Zeeuwse akkerbouw tussen verandering en continuiteit : een sociologische studie naar diversiteit in landbouwbeoefening, technologieontwikkeling en plattelandsvernieuwing

Wiskerke, J.S.C.



In agricultural science, farming is often seen as an activity guided by the 'iron' laws of nature or by the 'iron' laws of economy. In this book I take a different position. Farming is considered to be a socio-technical practice. This position implies a specific role for rural sociology within the field of agricultural sciences. Rural sociology is not the social part of agricultural science. Instead it should be a synthesizing science, examining the whole range of possible agricultural practices and specifying which particular practices are realized, why, how and by whom.

In order to fulfil this synthesizing role, five methodological requirements for a sociological analysis of agricultural and rural development processes have to be met:
1) Dynamics: development processes are characterized by change as well as by stability or continuity. A sociological analysis of these processes should therefore combine the strategies of actors with the structures by which they are bound.
2) Symmetry: the principle of symmetry implies that everything should be analyzed in the same terms: truth and falsity (with respect to knowledge) or success and failure (with respect to technology) do not inhere in knowledge or technology, buth they are the outcome of socio-technical processes. The principle of symmetry also means that no a priori' distinction between the 'drivers' and the 'driven' is allowed (i.e. non- reductionism).
3) Heterogeneity: processes are not purely social, technical, or political. Rather, social, technical, scientific and economic factors are interwoven. To underline this interwoveness, the term 'socio-technical' is used throughout this study.
4) Reflexivity: the principle of reflexivity suggests that sociologists are no different from the ones they study.
5) Rural sociology should be a narrative science, documenting those stories and biographies agricultural scientists tend to forget or consider to be irrelevant.

The central aim of this study is to give insight into agricultural and rural development processes. In particular it aims at giving insight into the dynamics, the complexity and pluriformity of these processes. In addition this study aims to indicate how, why and by whom (or what) these processes are shaped, transformed and reproduced.


Who shapes farming practices? Does diversity in farming practices refer to coincidental or meaningful differences? These two questions have served as a guideline for the emperical research presented in part I of this study. All the emperical data are derived from arable agriculture in the province of Zeeland.

In chapter 2 I elaborate on the first methodological requirement. The actor-oriented approach is taken as a starting point for the sociological analysis of agricultural development. This approach provides an accurate conceptual framework for analyzing, describing and explaining the dynamics of agricultural processes as it builds upon the notion of knowledgeable and capable actors and of strategic action. However, to avoid voluntarism and methodological individualism one has to realize that actors interact within socio-technical networks. It is through the interaction between social actors, artefacts and nature that specific patterns of ordering emerge. These specific, but also highly diversified patterns are actively reproduced and/or transformed through the interaction between social actors, artefacts and nature. However, at the same time these patterns of ordering structure the interaction processes within socio-technical networks.

At different levels of analysis interaction processes and emerging patterns of ordering are studied. In chapter 3 I re-tell the story of agricultural development in the post World War II decades: the modernization era. The modernization era is described as a process of the institutionalization of projects and practices and the internalization of its matching normative framework, that subsequently legitimized a continuation of the modernization process and delegitimized alternative routes. The modernization process was both medium and outcome. The development of arable farming in Zeeland during the modernization era is analyzed. It shows that at a provincial level modernization did indeed take place. However, looking at agricultural development in different regions in Zeeland, development processes were far from uniform and one-dimensional. Different regional socio-technical networks were constructed and reproduced, resulting in meaningful diversity in farming practices.

In chapter 4 the contemporary diversity in arable farming in Zeeland is thouroughly analyzed through the concept of farming styles. This concept is used tot study diversity at farm level. It refers to a specific ordering of socio-technical relations. Each farming style reflects a specific normative perspective on farm development. In arable agriculture in Zeeland six different farming styles were identified. Each represents a specific ordering of the intensity of land use (i.e. crop rotation schemes and the input of pesticides and fertilizer), the input of labour and the marketing of crops. Each farming style contains a specific history as well as a specific future project.

The contemporary diversity at crop level in arable agriculture in Zeeland is the central theme of chapter 5. It is analyzed using the concept of cultivation strategies. Like the concept of farming styles a cultivation strategy refers to a specific ordering of socio-technical relations and reflects a normative perspective on the way a crop ought to be cultivated and commercialized. One of the central issues in chapter 5 is the interrelation between crop varieties (and more in particular specific genetic characteristics) on the one hand and cultivation strategies and farming styles on the other hand. This study shows that certain dominant interrelationships (i.e. specific patterns of ordering) exist. However, this study also demonstrates that there is little diversity in available crop varieties. The question of why the assortment of crop varieties has a narrow genetic basis is dealt with in part II of this study.

