WASS Research Theme: Disparities

Growing disparities are of major concern in the coming decades. For example, while close to one billion people continue to suffer from hunger, the number of obese persons has rapidly risen to more than 500 million in recent years. WASS examines how poverty and wealth relate and how they are shaped by, and interact with processes of growth and (re)distribution.

Differential access to, control over, and use of resources and products need to be understood. A series of interwoven issues are being studied in order to address these societal challenges:

What are the current trends in the distribution of productive resources and produced commodities (including services, etc.)?

Who controls what, why and how? What is the level of inequality, what causes inequality and what are the consequences of inequality for malnutrition and obesity? Resources not only include matter (land, machines, inputs, and so on) but also knowledge and skills (see also theme Knowledge in Society) and social identities and relationships. Distribution patterns at the global level, between states, at the regional level, and between and within households are being explored as well as environmental consequences of patterns of resource distribution (see also theme Natural Resources and the Environment).

What kind of economic development is required for reducing poverty and hunger?

Research on this question studies divergent values about food and the ways in which food is being produced and accessed. It requires insight into different patterns of economic, social and technological change within regions and in different parts of the world. For example, the growth of regional food networks may build upon other values, policy interventions and business investments than the growth of highly-specialized, very segmented, global-trade based forms of production and consumption. This issue also requires a profound understanding of the interaction between culture, politics and production-consumption relations. How do distribution patterns of production-consumption shape material culture, household consumption lifestyles, and perceptions of health? And vice versa?

What causes change in distribution patterns?

Power and political activity reproduce or transform distribution patterns. These patterns are rapidly changing as part of globalization processes. Of particular interest are the changing economic and political relationships due to the growth of economies such as China, Brazil and India. Another important shift has resulted from the accelerated world-wide urbanization over the last decades, with tremendous impact on rural-urban relationships. Also the dynamics of international and domestic commodity chains (see also theme Responsible Production and Consumption) increasingly impacts on food provision, poverty, and so on. This raises the question as to how spaces and places become integrated and how global and local level processes interconnect. What will be the resulting shifts in the patterns of food production, distribution and consumption? What kind of new models of poverty and hunger reduction emerge?

What are the determinants of everyday food and health behaviour in households?

With an emphasis on issues pertaining to food and health, research in this field seeks to understand the behaviour of individuals and groups (and changes therein) in the context of changing market conditions, more flexible labour markets, and risky environments. How do consumers and households manage and adapt their health and food behaviour? What diversity or heterogeneity in behaviour exists and how is such behaviour embedded in wider cultural, identity and gender diversities and/or linked to divergent rural and urban livelihood strategies? How do people respond to environmental cues, policy incentives, associations and logical arguments aimed at influencing their behaviour?

How do societies regulate the distribution of resources and produced commodities?

This institutional issue entails addressing questions such as the (combinations of) levels and scales at which governance takes place and the complex interactions between state and non-state rules and forms of regulation in what nowadays is known as hybrid political orders. Which policies are effective in reducing poverty and hunger given the changing forms of governance? An example is the study of legal complexities underlying land tenure and their implications for land reform and land titling interventions. In a broader perspective this raises important questions about how societies arrange entitlements and institutions to foster social justice. For example, a question is what the notion of a right to food implies and how this notion is being used. How are different groups in society politically represented in decision-making around agriculture and food? What is the role of different social movements, traditional authorities and other non-state actors? How do societies organize the participation of different actors in food and agriculture-related technological innovation (see also theme Knowledge in Society)?