Family farming futures : agrarian pathways to multifunctionality: flows of resistance, redesign and resilience

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU



During my more than two decades of research experiences as a rural sociologist, the multifunctionality of agricultural activity was a subject of major interest, although under different denominators. In this thesis I theorize and present agriculture’s multifunctionality as characterized, shaped and propelled by flows of resistance, redesign, and resilience. 

This central thesis starts with an introduction to the key notions resistance, redesign and resilience. I associate the meaning and significance of resistance, especially, with a long standing tradition of farmers’ resistance to the negative externalities that accompany modernisation, commoditisation and globalisation processes and broader socio-cultural resistance against loss of rurality. Together these underpin how resistance continues to be a crucial component in agricultural and rural development through 1) its more or less overt and covert expressions; 2) its material as well as symbolic representations; and 3) its conservative as well as transformative power.   

This relevance of resistance appears more specifically in Chapters 2 to 6. The emergence, definition and interpretations of the multifunctionality concept in the Dutch agri-expert system shows how societal resistance against the negative externalities of the agricultural modernisation model went along with a renewed attention for agriculture’s multifunctionality, although more or less broadly defined and more or less widely accepted. 

The role of resistance shows up next as part of the wider driving forces that underlie the multifunctionality of farming practices. In addition to the persistence of farm-development trajectories based on pluriactivity and diversification, this will be particularly associated among Dutch professional farm-enterprises engaged in new rural development activities with the desire to ‘farm differently’ i.e., different from the logics of the agricultural modernisation model in the sense of enabling more direct contact with consumers, citizens, other rural dwellers, etc. The distinction and characterization of different farm-development trajectories in the overall analysis further confirms that multifunctional pathways remain closely interwoven with different expressions of resistance within family-based farming. 

In the analysis of European agri-environmental governance resistance will be specifically related to dissatisfaction and discontent that addresses hierarchical relations and its consequences in terms of prevailing institutional ‘voids’ in multi-level governance settings. The latter notion refers to the absence of transparency and agreement on institutional conditions and rules in multi-level governance settings. As such the analysis concentrates especially on resistance that emerges at the interfaces between different policy levels and between policy and practice.  

The relevance of resistance appears in the analysis of ‘nested’ rural markets in Europe as opposition against hegemonic food market relations. It addresses different types of the negative consequences of dominant food market relations such as the loss of distinctiveness at farm and territorial level, of trust in food, of influence within globalizing chains, of income opportunities for farmers, of food justice, etc.

Chapter 6 stresses that resistance manifests itself spatially in specific ways by introducing the rural web as an instrument to analyse rural differentiation processes. As a multi-dimensional analytical tool it addresses resistance especially through the distinction of the domains endogeneity, social capital and sustainability. Overall, the rural framework enables us as such to focus on the spatial interlinkages and interaction patterns between different manifestations of farmer-led and broader social-cultural resistance against marginalisation tendencies and loss of rural distinctiveness. 

Next to resistance, redesign is thought to be a second key notion that characterizes and propels multifunctional agricultural pathways. Theoretically it makes it possible to underline that these are also closely interwoven with transition processes around a fundamental re-positioning of the role of agriculture in rural development processes and, as such, are part of new ways of social ordering. The further conceptualization of redesign as combined processes of dis-embedding and re-embedding stresses the multi-facetted nature and complexity of involved redesign processes.     

Again, the significance and meaning of redesign will appear in different ways in Chapters 2 to 6, in the first place as an issue that divides the Dutch agri-expert system. The analysis around the national emergence of the multifunctionality concept reveals how, particularly, the rural development model associates agriculture’s multifunctionality with a fundamental re-positioning of agriculture’s role in rural development and, thus, manifold redesign challenges. In other, narrower definitions of multifunctionality redesign is limited much more to debates about the pros and cons of interventions in market relations and land property rights. Overall, contrasting ideas within the Dutch agri-expert system about the necessity of and opportunity for redesign reflect a transition context where the societal benefits of multifunctional agricultural pathways remain strongly the subject of debate.   

In this Dutch setting redesign, in line with the rural development model, manifests itself as already more promising at the micro-level. Next to more historically rooted expressions of multifunctional pathways, Dutch professional farm enterprises increasingly succeed in building new relations with consumers, in creating new interlinkages with other rural sectors, in developing new professional identities and in constructing new rural business models. Analytically, these different expressions of farm-level redesign reflect a strong capacity to re-vitalise family farming and to re-define farm boundaries. The distinction between different farm-level pathways shows how these redesign capacities are more or less prominently present and may be expressed at different paces.

In the analysis of European agri-environmental governance, redesign emerges as a subject of growing institutional attention and openness to new, more market-led approaches, new forms of self-organisation and self-regulation, new forms of public-private cooperation and new accountability arrangements. Thus, redesign centres on a re-distribution of responsibilities between public, private and civil actors and novel responses to the rigidity and limitations of hierarchical relations, as well as the manifold institutional voids, in increasingly complex and barely transparent multi-level governance settings.

The analysis around emerging ‘nested’ rural markets in Europe goes more into detail as to how market relations are actively redesigned. It emphasizes the significance of new roles for and relation between food producers and food consumers, building upon new normative frameworks, new boundary organisations, new food reputations, new forms of common pool resource management and new forms of co-experimentation, in short, novel rural market governance mechanisms that intend to safeguard, reproduce and strengthen the specificities of place, products and networks.

