climate crisis. But what – and for whom – is the Green New Deal?

In this concise and urgent book, A People’s Green New Deal, RSO postdoc Max Ajl provides an overview of the various mainstream Green New Deals. Critically engaging with their proponents, ideological underpinnings and limitations, he goes on to sketch out a radical alternative: a ‘People’s Green New Deal’ committed to the decommodification of social reproduction, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism and agro-ecology.

Ajl diagnoses the roots of the current socio-ecological crisis as emerging from a world-system dominated by the logics of capitalism and imperialism. Resolving this crisis, he argues, requires nothing less than an infrastructural and agricultural transformation in the Global North, and the industrial convergence between North and South. As the climate crisis deepens and the literature on the subject grows, A People’s Green New Deal contributes a distinctive perspective to the debate.

Order now: A People’s Green New Deal (plutobooks.com)