Front Cover
 Title Page
 What is farming systems resear...
 Organization and administration...
 Research in the social and behavioral...
 Basic principles, concepts, and...
 What is needed from other...

Group Title: Working paper - Issues in Farming Systems Research - no. 8
Title: Issues in farming systems research - a multidisciplinary behavioral science perspective
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00055463/00001
 Material Information
Title: Issues in farming systems research - a multidisciplinary behavioral science perspective
Series Title: Working paper - Issues in Farming Systems Research - no. 8
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Axinn, George H.
Publisher: Michigan State University, Farming Systems Research Group
Publication Date: 1981
Subject: Farming   ( lcsh )
Agriculture   ( lcsh )
Farm life   ( lcsh )
Funding: Electronic resources created as part of a prototype UF Institutional Repository and Faculty Papers project by the University of Florida.
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00055463
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.

Table of Contents
    Front Cover
        Front Cover
    Title Page
        Title Page
    What is farming systems research?
        Page 1
        Page 2
        Page 3
        Page 4
    Organization and administration for farming systems research
        Page 5
        Page 6
    Research in the social and behavioral sciences relating to farming systems
        Page 7
        Page 8
    Basic principles, concepts, and generalizations
        Page 9
        Page 10
        Page 11
    What is needed from other disciplines?
        Page 12
        Page 13
        Page 14
        Page 15
        Page 16
        Page 17
Full Text

Farming Systems

Research Group


The Farming Systems Research Group at Michigan State University is drawn from
the departments of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural Engineering, Animal
Science, Crop and Soil Science, Food Science and Human Nutrition, Sociology,
Veterinary Medicine, and supported by the International Agriculture Institute of
M.S.U. and the U.S. Agency for International Development through a matching
strengthening grant under the Title XII program.

Farming Systems Research Group
Michigan State University

The Farming Systems Research Group at Michigan State University, supported
by Title XII Strengthening Grant Funds from the U.S. Agency for International
Development, and administered by the Institute of International Agriculture,
has included Dr. Jay Artis, Department of Sociology; Dr. Robert J. Deans,
Department of Animal Science; Dr. Merle Esmay (and Dr. Robert Wilkinson),
Department of Agricultural Engineering; Dr. Eric Crawford, Department of
Agricultural Economics; Dr. Russell Freed, Department of Crop and Soil
Sciences (also representing Horticulture); Dr. Al Pearson, Department of
Food Science and Human Nutrition; Dr. Tjaart Schillhorn van Veen, Department
of Veterinary Medicine; with Dr. George Axinn, International Studies and
Programs and Agricultural Economics, Chair, and Ms. Beverly Fleisher,
graduate research assistant.

a multidisciplinary behavioral science perspective

by George H. Axinn

Working Paper No. 8

April, 1981

April 1981

Issues in Farming Systems Research -- A Multidisciplinary Behavioral
Science Perspective

by George H. Axinn*

1. What is Farming Systems Research?

A farming system has been defined by the MSU Farming Systems Research

Group as a unit consisting of a human group and the resources it manages in

its environment, involving direct production of plant and/or animal products,

and possibly other products, as well as consumption of those products.

From this perspective, a farming system is a result of interactions

among several interdependent components. Although no two farms are identical,

each farming system may include such components as land, people, crops, and

animals. Like other systems, such a system may be considered, at another

level of analysis, to be merely one component of a larger system. Similarly,

each of the components in such a system may also be considered as systems

themselves, with smaller components within each of them.

Farming systems research can be defined as the application of the

systematic approach to the study of whatever is defined as a farm. The

purposes of such research may vary from the attempt to understand such a

system to a programmatic attempt to make changes within certain aspects of

such a system.

The original or traditional type of farming systems research, is that

which is done by farm families themselves. Those who actually tend the

livestock and till the soil of this world also practice a continuous process

of learning from their environment, solving the problems which face them, and

making appropriate adjustments from what they learn. This type of farming

*Professor of Agricultural Economics and Assistant Dean of International
Studies and Programs, Michigan State University


systems research is not confined to the narrow parameters of any of the

academic disciplines of professional scholars. Instead, it applies the

"science of the farming family" to the "real world problems" of that

family, in a continuous series of interactions. It may be labelled "non-

formal research."

