Vision and mission in relation to Wageningen University & Research
SDC focuses on the structures and practices of development and change with a particular scientific interest in inequality, marginalization and political agency. The group’s vision is to be a world-leading, politically engaged and interdisciplinary research and educational centre in development studies, political ecology, anthropology of law and crisis and disaster studies.
Our mission is to gain and communicate a deeper understanding of inequality and marginalisation generated by global and local structures of power and political-economy and so contribute to social and environmental justice. At the same time we study how actors generate forms of agency and practices that enable them to deal with these dynamics and create new opportunities.
Understanding the structures and practices of development and change as they relate to problems of inequality, marginalization and political agency is directly relevant to the mission of the Wageningen University & Research as a whole: ‘to explore the potential of nature to improve the quality of life’. There are two distinct elements in the Wageningen University & Research vision: 1) exploring the potential of nature; and 2) improving the quality of life. Both are inherently social, political, economic, cultural and ecological and demand a balance between these different dimensions. A broadly interdisciplinary social science perspective on development and change, such as the one practiced in the fields of development studies, sociology, anthropology, human geography and political science, is critical to come to holistic, contextual and nuanced analyses and insights regarding both elements.
Starting with the latter element, it is clear that processes and structures of inequality and marginalization greatly influence the quality of life for many people around the world. Phrased differently: there can be no improvement in the quality of life if dynamics of development and change continue to stimulate and engrain processes of inequality and marginalization, and hence understanding the structures and practices of how these processes come about, how they develop and change and how they are resisted and responded to through forms of political agency is key. Regarding the first part of ‘exploring the potential of nature’, the SDC group focuses its scientific interest on the issues of inequality and marginalization on core Wageningen terrains: livelihoods, agriculture, resources and the living environment. The question of the potential of nature then becomes who benefits from what idea of (potential of) nature and how does this change over time and across space? Nature here is, again, broadly defined and encompasses nonhuman ecosystems, landscapes and resources across rural and urban spaces.
Our objectives are:
- to lead a cutting-edge research, teaching and publication agenda that contributes to development studies, political ecology, anthropology of law and crisis and disaster studies;
- to contribute to a deeper understanding of processes of development and change and developing associated research capacity around the world;
- to contribute to socially just, economically equitable, sustainable and peaceful solutions to twenty-first century development problems;
- to contribute to the democratisation of scientific knowledge through research transparency, stakeholder involvement, social engagement and public debate.
The research strategy to meet the above objectives is guided by the strategic considerations outlined below, which centre on the idea of ensuring that SDC becomes a dynamic intellectual and social hub. Content-wise, several issues are worth noting. Historically, much of the research of the group is rooted in the tradition of actor-oriented development sociology, focused predominantly on rural resource struggles. This tradition remains important, but has evolved considerably over the last decade to incorporate other theoretical approaches, topics and methodological traditions. More attention, for example, has been given to developmental struggles over seed, wildlife, energy, water and mineral resources across different scales; the politics of humanitarian disaster and natural hazard responses; the critical rethinking of epistemological and ontological differences in practices and policies of development; the role of legal and institutional pluralism in environment and development; and political agency in urban slum development.
Based on the new research themes introduced during 2014 (see below) the SDC group aims to capitalise on its research focus in the coming years. Planned research and theoretical inquiry aim to reach broad academic, popular and policy audiences in development studies, political ecology, anthropology of law and crisis and disaster studies. They include - inter alia - rethinking new divides and boundaries as they relate to developmental, natural resource and crisis and disaster dynamics, further developing theories of practice, agency and structure, and reconceptualising the concept of political agency across scales and (neoliberal) political-economies.
Perspective, focus and approach
Crucial for the SDC group is that its members share a perspective and focus in relation to the vision, mission and objectives. Regarding focus, development and change are seen from a dialectic between agency and structure, while its perspective is a critical and politically engaged one. Critical here does not mean ‘negative’ but to look beyond the surface and understand realities as multi-layered and (empirically, theoretically, epistemologicaly and ontologically) complex, full of dimensions, meanings, emotions and interests. This makes the chair inherently interdisciplinary: while we may start with sociological analysis, the group at the same time emphasizes anthropology, political science and human geography as crucial sources of epistemological, theoretical and methodological inspiration simply because these are key fields where studies of development and change related to processes of inequality, marginalization, environmental and agrarian resource management, land and rural and urban governance, and political agency are intensely debated and researched.
But we want to go a step further and start working towards an ‘approach’ or ‘school’ that we share on the epistemological, theoretical level. This should be a base from which we do research, engage each other and outsiders intellectually and aim to institute transformative change towards social and environmental justice.
