Verslag: Conference ‘Research on Knowledge Networks in Rural Europe since 1700’
Attending the conference on rural knowledge networks was an inspiring end to the summer. The conference took place at the Interfaculty Centre for Agrarian History (ICAG), University of Leuven from 27 to 29 August 2014. Who were the bearers of rural and agricultural knowledge, how did they act, what were the channels through which this knowledge was distributed. Do these actors and their channels form patterns that help to explain the relative speed or slowness of the dissemination of novelties? What were the connections in this respect between the rural and non-rural world, what role did the elite play in this?
These were the type of questions addressed. Some 40 scholars from 10 different countries discussed papers on this spread of agricultural innovations. The focus was on Belgium, England, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, plus two papers on African developments.
The time that scholars, blinded by a kind of urban-centred modernisation perspective, thought of rural society as a static, even stagnant, and slowly diminishing world, has gone. It is common knowledge that since the early 18th century output in European agriculture rose significantly. New products, new machinery, new practices on the land, in the stables and in the households contributed to this effect, but how these innovations reached different regions, were adapted to different soils, different farms, to different cultures is less known.
The conference was intellectually challenging. It had a double significance. Relatively new, and always deepening our insight, was the comparative approach. Just a few examples of this research are some sessions with papers that fitted smoothly together, using more or less the same questions in discussing the role of farmers’ associations and the elite informing peasants and farmers about innovation in the late 19th and early 20th century. In some of the countries small scale and local exhibitions organised by branches of these associations were far more important than the larger national ones and the magazines and journals published by the national organisations.
The reverse was true in other countries, due to a higher literacy rate and a better developed infrastructure. Interesting comparisons also arose from papers in sessions on changing treatment of farm animals. Knowledge on how to breed specific types of animals improved dramatically, as did the cure of different diseases. New professionals (veterinarians) came on the scene advising farmers on how to deal with the health questions of their growing herds, slowly countering ‘traditional’ beliefs and medicine. Equally slow were the new insights other experts spread while advising how to counter pests that ravaged crops. Some processes in the countryside were very slow.
The conference was relevant in another respect. The organisers deliberately sought some new perspectives on the process by applying concepts from the social network approach and actor network theory. It is extremely exciting to see these abstract concepts applied to historical research. Broadly speaking, there are two types of network approaches, a more or less quantitative approach, using concepts and tools from social network analysis, and there is a more qualitative approach, using network as a kind of metaphor, while theorising about actors, resources and different positions in social configurations.
The first type of research has proved its merits in (historical) sociology over the last few decades. Recently the latter strand of research has had some interesting inputs from actor network theory. Some of the papers were clearly inspired by this network approach, showing its analytical strength. In the more general contributions of the three organisers and in the keynote lecture there was a little on the potential the concept still has for the research on how new knowledge and techniques changed the countryside.
Maarten Duijvendak, University of Groningen