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Scientific communities of the agroecological transition

A recent study has shown that a scientific community focused on the issue of agroecology and a shift in the agricultural model is emerging at the international level. To better understand and guide this agroecological transition, the study compares the theories of several schools of thought and looks at possible synergies – as well as incompatibilities – between approaches based on highly different assumptions, methods and scales of analysis.

Shade Cacao plantation. © (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, Mvfarrell
By Guillaume Ollivier, translated by Emma Morton Saliou
Updated on 01/15/2016
Published on 11/05/2015

A report by Guillaume Ollivier of INRA’s Unité de Recherche Ecodéveloppement in Avignon entitled “Scientific communities of the agroecological transition” offers an international map of research on this concept which includes both the theories of different schools of thought and the institutional framework of scientific communities. The project, commissioned by the SAD division, aims to identify research on agroecological transition in international literature, how SAD research has contributed, and what place agroecology can occupy in international science.

A domain with fuzzy edges

The term “agroecological transition” is becoming commonplace in public discourse, particularly in Brazil and France, but the concept is not yet formally integrated into an internationally-recognized body of theory with a stabilized terminology. In terms of methodology, an international bibliographical corpus was established using the Web of Science database and a broadened approach to agroecological transitions to explore as best as possible the many existing definitions. The corpus also includes research specifically focused on agroecological transitions as well as research which doesn’t refer to it specifically. The approach selected for this broad, heterogeneous sample focused on an iterative, quality-based exploration of transition theory supported by intermediary quantitative analyses and pre-existing knowledge of the subject field. Through this work, a perimeter was progressively established around this corpus which was analysed using different scientometric methods, including analysis of co-authors, direct citation, co-citations and co-word analysis.

Transition: scientific and political advocacy

The study highlights a scientific interest in the notion of transition in general based on a lengthy structural process using the contributions of different scientific communities (Sustainability Science, Socio-Technical Transitions, Social-ecological Systems, Industrial Ecology). This interest emerged in different international programmes such as the IHDP (International Human Dimensions Programme) in the 1990s, and later in the Future Earth programme, which notably received support from UNESCO, the ISSC (International Social Science Council) and the ICSU (International Council for Science). However, attention was primarily focused on climate change – and related energy issues specifically. Ecologized forms of agriculture were examined as a side note by most of the approaches now classified as “Sustainability Transitions”.

Agroecological transition: an emerging community

Different aspects and conceptions of transitions appear in research communities focused on various forms of ecologized agriculture. The issue of transition, conversion, adoption and the sharing of good practices has long been a subject of interest to agronomists, agricultural economists and sociologists in relation to organic farming, conservation agriculture, agroforestry and American historical agroecology. Scientific communities are separated according to theoretical and disciplinary divisions, as well as to the different types of agriculture studied. However co-author analysis shows a recent trend towards the formation of clusters of authors, indicating the emergence of a community focused on agroecological transition.

SAD Division research, examined using ProdInra, INRA's open archive, is primarily based on the current international structure, particularly via organic farming research networks, its connection to the Farming Systems Research community, and its links with the Socio-Technical Transitions school of thought, features of which include: analysis of socio-technical obstacles in agriculture, research on innovative system design and on companion modelling, which often combines expertise from the fields of agronomy, ecology and the social sciences.

Synergies and controversy between theories

Aside from the map-based view of scientific communities it offers, the study compares the findings of different schools of thought to further understanding and guidance in agroecological transitions. Specifically, it looks at epistemological differences and contradictions, for instance the way such theories tackle technologies, Society or Nature, individual or collective action. By questioning the methods and practices of disciplines and the different approaches they use, it is possible to gauge whether or not they can be articulated so as to meet the scientific challenges related to the agroecological transition identified by INRA.

Scientific contact(s):

Associated Division(s):
Science for Action and Development
Associated Centre(s):
Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur


Guillaume Ollivier, 2015. Les communautés scientifiques de la transition agroécologique . INRA SAD report, 142 p. + annexes