All of the above is operationalised into three core research themes, which will form SDC’s research agenda for the next 5-10 years:
- Resources, rights and livelihoods: Explores the dynamic interactions between resources and their exploitation, domination and conservation. With resources we refer to land, food, minerals and the environment but also to knowledge, information and heritage. This theme foregrounds contestations over resources and how these are created and framed through global structures of neoliberal governance, legal and extra-legal frameworks and lived realities;
- Crisis, reordering and resilience: Engages with change and re-ordering of society associated with crises and disasters and their aftermath in which new linkages, institutions and livelihoods may develop. Crises and natural or human-made disasters are seen as complex processes of reordering with historical, present and future dimensions rather than unproblematic, manageable routines of ‘disaster risk reduction’, ‘relief’ and ‘reconstruction’;
- Reassessing divides and boundaries: Focuses on the material and discursive dynamics that change old divides and bring about new ones. We study how (ontological, epistemological, empirical or other) boundaries are shaped, steered, used, strengthened or weakened; divides such as global-local, urban-rural, powerful-marginalized, whole-parts, developed-undeveloped, crisis-normality. Divides and boundaries are operationalised and studied on all levels, including practical material levels and on the level of knowledge and science, in order to understand their practical, epistemological and ontological consequences for broader process and structures of development and change.
Strategic directions and considerations regarding content, education and organisation
In order to implement the above content vision, several further strategic considerations regarding content, education and organisation are important. These considerations are meant to help build a stimulating and conducive intellectual and social environment for all staff and students related to the SDC group.
Regarding content: the SDC group builds on its long tradition of high-quality research to become a vibrant intellectual hub for scholars worldwide, who are keen to present their work in the group’s seminar series, participate in conferences, workshops and summer schools organised by the group and will want to become part of its networks, activities and publications. This will be facilitated by encouraging and (further) building a ‘culture of quality’ in research and publications. This means that the group adheres to the highest international methodological and ethical standards of conducting research and publishing results. To ensure this, a continuous infusion of, participation in, and generation of new intellectual ideas and debates is key and this is where the intellectual hub function comes in.
SDC researchers are keen to be(come) leaders in their fields, meaning very concretely that they: want to be recognised for their research and insights; strive towards occupying key positions in the global academic landscape, such as editors of (top) journals, members or chairs of important committees, etc; develop and seek grants for individual and collaborative research projects; (co-)author insightful and high-quality publications, and so forth. These activities and the research they are based on should at the same time strive towards social relevance, meaning that they contribute to social and environmental justice in concrete situations. This is always a political process and group members support each other in making meaningful political interventions that contribute to social and environmental justice and enable us to speak ‘truth to power’, both far away and close by, including within Wageningen University & Research.
Regarding education: the SDC group continues to build (on) its education activities within Wageningen University & Research and beyond, and further improves the already high quality, diversity and balance of the education portfolio. There is a very good base to work from, and it is important to maintain and improve this base, not only by ensuring high-quality courses but also letting students be part of the ‘SDC intellectual hub’. This, in turn, should also translate into new themes and courses or course elements that can be put on the educational agenda within Wageningen University & Research, in order for us to stay abreast of significant empirical and theoretical dynamics and currents.
Important in all this is to further develop the distinctively critical-constructive and politically engaged approach shared among SDC staff. This is something we are proud of, and which is of immense importance on its own, not simply as a tool to support other, technological sciences. We take inspiration, amongst others, from Prof. Martha Nussbaum’s recently published book (Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities) in which she argues the following:
“we increasingly treat education as though its primary goal were to teach students to be economically productive rather than to think critically and become knowledgeable and empathetic citizens. This shortsighted focus on profitable skills has eroded our ability to criticize authority, reduced our sympathy with the marginalized and different, and damaged our competence to deal with complex global problems. And the loss of these basic capacities jeopardizes the health of democracies and the hope of a decent world”.
In response, Nussbaum argues that “we must resist efforts to reduce education to a tool of the gross national product. Rather, we must work to reconnect education to the humanities in order to give students the capacity to be true democratic citizens of their countries and the world”. This is a vision for education that is deeply shared among SDC colleagues, and one that we will uphold and defend vigorously.
Regarding organisation: we want to be a tightly knit group that works as a team but where individual contributions and leadership are highly encouraged. It means an organisation where management and administration should always strive to do better, to provide an environment within which individual and collective ideas and ambitions can flourish. It also means focussing on the human side of work: to provide an appropriate balance between work and personal lives and for leadership to respect and safeguard this balance; to ensure that work serves people and not vice versa; and to manage the pressures of contemporary academia so that they lead to productive rather than destructive outcomes, over the short and long term. Finally, it entails building SDC as a thriving ‘social hub’, next to an ‘intellectual hub’: to create a conducive, safe and inspiring social environment for all staff.
The strategy to achieve these aims has two main dimensions: internal and external. First, we pay attention to internal group dynamics and individual staff members, try to bring in new and exciting staff members to complement the existing expertise and to build a strong core focused on quality of our intellectual contributions in terms of publishing, research grants/projects and teaching. This also includes working further on adequate and fitting support through stable and effective secretariat and finance/control sections. It is important that the secretariat and finance/control sections help build the social and intellectual hubs through their support and services and vice-versa, that they receive the appreciation and understanding they deserve. In the end, it is all of us together that make SDC what it is and that means that all functions and positions, although different, are equally important.
Second, we want to impact the outside world: enlarge and (re)invigorate networks, organise conferences and publications, bring in exciting scholars for lectures, seminars or sabbaticals, and so forth. Basically: we want to make some ‘noise’ nationally and internationally and so put issues, themes and perspectives we believe are important on national and international intellectual, policy and political agendas. Through these strategies, we will start building the SDC intellectual and social hub.