Processes of enlightenment : farmer initiatives in rural development in China

J. Ye

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


    <p> </p><p> </p><p>This research concerns development initiatives in rural communities. I define a farmer initiative as the impetus that sufficiently and necessarily drives a farmer (or group of farmers) to formulate a realistic strategic plan, and to implement it in an attempt to create space for manoeuvre and to pursue change through changing social conditions. Farmer initiatives emerge from farmers' experiences, knowledge, events, social networks, and from interactions among themselves, a wider network of actors and the broader socio-economic environment. In other words, farmers develop particular initiatives through the interaction of these factors. Thus farmer initiatives are also processes of enlightenment. Here enlightenment is an emergent property. In the Chinese context it not only refers to being inspired by ideas from others, but more importantly, by experience and interaction with others, with events, and so on.</p><p>Theoretically, rural social change is fundamentally the outcome of rural initiatives and must thereby be closely linked to them. The process of social construction involved in rural initiatives requires an interpretation of the 'logic' or rationale of processes of social encounter, intersection, interface and interaction that often remain only implicit in sociological studies. This approach repudiates exogenous views of development characteristic of modernisation theory, dependency theory and planned intervention models and focuses instead on endogenous development. One way of doing this is to enter explicitly into the vital terrain of farmer initiatives. Placed within the Chinese rural context, a sociological study of this kind is endowed with special significance. This is for two reasons. First, rarely are mainstream concepts of rural development sociology derived from or tested in the Chinese context. Second, the Chinese historical and socio-cultural context and its ideological content offers at this present juncture an opportunity not only to fill the vacuum of rural development sociology in China, but also, more generally, to redress possible distortions associated with certain brands of development theory.</p><p>In conformity with the understanding of the dialectics of internal and external factors, the generation of strategic ideas, and the debate about the nature of human agency and 'ordering' processes in social life, I mainly adopt an actor-oriented and interface approach in my analysis. Adopting such an approach to the study of the development of rural initiatives implies a focus on the dynamic interactions between actors as well as on the internal and external factors/variables implicated in these processes. My methodological starting point is not with pre-set models or recipes that define a set of techniques simply to be applied in the field. The research distances itself from the idea of applying simple positivist methods of research made up of a 'tool box' of techniques to be used for data collection, hypothesis testing and the isolation of the determinants of social behaviour. Instead, it adopts an open-ended, ethnographic approach aimed at unravelling the complexities of meaning and social action, through the development of a conceptual framework that accords priority to the understanding of everyday life situations.</p><p>The thesis consists of eight chapters. Chapter two provides a critical review of the theoretical 'state of the art' on issues related to the research outlined in the first chapter. Chapter three records the entire process of selecting and entering the research community. This started the long process of getting to know the community and building the community profile. The readers are presented with a process that highlights the specific context of rural China, its recent history, traditions, ideology, culture, and institutions. The everyday encounters in organised arenas (i.e. those using participatory methods) and in more indigenous arenas (such as 'sitting in street') form the basis for an understanding of the domains of community organisation and household livelihoods. They also, together with the account of interactions with village officials and leaders, draw attention to the significance of differentiated life worlds. They helped us to become socially and culturally socialised into the community. These experiences provide the foundation for the analysis of village social organisation and the dynamics of rural initiatives explored in the village profiles in Chapter four and Chapter five.</p><p>Chapter four falls into two parts. Part I begins with a general picture of village administrative organization followed by a general profile of each of the four researched villages. Most of this material was collected through discussion and interviews with key administrative cadres and from information obtained from records kept by the bookkeepers of the party offices and augmented by the research team's general observations. Part II explores the village profiles further through the use of a number of participatory methods and interactions with villagers in their everyday lives. The profiles furnish the reader with a full picture and penetrative analysis of a Chinese rural community and they thus provide the necessary background and contexts for exploring the nature and implications of farmer development initiatives. Importantly, the chapter displays the whole process of constructing the community profile, providing information on rural actors' life worlds and community dynamics. In this way the chapter allows readers to view the research community as a living picture.</p><p>Having become socially accepted into the community and having constructed profiles of the four villages of the study, I was in a position to understand better the complex social, economic and cultural environment in which local actors organise their life worlds. My research therefore moved on to its second stage and to the central theme of the study - farmer development initiatives. As I argued in Chapter five, all people have agency to act, to respond, to cope with life, and to solve problems, and different social actors will act, respond, cope and solve their problems differently and to a greater or lesser degree. In the context of rural household and community development, individuals will use their agency to engage in the pursuit of various undertakings or initiatives for achieving their own goals. I call this <em>development</em><em>agency</em> . Thus all rural actors may express the intention to better their livelihood situations, but (especially in the rural context examined) this can only be pursued effectively by starting something new. It is for this reason that I stress the importance of <em>innovative agency.</em> The core of my research was aimed at analysing how different farmer development initiatives were socially constructed. This required the study of careers of innovative actors in relation to household and community development. The selection of appropriate cases for study became critical. Eventually I ended up with twenty cases that allowed me to explore in more detail the careers of the selected farmers in relation to their household and community development. The various undertakings throughout a farmer's career were analysed, in particular how their initiatives started and were socially shaped and eventually implemented. All twenty vignettes of the case farmers are included in Chapter five.</p><p>The main types of farmer initiatives were related to outside wage labour, raising of livestock, scorpions and bee-keeping, development of various local enterprises, forestry development, small-scale trading, fruit tree development, local mining, tertiary services, transport, community administration and management tasks, vegetable cultivation, orchard development, and involvement in outside construction and factory projects. The critical factors contributing to the process of various farmer initiatives include trust, social networks, information derived from networks, past experiences, media and publications, calculations of cost-effectiveness, enlightenment from interaction with family members and the networks of outsiders, study visits, information from the market, visits to successful cases, the influence of family and social network members and others, consultation with others, self-help and co-operation, reputation (respect, creditability), interests, beliefs, curiosity <em>vis-à-vis</em> the outside world, technology innovation, knowledge from publications and training, study visits, skills and technical capability, enlightenment from observation and favourable policy. Many of these are interrelated and some in fact can be grouped into broader categories.