Without this non-formal type of farming systems research, humanity

would not have survived over the centuries. On the other hand, since the

researchers themselves must be highly generalized in such an effort, it

does not take advantage of the fruits of application of the highly special-

ized "science of the academic" which could be applied to the problems of the

farming system.

The "non-formal type" farming systems research carried on by each in-

dividual farming family also lacks the ability to access the world's ac-

cumulated knowledge which the highly specialized system of "formal" agri-

cultural research has evolved over the last dozen or so decades.

Both the "non-formal type" and the "formal type," while necessary and

functional for their own purposes, have serious problems if they operate in-

dependently of each other.

From time to time the international professional agricultural research

community has been the resource from which others have attempted to deliver

inappropriate technologies to farming systems in several parts of the world.

This tends to happen when the formal system lacks sufficient information about

the nature of particular farming systems, or when formal agricultural re-

search system purposes are different from those of the farming families. At

the same time, small farming systems, trying to adjust to a rapidly changing

economic, social, political, and technological outside environment have been

placed under increasing stress conditions -- particularly during the last

three decades.

Growing populations in some areas have pressed the ecosystem to its

productive capacity, becoming a force toward technological change. In-

creased speed and capacity of the world's communication and transportation

systems have influenced national policy affecting agricultural prices, for

example, altering relationships between farming systems and marketing systems.

And the strategies which many national governments have employed, with help

from the international development assistance community, have been designed

to convert subsistence farming systems into market-oriented surplus pro-

ducing farming systems. This pressure to change from relatively self-

contained, small, unspecialized, independent, low-energy farming systems

which consume most of what they produce and produce only what they consume

to relatively market-oriented, larger, specialized, dependent, higher-energy

farming systems which purchase inputs from outside with cash or credit, and

sell outputs to others for cash ... this pressure is perhaps the greatest

stress encountered by millions of small farming systems in today's world.

An opportunity, then, for the MSU farming systems research group, is

to evolve innovative approaches to bridging the gap between the farm-family-

conducted "non-formal" farming systems research and the academic-community-

conducted "formal" agricultural research. If this succeeds, it will weaken

neither and strengthen both. Its goal is to combine the wisdom of the farming

and herding families with the wisdom of the academic scientists, and address

both knowledge building and problem solving activities.

The strategies for accomplishing this goal are evolving among many pro-

fessional agriculturalists who are devising innovative approaches to "farmer's

field" application trials, multidisciplinary research teams, involvement of

farmers themselves in evaluation of new technologies, and participation

with farmers in establishing research goals. (Collisen, 1979; Harwood, 1979;

Hildebrand, 1977; McDowell and Hildebrand, 1980; Norman, 1978; Zandstra,

1979). A major objective is to improve the information flow from what

has been labelled as "indigenous knowledge systems" to those who have

been trained by and are in communication with the international scientific

knowledge systems. (Brokensha, Warren, and Oswald, 1980)

In places where farmers themselves have banded together and pooled

their resources to establish agricultural experiment stations, those em-

ployed as scientists at the experiment stations (or research farms, as they

were often called) had to listen to their farmer clientele. Farmers paid

their salaries, supported their research, and identified the most pressing

problems of local farming systems for research attention. The early ex-

periment stations in Scotland, Germany, and the Northeast part of the U.S.A.

were of this type. (Knoblauch, et. al., 1962; Kuhn, 1955; Rasmussen, 1975;

Griswold, 1963)

As the numbers and sizes of agricultural research organizations grew,

they were "forced" to decentralize to stay in tune with the different types

of farming systems which supported their work. Thus "branch stations"

characterize the organizational structure of several national agricultural

research systems.

However, where agricultural research organizations are parts of large

national government ministries, where the main source of financial support

is in the urban centers of political strength, and where the scientific staff

tends to be persons with urban academic backgrounds, rather than any on-

the-farm work experience, problems of communication with those who till the

soil and tend the livestock have arisen. This is particularly significant

in those systems which have grown out of "colonial" agriculture research

organization focused on export crops.