The central theme of chapter 6 is the interrelationship between diversity at a regional level, at farm level and at crop level. I demonstrate that these interrelationships are diverse and far from uni-linear. Previous 'farming styles studies' have suggested that a differentiation in a variety of aspects of farming is uni-linearly linked to a differentiation in farming styles. This study clearly shows this is not the case. In addition this implies that the diversity within farming styles appears to be far greater than recently suggested, once one focusses on a different level of analysis (e.g. crop level in stead of farm level).


The development of the assortment of wheat varieties during the modernization era is the central theme of the second part of this study. As mentioned earlier, the research described in chapter 5 resulted in a question about the genetic uniformity of crop varieties in arable agriculture. A study on a specific wheat-project in Zeeland, which is described in chapter 11, lead to a related question: why has improvement of the productivity of wheat varieties been a central theme in the breeding programmes of Dutch wheat breeders in stead of improvement of the baking quality? These two related questions have served as a guideline for the research described in part II.

From a theoretical point of view part II builds upon the recent constructivist (or constructionist) studies on sociotechnical change. In chapter 7 an integrated conceptual framework is presented. This framework is based on the actor-network theory, the SCOT-approach and the quasi-evolutionary theory. Important concepts are script, socio-cognitive frame and agenda. The concept of script suggests that an artifact (e.g. a wheat variety) can be seen as a text: a description of its socio-technical network, including the roles of the author of the script, other actors and other intermediaries. The concept of socio-cognitive frame refers to shared knowledge, rules, experiences, routines and practices while the concept of agenda refers to shared guidelines, options, expectations, directions, norms and priorities, Together these three concepts strongly relate to two of the methodological -requirements (i.e. dynamics and heterogeneity) presented in chapter 1.

In chapter 8 the construction and institutionalization of the socio-technical network related to wheat breeding is described. I focus on the development of three crucial intermediaries within this network: breeders' rights, the list of crop varieties and the inspection services for seeds and planting materials. These three intermediaries were constructed during the 1920s and 1930s and became increasingly interrelated. Together they evolved into an obligatory passage point within the socio-technical network. This role as an obligatory passage point was formalized through legislation. I further demonstrate that each of these intermediaries contains a script that allocates specific roles to a number of actors and different intermediaries within the socio-technical network.

In chapter 9 the development of the assortment of wheat varieties during the modernization era is described and analyzed. This description and analysis clearly shows that the specific organisation of the socio-technical network, as described in chapter 8, has resulted in an assortment of wheat varieties exclusively based upon the notion of 'improving the productivity of wheat'. This notion was embedded in the modernization project and the EU agricultural policy. The specific way in which the socio-technical network has been organized during the modernization era is increasingly becoming a bottleneck to realize drastic changes in arable farming. Sustainability and quality production are hampered by the dominant organization of the socio-technical network.


Although the modernization project has been successful in terms of its initial objectives, it is increasingly being criticized for its undesirable side-effects: environmental pollution, surplus production, a decrease in the prices of agricultural products, etc. Several authors emphasize that these and other undesirable side-effects are the outcome of a series of processes in which farming was disconnected from its social, cultural and ecological environment and in which a large number of tasks within the labour process were disconnected in time and space. The central theme of part III is therefore to describe and analyze transformation processes aimed at the reintegration of those aspects that have been disconnected during the modernization era.

In chapter 10 a case-study on the reintegration of agriculture and its socio-economic environment is presented. The reintegration of production and consumption is central to chapter 11. Both case-studies show that transformation processes start with the construction of a new agenda. However, the case-study presented in chapter 10 demonstrates that the construction of a new agenda is hampered by a dominant local 'social code', shared by farm families who still are in strong support of the modernisation project. This dominant social code delegitimizes rural innovation. The case-study described in chapter 11 shows that a new agenda, based upon the notion of sustainable baking wheat cultivation, is successfully constructed as it is embedded in the simultanious construction of a new socio-technical network. In this case the development of the new socio-technical network is hampered by rules, regulations and socio-cognitive frames embedded in the socio-technical networkwith respect to wheat breeding, as described in chapter 8.


In the epilogue I reflect on the empirical data, on the theoretical concepts and on the research process. I conclude that the five methodological requirements have created new and better oppertunities to gain insight into the dynamics, complexity and pluriformity of agricultural and rural development processes. I consider the introduction of concepts such as 'socio-technical netwerk', 'processes of ordering', 'script' and 'agenda' as an important theoretical contribution to Wageningen rural sociology. However, I also conclude that this study is too descriptive and not sufficiently analytical as a result of the way I've handled the principle of symmetry (and especially non-reductionism). I further reflect on the research process by stating that it is in essence not different from the farm labour processes: both are processes of ordering and both are embedded in and reproduce or transform a socio-technical network. With respect to the fifth methodological requirement (i.e. sociology as a narrative science) 1 conclude that the stories of the people I've studied have offered numerous leads for ordering the emperical data. Furthermore these stories brought forward the criteria the people themselves consider to be relevant and meaningful in ordering their own reality.