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).

Green Care practices and place-based sustainability transformations: a participatory action-oriented study in Finland – PhD-thesis by Angela Moriggi

June 1 2021, at 11.00 am (CET) Angela Moriggi will defend her PhD-thesis ‘Green Care practices and place-based sustainability transformations: A participatory action-oriented study in Finland‘. See the Abstract below. The full thesis can be downloaded from the WUR Library after the defense ceremony, or by clicking its DOI.

The ceremony will be live-streamed by Weblectures.wur.nl, but is recorded and can be viewed later as well. Angela Moriggi was appointed as research fellow at the EU funded MSCA ITN project SUSPLACE, employed by the Natural Resources Institute of Finland (LUKE) and PhD-candidate at the Rural Sociology Group of Wageningen University. Since April 2021 she holds a position as research fellow at the Department of Land, Environment, Agriculture, and Forestry (TESAF) of the University of Padova.

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Grow, share or buy? PhD-thesis by Lucie Sovová

October 13 2020, at 13.30 am (CET) Lucie Sovová will defend her PhD-thesis ‘Grow, share of buy? Understanding the diverse food economies of urban gardeners‘. See the abstract below. After the defence the full thesis can be downloaded from WUR Library here. The ceremony will be live-streamed – click here – but is recorded and can be viewed later as well. Lucie Sovová is affiliated as PhD-candidate at the Rural Sociology Group of Wageningen University. 

How do urban gardens work as sources of food? That is, in a nutshell, the central question of this thesis. Urban gardening and other food alternatives have received growing attention in relation to issues such as food quality and the environmental impacts of food production. However, we know little about how urban gardens actually provide food. In order to answer this question, I conducted an in-depth study of 27 gardening households in Brno, Czechia, exploring the long and lively tradition of gardening in Central and Eastern Europe. I investigated how much food gardeners produce in their plots, how they think of this practice and how it relates to other ways of obtaining food such as shopping. The results reveal that several practices facilitate food self-provisioning, such as food sharing or preserve making. I conclude that urban gardens play a central role in gardeners’ food supply, influencing eating as well as shopping habits in all four seasons.  

(De)coding a technopolity: Tethering the civic blockchain to political transformation – PhD-thesis by Syed Omer Husain

May 14 2020, at 11.00 am (CET) Syed Omer Husain will defend his PhD-thesis ‘(De)coding a technopolity: Tethering the civic blockchain to political transformation‘. See the Abstract below. The full thesis can be downloaded (click title) from WUR Library after the defence ceremony.

The ceremony will be live-streamed by Weblectures.wur.nl but is recorded and can be viewed later as well. Syed Omer Husain is affiliated as PhD-candidate at the Rural Sociology Group of Wageningen University. He was employed at the EU-funded MSCA ITN project SUSPLACE.



This study rests at the intersection of technopolitics, translocal networks and political change. The overall aim of the thesis is to understand, and in turn, influence, the way technology interacts with political transformation. It responds to the fact that social science has thus far neglected to adequately account for and analyze how emerging technologies like blockchain and civic tech influence the way politics is practiced. The main research question guiding the study is how does the design, implementation and use of technopolitical innovations influence the practice of politics. The thesis foregrounds the idea that technopolitical experiments personify a ‘prefigurative politics by design’ i.e. they embody the politics and power structures they want to enable in society.

Conducted as part of the EU-funded SUSPLACE project that explores the transformative capacity of sustainable place-shaping practices, the research was predominantly inspired by a hybrid digital ethnography methodology. The thesis confines its focus to three empirical clusters: technopolitical blockchain projects, government-led blockchain projects and place-based civic engagement technologies. The study delineates how differing politico-social imaginaries play a role in the design and implementation of technopolitical projects; addresses contemporary post-political phenomena such as the depoliticization of agency; and identifies the activation of a place-based geography of political action through digitally-mediated municipal networks. It articulates the language and frameworks necessary to analyze these present-day challenges, while simultaneously developing approaches that can be exported to different domains of political activism.