One approach to overcoming this problem, and increasing the ability

and willingness of those conducting "formal" agricultural research to

learn from farmers, is the organizational approach described in the next

section of this paper.

2. Organization and Administration for Farming Systems Research

From the mixed perspective of a multidisciplinary behavioral science

approach, governments and educational institutions of various types have

attempted to supplement the kind of farming systems research which is con-

ducted within the farming system itself in various ways over the years. To

do this they have set up formal agriculture research systems. There seem

to be two polar "ideal-type" approaches to formal agricultural research


The term "polar ideal type" is taken from sociology. There it re-

fers to a category of human organization which is quite different from an

alternative category of human organization. Thus, "polar ideal types" of

schools might be the "teacher-centered-school" and the "student-centered-

school." The polar ideal type teacher-centered school is absolutely dom-

inated by the teacher. The polar ideal-type student centered school is

absolutely dominated by the student. These are merely categories which can

be used for comparison. In the "real world," there may not be any schools

which actually fit the polar ideal-type. However, all schools may have

some characteristics of one polar type, and some characteristics of the

other polar type. Using such a typology, any two schools can be compared

with each other. (Weber, 1947; Parsons, 1949)

With this approach to the study of agricultural research systems, it

is possible to create and define polar types, and then compare "real" cases

with these "polar ideal types," and with each other.

One type might be labelled the decentralized system, while the other

could be called the centralized system. There is a tendency for the first

to serve the needs of rural people, and to enhance rural life. There is a

tendency for the second to serve the needs of urban people, and to indust-

rialize, commercialize, and depopulate the countryside. Several aspects of

these two "ideal types" are characterized below.

The decentralized agricultural research system tends to be "owned and

operated" by local rural organizations,and control is in the hands of farmers.

It is an extension of what farm families can do within their own family farm

ecosystems; an effort to bring together their knowledge and resources, and

to focus somewhat more specialized effort on problem solving for and on be-

half of their day-to-day interests. The centralized agricultural research

systems, on the other hand, tend to be "owned and operated" by national

governments, with control in the hands of scientists and administrators

in the central capitol cities.

In the decentralized systems, information exchange tends to be part of

the broad function and responsibility of the staff of scientists. Their

task is to learn from farmers, do research appropriate for farmers, and in-

form farmers of what they find. In the centralized systems, scientists can

specialize in the discovery of new knowledge, with little responsibility for

communication with family farm ecosystems.

In the decentralized agricultural research systems, the staff tends to

be recruited from among the local people. In the centralized systems, the

staff tends to be recruited from outside the local situation, because the

base of selection is specialized skills.

Funding for research activity in decentralized systems tend to come from

local sources. In the centralized systems, funding tends to come from central

government sources.

In the decentralized systems, there is a tendency for research and ex-

tension functions to be merged. In the centralized systems, there tends to

be a specialization of research and extension functions, with centralized

agricultural research systems focusing on their knowledge discovery functions.

There are also differences in methodologies between the two kinds of

systems. A basic research methodology in the decentralized systems tends to

be continuous interaction with rural people in an effort to learn from them.

In the centralized system, methodology tends to be based on replicated field

experiments, with interaction wherever possible with the international agri-

cultural research community (through publications, meetings, correspondence,


The decentralized systems tend to emphasize local applications, and en-

courage communication with farmers. The centralized systems tend to empha-

size basic scientific research, and encourage communication with the inter-

national scientific community.

In the "real world" there are not many cases of a "polar ideal-type" of

either the decentralized or the centralized kind. However, there are many

more agricultural research systems which are closer to the centralized --

looking at the various nation states and international agencies in the world

in 1981 -- than there are decentralized systems. One reason for the renewed

interest in the so-called "farming systems research" in the last few years

is an effort to achieve some of the benefits to farming families of the de-

centralized system while also maintaining the strength of the centralized


3. Research in the social and behavioral sciences relating to farming systems.

There has been a great deal of anthropological, sociological, psychological,

economic, and political research which is tangential. What follows is an attempt

to reflect on multidisciplinary social science scholarship on this subject.

