75th Anniversary: 27) From farmers in the countryside to urban citizens keeping an apple tree

The blog series celebrating 75 years of Rural Sociology often discusses farming, professional food production or the countryside. Rural Sociology’s research interest is broader than that, however. Over the years attention for urban areas and their eaters – either or not involved in food production – has grown. Hence, staff members of our group have studied urban allotment gardening, urbanites sharing food and making yoghurt, and urban composting. In sum, the city has taken its place next to the countryside as an important research area, and our research is no longer limited to the professional food producer. 

My own research in Almere, conducted in 2019, serves as an illustration. With WUR-colleagues Jan Eelco Jansma, Hans Dagevos and Jan Willem van der Schans, I studied food prosumption in Almere. We defined a prosumer as someone who grows or collects (part of) his/her own food, for instance in a community garden, by growing it in the backyard or by wild foraging. Our goal was to understand the concept in theory and practice and to clarify who is involved in prosumption and what these activities entail. In order to do so we conducted a literature review, interviewed people involved in prosumption as well as experts, and sent out a questionnaire (n=835).

The concept of prosumption fits certain processes we witness in today’s society, including the motivation to take responsibility and to ‘do it yourself’, in order to be less dependent on larger companies. Although the word prosumption is hardly used in the literature, the phenomenon of citizens engaging in food production is studied and described, for instance with regards to the shifting and partly overlapping roles of producers and consumers in Alternative Food Networks.

We were surprised by the number of respondents who are involved in prosumption one way or the other. Two thirds of our questionnaire respondents grow basil in the window sill, harvest their own apples or pick blackberries in the woods. However, the scale in which they do so is only small: the acreage respondents use for prosumption activities is limited, and just a small part of people’s diets results from these activities. Hence, people are much less involved in time-consuming activities as community or allotment gardening than in small-scale activities like having a few plants in the backyard.

We found that motivations to be engaged in food production mainly relate to the fun of gardening. People enjoy being outside and to produce something that they can eat. A few people were motivated by a distrust in the supermarket, health, and sustainability, but these motivations were for most respondents subordinate to the pleasure of engaging in a hobby. We did find that people who are involved in prosumption more often take ethical considerations into account when shopping for groceries, but we couldn’t make any statements regarding causality. 

Despite the limited scale of food prosumption activities as found in our research, the conclusion that a large number of respondents participates at least to some degree in food production, shows that prosumption is something ‘normal’, suggesting that people may not be as far removed from food production as often thought. The next step is to better understand what needs to be done to interest people more for food and the food system, and to connect to their main motivations in order to change the food system to become more sustainable.

See our published paper here and the research report (in Dutch) here.

Why I support Alarm Day and the call for a 1.1 billion Euro structural investment in academic research and education

Today, Tuesday April 6 2021, is ‘Alarm Day’; a day on which the teaching and research staff, students, administrators and alumni of all 14 Dutch research universities will be congregating to call on the new government to structurally invest 1.1 billion euros in academic research and education. Since 2000 student numbers have doubled, while government funding per student has decreased by 25%. In addition research funding has not kept up with the growth in student numbers and increasingly has to be obtained via competitive research grant applications. Hence, there is a structural lack of time and financial means for high-quality research and high-quality teaching. As a result of underfunding, students no longer receive the education they deserve, while teaching and research staff are struggling to cope. So on Alarm Day we address this situation and propose to work towards a Normal Academic Standard. For more information, please check https://normaalacademischpeil.nl/ (or https://normaalacademischpeil.nl/english for the English version).

One of the activities the organizers of the Alarm Day ask us to undertake is to share our personal stories. That is what I will do in this blog, thereby also expressing my support for today’s Alarm Day and the call for a structural investment in university research and education.

