”Social resilience has been relatively underexplored”

Blogiin_0803My name is Agatha Herman and I am a Lecturer in Human Geography & Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow in the Department of Geography and Environmental Science, University of Reading (UK). This is my second time as a Visiting Scholar at the Ruralia Institute and I’m glad to be back! The clean air, green landscapes and open skies around Seinäjoki have combined with the interesting work being done in the Institute to make for a stimulating yet also strangely relaxing month. I first came to Ruralia as a Visiting Scholar in April 2014 when I was based in Mikkeli; while there I conducted interviews with 16 farmers and agricultural industry stakeholders to explore the challenges experienced in contemporary farming. On my return to the UK, I conducted a similar study in order to offer a comparison between the two contexts – the findings highlighted a strong commonality to farmers’ experiences and concerns.

So far I have written one paper from this work (currently under review), which explores social resilience through analysing farmers’ connections with place; by ‘social resilience’, I mean the strategies of adaptation and transformation that support the continuing existence of a farmer including, and beyond, the essential economic ‘bottom line’. To date, social resilience has been relatively underexplored because, while discussions recognise the interconnected nature of the social and environmental, they tend to focus on the ecological elements.

During my month in Seinäjoki I’ve been working on a further two papers engaging with this work and additional material through developing a writing collaboration with Merja Lähdesmäki. Given how busy life can be, this has been a very welcome opportunity to critically reflect on my research and get some writing done! It’s been great having regular meetings with Merja to discuss our projects and, slowly but surely, we’ve drawn out some interesting arguments centring on the experiences of organic farmers in Finland. What we are really interested in is exploring how Finnish farmers have been resilient to date and we reflect on a whole range of strategies including identity-making practices, diversification, support networks and organics itself as an adaptation to increasingly challenging market and regulatory environments. While my study was just a small pilot project, Merja’s research offers some fascinating longitudinal insights into the changing motivations for farmers converting to organic systems, and through this we can explore how the discourse of organics itself has strategically adapted in order to remain resilient as a concept.

In my other paper, I build on critiques of the concept of ‘resilience’ that position it as a neoliberal governance strategy, which pushes responsibility for dealing with crises onto the individual. While literatures recognise that community networks are an important element of social resilience, they take a very human-centric definition of ‘community’. Simply by looking more closely at a farm we can see that here the community is made up of human actants but the livestock, plants, machinery, weather, soil, buildings and regulations, amongst others, also play a key role in shaping how the farm operates. I argue that it is important to acknowledge and analyse the impact of all the non-humans in maintaining the community, which in turn enhances social resilience. By thinking through a ‘more-than-human’ resilience, I develop an understanding of the concept as relational, contextual and practised resiliences, which questions the assumed linkage with neoliberalism and makes space for questions of power and justice.

I’d like to thank the Ruralia Institute for inviting me back and, indeed, giving me the opportunity in the first place! I’m looking forward to building on the new contacts and ideas, which I’m confident will develop into some exciting research collaborations in the future.

Doctor Agatha Herman was a visiting scholar in University of Helsinki, Ruralia Institute.

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