The Condition of Rural Sustainability

The Condition of Rural Sustainability

ARTICLE IN PRESS Journal of Rural Studies 20 (2004) 257–261 Book reviews The Condition of Rural Sustainability Terry Marsden; Royal Van Gorcum, Asse...

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Journal of Rural Studies 20 (2004) 257–261

Book reviews The Condition of Rural Sustainability Terry Marsden; Royal Van Gorcum, Assen (Netherlands), 2003, 268pp, d29.50 paperback, ISBN 90 232 3881 8 In The Condition of Rural Sustainability, Terry Marsden assembles a treatise about contemporary agriculture. The author has been an incredibly prolific scholar. For this book, he draws from years of research and publication about the transformations of rural space, and he describes the volume as a ‘‘synthesis and reflection’’ of this work. Yet, it may be more appropriate to approach the book as an initial attempt at synthesis rather than Marsden’s major opus. This is not to say that the fundamental architecture is not powerful. To the contrary: his grid-like scheme is masterful, perhaps even too masterful. The book is laid out in three sections which address, in turn, (1) agro-industrial food networks, (2) agriculture in post-productivist landscapes, and (3) rural development dynamics. Marsden considers each to be an ‘‘ideal type,’’ that is, a conceptual framework as well as a reflection of the dynamics in operation through a varied set of empirical landscapes. His arguments are drawn through political economy, social constructivist perspectives, and actor-network theory. Methodologically, he uses policy documents and interviews with ‘‘key actors’’ (agency and firm representatives are usually quoted, rather than marginal voices) as material to build these ideal types. He stages each framework in competition with the other two within policy and governance, which are his main targets. The critical task becomes, in consequence, the analysis of how integrated food systems and rural spaces are— and should be—‘‘socially managed’’ in light of this competition. Marsden devotes Section I to an exploration of agroindustrial food networks. These are situated within a mass production model whereby volume and standardization for food are the principle dynamics. He illustrates how quality, regulation, and consumption have become key parameters that create systems subject to periodic crisis and failure. Three regions serve as case studies. To examine how ‘‘quality’’ is constructed, Marsden examines fruit production in northeast Brazil. It includes observations about the social construction of nature as, for example, plant growth rates are manipulated in order to coincide with external market demands

throughout the year. However, his main point is that questions of market access, water use, unemployment, and toxicity pose recurring problems to this agro-industrial dynamic. For regulation, he turns briefly to Barbados, where state policies that define food as an export market commodity have marginalized the island’s environmental resources. Marsden explores the parameter of consumption through a different regulatory source: corporate retailers that operate amidst state deregulation. Focusing on Wales, he argues that retailers are increasingly pivotal in setting farm product standards. In all three cases, he builds an understanding of integrated food networks and the multiple contradictions in agro-industrial food production. Section II turns to the post-productivist dynamic. The argument is that, in places like Great Britain, agricultural production is increasingly marginal to the different uses, meanings, and values of rural space. Marsden differentiates such space into four ‘‘ideal types’’ of countryside based on the predominant social forces at work: preservationism among new ex-urban residents; paternalism by large rural landowners; subsidization of agriculture in marginal areas by the state; and contestation. In a chapter on rural Wales, he examines a shift in development activity for marginal agriculture, from state-based welfare for production, to new forms of associational capacity. Another chapter examines the way the forces and processes of governance work through various dimensions of agricultural policy in the United Kingdom. In the end, Marsden suggests that rural policies should integrate an understanding of food networks, spatial differentiation, and the shifting social economy of governance. Section III is the longest. Marsden suggests that a different ‘‘rural development paradigm’’ is emerging, and the section works at teasing out its features. Where the post-productivist approach to environmentalism acts to marginalize and contain agro-industrialism, a rural development paradigm facilitates the shifting reconfigurations of integrated food networks. For Marsden, this facilitation requires a new conceptualization of the ‘‘farm’’ as a multi-functional unit, along with a better understanding of the role of supply chains in the construction and valuation of foods. He explores the latter subject further in a chapter about the recent insertion of organic dairy products into wider retail markets in Great Britain. Moreover, he suggests that the


