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The altering of the agricultural labour's meaning through the multifunctional model of agricultural activity as an answer to the crisis caused by the loss of jobs in the agricultural sector

Final Report Summary - AGROCLINICAL (The altering of the agricultural labour's meaning through the multifunctional model of agricultural activity as an answer to the crisis)

Project context and objectives

Over the past two decades, the 'new spirit of capitalism' (Boltanski and Chiapello, 1999) has become embedded within companies. First established within multinationals, this phenomenon has attracted the interest of a number of researchers due to its impact on working conditions and workers' professional identity. The branch of research inaugurated in the field of psychosociology (Pagès, Gaulejac, Bonetti, Descendre, 1979) and later in clinical sociology, within the Laboratory of Social Change under Vincent de Gaulejac (1991, 1994, 1996, 2005 and 2011), as well as work by Marie-Anne Dujarier, Eugène Enriquez, Fabienne Hanique and others, without neglecting the contribution of other research in the social sciences (Danet, 2008; Chauvière, 2008), have all revealed the subjective repercussions of this phenomenon, characterised by the loss of a sense of identity concerning the meaning individuals give to their work.

Correlatively, the inclusion of agriculture in the globalised economy under the 1993 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) Treaty has also brought about profound changes in the agricultural sector. This project, steered by research conducted in clinical sociology, aims to account for the influence that the new spirit of capitalism and the globalised economy may have on agriculture. More specifically, this approach involves analysing the following:

- the consequences of the application of the new common agricultural policy (CAP), inspired by economic globalisation and environmental protection, on the activity and status of farmers;
- the consequences of these organisational changes on farmers' professional identity;
- whether or not collective reflexivity on the situation can provide solutions to the difficulties encountered by farmers.

Work performed

We conducted empirical research on these questions in two stages. The exploratory stage of the research was completed during November 2010 in the Gers region and during January 2011 in the Vendée region. Twenty-two semi-directive interviews were carried out. The second stage of the research, designed using the exploratory empirical data, took the form of feedback to the interviewees, during which we presented and discussed the results and research hypotheses that had emerged from the first round of interviews with farmers. This feedback phase took place in June and July 2011, enabling us to enrich our empirical material with 26 additional interviews. However, beyond this empirical contribution, it is specifically the question of the subjects' reflexivity that is central to our research design. Providing feedback to the interviewees also enabled each participant to gain the perspective of the 'other' (meaning that each farmer was exposed to the other farmers' points of view, through the mediation of the sociologist). Finally, through this feedback to the interviewees, our research took on collective meaning, and strived to enable those we spoke with to share their experiences and the rationalised knowledge they have acquired from experience.

The investigation into the repercussions of the new CAP explores the following:

- the way in which farmers adapt to the economic instability caused by the globalised trade of agricultural products;
- the way in which professional identities are affected by these changes, particularly following the implementation of measures aiming to protect the environment and multifunctionality in the agricultural sector.

Main results

While the new capitalist spirit and its 'management ideology' (Gaulejac, 2005) have delegated job security to the sole responsibility of the worker, in the agricultural sector, the marketing of agricultural products has been delegated to the farmers by marginalising the intervention of co-operatives. Farmers have three alternatives for choosing the terms of sale of their products:

- contracting production with large food companies;
- storing products (i.e. adapting the sale of products to market changes);
- directly selling products to consumers.

These three possibilities presume different relationships with consumers. As regards contracting production and storage, this relationship is mediated, in the first case by food companies and in the second by computers. In the event of a direct sale, the relationship is personalised rather than mediated. The various terms of sale of agricultural products express two kinds of farming: on the one hand, intensive farming, predominately mechanised, which promotes the model of the agricultural entrepreneur by ensuring the sale of products via contracts with food companies; on the other hand, a 'rural' agriculture, symbolised by 'small farmers', which is multifunctional, inventive, polyvalent, attached to ideas of heritage and family-based companies that strive to sell their products independently. These two kinds of agriculture influence the professional identity of farmers differently. The first form is more centred on aspects of production, whereas the second asserts the deep ties between rural space and the farming business tradition. Although these differences do not constitute a definitive split between various kinds of farms, they testify to the complexity of the various situations encountered in rural space, as the intensive approach used for part of the production does not prevent the simultaneous protection and even development of activities aiming to enhance the beauty of the landscape and respecting farming traditions.

