Employing a ‘plurality of theories’ to examine rural social change

Diane Luhrs, Monash University:


Social change in any setting can be examined through various theoretical perspectives, thereby creating knowledge dependent on the particular perspectives employed. However, complex social phenomena may not be amenable to examination through a single theoretical perspective. For my recently completed PhD thesis on the social change phenomena of intergenerational family farm transfer in broadacre and dairy farms in western Victoria, Australia, I employed a ‘plurality of theories’ (Garnier 2014: 458) to unpack the complex relations between the multitude of actors that create the contexts and infect the processes of farm transfers and to examine the social issues arising from these transfers. This short article presents the argument for employing multiple theories to examine rural social phenomena and issues and provides a brief summary of the research findings based on this approach.


Intergenerational family farm transfer is a complex social change phenomenon that involves endogenous- and exogenous-to-the-family actors and factors and is dependent on the social, economic and political contexts of the times that the changes occur. My research arose from my own childhood experiences of growing up on a wool-producing broadacre farm and the fact that I was denied any opportunity to take up farming or to own the farm property because of my parents’ stated view that farms should not be split up and that sons are the offspring to continue living and working on farms. I grew up in a family adhering to patrilineal inheritance. My initial idea for research was to focus on non-successor daughters within a liberal feminist frame to examine the enduring effects (if any) on daughters and their adult relationships with the farms of their childhoods and with their siblings and parents.

My supervisors and others pointed out the limitations of such a narrow focus. There are many issues arising from farm transfers that affect not only daughters and their ongoing (or not) relationships with their families, farms and communities, so the focus of my research broadened to ask questions not only of non-successor daughters but also of other family members (both siblings and parents), their farms and the communities in which they farmed. Instead of looking at the family as the social unit of investigation, I followed the feminist method of inviting all members of farm families to offer their particular accounts of themselves, their experiences of the farms and farming communities and of the changes they observed in the communities after intergenerational farming transfer (Eichler1988).

Theoretical perspectives and methodology employed

From initially starting with an overarching feminist perspective to uncover relations of inequality and to allow multiple situated embodied voices to emerge (Haraway 1991; Hekman 1992, 1999; Hirschmann 1999) through a grounded theory method (Charmaz 2006), my theoretical tool kit evolved to included Lefebvre’s (1991) theory on the production of space, Massey’s (1994, 1995) theory of space as constituted out of the relations within and beyond the space, Latour’s (2005) actor-network theory and Symons’ (2007) concept of change as an ‘emotional spacetime’. The following section explains the rationale for employing multiple theoretical perspectives to examine the actors, their actions, the contexts and the issues arising from intergenerational family-farm transfers.

A feminist perspective to uncover relations of inequality

Liberal feminist theory, with its focus on the rational argument for equal opportunity for women as citizens of equal worth within society, informs and underpinned the research (Bryson 2003). In the discussion that follows, I explain the feminist theories that support this guiding principle and which allow for a close examination of what appear to be the socially discriminatory practices of inheritance and succession as occurs in Australia’s farming families and which in turn may also be affecting rural society.

I am mindful that a standpoint perspective may at first seem the logical starting point to examine the underlying relationship structures that lead to differential treatment of farm children, such that there may be a successor standpoint and a non-successor standpoint. According to Tanesini (1999: 138) standpoint epistemology employs the notion of shared experiences of members of a particular category and therefore provides a ‘privileged perspective’ to better understand the reality of the social phenomenon. However, such an approach fails to account for possible differences between non-successors and differences between successors and, hence, would not allow for the emergence and examination of the individual embodied situated/emplaced knowledges (Somerville 2004). A standpoint approach would seek to essentialise the character of successors and non-successors and farm family parents, such that the research would not examine the particular character of each farming family, its social divisions, and its place within its farming community (Clough 1994; Tanesini 1999).

The arguments of Haraway (1991), Hekman (1992, 1999) and Hirschmann (1999) have enabled the development of liberal feminist theory that has progressed from its abodied, universalistic perspective to one of a situated, embodied and inclusive-of-difference perspective that still adheres to the liberal agenda of equality and rights. Their arguments are supported by Clancey (1997) who also argues that the social knowledge held by individuals is situated knowledge because the thoughts and actions of individuals are perceived, conceived and developed within their particular environmental contexts. Hekman (1992, 1999) argues for ‘embodied subjective’ experiences to be incorporated as valid knowledge in liberal feminist theory in defining subjects’ experiences of the social world. These embodied subjective experiential knowledges could and should, according to Hekman (1992), inform social policy development. Furthermore, Hirschmann (1999) claims situated differences that may arise in subjects’ situated knowledges have a place in arguing for equal rights and should not be seen as invalidating claims for equality; rather they should be the point at which the concerns for equal opportunity are raised. This newer reformulated liberal feminism is appropriate for this type of research project that sought situated knowledges to inform social theory and provide a more grounded foundation on which farming families and rural advisors can base future decisions on family farm transfer.

