CfP POLLEN22: Power, knowledge and multi-species perspectives in smallholder agriculture

Session organizers

Klara Fischer, Department of Urban and Rural Development, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Maya Marshak, Department of Environmental and Geographical Science, University of Cape Town
Rachel Wynberg, Department of Environmental and Geographical Science, University of Cape Town

Farming is critical for livelihood security, particularly for smallholders in the Global South (Bezner Kerr, 2013; Fischer, 2021; Marshak et al., 2021), but also in the Global North (van der Ploeg, 2010; Davidova and Thomson, 2014). Multiple agricultural development initiatives target smallholder farming due to its importance for rural livelihoods, but these efforts are often not based on an appreciation of what smallholders want and need. Instead, knowledge is framed as universal and linear, with modernist, science-based knowledge typically characterising ‘successful’ farming (Hebinck et al., 2011; Chenais and Fischer, 2018). Empirical evidence, as well as research on knowledge production, repeatedly tells us that this is a far call from reality. Knowledge is social, contextual and situated; and smallholders’ knowledge production is entangled with their farming practices and the wider agroecological context (Richards, 1993; Chenais and Fischer, 2018).
Research within critical development and agrarian studies has highlighted the ideologies and wider relations of power that prevent agricultural development from being attuned to smallholder needs and priorities (Ferguson, 1990; Scott, 1998; McMichael, 2009; Patel, 2012; Clapp, 2014; Moseley et al., 2015), while participatory and ethnographic research has revealed approaches to understand smallholder farming priorities (Dawson et al., 2008; Mzamu, 2012; Chenais and Fischer, 2018; Lunt et al., 2018; Marshak et al., 2021). These are important contributions that deserve attention. Disentangling the material and ideological dynamics that keep development efforts from being useful for smallholders, and understanding the reasoning of farmers as to why they might adopt or reject new farming practices and technologies such as vaccines, pesticides, or ‘improved’ varieties of crops or livestock, are essential if agriculture development is to support the priorities and needs of smallholder farmers.

To date, this important field of research has mainly centred on humans and their relationships with each other, and less on the multi-species entanglements in which smallholders act. Because the farming practices and knowledge production of smallholders is intimately related with the environments in which they farm (Chambers et al., 1989; Richards, 1993; Chenais and Fischer, 2018), a wider, more holistic multi-species lens has the potential to add important dimensions to our understandings of how smallholders can be supported in meaningful ways, and with technologies that are appropriate and desirable. Within this context, this session seeks to draw attention to multi-species understandings of the relational agencies that shape smallholder farming; and of how entanglements between crops, livestock, insects and pathogens shape farmers’ practices and situated knowledges. Importantly, we seek efforts that engage in such multi-species perspectives without losing sight of wider systems of power and control.

The multispecies perspective on which this session builds is inspired by feminist science studies (Barad, 2007; Haraway, 2008), science and technology studies (STS) (Latour, 2005), the wider field of environmentally interested social sciences and humanities (Whatmore, 2006) and political ecology (Fischer, 2021; Karlsson, 2021; Sinha, 2021). Like much traditional political ecology, multispecies perspectives address the entanglements between nature and society and strive to shift our ontological standpoints away from modernist dualist places towards relational ways of being and relating. An important contribution of multispecies perspectives to political ecology is the heightened attention to the particular materialities of different plants and animals, in addition to wider ecologies. Although available studies in this growing field highlight the relevance of this perspective for understanding the role of agriculture in political-ecological challenges (Head and Atchison, 2016; Donati, 2019; Guthman, 2019; Fischer, 2021), multi-species social sciences have paid comparatively limited attention to agriculture (Galvin, 2018).

This session aims specifically to bring multi-species social sciences into dialogue with political ecology in an exploration of the relationship between non-human agency, smallholder knowledges and practices and wider systems of governance in agriculture. We invite paper presentations from empirical contexts in the Global South and North, that have a strong interest in smallholder farming and a firm political ecology base, but also have a clear interest in making use of a multi-species perspective for understanding and supporting smallholder agriculture. We will prioritize abstracts that fall within the scope of the session and are academically rigorous. We will also strive to construct a diverse session in terms of presenters and empirical cases presented across the Global South and North.

