Vernieuwend werken : sporen van vermogen en onvermogen : een socio-materiële studie over vernieuwing in de landbouw uitgewerkt voor de westelijke veenweidegebieden

D. Roep

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Innovative work involves a great deal. This is the tenor of the stories in this book. It becomes obvious after reading the rather detailed descriptions of the development of a particular case of innovation (Chapters 4 and 5). The guiding principle here is how , by following the work of the innovators, a vague idea gradually takes concrete form in the continuous interaction between the processes of elaborating the idea , creating room for innovation (both Chapter 4,see figure 10), and realising the idea (Chapter 5,see figure 12). This continuous interplay is essential for the case of innovative work, regardless of its nature, effects, or location. I discuss at length the nature of innovation processes in an introduction to the ethnography (Chapter 4).

In three, overlapping, acts, I have described as completely as possible a picture of the development of the innovative process in question: how a region-specific type of agricultural production and marketing is gradually created in and for the Westelijk Veenweidegebied (the western peatland region, a predominantly grassland area situated as a 'green heart' at the centre of the most urbanised part of the Netherlands). In doing so, I show that both the course and outcomes of the innovation process cannot be understood in isolation from its historical context; or rather, from that which preceded the innovation process and from which it originated.

Here, this includes the post-war modernisation of agriculture and the particular social and material conditions of the western peatland region. I analyse this historical relationship in detail in Chapter 3. There I argue that the modernisation trajectory was narrowed down to the generalisation of one single development opportunity: the mass-production and marketing of cheap commodities (figure 9shows the relation with styles of farming). The existing socio-material order was altered accordingly. The particular social and material conditions of the western peatland region (which I discuss in detail and conceptualise as the historical outcome of co-production by 'nature' and 'society' infigure 7), were regarded as obstacles to be overcome in time. A 'modern' socio-material order was established along this narrow — and, at the time, unquestioned — technological trajectory (figure 6). An order embodied by for instance productive breeds of dairy cows, high-yielding grass varieties, labour-saving machinery, and various organisations involved in lobbying policy, research, and advisory bodies for particular interests. This reconstruction went along with the loss of the particular of the region, such as typical ecological values and the local knowledge to produce and market high-quality farmhouse cheese. But the further the modernisation trajectory unrolled, the more it became stuck and was hindered by all kinds of issues it was supposed to overcome. Nature and society could no longer be forced to co-operate. The modernisation trajectory turned out to be a dead end. It was time for radical change. But then the capacity of the established, 'modern' order represented an institutionalised inability to act differently.

The particular case of innovation and all it involved must be situated in this context. I show in my ethnography how the notion of region-specific production began to take the shape of a counterbalance to the disrupting and marginalising effects of modernisation. It represented a process of particularisation of agriculture (figure 10andfigure 12) that had to be built from scratch: nature and society had to be mobilised along a different trajectory. I emphasise the crucial part played by pioneers in this; their role in the constant (re)shaping of ideas, in forging alliances, and in the search for the most appropriate structure for the realisation of their idea. I describe how they worked as a study group under the auspices of the Stichting Streekeigen Productie in het Westelijk Veenweidegebied (Foundation for Region-specific Production), set up for this purpose. Hence, they were able to use their own knowledge and skills as a starting point and to gain control over the course and outcomes of the innovation process. I indicate how they were confronted with institutionalised incapacity and opposition of the established order.

Both capacity and incapacity have thus determined the course and outcomes of the innovation process. This is no different in other cases. Innovative work is comprehensive and far-reaching, it follows an unpredictable course, especially if new technological routes (visualised infigure 8) have to be found. The results cannot be anticipated, no matter what is claimed with the benefit of hindsight. In the Introduction, I define innovating in a general sense as building the ability to make a supposedly relevant set of interacting social and natural ordering processes to work differently (seefigure 1for a brief orfigure 2for a more extended visualisation of the conceptual framework). If this complex process of co-production and its outcome — nature and society seamlessly interwoven into a heterogeneous configuration — are not taken into account, the full extent of what is involved in innovative work cannot be understood.

This is what I had in mind while writing this book. I wanted to point out that, since the early 1990s, we are witnessing and partaking in a radical and inclusive innovation in agriculture and the countryside, which will, once again, have a significant effect on agriculture and the countryside. The end of this dramatic process is not in sight and its outcomes are by no means certain.

It is a process in which what once was self-evident is no longer so; a process whereby one can no longer follow blindly the once familiar ways of thinking and doing; a process that creates disruption, instability, and the disfunctioning of the established order. The once well-organised and coherent world gradually collapses, as the cement of the 'old' technology crumbles. A radical innovation causes confusion and uncertainty. This is a time when institutionalised incapacity is felt to its full extent, with all the associated frustrations; people are assiduously — and, at times, desperately — searching for a new common guiding principle with which to collect snippets of capacity in order to create a new, stable unity.

I aim to provide insight into this dramatic turn. It is an insight that is continuously progressing, based on empirical enrichment and analytical depth, and based on the interaction between the recording of experiences and the search for conceptual tools to interpret these experiences within a wider context. In doing so, I hope to begin to make more empirically founded statements on innovative work in general from a pragmatic standpoint vis-à-vis technology, nature, and society. I argue, in the Introduction, that the existing socio-material order, in all its manifestations, can only be explained as the outcome of the interaction between previous ordering processes, as the outcome of a particular mode of ordering by which social and natural processes are inextricably interwoven by technology as mediair . I have conceptualised this as a socio-material analytical framework (figure 2), which serves as a guiding principle for my narrative. At the centre of the framework is situated my notion of a working whole : the complex set of interacting natural and social ordering processes, in which technology takes on the role of the gradually established ability to make a supposedly relevant part of the whole work effectively.

This book offers numerous theoretical and methodological starting points for research that reaches beyond merely narrating and defining the radical innovation that takes place in agriculture and the countryside.

Original languageDutch
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • van der Ploeg, Jandouwe, Promotor
Award date3 Nov 2000
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789058083098
Publication statusPublished - 2000


  • agricultural development
  • agricultural production
  • marketing
  • peat soils
  • grassland soils
  • rural areas
  • rural development
  • innovations
  • modernization
  • netherlands
  • zuid-holland

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