The project "Participatory Development of Organic Vegetable Farms" began in 1995 was aimed at defining relevant issues in development and research of organic vegetable farming (Seppänen, 1996). However, considering farms as natural scientific and technical units was not sufficient because the multiple perspectives of organic vegetable producers, as well as other actors, made the definition of the relevancy of the issues difficult. This raised the necessity to look at farms as systems including humans. Thus, a study of farms turned out to be a study of farming as a systemic activity. My PhD research, which began in 1997, applies the methodology of developmental work research.
The theoretical roots of developmental work research are in cultural-historical activity theory (Vygotsky 1978, Leont'ev 1977, Engeström 1987). Engeström (1987) expanded the ideas of activity theory to a model of collective activity system (Figure 1), which is used in developmental work research.
Figure 1. Structure of a human activity system (Engeström 1987, p.78)
"In the model, the subject refers to the individual or sub-group whose agency is chosen as the point of view in the analysis. The object refers to the 'raw material' or 'problem space' at which the activity is directed and which is moulded or transformed into outcomes with the help of physical and symbolic, external and internal tools (mediating instruments and signs). The community comprises multiple individuals and/or sub-groups who share the same general object. The division of labour refers to both the horizontal division of tasks between the members of the community and to the vertical division of power and status. Finally, the rules refer to the explicit and implicit regulations, norms and conventions that constrain actions and interactions within the activity system. Between the components of an activity system, continuous construction is on-going (...)" (Engeström, 1990, p.79). Activity systems are also in interaction with other activity systems. In farming activity, this means for instance farmer colleagues, administrative and marketing systems.
The concept of contradiction is an important tool in the methodology of developmental work research. Internal contradictions of an activity system can be a driving force for its change and development. They manifest themselves within a component or between components of the activity system. The activity is studied in its historical and cultural context and historical analysis is necessary in revealing the contradictions. The change and development of an activity system proceed in cycles through many phases.
The methodology of developmental work research has been used in multiple studies in work activities in the field of health care, industry and teaching, for instance. This study applies the methodology for the first time in agricultural research.
An important contradiction in organic vegetable farming is the tension between the ecological need for diversity in production and economic factors driving towards specialization. On the one hand, crop rotation is a tool or instrument, for farmers to cope with weeds, nutrient management and soil structure. On the other hand, the rules for organic farming expect farmers to have and follow crop rotation with leys and/or green manures: in this case, crop rotation can be considered a rule constraining farmers' production activity.
In the study I analyse two Finnish organic vegetable farms with different backgrounds. The two farmers' perspectives towards crop rotation differ considerably. The role of crop rotation in their activity systems will be analysed and compared to each other. The hypothesis is that on the other farm, the existing problem with couch grass (Elymus repens) is partly due to the rule-like role crop rotation has in their farming system.
Besides crop rotation, there will be other themes embedded in the contradictions of the farming systems in my study. After identifying possible ways of solving the contradictions, new forms of organic vegetable farming for the future will be drafted in dialogue between farmers and the researcher. New tools will be developed to implement the new forms put into practice.
Being contextual and systemic, the methodology of developmental work research gives an opportunity to study the relations of phenomena beyond the confines of traditional, natural and social scientific disciplines. It also gives tools to develop the activity from the point of view of the farmers and not only describes and analyses it.
Engeström, Y. (1987): Learning by expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental work research. Orienta-Konsultit, Helsinki.
Engeström, Y. (1990): Learning, working and imagining. Twelve studies in activity theory. Orienta-Konsultit, Helsinki.
Leont'ev, A. N. (1978): Activity, consciousness and personality. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
Seppänen, L. 1996. In the midst of farming, advising and researching. Forskningsnytt om øekologisk landbruk I Norden, Nr. 7/1996, 4-5 pp.
Vygotsky, L.S. 1978. Mind in society. Harvard University Press.
see also www.helsinki.fi/edu/activity