Why I support Alarm Day and the call for a 1.1 billion Euro structural investment

I was appointed as Chair and Professor of Rural Sociology at Wageningen University in November 2004. Within our university system, being chair means that you are responsible for the financial situation of your chair group. Due to the way the funding of education has been organized at Wageningen University, our education income does largely keep up with growing student numbers. However, the downside is that there is hardly any funding for research. Annually our chair group gets approximately k€ 330 basic university funding (formally labelled as research funding), yet our costs for accommodation, materials, travel and overheads are equal to or exceed that, hence there is no funding for research. So to make sure that the annual operating result of my group is not negative, there are basically two options: we only teach (and make sure that the revenues from teaching plus basic funding cover the salary costs and other costs) or we obtain external funding for research (including PhD projects). We have continuously focused on the latter option (also because the first option de facto means that the key characteristic of academic education, i.e. the link between research and teaching, ceases to exist) and have been quite successful at that, BUT:

  • Over the years grant schemes have become increasingly competitive, and thus our success rate has gradually declined from approximately 50% 10-15 years ago to less than 25% at present (while the quality, based on evaluation scores, has only improved). This means that an increasing share of our research time is spent on writing proposals that do not get funded.
  • A lot of the grant writing has to be done in the evenings, weekends and holidays, simply because a) a 40 hour working week is not enough to do everything I need or am expected to do, and b) most deadlines for submitting proposals are just after the Christmas and summer holidays.
  • Due to the continuous financial pressure of obtaining external research funding I am almost permanently busy with grant writing and actually do not have enough time for the projects I did manage to get funded. And the time I have available is largely spent on project coordination, not on research;
  • A lot of our research projects are funded by the European Commission. In the EC’s framework programs (e.g. Horizon 2020, Horizon Europe) we see a gradual shift in funding focus from understanding problems and challenges to developing and implementing solutions, in other words from research to innovation and (societal) impact. Funding for curiosity driven and risky research has to come from personal grants (ERC, VENI/VIDI/VICI) or grants for training networks (e.g. Marie Curie Training Networks), and these schemes are even more competitive (with success rates between 2 and 10%).
  • Until recently I was ‘promotor’ (main supervisor) of >25 PhD projects and it is simply impossible to be sufficiently involved in all. Most of the supervision is done by daily supervisors (assistant and associate professors), who all do a great job at this, but for me PhD supervision was way more interesting when I only had a few PhD students. Yet, for financial reasons it is important that within our group we have 4 to 5 PhD graduations per year. Therefore we still have 25 to 30 PhD students, but as a few colleagues have ius promovendi (the right to award a PhD) I no longer have to be the promotor of all. So this helps to reduce my workload a bit, but doesn’t change the perverse incentive that a steady inflow and outflow of PhD students is important for financial reasons.

Will 1.1 billion Euro of structural funding solve all problems?

Unfortunately the answer is ‘no’. It will certainly help to reduce the reliance on external research funding and reduce work pressure if we can appoint more staff members who can carry out their teaching and research tasks and activities within their work week. But we also need to address a few other issues:

  • In addition to this structural investment a large share of the research funding that is now distributed via competitive grant schemes (NWO and EU for example) should go directly to academic staff: so less time wasted on proposals that do not get funded, less work pressure and more funded time for curiosity driven research;
  • A new recognition and reward system that once and for all gets rid of the publish or perish culture (or generally speaking the output performance culture) that has dominated academia in the last 25 years. Especially the current publication and PhD supervision criteria that our Tenure Trackers need to comply with only contribute to more publications and more PhD students to be supervised.
  • The time and energy consuming bureaucracy that we need to work in and which is largely based on institutionalized distrust, as if endless procedures, evaluation rubrics, assessment forms, and checks and balances will help us to become better lecturers and researchers.
  • Related to that is the time that we are spending on writing self-evaluation reports (and to that we add mid-term self-evaluation reports) for peer review committees (peer reviews of our BSc and MSc programs or of our research program). Don’t get me wrong, I really value getting feedback from peers if we can also honestly and openly share our struggles and challenges and then get constructive feedback on how to do things better. However what we are actually asked to do is to write marketing brochures to boast about our excellence, so that university management can show to the outside world how many ‘top programs’ and ‘world leading’ research units it has. And this also means that a negative evaluation (which is basically anything below ‘excellent’) will haunt you until the next peer review.

