Theoretical approaches to the ecologisation of agrifood systems – European Society of Rural Sociology 2014 Summerschool

Transitions towards more sustainable agrifood systems and rural landscapes are at the core of societal demands, technological but also social innovations and renewed public policies at various scales. In rural sociology they are addressed through different theoretical frameworks and the main objective of the ESRS PhD Summer School this year, is to discuss these competing and sometimes articulated frameworks and thereby to help the PhD students to clarify their own theoretical choices and to position them in relation to other theoretical frameworks that are used in rural sociology. For students who are rather at the beginning of their PhD, the aim will be to help them organize their state of the art and clarify their problematisation, while for students who are more advanced, it would rather be a discussion of their results in the light of existing literature and/or possibly the preparation of a future article. All the participants should have an interest in the theoretical frameworks that will be structuring the discussion, i.e. mainly Socio-Ecological Systems/Resilience theories, Food Regime Theory, Transition Theories, Actor Network Theory, and Social Studies of Science and Knowledge. Continue reading

Notes from the ESRS conference (5)

Back in Wageningen, I am still digesting all the inspiration, material and knowledge that was floating around freely last week at the ESRS conference in Chania, Greece. For example, related to the earlier blog on the conference (2) the Working Group “New forms of citizen-consumer engagement in food networks: diversity, mechanisms and perspectives” had much to offer in addition to our own working group. Indeed, of all the types of consumer driven initiatives, such as food coops, CSA, consumer purchase groups, adoption schemes and landshares, the grow-it-your-own was largely absent. We concluded that a fusion of self-provisioning strategies and consumer driven engagement initiatives are necessary to understand the full spectrum of engagement with food growing.  Another conclusion of the Working Group was that the driving force behind an initiative does not need to correspond with the nature of the initiative. Examples from Czech Republic showed how citizens had set up a farmers market, which is usually seen as a producer initiative. Also here, new terms and definitions were considered such as “civic food networks” or “pro-sumers” to move away from the consumer – producer dichotomy, a distinction which obscures more than it reveals.

The enormous differentiation in initiatives was another key finding when one looks across the presentations in this Working Group. We concluded that it is difficult to discover ‘hidden realities’ and that we most likely underestimate the number of alternative food networks around. Initiatives have different names across countries or sometimes do not want to be known in statistics and databases as they deliberately try to operate outside ‘the system’. The last point includes a tension. We would like to show and make visible the size of the alternative food networks, also to show its significance. But it also reminded me of a paper which I use in a course on political sociology on “Governmentality and territoriality” by Jonathan Murdoch and Neil Ward (1997). Statistics are a useful instrument to govern at a distance and one of the technologies of government now widely used and abused, but which we take for granted now. The paper, however, showed how the collection of statistics of Britisch agriculture from the 19th century onwards failed “not least because of a relunctance on the part of many farmers and landowners to cooperate, based on their belief that the exercise was an interference in their private affairs” (1997: 314). All governments depend on modes of representation by which the domains to be governed become visible. Freedom, according to Foucault, is “the art of not being governed quite so much” (Oksala 2008). A careful approach to visibility sounds healthy to me.

Notes from the ESRS conference (3)

At the ESRS conference, currently ongoing, there are a few working groups situated around empirical and theoretical work on ” Alternative Food Networks (AFNs)” . Different studies have identified many different alternative food initiatives and networks which are situated outside the consolidated agro-industrial complex both physically and in their socio-political organisation.

The working groups show different cases from Europe and beyond in which participant involvement is being analysed. How participants of AFNs frame their involvement varies. The frames are often overtly political referring to marxist ideologies and anarchist principles or quite the opposite. The latter – no overt political statements – can be found in the cases presented by Esther Veen on two urban agricultural initiatives in the Netherlands.

Participants were extremely hesitant to frame their membership in political terms and were outright rejecting ‘ oppositional’  language. They were downplaying the significance of their membership, not prepared to place it in broader ideas of societal change, but framed it instead as a personal choice, as something nice to do and as their little contribution to make the world better.