If you want to present a paper in our session, please send you abstract to no later than December 1, 2021. The abstract should be max 250 words (excluding title and author info).

We will submit our final proposal for a paper session, including selected presentations, in the POLLEN portal on December 10, 2021.


Barad, K., 2007. Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Duke university Press.

Bezner Kerr, R., 2013. Seed struggles and food sovereignty in northern Malawi. Journal of Peasant Studies 40, 867‐897.

Chambers, R., Pacey, A., Thrupp, L.A., 1989. Farmer first: farmer innovation and agricultural research. Intermediate Technology Publications Ltd. London.

Chenais, E., Fischer, K., 2018. Increasing the local relevance of epidemiological research: Situated knowledge of cattle disease among Basongora pastoralists in Uganda. Frontiers in Veterinary Science 5, 119.

Clapp, J., 2014. Financialization, distance and global food politics. The Journal of Peasant Studies 41, 797‐814.

Davidova, S., Thomson, K., 2014. Family Farming in Europe: Challenges and Prospects. European Union, Brussels.

Dawson, J.C., Murphy, K.M., Jones, S.S., 2008. Decentralized selection and participatory approaches in plant breeding for low‐input systems. Euphytica 160, 143‐154.

Donati, K., 2019. ‘Herding is his favourite thing in the world’: Convivial world‐making on a multispecies farm. Journal of Rural Studies 66, 119‐129.

Ferguson, J., 1990. The Anti‐Politics Machine: “Development”, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Cambridge University Press.

Fischer, K., 2021. Why Africa’s New Green Revolution is failing–Maize as a commodity and anti commodity in South Africa. Geoforum.

Galvin, S.S., 2018. Interspecies relations and agrarian worlds. Annual Review of Anthropology 47, 233‐249.

Guthman, J., 2019. Wilted: Pathogens, Chemicals, and the Fragile Future of the Strawberry Industry. University of California Press.

Haraway, D.J., 2008. When species meet. University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis and London.

Head, L., Atchison, J., 2016. Ingrained: a human bio‐geography of wheat. Routledge.

Hebinck, P., Fay, D., Kondlo, K., 2011. Land and Agrarian Reform in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province: Caught by Continuities. Journal of Agrarian Change 11, 220‐240.

Karlsson, B.G., 2021. The imperial weight of tea: On the politics of plants, plantations and science. Geoforum.

Latour, B., 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor‐Network‐Theory. Oxford University Press, USA.

Lunt, T., Ellis‐Jones, J., Mekonnen, K., Schulz, S., Thorne, P., Schulte‐Geldermann, E., Sharma, K., 2018. Participatory community analysis: identifying and addressing challenges to Ethiopian smallholder livelihoods. Development in Practice 28, 208‐226.

Marshak, M., Wickson, F., Herrero, A., Wynberg, R., 2021. Losing practices, relationships and agency: ecological deskilling as a consequence of the uptake of modern seed varieties among South African Smallholders. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 1‐24.

McMichael, P., 2009. Banking on Agriculture: A Review of the World Development Report 2008. Journal of Agrarian Change 9, 235‐246.

Moseley, W., Schnurr, M., Bezner Kerr, R., 2015. Interrogating the technocratic (neoliberal) agenda for agricultural development and hunger alleviation in Africa. African Geographical Review 34, 1‐7.

Mzamu, J.J., 2012. The Ways of Maize: food, poverty, policy and the politics of meaning among the Chewa of Malawi. Social Anthropology University of Bergen Bergen.

Patel, R., 2012. The Long Green Revolution. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 1‐63.

Richards, P., 1993. Cultivation: knowledge or performance? In: Hobart, M. (Ed.), An Anthropological Critique of Development: The Growth of Ignorance. Routledge, Oxon, 61‐78.

Scott, J.C., 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press New Haven and London.

Sinha, S., 2021. From cotton to paddy: Political crops in the India Punjab. Geoforum. van der Ploeg, J.D., 2010. The peasantries of the twenty‐first century: the commoditisation debate revisited. The Journal of Peasant Studies 37, 1‐30.

Whatmore, S., 2006. Materialist returns: practising cultural geography in and for a more‐than‐human world. Cultural geographies 13, 600‐609.

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