Technology is not neutral; but neither are its designers and users. The thesis finds that it is through considerable, deliberate efforts, in conjunction with individual and collective choices, that technopolitical innovations can reframe our socio-economic and political realities. The study demonstrates the emphatic and urgent need for researchers, practitioners, politicians and citizens to collaboratively work on redrawing boundaries of access, empowering the citizenry, creating new forms of organization and re-politicizing the economy. It outlines a transdisciplinary research and practice agenda that aims at not only (de)coding the existing technopolitical innovations, but also (re)coding them to create a more equitable system of politics. The thesis concludes that since coding affordances and constraints in a technopolitical system is shown to regulate political agency and even influence the behavior of citizens, we must devise value-driven technology that incentivizes creating a more equitable political system.

Energy and labour use on farms: case studies from the Netherlands and China – PhD-thesis Tian Yu

November 20, 2019 at 4.00 pm Tian Yu will defend his PhD-thesis ‘Energy and Labour use on farms: case studies from the Netherlands and China‘. See the Abstract below.

The full thesis will be available after the defence ceremony. The ceremony will be live-streamed by Weblectures.wur.nl but can be viewed later as well. Tian Yu is affiliated as PhD-candidate at the Rural Sociology Group of Wageningen University.


As one of the major contributors to greenhouse gas emission, agricultural production is responsible for climate change. In the most industrial countries, agricultural production has built a great dependency on fossil energy consumption by replacing most human labour with agro-technologies on the farm. This is unsustainable in the context of climate change and resource depletion. Therefore, in order to mitigate climate change, the transition to sustainable food production is necessary and urgent. Rising in the 1970s, organic agriculture is believed to be a sustainable approach for agricultural production. It has been proved to use less fossil energy due to a commitment not to use any synthetic substances, but at the same time it uses more labour. When labour and fossil energy are regarded as two basic resource inputs on a farm, it seems that organic farms use more labour to compensate for the reduced fossil energy consumption. However, it is still unknown how the input balance of fossil energy and labour on organic farms is different from that on conventional farms, and how the different input balance would influence the sustainability of agricultural production. It is valuable to explore these questions against the backdrop of climate change. As the issue of fossil energy and labour input balance on farms has not been studied thoroughly, this thesis is written based on an exploratory research. The main objective is to explore the balance of fossil energy and labour input at farm level by comparing conventional and organic farming systems, and to explore the possibility to optimise sustainability of resource use in agricultural production.

By conducting comparative case studies in both the Netherlands and China, this thesis first calculated the energy and labour input balance separately in the two countries, and it concluded organic farming uses less energy and more labour compared with conventional farming in both countries, but there is great variation among all the farms in the size and farming activity of this gap. When comparing the results from the two countries, the thesis concluded that Dutch farms use more energy while Chinese farms use more labour due to their different resource endowments. However, the situation is changing in both countries, and the changes show that the so-called industrial agriculture – which consumes much more energy – is not the only nor the best trajectory for agricultural development. Requiring more labour use on-farm, how organic farming can deal with the labour constrains is then answered: organic farmers should be encouraged to explore their diverse local solutions to increase the resilience of their farm when dealing with the constraints. In further, using the theory of farming mode and farming style, this thesis discussed farmers’ input strategies by clarifying the heterogeneity within organic farms, and highlighting the trend of conventionalisation in the development of organic agriculture, and it supports the hypothesis that organic agriculture with peasant qualities shows better potential in applying organic principles to optimise the sustainability of an organic farm. At last, the thesis discussed the theoretical concept of organic peasant agriculture and tries to distinguish it from conventional agriculture and conventionalised organic agriculture. It concludes that organic peasant agriculture is valuable in the transition to sustainable food production.

Rural Sociology Group 2016 Fruits

2016 has been a fruitful year for the Rural Sociology Group and it had a smashing ending: an invitation by the EU-commission to prepare a Grant Agreement for the H2020 proposal ROBUST on rural-urban relations. Rural Sociology will be coordinating ROBUST. We will keep you posted.