Particularly in one case, this contrasted starkly with the initiator of that case who strongly voiced his political statements and discontent with the agro-industrial system. The audience to the presentation suggested that one of the explanatory factors could be Dutch culture which generally avoids politization but focuses on the ‘ tolerance’  of leaving you to do your thing while I do mine. Certainly, so far food has not underwent the same level of politization as is the case in Britain. But further unpacking is needed of these initiatives in order to firmly conclude at this point.

Notes from the ESRS conference (2)

At the bi-annual conference for rural sociologists in Europe  at this moment going on at Crete, we organised a working group to compare food and farming strategies in the rural and the urban. We discovered confusing (see blog 1) and potentially clarifying concepts while listening to the many interesting presentations. As an example of sustainable rural development Ignacio Lopez Moreno presented the concept of co-production as ” the ongoing interaction and mutual change of human and living nature”  (after van der Ploeg 2008) while explaining the case of quality production under the Waddengoud label in the north of the Netherlands. This definition fitted the presentation of Esther Veen and myself too who saw the urban residents in urban agriculture initiatives as co-producers in the sense of this definition.

Although co-production and co-producership also have contested meanings in the academic debate these terms are potentially bridging rural and urban studies on the way people grow food as alternative to buying in regular retail outlets of the agro-industrial complex. Both rural dweller and urban residents interact with and change nature while becoming active in growing food.  Food provisioning strategies that involve co-production open the dichotomy between producer and consumer and perspectives which start (implicitly) from one or the other side.

Notes from the ESRS conference (1)

Today we had the last session of our working group ” Comparative perspective; governing semi-subsistance food and farming strategies in the countryside and city” . In this group we deliberately were seeking to contrast  cases of food and farming in urban and rural contexts. Can urban agriculture be compared with small-scale farming in rural areas? What has peasant farming literature to offer in how we can look at what is going on with food growing in cities?

We discovered useful and potentially bridging concepts and concepts which may confuse more than they reveal. To start with the latter, “semi-subsistance farming” may not be a useful concept. One reason is the many definitions as Imre Kovach showed us. But another is the meaning of the separate terms in the different rural and urban contexts. Is the ” semi”  in subsistance referring to selling surplus or buying the remaining part of the food supply if you only produce some of your vegetables? And is ‘ farming’  the appropriate term for growing food in allotments or community gardens?  From a rural perspective food production as a side, or part time activity is easily seen as farming and the person foremost as a producer and only in second instance as consumer. In city initiatives it is the reverse. Consumers usually do not ‘ farm’  but ‘ grow food’  or ‘ garden’  and hence are only a ‘ producer’  after their identity as a consumer. This while a rural hobby farm may be as intense in land use as an allotment at the city fringe. The focus on food provisioning strategies  seems therefore better since it refers to the activities one undertakes to eat, which may include growing activities too.

The comeback of Action Research?

This year’s European Rural Sociology meeting in Vaasa, Finland  aired a remarkable optimism. With the crisis in the real world, the identity crisis of rural sociologists seems over. In times of crisis, there  seems more space for social change.

One of the conference themes was “the rural bites back”.  Well, “the rural never went away” Michael Bell said, “we only need to consider the political conditions of our work”. Time for the activist/scientist to stand up. This resonates very well with how I experienced the spirit of the local and sustainable food community in the US. No wonder, Michael Bell is based in Madison, Wisconsin.

In his opening keynote speech, Philip Lowe, from Newcastle University, UK, explained the history and differences between the American and European rural sociology societies. Despite the historically more distant and observant EU tradition, he too urged for us to engage and deal with the “mess” of reality. And in yet another plenary session, the comeback of action research was observed.

Although some of us never did anything different, there was a general vibe of action readiness for social change in the conference. Have the years of ‘Critique’ only passed? Certainly, new engagement and involvement urge us to take position and to be the “political scientists of the rural” as Michael Bell put it.