A first observation is that there has not been much serious scholar-

ship relating to the phenomenon discussed above. Neither political scientists

nor anthropologists nor sociologists nor economists have successfully re-

lated the types of agricultural research systems found around the world with

patterns of political power and control and patterns of farming systems

themselves. This seems to be an area of opportunity for future


The climate for such research has improved, both within the disciplines

involved and among those agencies and organizations which support agricul-

tural research. Further, the conceptual and methodological issues can now

be worked out because international collaboration makes comparative ap-

proaches feasible.

There is a growing body of study relating to the appropriateness or

inappropriateness of technologies; the attempts to transfer technologies

from one social system or culture to another; and some back-tracking re-

lating to the rationale for the development of particular types of tech-

nology. (Dunn, 1978; Eckaus, 1977; Goldschmidt, 1978; Long and Oleson,

1980; Lovins,1977, 1978; Morrison, 1980a, 1980b; Schumacher, 1973).

All of this can contribute to scholarship addressed to comparative

effectiveness of different approaches to the organization, the planning,

the staffing, and the directing of agricultural research organizations.

Second, with respect to the farming systems themselves, it seems that

the social sciences, again, have failed to study them from a systems per-

spective. Rural sociologists have been more concerned with urbanization,

the rural community, and the diffusion of innovations from a central research

source to rural people, than they have with the nature of the farming systems,


perhaps seen as farming family ecosystems. There is a great opportunity

for research in which the conceptual tools of the various social sciences

can be applied to the farming system qua system.

One approach to the "whole systems" study of farms has been demon-

strated by several social scientists who have traced interactions among

the various components of farming systems. Among them, Odum, 1971, 1976;

Thomas, 1974; Rambo, 1979; Axinns, 1978, 1979, 1980; and Cox and Adkins

(1979) have used energy as a proxy for materials flow. They can clearly

demonstrate the effects of the size of the farming system, the extent of

specialization of the farming system, and the eco-system relationships of

the farming system to its relationships with other farming systems, marketing

systems, and the larger political-economic-social-cultural systems of which

they are a part.

Another approach, in which money values serve as a proxy for all types

of flows, has been developed by those who simulate the farming system and

its larger economic system with computer simulations. See, for example,

Rossmiller, 1978; Heady, 1949; Johnson and Rossmiller, 1978; Abkin et. al.

1980; Manetsch, 1971; Crawford, 1980; McRea, 1980; and FAO, 1980.

4. Basic Principles, Concepts, and Generalizations

From the above, it seems apparent that there are some generalizations

about the way in which agricultural research systems are organized and con-

trolled which relate to the type of research they are likely to do, and the

extent to which it will be appropriate for various types of farming systems.

Within the family farm ecosystems themselves, there are social phen-

omena which have not been sufficiently studied, and which offer great op-

portunity. One of these is differentiaion. Farming systems range from the


least differentiated to the most differentiated, with many gradations.

The least differentiated family farm ecosystems are quite unspecialized.

They feature a mixture of many different crops and different classes of

livestock with some "other" production, some work off the farm by family

members, plus a kitchen garden. Women and children do a major portion of

the work on such systems, and in many portions of the world the adult men

of the system exchange labor outside for some of the internal requirements

of the system.

The most differentiated are highly specialized farming systems, which

produce only one crop or type of livestock, and the farm is the major source

of the family income. They tend to be capital intensive, labor efficient,

and highly specialized. (See Axinn & Axinn, 1980).

The least differentiated types of farming systems are also the least

dependent on the outside world. The most differentiated farming systems

are also the most dependent upon the outside world. Thus the variable of

dependence/independence tends tovary directly with the variable differentiated/


Dependency upon the physical world is a characteristic of almost all

types of farming systems, with weather, soil characteristics, and other

geological features, along with the risks and the uncertainties of the

biological processes which farming systems manipulate as constant concerns.

Therefore, there are some trade-offs between the dependence of specialization

and the independence of unspecialization. It is an area which has promising

opportunities for research.

