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The integrative agent-centred (IAC) framework as a conceptual tool to investigate transition processes in local agricultural systems

Feola, G., Binder, C.R., 2009. The integrative agent-centred (IAC) framework as a conceptual tool to investigate transition processes in local agricultural systems. First European Conference on Sustainability Transitions: Dynamics and Governance of Transitions to Sustainability, 4-6 June 2009, Dutch Knowledge Network on System Innovations, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Abstract

Understanding farmers’ behaviour is fundamental in order to understand local agricultural systems and to develop effective strategies to foster their transition towards sustainability.

However, current approaches to studying farmers’ behaviour suffer from at least one of the following limitations: i) reductionism; ii) lack of a well-grounded and structured model of social action and social reproduction; iii) lack of consideration of feedback processes between the individual- and system-levels.

The integrated agent-centred (IAC) framework allows for overcoming these limits, and therefore represents a contribution in the direction of an improved understanding of farmers’ behaviour and related agricultural systems’ dynamics.

The IAC framework is based on an action-theoretic approach and combines Giddens’ Structuration Theory and Triandis’ Theory of Interpersonal Behaviour. In the framework, each agent’s (i.e. farmer) action can be explained based on internal factors, namely intention, habit, physiological arousal, and on external contextual factors. Intention itself is determined by: i) attitude (the product of beliefs about the outcomes), ii) subjective culture (product of social norms, roles and values) and iii) affect (the feelings associated with the act). Agents’ actions have consequences that give birth to a double feedback loop, i.e. towards internal and external behavioural drivers, consequently influencing the decisions in the future.

Example of the application of the framework in four communities of smallholders on the Colombian Andes is presented. Here the IAC framework has been used to understand inefficiency of pesticide use and inadequate use of personal protective equipment. The results suggest some key issues of relevance for transition towards more sustainable practices in these communities. In particular, i) social norms tend to create rigidity traps, i.e. lock-in effects into unsustainable practices; ii) farmers dynamically react to what they perceive of their own experience (e.g. adverse health effects due to pesticides), and of the environment (e.g. growing pest resistance to pesticide), that is, specific feedback processes between levels and scales are characterizing the agricultural system. Based on the results, suggestions are also outlined in order to use the dynamic understanding of farmers’ behaviour to trigger and govern a transition process.

Thus, the example show that the IAC framework i) can be used as a heuristic for system analysis from a subjective action perspective; ii) it allows for a non-reductive combination of different behavioural drivers and for testing relationships and feedbacks between them; iii) support a non-deterministic approach to the governance of complex dynamics in agricultural systems.

Finally, further applications are suggested. The framework is flexible and generalizable to other contexts in which dynamics of Social-Ecological Systems are to be investigated with an agent-centred perspective. In particular, it is shown how the IAC framework can fruitfully inform integrative and interdisciplinary simulation modelling of sustainability transitions.


Reference

Feola, G., Binder, C.R. 2010. Towards an improved understanding of farmers’ behaviour: the integrative agent-centred (IAC) frameworkEcological Economics, 69(12):2323-2333. [Open access here]