Beyond the variety of their production projects, farms are united by their attachment to the question of intergenerational continuity. Farm asset transfers represent not only a stake for families but more broadly implicate the future of the profession. As the farming business is strongly based on reproduction within the farming community, its sustainability and development require long-term mobilisation of family members (sons, daughters, spouses), which presupposes a certain amount of personal motivation, if not a certain idealisation of farm work. On this point, farmers and employees are comparable in terms of shared work-related norms and values, such as independence, self-realisation, the variety and interest of the object of work, as well as the free organisation of tasks and work time. In spite of this, the subjective attachment to the profession does not match this logic of idealisation: in companies, the control of human labour and the channelling of the workforce and employees' libidinal energy (thereby put to the service of capital) is achieved through a process by which the workers' self-ideal is replaced by the organisational ideal proposed by the company (Pagès, Gaulejac, Bonetti, Descendre, 1979; Harlé, 2009). In the agricultural industry, this psychological mechanism of idealisation is hinged on another element, as it is anchored in family history: the farmers' familial narrative passes along the story of key characters in their family tree, with which farmers tend to identify.

Within the framework of the new agricultural policy, we can examine the precariousness of the situation encountered by farmers, due to the fact that the policy promotes the following:

- major investments in equipment in order to withstand international competition;
- very time-consuming administrative procedures in order to ensure the quality of agricultural products and environmental protection;
- entrepreneurial initiatives, which increase the financial risk and weaken the farmers' economic status.

We can thus breakdown the main factors contributing to the vulnerability of the status of farmers:

- mental exhaustion, caused by the fact that farming work is split on a daily basis between a number of different jobs that require immediate solutions;
- permanent income insecurity, resulting from the extreme fluctuation of the prices of agricultural products;
- lack of professional adaptation to tasks such as filling out administrative forms, which are outside the scope of farm work;
- the absence of psychological support systems, both at the family and professional levels (to give a few examples: a substantial portion of farmers' spouses have left farm work, professional solidarity is being challenged and the number of farms has diminished);
- the undermining of the ethical foundation of the profession - accused of being responsible for damage caused to the environment.

Within this framework, some important contradictions can be observed with regard to the professional identity of farmers between:

- actions that are intended to be freely organised and their administrative supervision that aim to ensure the quality of products and the protection of the environment);
- the need to increase productivity and the need to preserve natural balances (in other words, between economic necessity and the requirements of the object of work);
- the 'sociality' of farm work and reinforced individualisation (demonstrated, for instance, by farmers working alone in the fields);
- the production of a real product and the virtual nature of its sale;
- the pleasure of independently taking action and the sense of social invalidation conveyed by the continuous drop in income levels.

Such contradictions represent psychosocial risk factors, which may bring on stress, promote mental exhaustion or provoke the lack of social support. Farmers are subjected to the same psychological problems as employees. What is more, these difficulties are reinforced by the symbolic importance of family asset transfers, which increases the sense of responsibility towards family history. The high level of suicides, psychosomatic illnesses and depression observed by health workers only confirm the fragility of farmers' psychological state.


An aid and support policy could first and foremost help acknowledge farmers' psychological state, their feelings of guilt, shame, weakness and loneliness. These problems are not merely due to their personality, but are rooted in social problems, related to economic circumstances, and are aggravated by the specificities of the business. Research can also contribute to raising awareness of this situation to the extent that it uses a clinical approach, anchored in the notions of reciprocity and the co-production of knowledge in the researcher/interviewee relationship (in this sense, interviewees are subjects and not objects of research). Indeed, the interpretation of empirical data and the object of research integrate both the subjectivity of the researcher and the subjects, by recognising the social dimension of the psychological phenomena experienced and vice versa.

This kind of recognition can contribute to the emergence of points that must be once again negotiated between society and farmers. However, research can encourage the understanding of the following:

- the contradictions that farmers experience, due to the ambiguity of ideological messages, requiring them to give in to economic imperatives while complying with orders to protect the environment;
- the fragility of farmers' psychological balance, related to the crisis impacting their professional identity, increased solitude, the lack of social support systems, the change and uncertainty as to the meaning of their work ; their economic, social, political and psychological consequences, representing financial and human costs that deserved to be assessed;
- psychosocial dynamics that stimulate farming development or, inversely, encourage withdrawal from the farming business, which helps us to understand changes in rural space over the mid and long term.

Consequently, the results of the research may interest policymakers with regard to both rural development and environmental protection. In turn, public and private organisations, as well as farmers unions, will also be interested in this research as they implement or participate in negotiations for sustainable development. This research may also interest associations that help farmers in economic crisis, as well as charity organisations or humanitarian missions that are engaged in fighting poverty and gender inequality in the rural sector of developing countries.