What have I decided to do to reduce my work pressure?

In addition to keep on addressing the structural causes of work pressure I have decided to do the following:

  • I will not write any project proposal until the current Horizon 2020 project I am coordinating is finished and I have the time and energy to write a new proposal;
  • I will no longer write research grants for financial reasons, but only because I want to (for curiosity reasons, because it allows me to hire PhD candidates and/or postdocs, because it enables me to collaborate with colleagues in other countries, et cetera).
  • I will not accept new PhD students until the number I am responsible has dropped below 10 and that will remain the maximum number.
  • I will publish less and review no more than two papers per paper I have submitted as (co-)author (and review no more than 3 research proposals per proposal I have submitted for review).

I realize that I am in a privileged position (permanent contract, no Tenure Track criteria to comply with and chair of a group that does really well in teaching and research) to take these decisions, but hopefully it is seen as leading by example.

75th Anniversary: 26) History and Sociology

Chair excursion to the peat-area in Drenthe (beginning of the eighties). From left to right: Aart Snel (our secretary), Ad van der Woude, Willibrord Rutte, Jouke Wigboldus, Jaap Buis and Henk Roessingh. On his back with the Edelman-drill: Jan Bieleman. Next to him one of our students. The photo was taken by Anton Schuurman.

By Anton Schuurman, Rural and Environmental History

The fame of the chair group Rural History brought me in 1978 to Wageningen. The Wageningen history group was at that time different from all the others history groups in the Netherlands – it was doing social science history, history as a social science with the methods of the social sciences with as its most characteristic feature the use of quantitative methods and statistics. It is still the message of our group: ‘We apply comparative historical methods to better understand long-term patterns of interdependence between people, institutions and environments. Our empirical work builds on a combination of qualitative sources and large statistical datasets, which we construct from historical archives across the globe.’ – it reads on our internet page. Although nowadays part of the section Economics of the Social Sciences Group – perhaps partly due to the fact that the heirs of Hofstee seem to have lost interest in doing quantitative work – , the chair group owned its existence to the tenacity of the same Hofstee (as so many of the social sciences chairs in Wageningen do) who succeeded finally in 1956 to lure Slicher van Bath away from Groningen to Wageningen.

Hofstee was a history-orientated sociologist (well, social geographer), as was explained earlier in these blogs, who later named his own way of doing sociology: encompassing sociology (differentiële sociologie – see  blog 5. In blog 5 the English translation is differential sociology. I prefer encompassing sociology – a term from Charles Tilly (Tilly, 1984; Schuurman, 1996), which in my view better captures Hofstee’s intention, although I suspect that Hofstee himself saw the title as  a reference to La vocation actuelle de la sociologie. Vers la sociologie différentielle (1957) by Georges Gurvitch).

Hofstee’s work played a large role in our work at RHi– he was our favourite scape goat. As all the sociologist he thought that the world had only changed in the 19th century – the famous process of modernisation, urbanisation and industrialisation. Before that – it were the Middle Ages, people working since time immemorial by the sweat of one’s brow. How wrong he was, how wrong the sociologist are. Slicher revealed the process of proto-industrialisation in Overijssel in the eighteenth century; Roessingh, using Chayanov far before Jan Douwe rediscovered him, demonstrated how the farmers on the Veluwe adapted their farming practices in their search for security; Van der Woude showed that the nuclear family was the default family in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Holland, Bieleman revealed the many changes in agriculture in Drenthe instead of the eternal rye cultivation  (“eeuwige roggebouw”). I could go on. The sociologists made us feel pretty smart.