A list of all 2016 publications by the Rural Sociology Group can be accessed through the Library of Wageningen University and Research. Among them 22 peer reviewed articles. Continue reading

Farmers’ perception of opportunities for farm development – PhD thesis by Ron Methorst

methorst-thesis-coverNovember 18, 2016 at 4.00 pm Ron Methorst will defend his PhD-thesis ‘Farmers’ perception of opportunities for farm development‘ in the Auditorium of Wageningen University.

The full thesis will be available after the defence ceremony. See the Abstract below. The ceremony will be live streamed by WURTV but can be viewed later as well.

Ron Methorst is affiliated at the Aeres University of Applied Sciences in Dronten (Aeres Hogeschool Dronten). For more information you can contact r.methorst@aeres.nl 

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Under the lens of embeddedness: a social-cultural perspective on home-grown school feeding in Ghana – PhD-thesis by Nashiru Sulemana

June 2, 2016 at 11.00 a.m. Nashiru Sulemana will defend his PhD-thesis ‘Under the lens of embeddedness; A social-cultural perspective on home-grown school feeding in Ghana‘ in the auditorium of Wageningen University.

The defence ceremony will be streamed live by WURTV but can be viewed later as well. The thesis will be available at WUR-Library after the ceremony has been concluded.

The PhD-thesis analysed how the activities and experiences of different actor groups involved in the implementation of the home-grown aspects of the Ghana school feeding programme enabled as well as constrained local food procurement that was expected to link the school feeding programme to local agricultural development. While the primary objective of any school feeding programme is first and foremost to provide adequate and nutritious food to school children, efforts at employing the power of procurement under home-grown school feeding to benefit local agricultural development have been considered as ‘win-win’ in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in developing countries like Ghana. The assumptions that underpin these ‘win-win’ notions of home-grown school feeding, however, ignore the socio-cultural relationships that anchor the everyday activities and experiences of the actors involved in the implementation of the programme. The thesis, therefore, conceptualized home-grown school feeding as a problem of embeddedness and showed how socio-cultural relationships in the activities and experiences of school level governance actors, school food caterers, local food traders and smallholders enabled as well as constrained local food procurement efforts.

Alternative Food Networks in Calabria – PhD-thesis Simona D’Amico

Simona cover PhDApril 28, 2015 at 11.00 am Simona D’Amico will publicly defend her PhD-thesis ‘Alternative Food Networks (AFNs) in Calabria. A sociological exploration of interaction dynamics‘ in the Auditorium of Wageningen University. The defence ceremony will be streamed live by WURTV but can be viewed later as well. A pdf copy of the thesis can be downloaded from Wageningen Library, but is under embargo till April 28.

The PhD-thesis aims at advancing the understanding of identities and roles of non-mainstream food systems. It focuses on AFNs which operate in the context of rather traditional agrifood systems, engage in both food provisioning and raising civic awareness, and collaborate with a wide range of actors, such as producers, consumers, civil society organisations and institutions. In particular, the research studies an AFN – GAS M – in Calabria – Southern Italy – by shedding light on the dynamics of interaction during the organisation and implementation of its activities.

Well-working operational interfaces – PhD-thesis Wiebke Wellbrock

December 4 Wiebke Wellbrock succesfully defended her thesis (can be viewed at wurtv.wur.nl):

Well-working operational interfaces: A key to more collaborative modes of governance

This thesis comprises five chapters that are independent scientific publications. In the first chapter, I show how the ‘learning region concept’ and ‘triple helix thesis’ can be reframed to address support for collaboration in rural areas. In the second chapter, I reflect on the experiences of using the conceptual lens as a research tool for studying the operational features of arrangements supporting joint learning and innovation in the case study area of Westerkwartier, the Netherlands. In the third and fourth chapters, I deal with the question of how to best arrange support for collaboration by comparing the operational features of arrangements across the German and European case study areas. This thesis concludes with a discussion of the lessons learnt concerning: 1) wellworking operational features of arrangements supporting collaborative modes of governance, 2) the development and refinement of the conceptual lens, based on experiences of using it as a heuristic research tool, and 3) the potential of the refined framework to effectuate more collaborative modes of governance.

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