Table Of ContentsNext Page

APEN 2001 International Conference

Toowoomba, 4th-5th October 2001

Report No:


Title of Topics:

1. Social Theory in Rural Development Practice: ‘Farming Styles’ or ‘Actor-Oriented Perspective’? 2. How to Integrate Stakeholders of an Industry in a Cooperative way?

(The topics were proposed separately but were combined in a single session.)

Name of Leaders:

Don Thomson & Sergio Teixeira & Andy Brown

Names of Participants:

Colin Holt, Andrew Craig, Rho Sandberg, David Lawrence, Roger Sneath, Tony Dunn, Horrie Poussard, Peter Long, Larissa Bilston, Merrin Brown, Sue Heisswolf, Bill Dalton, Roy Murray-Prior, Laurie Lumsden, Nicholas Christodoulou, Lone Lisborg, Joanne Millar

Main points of discussion

The issues emerged initially from Don’s presentation on farming styles, and Andy’s actor-oriented response. Sergio’s participation arose from his conviction that rural development requires an input from anthropological theory. All ‘leaders’ therefore share the belief that applied social analysis is required for the practice of rural development.

The following dot points were recorded on butcher’s paper (more or less) as they appear here. We have added narratives to these points in an attempt to convey the wider discussion.

  • Should we be pursuing a targeting strategy (i.e. categorising farmers) or focusing on the interaction of all the actors involved?
  • Interactive approach?
  • Role of social theory?
  • Role of institutions?

The theoretical frameworks known as farming styles and actor-oriented perspective on rural development are related in the sense that an objective is to analyse the interaction of life worlds and how this influences change processes. The critical (?) difference is that in the former, we focus on the interaction of farmers, in the latter we focus on the interaction of all the key actors involved in a rural development scenario, including institutions. This interaction can be considered to encompass a hierarchy of scales (e.g. macro – micro, global – local).

Farming styles is perhaps a tool for intervention, but it must stand or fall first and foremost as a theoretical explanation of farmer diversity in the social landscape. Similarly, the actor-oriented perspective is a theoretical approach to explaining social change but nevertheless has been employed in extension approaches to facilitating sustainable agricultures.

Dealing with complexity

If we can understand diversity and change then the complex process of rural development can be better managed. Farming styles and actor-oriented perspective provides theoretical frameworks for this understanding.

Basis of groups – similar farming styles? (e.g. Bestprac)

The comment was made that in group-work we are perhaps already working with a styles approach in that groups ‘naturally’ self-select because only those with reasonably similar interests can work collectively (e.g. ‘top-end’ farmers and extension workers). However, it is important to recognize that styles are rarely so distinct that there are no bridges between them. One challenge is to develop ways of attracting other ‘styles’ to participate (if they want to) in their own ways, and to recognize that extension styles mean rural development agents are more or less comfortable with participatory approaches.

Need to understand social/cultural worlds of research/extension/farmer

The point was that farmers and extension officers don’t exist in a vacuum – they interact with each other and therefore influence others and are influenced by others. The same can be said for researchers, industry bodies, lobby groups etc. People have a domain or a comfort zone to participate (as a farmer or extension worker etc.) according to their preferences.

Interaction has a purpose – a goal. At this point we had a discussion about the soccer team analogy – each position has a role and a preference but they’re all trying to win the game is the goal. The players may have different perceptions as to how best to proceed towards securing the goal. There was also some discussion about the role of bridge builders who can link these players – the coach or manager. But the team has other external players – managers, sponsors, supporters etc. etc. It was recognized that the individual positions have distinctive roles to play in the pursuit of the collective goal. However, there was some concern that this analogy is not appropriate because by pigeon-holing individuals we end up repeating past weaknesses apparent in previous extension paradigms. The model of reality becomes reality for the extension worker. This is a danger of using a farmer styles as a rough and ready tool for intervention without recognizing its principal value as an explanation of diversity.

Understanding interactions/bridges

Although farming styles may be criticized for focusing ‘only’ on farmers, it was recognized that the styles approach emphasizes the importance of interaction within and between styles, the building of bridges, and the influence of particular farmer styles on the life worlds of extension workers and the direction of industry development (e.g. ‘committee farmers’).

Learning preferences/styles designing extension programs around these

The argument here was that most extension programs are designed with a variety of modes/content to maximise learning opportunities for people with different learning preferences. However, from a farming styles perspective, it is first necessary to consider the design the program so that it either appeals to a variety of farming styles, or specifically targets particular styles. In the specific design of the program content, different learning styles must always be considered. Farming styles does not replace learning styles.

Dynamic - people develop their learning

The comment was made that farming styles could fall into the same trap as the old categorisation of adopters system – laggards, early adopters, etc. This is a fair concern, especially if farming styles is seen only as a classification scheme. Under the theory of farming styles Don developed, styles are seen as dynamic – as people are exposed to different situations, challenging their life worlds. From an interventionist perspective, it was argued that a role for extension is to change people’s farming styles towards a more participatory/adopter type.

Measure – management

If you can measure it, you can manage it. As a tool, farming styles might be useful to monitor extension processes.

Increasing focus on other supply chain actors (e.g. catchment management)

Because consumers, retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers etc. all have expectations of other players, they are actors in the process of change at other levels in the system. We spoke briefly about the expectations of overseas consumers for ‘clean & green’ produce as a driver for manufacturers and/or farmers to implement QA systems such as EMS, ISO14001 etc. Another example was NSW Rice-growers and their linkages to other Murray-Darling Basin resource users.

Agricultural development in Australia does not occur in isolation.

Using ‘systems’ thinking links to social theory and social ecology.

It was recognised that systems thinking has been used in conjunction with actor-oriented theory to facilitate sustainable agriculture. There is also potential to expand this kind of thinking towards dialectical understandings of change, where ‘things’ are seen as an outcome of an underlying process. To influence outcomes, we need to acknowledge and understand these processes.

Acknowledging diversity

Both farming styles and actor-oriented perspective acknowledges diversity and are therefore useful in understanding complex agrarian development challenges.

Major outcomes (what have you achieved from this discussion; how can this make a difference; what else do you need to do?)

The session was too short to thoroughly investigate the theoretical issues confronting the group, nevertheless it was a acknowledged that applied social analysis can inform rural development intervention.

For those interested in farming styles, contact Don. For those interested in actor-oriented perspective, contact Andy. Contact Sergio for a non-social scientist perspective on the role of applied social analysis in rural development.

Thanks for all who contributed to this space.

Andy e-mail:

Don e-mail:


Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page