Book reviews / Journal of Rural Studies 20 (2004) 257–261

operation of governance and policy is now being reconfigured as well, in light of new thinking about the role of spatiality, differentiation, and association in a rural development paradigm. As a geographer, I found his emphasis on spatial diversity to be especially welcome, despite the problem it poses (not just for Marsden) for articulating how non-generalist food production policies would work. Again, the basic architecture is powerful. With food networks as a common thread, three sections cover three frameworks and three rural transformation regimes. However, it would have helped to see more reflection about the strengths and the weaknesses of repeatedly using Weberian ‘‘ideal types’’ as tools for analysis. Moreover, the presentation is rough, and the volume would have benefited enormously from closer editing. There are far too many grammatical glitches, and a few too many acronyms in the UK-based material. More critically, the central arguments of each chapter are not clearly sustained. Analytically, frequent contradictions emerge between the author’s stated principles and his actual arguments. For example, Marsden is against using binaries like structure and agency, yet the mutual

constitution of networks and otherwise nondescript ‘‘social actors’’ was rather bifurcated throughout the text. He also stages the work as an engagement between political economy and social constructivism, but his specification of social constructivism as a set of theoretical perspectives was variable and ultimately undeveloped. Something similar could be said about the idea of ‘‘sustainability’’ in Marsden’s book. It is not specified in any depth, and for all his wonderful attention to the importance of spatial diversity and associational transformations in the world of contemporary food networks, I was left wondering what his ultimate rural development paradigm would actually aim to sustain. But in the end, my own inclination—maybe like Marsden’s—is that a progressive answer would be one that is best left a little ambiguous.

Matthew Kurtz Department of History and Geography, University of Alaska Anchorage, USA


Contracting for agricultural extension: international case studies and emerging practices W.M. Rivera and W. Zijp (Eds.); CABI Publishing, Oxford, 2002, 188pp, Hb. d40.00, ISBN 0851995713 This book presents and discusses 18 cases studies in contracting for agricultural extension delivery, an emerging form of agricultural extension delivery. With century-deep roots in some countries like Finland, agricultural extension has a long history that has seen common and often rather severe criticism. During the late 1970s and throughout the ‘80 s people questioned its worth. Critics implied that agricultural extension was like a Jurassic Park with limited spectator value: it protected dinosaur-like approaches and practices and kept alive clumsy beasts that were woefully misaligned with today’s realities, having no chance of survival without adequate protection. Moreover, governments recognised that (monetarily) poor farmers benefited from extension and were willing to fund it (contract for it), something that some critics failed to realise. In many countries the debate has not subsided, but rather has expanded to include whether new agricultural extension systems and approaches are appropriate for today’s issues and demands. The editors of Contracting

for Extension have highlighted the role of this new form of extension delivery by compiling an interesting and diverse mixture of 18 case studies in contracting for agricultural extension services. The book covers the impacts, replicability and sustainability of the different cases and outlines the lessons learned in six easy-toread sections. The book begins with a short introduction followed by Chapter 1, and ends with a concluding Chapter, all penned by the editors and all generously sprinkled with uncommon words and phrases. I suspect this terminology will make these sections hard to read for those who would most benefit by doing so—extension providers in developing countries. The 18 case studies, which are written by an impressive list of authors from around the world, are arranged into six sections. The book comes to a rather abrupt end with concluding notes in Chapter 20. A more in-depth analysis and discussion of the lessons from the cases would have enhanced the value of the book for readers. I do hope that this is work-in-progress. The editors indicate that they use the term ‘‘extension’’ very broadly, to include all agricultural information-transfer programmes and activities by public, private and related sectors including related activities such as information transfer, technology transfer and advisory services. This approach may be helpful for