Also, there is a relationship between the quantities of energy trans-

formed and both the differentiation variable and the dependency variable. The

least differentiated and the most independent farming systems also tend to


transform smaller quantities of energy, vis-a-vis what their ecosystems

can sustain over time, than do the most differentiated and most dependent

types of farming systems.

Farming systems also range from almost 100 percent subsistence

farming systems to almost zero percent subsistence farming systems. The

latter type are highly market oriented. Subsistence agriculture can be

understood in terms of the three variables mentioned above: differentiation,

dependency, and energy transformation. Understanding of farming systems

from this perspective can lead to applied and problem solving research which will be

more appropriate to the interests of members of such family farm ecosystems

than the types of farming systems research which ignores these phenomena.

(Axinn & Axinn, 1980).

To generalize again, highly subsistence farming systems tend to con-

sume most of what is produced; tend to supply whatever inputs are needed for

production; have fewer linkages with outside systems; and fewer transactions

on whatever linkages there maybe; and thus are relatively independent. In-

novative technology which requires credit, (or which assumes production for

sale on a market) is not likely to be readily adopted by such family farming


On the other hand, highly market oriented farming systems tend to sell

most of what is produced to others; tend to purchase inputs needed for pro-

duction; tend to have more linkages with outside systems and carry on more

transactions on those linkages; and are thus relatively dependent upon those

outside systems. Because of that dependence upon the market, and susceptibility

to changes in price and price policy, such highly market-oriented farming

systems are also dependent upon innovative agricultural technology -- partic-

ularly technology which will allow them to produce more for the outside market

at lower cost of the inputs they must purchase from the outside supply system.


This contra t between subsistence farming systems and market farming

systems is not made to suggest that one is, normatively, "better" than the

other, or "worse" than the other. Clearly, as the populations of the

world's urban centers continue to increase, there is need for increasing the

surplus (above farming family needs) of food production from some market

farming systems. Also, clearly, there are in today's world hundreds of

thousands of small farming and pastoralist systems which are primarily sub-

sistence farming systems. As with other aspects of life, that which is

desirable from the perspective of some individual farm families may not be

in the best interest of the larger society. The issues are political,

economic, social, and cultural. How the formal agricultural research

systems approach the application of science to the problems of different

types of farming systems is a sensitive matter. The goals and objectives

of agricultural research organizations are likely to be determined by those

who have the political and economic power to influence them. Perhaps in-

novative and sensitive farming systems research can lead to what will be most


5. What is needed from other disciplines?

A great deal is needed by a multidisciplinary social science perspective

on farming systems from the other disciplines.

In the beginning, it is necessary to approximate and understand the

plant component and the animal component in order to know the extent of dif-

ferentiation in either of those, as well as the extent of energy transfor-

mation through them. Thus, if one wished to study relationships among the

variables listed above, and to use those to assess the appropriateness of

particular biological, mechanical, or economic changes for particular farming


systems, it would be desirable to have collaboration among social and

behavioral scientists with economists, animal scientists, agricultural

engineers, agronomists, horticulturists, human nutritionists, and others.


Abkin, Michael H., Tom W. Carroll, Gary R. Ingvaldson, and Manuel

1980 A Guide to Information and Policy Analysis for Agricultural
Decision Making in Latin America and the Caribbean, Staff
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Michigan State University, East Lansing.

Axinn, George H.

1978 New Strategies for Rural Development. Kathmandu and East
Lansing, Rural Life Associates.

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1979 Materials Flow and Energy Transformation on Small Farms of
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of the Rural Sociological Society, Burlington, Vermont, Staff
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1980 The Recycling Ratio: An Energy Approach to Planning Rural
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Brokenshaw, David W., D. M. Warren, and Oswald Werner (editors)

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Dunn, P. D.

1978 Appropriate Technology: Technology With a Human Face.
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Goldschmidt, Walter

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McRae, Stephen D.

1980 Human Ecological Modeling in the Central Andes. Department
of Resource Development, Michigan State University, East

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1980a "Should We Follow the Soft or Hard Energy Path: Some Social
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