Dynamiek en duurzaamheid : beschouwingen over bedrijfsstijlen, bestuur en beleid

R. de Bruin

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


This book is about processes of ordering in agriculture. It is about taking differential patterns of agrarian development as the starting point for sustainable development. It can be seen as a critique of one-dimensional approaches to agrarian development, which assume that there is one, determining, driving force. As a study it aims not to identify causal or one-dimensional relations between 'driving forces' and the 'driven': it focuses on differential patterns of interaction, especially on the specific and continuously changing relations between agrarian development and agrarian policy.

This book is written in the tradition of the actor-oriented approach and the empirically~ based interest in heterogeneity which characterises the Wageningen school of rural sociology. It builds on the 'farming styles' research project, central to which is the farmers' active role in constructing differential patterns of agrarian development. This book, however, goes beyond farming styles research. Agrarian development is seen as the outcome of differential processes of interaction between social actors such as farmers, extension agents, policy makers, agri-business and consumers, in strong relation with the available techniques, natural conditions and artefacts in general. The notion that processes of ordering are not strictly social, but are to a large extent related to natural and technical processes, is seen as a step forward in the research into agrarian development, sciences and policy.

There is no disputing the fact that the agricultural sector in the Netherlands today is facing many extremely complex problems. Sustainability is at risk, not only as far as the pollution of the natural environment (air, water, soil) is conserned, but also with respect to nature and landscape conservation, farm incomes and the social-cultural liveability of the rural areas. In addition, there is a deep institutional crisis regarding the development of accurate answers and solutions to solve these problems. This institutional crisis has been particulary evident in recent years. While various groups of farmers have taken the initiative to develop integrated methods and projects for sustainable rural development, governments and institutes that played a major role during the modernization of agriculture, have failed to react and support these farmer initiatives. Initially there have been no accurate tools to facilitate and strengthen these 'bottom up' movements.

The central aim of this study is to give an insight into processes of interaction between agrarian policies and agrarian development, in order of being able to provide answers to this institutional crisis. The main research questions are therefore as follows. What is specific to the processes involved in the interaction between agrarian development and policies?; How is heterogeneity in agriculture related to agrarian policy and concepts of steering?; Are differential patterns of agrarian development internally coherent through time?; How can dynamics be characterized and how are they related to sustainability?, and in order to answer these central questions and to study empirical diversity, what are the most accurate methodologies and concepts?

In an attempt to provide an answer to this last question, Chapter 2 provides an overview of some of the major approaches adopted in rural sociology in recent decades. We conclude that the actor-oriented approach - and especially the concept of styles of farming - provides accurate tools capable of descibing and explaining social processes, but that it needs to be elaborated and extended in order to understand the dynamics of agrarian development. Following the thinking of writers such as John Law, agrarian development is seen as taking place in socio-technical networks. In these social-technical networks, development is shaped by patterns of interaction between social actors and nature, techniques and other artefacts. Due to the institutionalization of different modes of ordering - self-reflexive strategies to pattern socio-technical networks - heterogeneity emerges and persist. Development has no a priori and decisive driving forces. Scientists who study agrarian development therefore have to be modest in their claims to understanding and predicting. Therefore the principals of Law's modest sociology - symmetry, non-reductionism, recursivity and reflexivity - are taken as guiding principals in this book. Obviously this has major implications for sociological research in agriculture. The symmetry principal for instance, implies the use of similar concepts and approaches in studying both natural and social processes and in studying processes of ordering at different levels.

In the following chapters therefore three case-studies at different levels of analysis are presented. All make use of the same central concepts: mode of ordering, socio-technical network and institutionalization. The first case study involves an analysis of the interaction between agrarian policies and agrarian development since the 1940's. It shows that agrarian policies are to be seen as a normative project of ordering the agrarian sector, and not, as many economists have tended to stress, as the product of the natural laws of economic development. Both the ordering of markets and technology development served this project. But despite massive and all-embracing efforts to modernise the agrarian sector, developments often did not progress as predicted. There are no direct and causal relations between policy, market interventions and agrarian development. Therefore the modernization project in Dutch agriculture needs to be demythologized and the representation of the causes, effects and benefits of modernization need to be critically examined.

