Good farmer, social identity and meta-preferences

Understanding why farmers act and make decisions the way we observe them to do is at the core of my work. And to advance this understanding, I firmly believe it is imperative to go beyond economics, even though this is formally my disciplinary „home“. This need to look beyond one’s own discipline has been recognized by agricultural and environmental economists for a while. However, due to economics‘ quantitative orientation, we usually turn to psychology when looking for inspiration on how to more richly describe and analyze human behaviour. Even there, we tend to stick to approaches that are easily compatible with economics – especially, the reasoned action approach a.k.a. theory of planned behaviour, which is increasingly popular in agricultural economics. But there is more. There is (way) more in psychology, as demonstrated e.g. by Christian Klöckner’s Comprehensive Action Determination Model (CADM), about which I will definitely write something in the future, as we are planning to use it in AgriScape. But there is also more in other disciplines, e.g. sociology or human geography. It’s just not as amanable to the individual-oriented, quantitative approaches of economics. Anyhow, one of the coolest concepts I have stumbled upon in this literature is the „good farmer“. And today I’m going to show how it links back to an underappreciated economic concept, namely meta-preferences.

If you want to understand what the „good farmer“ is, the place to go is the eponymous book by Rob Burton, Jérémie Forney, Paul Stock and Lee-Ann Sutherland (link). But I’ll do my best to give a short overview. Importantly, the „good farmer“ is a concept or a perspective, not a (behavioural) theory. It has been used in combination with quite a few theories, including Erving Goffman’s interactionism and Pierre Bourdieu’s capital theory. My personal favourite is the latter approach, applied e.g. by Rob Burton and Mark Riley – maybe it’s my favourite because capital is a concept originating from economics, though, who knows. In any case, the idea is actually rather simple – as we all, farmers have a social identity (a concept also known to psychology, including environmental psychology), i.e. they identify with a particular group with certain characteristics ascribed to it. This social or, more precisely, professional identity can be translated into a (shared) ideal that farmers identify with and adhere to – the „good farmer“. Of course, there is not one „good farmer“ – different farming (sub-)communities have different ideals. But the point is that implicitly, every farmer has such an ideal that they adhere to. And here, Bourdieu comes in – since farmers are human beings, and homo sapiens is a social animal, they want other farmers, who (they assume) share the „good farmer“ identity, to see that they act accordingly. In Bourdieu’s sense – they demonstrate their cultural capital (knowing what makes a „good farmer“ and being able to act as one) by displaying symbolic capital (observable results of professionally acknowledged behaviour – a classic example are „tidy“ fields with straight lines) in order to build up social capital (network of peers).

Now, what consequences does this social identity construct of a „good farmer“ have for behaviour? Research that has applied this concept shows, among other things, that farmers are struggling with demands from society that would require them to violate aspects of the image of a „good farmer“. For instance, if tidiness is an important element of the symbolic capital of a good farmer, fallows and other „untidy“ areas that are good for biodiversity won’t be popular. This may sound pretty straightforward, but there is more to it – the „good farmer“ is neither static nor homogeneous. As already mentioned, different farming communities have different social identities. And these identities evolve over time, as shown e.g. by Riley, who looked at the internalization of the goals of agri-environmental schemes in farmers‘ identity, or by Burton et al. in their book, in which they apply the concept of „good farmer“ to the historical developments in agriculture across the last couple of centuries. In that sense, the „good farmer“ provides a perspective to understand the persistence of certain behaviours and the resistance of farmers to other behaviours, particularly those that society expects from them.

As cool as the „good farmer“ concept is – simply applying it as is would be kind of boring. But there is another cool concept out there that is related to the „good farmer“, but could expand the latter’s epistemic value: meta-preferences. This concept has been discussed by quite a few eminent thinkers under different names. I learned it originally from Amartya Sen, who uses the term „meta-rankings of preferences“, but this is essentially the same as what Albert Hirschman called „metapreferences“, Jon Elster – „preferences over preferences“, and Harry Frankfurt (the theory of bullshit guy) – „second-order volitions“. And when three of my intellectual heroes (Sen, Hirschman and Elster) have a similar idea, it has to be good, right?

What meta-preferences mean is, again, pretty simple. Economists assume that each person has preferences or preference ranking(s) – for instance, I prefer mountains over sea or black tea over coffee or jazz over classical music. These preference rankings help us making decisions – since we often face trade-offs (actually, all the time), we have to decide which option we – yes – prefer in order to avoid the fate of Buridan’s ass. This concept of preferences is rather basic, though many details have been debated (Are preferences pre-formed or is a preference formation process required in some cases? Are preferences stable over time? Are they complete? Should we take them as they are when evaluating welfare? And so on…). However, Sen and the others have pointed out that even when we act upon our preferences, we may not be happy about it. An extreme case is smokers who would like to quit. And here meta-preferences come in as an explanation – sometimes, we would like to have a different preference ranking than the one that we actually have and/or act upon, but some internal or external forces prevent us from it. The smoker keeps acting upon their preference ranking where „smoking“ is right at the top, even though they’d prefer not experiencing the craving for a smoke.

Now, what does the concept of meta-preferences add to the „good farmer“? It may help our understanding if there is a mismatch between the prevalent social identity, the ideal of a „good farmer“, and actual farming practice. Most of the „good farmer“ literature focuses on how the social identity drives behaviour, rather than on what may prevent it from doing so. In the sense of meta-preferences, the preferences of the „good farmer“ are the preference ranking at the top of a farmers meta-preference ranking. But they may still act differently due to many different reasons – social pressure (e.g. from family members), path dependencies (e.g. the inherited farming infrastructure), external forces (e.g. lack of demand for the crops one would like to grow or contradictory regulations) etc. Therefore, I think that applying the „good farmer“ concept in combination with meta-preferences would increase the former’s explanatory value, while also bringing it conceptually closer to what economists are used to think in terms of (though, admittedly, I expect few economists to actually know the concept of meta-preferences).

Of course, there are even more similarly interesting concepts that could add here to expand our understanding of farmers‘ environmentally relevant behaviour, including for instance beliefs (about the likely consequences of particular actions) and social dilemmas (given that many agri-environmental problems are collective action problems). But let’s discuss these another time.

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