I have to confess that my attitude to Hofstee was a bit different. Of course, he was a sociologist and prejudice-ridden, but for my work on the material culture of the Dutch countryside I was inspired by his encompassing sociology. I admired and admire his three-volume book Differentiële sociologie. It can still be used, maybe especially by global sociologists. Hofstee was my hero next to Elias, Bourdieu, Benjamin and Giedeon. But I was also influenced by other Wageningen sociologists – most of all by Rien Munters who had written his book Rising and declining cultural goods (Stijgende en dalende cultuurgoederen) (Munters, 1977). He claimed that in a real open society goods would diffuse in every social direction – but, in fact, even in the famous open society of the seventies he found just one rising good: rolling one’s own tobacco. In the nineteenth century countryside I also found just one: the sewing machine.

Later Munters had an even larger influence on me by letting me join the Giddens-circle, where I read together with Gert Spaargaren, Peter Oosterveer, Jan van Tatenhove, Tuur Mol, Frans von Benda-Beckmann and many others, contemporary sociologists from Giddens to Baumann, Urry  and Elden-Vass. The historian I became, I became because of Wageningen and of the Wageningen sociology group.

PS When I may do a public appeal: Sociology was so much more than Hofstee. I would like to read stories about or from his staff -members – Nooij, Kooy, De Ru, Benvenutti, Van der Ban, Munters, Wichers and many others – who wrote sometimes books that did become classics and who taught and influenced generations of sociologists. I remember Piet Holleman who not only made all the maps for the sociology group, but also for us; Corry Rothuizen who was at the department sociology when Hofstee worked there, and who is still working for Environmental Policy; Henk van Espelo who made the cartophoot-map that is still to see in the Leeuwenborch – there certainly will be other person who could write about them.  I personally have less knowledge of the non-Western sociology group, but I would love to hear, e.g., a story on Rudy van Lier, direct colleague of Hofstee, as non-Western sociologist, but so different from him.

  • Munters, Q. J. (1977). Stijgende en dalende cultuurgoederen. De “open” samenleving ter discussie. Alphen aan den Rijn 1977 Samsom.
  • Schuurman, Anton. (1996). Mensen maken verschil. Sociale theorie, historische sociologie en geschiedenis. Tijdschrift voor Sociale Geschiedenis, 22(2), 168-205.
  • Tilly, Charles. (1984). Big structures, large processes, huge comparisons. New York 1984 Russell sage foundation.

75th Anniversary: 25) De Stad-Platteland Tegenstelling

Door Henk Oostindie

In de jubileum publicatie rondom ons 25 jarig bestaan leverde Lijfering een bijdrage onder de titel ‘het rural-urban continuüm in het licht van sociale veranderingen’. In die bijdrage gaat Leifferink in op de zin en onzin van dichotomisch denken en de noodzaak om de begrippen stad-en platteland als ideaaltypen te beschouwen. Vertrekkende vanuit het centrale begrip menselijke nederzetting, verwijst Lijfering naar de volgende drie dominante onderscheidende kenmerken: het fysieke milieu, de sociale interactie en het cultuurpatroon. Naast deze in zijn ogen verhelderende invalshoeken om stad en platteland als anachronismen nader te duiden, komt Leifering met het voorstel om meer expliciet aandacht te besteden aan wat hij benoemt als ‘functionele stad-platteland patronen’. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

75th Anniversary: 18) On Eros, Rural Encounters and Local Responses: Rural Sociology’s 25th and 50th anniversary

Since Wageningen rural sociology celebrates its 75th anniversary, this implies we had two previous anniversaries: the 25th and the 50th. At both occasions, anniversary books were published.