A high level of consensus and a strong orientation towards modernization by policy makers, agricultural researchers, farmers' unions, government officials, the agri-business and farmers themselves, resulted in the strong institutionalisation of certain practices and perspectives. A convergence of ideas, possible alternatives and interaction patterns was taking place. This eventually resulted in a high level of rigidity in the agrarian sector and a lack of answers and solutions to the new problems that have faced agriculture from the early 1980s.

In Chapter 4 we analyze the way in which 'interest subsidies' have been used as policy intruments in Dutch agriculture since the 1970s. This case is a good example of specific patterns of interaction between policy and agrarian development. A global analysis shows that the use of interest subsidies to finance farm development did indeed result in the modernization of farms according to the ideal of specialization, intensification and scaleenlargement. This led to a drastic re-ordering of social-technical networks at the local and regional level. This again had implications for the sustainability issue in the 1990s.

A more thorough analysis, however, shows that this process was far from uniform and one- dimensional. Analysis of the use of interest subsidies in the province of Gelderland shows that there were considerable differences in the way application-norms were handled by government officials, the degree to which a certain development model was prescribed and the effects on patterns of farm development through time. In general, interest subsidies may have resulted in the uniformization of farm development, but confronting different regions we see that that interest subsidies also supported diverging development trends. We therefore conclude that the more the modernization ideal was institutionalized in the relevant socio- technical networks, and the more suitable the natural and technical environment became to modernization, the more farm development came to fit the model. In regions were other modes of ordering were institutionalized, quite a different use was made of interest subsidies. This did not stimulate modernization along the lines of one uniform model of farm development.

Central in Chapter 5 is the tension between dynamics and stability. This capter reflects further on the historical development of different styles of farming and on the importance of 'institutionalized arrangements' between different levels of analysis. These arrangements facilitate agrarian development according to specific perspectives and limit divergent developments.

Chapter 5 also contains an analysis of the farm development patterns of one hundred Frisian dairy farms, using data collected over a period of almost thirty years. Here we see that internally coherent development patterns through time do exist. The mutual positions of these patterns remain more or less stable, and farmers do not easily switch from one pattern - or style of farming - to one other. The ordering of socio-technical relations at farm level prescribes to a certain extent future farm developments. Farm development is a process of continuous change, but is seldom characterized by discontinuities. This conclusion has major implications for the future sustainability of farm development. It implies that there is no single solution to sustainability, or one single route that can be taken either. Based on these notions and the styles of farming research in general, we defend the new paradigm that diverging patterns of farm development offer different chances for sustainability. In order to strengthen and support these chances towards worthwhile alternatives, new institutionalized arrangements between governments and other relevant actors are needed.

In Chapter 6 the conclusions and results that can be drawn from the previous chapters are summarized and related to each other, and this book is placed in the context of other approaches to sustainable development. We find that it falls within the pluralistic approach to sustainability. In contrast to the conservatives or neo-modernists, for example, the pluralist argue for institutionalized arrangements that fit different perspectives, the provision of regionspecific solutions and the encouragement of bottom-up movements to achieve sustainability. No determining driving forces for sustainability have been identified; sustainability is seen as an outcome of different interaction processes and social and political struggles. The existing diverging modes of ordering (farming styles) in agriculture and the recent farmer initiatives to achieve sustainable development form the empirical basis for this approach.

In the Epilogue we reflect critically on the most recent developments in government policy to agriculture and the rural areas. The central question here is whether these new developments answer the demand for new and divergent institutionalized arrangements. Given the assumptions of modest sociology, the answer to this question must be slightly qualified. Although some positive changes are reflected in these policies, the notion of plural and worthwhile alternative routes have not yet been institutionalized by the key actors.

Original languageDutch
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • van der Ploeg, Jandouwe, Promotor
Award date16 May 1997
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789054856894
Publication statusPublished - 1997


  • government policy
  • agricultural policy
  • agricultural law
  • modernization
  • innovations
  • sustainability
  • farm management
  • farm planning
  • netherlands
  • agricultural extension

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