Grounded theory

Grounded theory is theory grounded in and emergent from the data collected and analysed, that is, data are the basis on which theory is developed and concepts are generated from analysis of the data (Charmaz 2006). For the research, data were collected during one-on-one interviews and revealed through thematic analysis, which was informed by my insider status, an extensive review of literature on farming families and the feminist perspective adopted. Themes emerged from the stories of intergenerational family farm transfer told in participants’ narratives. In keeping with the feminist perspective, Gubrium and Holstein (2012) argue each and every person involved in some way with a particular phenomenon has something of value to contribute to social theory which can be accessed through interviews.

Theoretical frameworks for data analysis: Massey, Lefebvre, Latour and Symons

After completing the preliminary analysis and determining the broad topics of the analysis chapters, Lefebvre’s (1991) theory on the ‘production of space’ resonated with my analysis of farms as spaces becoming places. Missing from previous literature on farms is the notion that farms are produced spaces, as are the communities around them that form from the combination of humans and their effects within particular socially-determined spaces. According to Lefebvre (1991), spaces are produced from the complex interplay between people active in the spaces, the governing bodies ruling the spaces and other bodies that enable or constrain the activities in these places, and images or experiences of people’s lives in these places. Furthermore, places are produced and modified according to the prevailing ideologies of particular eras and local resistances to these ideologies. Hence, Lefebvre (1991: 102) argues that social space is an active, mutable product, at once ‘work and product’, never fixed or immobile.

Lefebvre (1991) argues that to understand space it is essential to consider together the three active moments – the trialectics of space – constructing space: ‘representations of space’, ‘representational space’ and ‘spatial practice’. First, representations are the mental constructs – the ideas – we have of and for those spaces. Second, our combined perceptions and experiences as we live and act in these spaces make up the representational space for those spaces. Third, spatial practice is defined by the actions and activities we undertake in these spaces. These three moments are all integral, interrelated and implicated in the production of the space such that no one factor alone can account for the social practices and social effects within those spaces – in this thesis, farms and farming communities (Lefebvre 1991; Merrifield 2000). Moreover, produced spaces become ‘active moments’ not only in the fortunes of people associated with them but also in the ‘expansion and reproduction of capitalism’ (Merrifield 2000: 173).

Lefebvre (1991: 10) further argues that particular ideologies relating to spaces – in this thesis, farms – are bound up with hegemonic regimes. The regime in Australia exercising control over farm policy, the Federal government, has experienced changes in composition since Federation, from having a high proportion of rural participation to now, where rural influence is much reduced because of the declining proportion of rural to urban populations. This change has brought reduced rural representation (Aitken 1985) and changes in conception of the rural (Davison 2005). What Lefebvre (1991) tells us is that with changing conceptions (representations) comes changed daily practices (spatial practices) and changing representational spaces (experiences, sensory responses and imaginations) within particular produced spaces.

Massey (1994) complements Lefebvre’s (1991) concept of space as a produced phenomenon by drawing attention to the ways in which places are constituted out of networks of social relations, and this conceptualisation helps in a critical examination of which networks are significant to creating social places. According to Massey (1994: 121) social places are not bounded and closed, rather they are ‘open and porous’ to outside social and political influences; they ‘leak’:

[P]laces … are not so much bounded areas as open and porous networks of social relations. It implies that their ‘identities’ are constructed through the specificity of their interaction with other places rather than by counterposition to them. … [Furthermore, what] is to be the dominant image of any place will be a matter of contestation and will change over time. (Massey 1994: 121)

Therefore, Massey (1994, see also 1995) argues that, to understand the constitution of social places and the outcomes of phenomena within particular social places, it is necessary to acknowledge and accommodate the impact and influence of relations between agents both within and beyond particular geographical regions.

During my analysis of data relating to family farm transfer, I identified that many events were necessary prior to the eventual transfer, and gained an appreciation that these events often occurred in a sequence. I also identified numerous actors that either enabled or constrained processes of intergenerational farm transfer. Farm transfer as a process occurred within a network of actors – some human, others not human. This network of actors and the sequence of enabling prior events resembled networks described in Latour’s (2005) actor-network theory. The actor, according to Latour (2005: 45), ‘is not the source of action but the moving target of a vast array of entities swarming around it’.  Latour (2005) considers non-human entities (such as – in the farming context – soil, climate, farm animals and crops, machinery, legal documents and finance) as having agency to affect outcomes of processes and events equivalent to human agency. A point of difference from Lefebvre (1991) and Massey (1994, 1995) is that Latour (2005) allows no hierarchy of agency between actors (human and non-human) within a network of associations. Latour’s (2005) theory of actor-networks provides the scaffold to unpack the associations between all factors acting on/affecting farm transfers and, thereby, to reveal the complex process confronting farm owners and their successors when they engage in farm transfers. I also employed the actor-network theory to examine the changing associations within rural farming communities and the effects these have on the well-being of local residents and sustainability of farming communities, including the management of natural resources in farming districts.