</p><p>Having selected the cases of farmer initiatives for detailed analysis, I designed a questionnaire survey consisting of two parts. The first focuses on general household demographic information, land and other resources, cropping, livestock raising, forestry and fruit trees, non-agricultural undertakings, household income and expenditure, and so forth. The second part was composed of open-ended questions aimed at eliciting farmers' views about critical factors and at filling in the social context of their lives. My aim was to provide a general overview of the characteristics of the twenty farmers chosen as case studies in their social and cultural context, followed by a discussion of the critical factors that contribute to the emergence and development of farmer initiatives. The in-depth analysis of this questionnaire survey is presented in Chapter six.</p><p>Chapter seven shows the empirical process of how various farmer development initiatives are constructed, analysing the career trajectories of five farmers selected from the 20 cases so that readers are able to conceptualise the real life environments in which these farmer initiatives develop. Within the processes many factors are inter-linked and mutually influence each other, and function jointly to contribute to the strategic generation of ideas, the consolidation of social relations, and the continuous shaping of these initiatives through social action. These factors include social networks, information, and interaction, and so on. Through the functioning of these critical factors, farmers become enlightened, and thus many kinds of development initiatives emerge. Hence, farmer development initiatives are also processes of enlightenment. The analysis of the various kinds of farmer's development initiative leads to conclusions relating to the initiatives <em>per se</em> as well as to the identification of certain critical factors.</p><p>The last chapter brings us back to the research questions formulated at the beginning of the thesis. Since there are no major differences between farmers in the research community in terms of human capital, or physical and educational and other local facilities, differentiation between farmers must come from activities other than arable farming. We need therefore to consider a wider range of elements. As the twenty in depth case studies reveal these elements included social networks, information, enlightenment from interactions, trust, reputation, respect, creditability, experience, consultation with others, self-help and co-operation, favourable government policy, interests and hobbies, beliefs, curiosity about the outside world, pressure, and so on. One might sum these factors up as falling under the umbrella of, or as belonging to the sphere of social capital. Of course I do not wish to underestimate the importance of physical and human capital in the implementation of different development initiatives. However, being well equipped with good physical and human capital does not necessarily imply a capacity to generate strategic development ideas and to consolidate the ideas into plans for action. In comparison, adequate <em>social</em> capital in the form of established and extended social networks, information that is continuously received and updated, active interaction with others and with the wider society, and the possession of trust and credibility, will provide the means to generate new creative and strategic ideas to put into initiatives. Social capital is thus the mobiliser.</p><p>These processes of initiatives and social capital are developed under particular social conditions. This is a dynamic and recursively-evolving circle. The operation of social networks is based on certain mechanisms of trust, and on values and norms. During interaction, particular values and norms will be employed consciously or otherwise to sustain the existence and operation of particular social networks, giving actors openings for obtaining social and other resources from their networks. Moreover, it is the interweaving and interplay of the various factors that create social capital and this therefore cannot be reduced to a simple formula of kinship, cultural beliefs, normative frameworks, particular institutions and organisations etc.</p><p>This research reveals therefore that social capital is a composite factor and interwoven with other factors that jointly contribute to the initiative process. Any one farmer's initiative will have been generated, consolidated and implemented by some of these factors functioning together. No single factor can work in isolation and lead to the entire process of a certain kind of initiative. For instance, an initiative in small-scale trading may be generated through enlightenment from interaction with others, usually those within the farmer's social network. Then through their own and through the social networks of others in the network, farmers are able to obtain relevant information and mobilise needed resources. After an idea is generated, then a farmer may need to consult close family or relatives so as to consolidate the idea into a plan for action. Consultation will be based on kinship trust. During the implementation stage, the farmer may need to integrate previous experience and to co-operate with other farmers and again kin or geo-related trust will be an element. Additional information and knowledge can also be obtained from the media, (study) visits, local markets and temple fairs, and so on. All these factors function in a co-operative manner and jointly contribute to the process of a small-scale trading initiative. That is, they are all integral to the process. On the other hand, the generation of ideas does not automatically and necessarily lead to the commencement of consolidation into action, nor to the implementation of initiatives. These three stages do not necessarily take place spontaneously or consecutively. In between there may be many conditions relating to other factors that need to be fulfilled.</p><p>Different initiatives often represent the different milestones in a farmer's career. These milestones are often the breakthrough points in the farmer's development. Such points have been referred to as 'springboards' to further progress. Each development initiative involves strategic decision making with significant implications in terms of choice and interaction mechanisms. The process of development initiatives is a dynamic one, which mainly stems from human agency and the changing societal environment. The farmer's own agency is the primary motive leading to strategies for action, and the changing societal environmental is the essential aspect resulting in the continuous adjustment of strategy, during the process of which the strategy becomes increasingly structured.</p><p>The innovations of this research are threefold. First the research explicitly positions the researcher as one of the multiplicity of actors operating in the community. Second, the research fully documents the process by which the researcher enters the scene and negotiates his own role, and third it represents a new departure in research on community development in China.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Wageningen University
    • Long, N.E., Promotor
    Award date11 Oct 2002
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789058087300
    Publication statusPublished - 2002


    • rural sociology
    • rural communities
    • social change
    • community development
    • social development
    • farmers
    • personal support networks
    • china


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