Images and Realities of Rural Life (click on the title to get access to the book) was published at the occasion of 50 years Wageningen rural sociology. Edited by Henk de Haan and Norman Long, the anniversary book offers “a sample of recent work by sociology staff members and sketches out possible future trajectories” (Haan and Long 1997: vii). The book does not look back, as claims to reputation should be built on achievements, and not on the past, the editors state. “Ancestral rituals have their function in strengthening the sense of identity among current staff members and students, and may also serve as an historical claim on the present and future existence of a robust sociology in Wageningen”, yet the identity and standing of sociology in Wageningen, the editors contend, should be constructed on current “research profile, thinking and academic performance” (ibid.). Continue reading

75th Anniversary: 16) Meaningful Diversity: Origins of the Farming Style Concept

Part of the front cover of Hofstee’s inaugural lecture “On the causes of diversity in agricultural areas in the Netherlands” (1946)

E.W. Hofstee’s interest in the concrete, the lived, and the particular marked his inclination towards an “inductive” research methodology. He combined in-depth descriptions of social groups with a comparative approach (Hofstee 1938: 7-8). This grounded theoretical approach yielded the concept of farming styles in agricultural production. A farming style can be defined as shared normative and strategic ideas about how farming should be done (see also Blog 10). Hofstee’s concept of farming  style implied an important analytical inversion: one should not try to understand the practice of farming from the structural conditions to which the farmers responds but rather move to the center of our analysis the agency of farmers as creative actors. Hofstee thought that rural sociology should emancipate itself from structuralist and functionalist “adjustment sociology,” as the understanding of rural life in terms of an adaptation to “order” was not only narrow and incomplete but also wrong: it erased the agency of people in the creation of the world they inhabit (see also Blog 14). Continue reading

75th Anniversary: 15) Marquetalia: Tegen de stroom in, maar met de beweging mee

 

In 1979 verscheen het eerste nummer van Marquetalia, een tijdschrift over landbouw en politiek. Tot de oprichters van het tijdschrift behoorden Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, de latere hoogleraar en hoofd van de vakgroep Rurale Sociologie RSO, maar ook anderen die de rurale sociologie in de jaren tachtig en negentig weer op de kaart zetten, zoals de agrarische socioloog en voormalig RSO collega Jaap Frouws, die later een spraakmakende politiek-sociologische studie over mest en macht schreef (waarover later meer in een blog), en Jan Schakel, de latere onderwijscoördinator van RSO. Na zes nummers hield het tijdschrift op te bestaan. Het redaktiekollektief sprankelde nog van nieuwe ideeën, maar men woonde en werkte te ver van elkaar – verspreidt over drie continenten – en nieuwe carrières boden nieuwe netwerken en kansen. Een deel van het kollektief ging de kern vormen van RSO. Continue reading

75th Anniversary: 14) Is the Future of Rural Sociology Urban? Is the Veluwe City?

“Nationaal Park De Hoge Veluwe” by F.d.W. is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The functions and meaning attributed to the rural are manifold (Woods 2011: 1). Primarily, it operates as the intersection of “man and nature” (Ploeg 1997: 41), where for centuries most of our food, fiber, and fuel have been produced (Woods 2011: 1) but which now also provides the landscapes and scenery where visitors ‘slow-down’ or search for adventure and sensation (Buscher and Fletcher 2017) while comprising spaces of identification and belonging (Jongerden 2018). Further, the rural acquires meaning in relation to its complement: the urban. Often defined as opposites in terms of land use, population density, or social bonds, among others (Cloke 2006), these “constitute the complex unity of society viewed from a spatial angle” (Gilbert 1982: 609). This variety of functions and meanings has made the rural not only an epistemologically uncertain concept, but also a normative one.This normativity and uncertainty is part of the heritage of rural sociology. Continue reading

75th Anniversary: 13) Reflections: From Rural Sociology to a Sociology of Place?

Place has figured central in the work of the Rural Sociology Group. In a way this is, of course, already implicated by the adjective “rural” which adds a spatial identity to the sociology we do. Taking this identity as a social practice and the production of meaningful differences as points of departure (Hofstee 1946, Ploeg 1993, Wiskerke 2007), my own research gradually started to crystalize around the emergence of new spatial realities beyond ‘rural’  and ‘urban’.  At the background of this interest is the will to understand how people address inequality and uncertainty, and how they sustain themselves individually and collectively, socially and spatially. Continue reading