Emotions cannot be ignored as influential factors/actors in the lives of family members. Emotional responses to farm transfers were present in interviews with all family members. Emotions may be drivers of actions or reactions to events, and they may colour decisions, affect relationships between farm family members and influence participation in community activities (Barbalet 2004; Connor 2007; Izard 2009). Emotions are ever-present in the lives of all, including people involved in farming. Connor (2007: 16) states:

Emotions are a constant and necessary aspect of human existence. They infuse the actions, behaviour, thoughts, feelings and decisions made by the actors.

According to Barbalet (2004: 266), we can use emotions arising from social phenomena as objects of study because they present the world from the ‘perspective of the emoting subject’s needs or preferences’. In the phenomena of farm transfers, the needs and/or preferences are those of farm owners, successors and non-successors. Barbalet (2002: 3) further argues that the study of emotions arising from relationships and events is important for developing a comprehensive knowledge and/or assessment of particular social phenomena.  Emotions and embodied responses are valuable communicators of factors and issues associated with social phenomena and for directing attention to those factors and issues that may otherwise escape examination (Ahmed 2010; Barbalet 2002, 2004; Liljeström and Paasonen 2010). Therefore, they are valid and valuable sources of knowledge.

In Symons’ (2007: 89) conception of ‘emotional spacetime’, space, time and emotion are interconnected, and their articulation is important for understanding how organisations operate. In my research, this was the complex social and business organisational entity of the family farm. Symons (2007) argues the nature of space, with its physical, social and virtual components, and the factor of time in both its qualitative and quantitative qualities interplay with the emotional aspects of actors engaged in social institutions. Symons’ (2007) concept of emotional spacetime focuses not on the search for gender differences but on how gender plays out in the management of emotional spacetime. He argues emotional spacetime can be used to highlight the intersection of gender and emotions in the management of organisations (such as family farms). Specifically, for my research, Symons’ (2007) concept of ‘emotional spacetime’ was useful for examining and acknowledging the relationship between emotional attachments to the family farm, decisions for and processes of family farm transfer and intra-familial relations during and following the transfer, and to account for the effects of emotional legacies on the long-term continuity of the family farms, on parents’, successors’ and non-successor children’s well-being and on the sustainability of the local farming community. This approach offered an antidote to the reticence of social geographers to include emotions in their fieldwork (Bennett 2004).

Research findings

  1. Many farm owners do not transfer their farms to the next generation well. This relates to farm owners’ capacities to manage the process of farm transfers successfully, where success is premised on maintaining cohesive intrafamilial relations, engaging in a process that acknowledges the desires of siblings and parents and, where possible, accommodating these desires, and maintaining farm viability during and after the transfer.
  2. Family members hold unequal positions with respect to farm transfer decisions and processes. This inequality is at the heart of many family disputes and unresolved tensions during and after farm transfers. While some families appear to keep the farm and family relations intact through the farm transfer process, other families show varying degrees of upset and dysfunction.
  3. Farm transfer plans are often inadequate to accommodate the complexity entailed in the relationality that is inherent in farming families and family farms and which infuses farm transfers.
  4. Family farmers either lack the necessary relationship skills and social awareness and/or do not attend to the emotional factors (attachments and personal desires) that are integral to the emotional spacetime of family farm transfers.
  5. Family farmers, through their lack of relationship skills, and/or lack of attention to the affective relations of all family members, are responsible for the poor social and emotional outcomes experienced by family members and, in some cases, the loss of farms and out-migration from local farming communities.
  6. Through their policies and programs, governments are implicated in farm transfer outcomes for family members, family cohesion, family continuity with the farm and for local community sustainability.
  7. Family farm owners (resident and non-resident), their professional associates and State and Federal governments in concert create the farms and the local communities of farming districts.


My PhD was supported by an Australian Postgraduate Award from Monash University

I thank my supervisor, Dr Michelle Duffy, and my associate supervisors, Dr Sally Weller and Dr Nick Osbaldiston, for their support and advice during my candidature. I also thank the 68 interviewees who participated in the research interviews.


A full list of references is available from the author.



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