Rural web analysis underlines that redesign will manifest itself spatially in different ways within rural place-making processes. Particularly, the web domains ‘new institutional arrangements’, ‘rural market governance’ and ‘novelty production’ refer to different manifestations of redesign and stress that their place specific interaction patterns will comprise a second crucial component for an adequate understanding of  on-going rural spatial differentiation tendencies.

Resilience, as the third overarching key notion to characterize multifunctional agrarian pathways, attracts growing attention in different theoretical strands. Sociologically, I understand resilience as the need for alignment within contemporary increasingly complex ‘improvisation societies’ in pursuit of sustainable development. Inspired by agro-ecological approaches that make a distinction between its stabilising (‘bouncing back’) and adaptive and transformative (‘bouncing forward’) capacities, I further conceptualize the resilience of agricultural pathways to multifunctionality more specifically as the outcome of flows of resistance and redesign. Briefly, resilience as the capacity to persist, to adapt and to transform  representations of certain promises to align social ordering processes.

This specific understanding and relevance of resilience is further clarified throughout Chapters 2 to 6. The Dutch emergence of the multifunctionality notion shows how the negative externalities of agricultural modernization may go along with a gradual rediscovery and rehabilitation of agriculture’s multifunctionality. The emerging rural development model, particularly, recognizes and acknowledges the persistence and adaptability of multifunctional pathways. The national co-evolution of contrasting sustainability paradigms reveals, at the same time, that this translates into a still more limited transformative capacity in terms of the normative alignment of societal ideas about the core-functions of agriculture. 

Chapter 3 underlines that this transformative capacity may express itself already much more prominently at the micro-level: next to pluri-active and hobby farms, as well known expressions of the adaptability of multifunctional agrarian pathways, the Netherlands knows also robust novel multifunctional rural business models. These novel business models are strongly grounded in the following characteristics of family-based farming: 1) strong linkages between economic and  socio-cultural values as integrative powers for productive and consumptive rural functions; 2) changing gender relations that result in new forms of labour division and a re-distribution of responsibilities within farm-families; 3) new professional identities with differentiating strategic meanings for farming; and 4) a certain flexibility in the use of resources. The farm-development trajectories illustrate how this resilience of Dutch family-farms presents itself to different degrees and at different paces.

The analysis of European agri-environmental governance underscores that resilience is closely interwoven with self-organization and self-regulation capacity. In addition to the emergence of different types of market-led approaches, this covers in the Netherlands experiments with more hybrid remuneration systems, more performance based accountability arrangements and more collective and place-based provision systems. It particularly demonstrates that the resilience of multifunctional agricultural pathways will be also reflected in their ability to mobilize experimental space and to create synchronicity and coherence in highly complex multi-level institutional settings.

The analysis around emerging ‘nested markets’ in Europe approaches resilience as distinctive market relations. The ability of agriculture’s multifunctionality to persist, adapt and transform, coalesces here into alternative practices and normative frameworks that, in sharp contrast with hegemonic food market relations, succeed in integrating social, ethical and ecological values with market relations.  This may contribute to a reduction of transaction costs for producers and to consumers getting access to high quality food markets.  It actively forges synergy-effects between traditional and novel rural markets at farm and regional level and succeeds in transforming consumer behavior.  

Finally, rural web analysis further depicts resilience as interacting flows of resistance and redesign. First, its distinction between the dimensions endogeneity, sustainability, social capital, novelty production, new institutional arrangements and governance of rural markets enables the characterization of these flows in more detail. Secondly, it underpins the highly place specific interaction, coalescence and precipitation of such flows. The resilience of multifunctional agrarian pathways is incorporated here into the strong rural web configurations characteristic of rural competitiveness, quality of rural life and strong functional ties between rural and urban spaces. The differences in rural web dynamics between Laag-Holland and the Rivierengebied demonstrate how this spatial coalescence of resilience capacities may express itself rather differently in rural areas facing similar changing societal demands. These empirical findings confirm that multifunctional agricultural pathways represent specific, non-linear interrelations between the past, present and future of farming.

Chapter 7 starts with a reflection on their future in the Netherlands and reaches the conclusion that the financial crisis and economic downturn since 2008 went along with a (temporary?) deteriorating political climate as, amongst others, reflected in the growing popularity of the notion ‘sustainable intensification’ and the specific way that this is being interpreted. The longer term prospects of agrarian pathways to multifunctionality are further briefly depicted with the help of the various outcomes of national opportunity-constraint analyses. More specifically, I dwell upon the following selection of institutional redesign challenges that are thought to have a great impact on these longer terms prospects: 1) towards alternative multifunctional symbols for the agro-industrial mega-stable; 2) towards sustainable urban food planning; 3) towards more inclusive cost-benefit analysis; 4) towards substantial CAP reforms; and 5) towards longer term support commitment.

The last part of Chapter 7 draws attention to the unpredictability of the national future of agrarian pathways to multifunctionality. It acknowledges the limitations of sociological theory but, at the same time, the growing scholarly recognition of the performativity of the social sciences. That the social sciences do influence the way societal reality unfolds is particularly underlined by scientists that oppose social theorizing that loses itself in skepticism and negativism. Alternatively, so-called ‘weak theorizing’ is propagated with ambitions primarily oriented towards providing openings, degrees of freedom and hope. In line with these rather modest scientific intentions and pretentions, I finish by expressing the hope that this thesis may contribute to prosperous and flourishing multifunctional family-farming futures, particularly in the Netherlands, but also elsewhere.


Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • van der Ploeg, Jandouwe, Promotor
Award date20 Mar 2015
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789462572294
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • family farms
  • multifunctional agriculture
  • farming
  • rural sociology
  • agricultural development
  • nature conservation policy
  • netherlands
  • europe


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