Connecting through relations and stories: Integration in inter-organisation agri-food netwerks

Kirsten Vanderplanken

    Onderzoeksoutput: ScriptieDoctoraatsscriptie - Doctoraatsscriptiepeer review


    Driven by complex challenges, the development of inter-organisational networks is on the rise in the field of agri-food. In this dissertation, we explore the functioning of and integration within these networks. In order to study and fully comprehend social integration, we have developed a method for Integrated Network Analysis (INA).
    Chapter 2 describes the challenges and narratives of different actors involved in the Flemish agri-food system. Our analysis demonstrates the importance of an actor point of view in the analysis, as well as the importance of taking culture into account when designing, managing and maintaining networks and relations. In order to develop col¬lective solutions to the complex challenges the agri-food system is facing, the involved parties do not only need to collaborate, but they also need to be able to understand one another.
    The theoretical framework described in chapter 3, introduces ideas and concepts from different disciplines. It covers literature on relational sociology, social network analysis, inter-organisational networks (in agri-food), rural sociology and sociology of agriculture and food. Based on this literature, we describe integrated networks as networks that succeed in uniting their members by connecting them in structural pat¬terns of relations and by producing perceptions and feelings of belonging, commit¬ment and identification. This definition leads us to distinguish five interconnected network domains that jointly shape integration:
    i) network structure shapes integration through relational patterns;
    ii) network geography shapes integration through geographic embeddedness and proximity;
    iii) roles shape integration through role division and the development of commit¬ment;
    iv) culture shapes integration through the development of shared narratives, val¬ues and practices;
    v) governance shapes integration through structures and processes of coordina¬tion.

    Following this conceptualisation, chapter 5 describes a qualitative approach to social network analysis, which we call Integral Network Analysis (INA). This method re¬sponds to current needs in network research. Firstly, INA allows researchers to study inter-organisational networks qualitatively in a systematic way. Secondly, INA enables the study of inter-organisational networks from a network-level perspective. Finally, INA takes the mutual relation between network structure and culture into account. The use of network drawings during in-depth interviews allows researchers to simul¬taneously capture structural patterns and cultural forms. While making the drawings, network members are probed to reflect on the relations within the overall network, and on its functioning. As a result, they are able to produce more detailed stories on the network.
    Based on a systematic case selection process, we selected three cases to which INA was applied in a single and a comparative case study approach. The single case study approach in chapter 6 led us to the following findings:
    i) LOKAAL is a producer organisation that aims to provide local food products to local consumers. LOKAAL consists of eight food producers and one NGO. The relations among the member-producers are highly dense, decentralised and based on trust. However, when the external network (including relations with external partners, suppliers and consumers) is also considered, the over¬all density of the network is lower. Despite the spatial proximity (everyone is located in the same province), the member-producers do not have time to meet these actors. The two coordinators play an important role in facilitat¬ing and brokering exchanges and interactions within the network, and occupy most of the roles. Nevertheless, the role division is inclusive and involves the member-producers as well. In accordance with the shared values of equality and community, LOKAAL has a shared governance structure that attributes decision-making roles to all member-producers equally.
    ii) Belgian Savours is a producer organisation that aims to promote and market Belgian regional food products abroad. The network is young and still devel¬oping. At the time of data collection, 26 food entrepreneurs had joined Belgian Savours. Among the member-producers and in the network overall, there are few relations yet. Following the leading role of the initiator in the network, the network is highly centralised (socially and geographically), and essentially composed of one-on-one relations between the initiator and the coordinators, and the other the member-producers, external partners and customers. The shared value of expertise helps to ensure trust-relations with the initiator and among the member-producers. Moreover, because of the leading role of the initiator all roles are assigned to the initiator and the coordinators. This also promotes the effectiveness of the network.
    iii) Farmers’ Co-op is a cooperative that unites 250 horticultural producers. The network aims to enable the member-producers to develop and maintain viable businesses by improving their market position relative to (inter)national buy¬ers. As a traditional cooperative, Farmers’ Co-op is owned by the member-pro¬ducers. Despite the shared values of equality and collectivity, shared gover¬nance is not possible due to the size of the network. Instead, a board structure is installed in which elected member-producers are seated. Consequently, the board forms a dense and central cluster in the network. Most of the roles are divided between the board, who is in charge of all policy-related matters, and the directors and managers, who are in charge of all operational matters. Finally, Farmers’ Co-op is involved in dense horizontal collaborations (with other cooperatives) and local hybrid partnerships (e.g. with a research centre) with external actors.

    After the single case study approach, we also used INA in a comparative case study research (chapter 7). The main aim of this comparative analysis was to understand how network structure and culture mutually shape and reproduce one another. The result of this analysis are seven verifiable propositions that can guide further research and theory development on the relation between network structure and culture. Ad¬ditionally, we also found two features that impact on multiple network domains at the same time. First, the differentiation between operations and communications af¬fects network practices, determines network structure and also determines how roles are divided and how sets of roles are composed. Second, the assignment of ownership rights determines network structure, regulates who is eligible to occupy roles or who can assign roles, and shapes culture and governance within a network.
    In chapter 8 we reflect on integration inside IONs. We find that network structure may promote integration when the connectedness is based on long-term, cohesive, direct and multiplex relations. Multiplexity, which may be increased by vertical integration, can stimulate diverse relations of commitment and engagement of network members to the network, and among network members. Second, geographic embeddedness can contribute to integration when it is used to create local interdependencies that take form in horizontal, vertical and hybrid alliances. Spatial proximity can facilitate face-to-face contact, which in turn stimulates the development of direct, cohesive relations. Third, roles can shape integration in two ways. Role division can provide incentives for network members to participate in the network, which promotes their attachment to the network. Additionally, roles generate interdependencies among network members and stimulate them to become engaged in direct, cohesive relations. Fourth, culture promotes integration when it is shared among network members. Some cultures, how¬ever, are more beneficial to integration. For instance when they endorse inclusiveness or diversity within the network. Finally, governance can enhance integration when it is based on inclusive structures and processes, and when it aims to legitimise relations and collaborations. These conclusions help us to formulate tangible interventions that inter-organisational agri-food networks can use to reflect on or transform their rela¬tions.

    Oorspronkelijke taalEngels
    PublicatiestatusGepubliceerd - sep.-2017


    • S214-agologie


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