XIV World Congress of Rural Sociology: Debating peasantries, envisioning real utopias, and the all-important interdisciplinary perspective

Waiting for the opening talk of XIV World Congress of Rural Sociology

By Alanna Higgins

From the 10th to 14th of August, over 700 delegates met at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada for the XIV World Congress of Rural Sociology. The theme of the conference was “Sustainable and Just Rural Transitions: Connections and Complexities”; with 78 regular sessions and panels, excursions, and other events happening throughout the four days.

I attended the IRSA Conference to give a presentation entitled “Material Spaces, Political Practices, and Institutional Forms: The Institutionalization of Food Sovereignty in the United States” based on a paper I had been working on before starting at SUSPLACE. The paper looks at the interactions between various community groups and a city government organization with the city of Philadelphia along what alternative cultural, political, and environmental spaces they were creating within a food sovereignty context. While not directly concomitant with my SUSPLACE project – where I will be looking at the social economy of ‘alternative’ food initiatives and practices, focusing on allotment gardens, direct purchasing groups, and food sharing-  the paper and resulting discussions have allowed me to gain a better understanding of the spatial practices I intend to look at within the Latvian context.

Part of the Toronto skyline

This was only my second conference, so I was nervous! But it was a great way to get feedback from other presenters and attendees. I was able to talk with many different people not only about my paper, but my work in SUSPLACE. By attending talks about the rural-urban interface, the ‘tug-of-war’ between ecologizing and modernizing in the agri-food system, the policies and practices of rural sociology, and participatory/transdisciplinary/solidarity-based approaches for sustainable transformation I was able to help further the conceptualizations of my SUSPLACE project. Many of the presentations I attended dealt with spatial theories and social initiatives such as the ones I’m planning on looking at – I was even able to meet a woman from the US whose parents are Latvian and who did her PhD fieldwork in Latvia!

The Maple Leaf Gardens
The Maple Leaf Gardens

The ‘connections and complexities’ could be seen not only in the myriad of presentations, but the informal talks that happen throughout a conference. During coffee breaks, over lunch, or at dinner and drinks after a full day, you could hear people discussing issues surrounding things from rural housing to food sovereignty to radical community organizing. The opening plenaries echoed this with discussions surrounding a debate on 50 years of peasantries studies, a dialogue about NAFTA’s influences, round tables about the future direction of rural sociology, and Erik Olin Wright’s keynote on envisioning ‘real utopias’. The diversity of delegates also added to these conversations – not only were there numerous academic disciplines represented, but there were delegates from the Australasian Agri-food Research Network, the Asian Rural Sociology Association, the Latin American Rural Sociology Association, the European Society for Rural Sociology, and the Rural Sociological Society.

This congress also marked the first time that delegates from the African continent were present for discussions. Members from several universities were able to make it to Toronto (some with the assistance of IRSA through travel bursaries) to participate in the presentation sessions, as well as getting together to plan the beginnings of an African rural sociology association. It is also interesting to note that the opening talk (along with many group and individual presentations that came from Canada) started with a public recognition that we were sitting on land that formerly belonged to indigenous tribes of Canada.

The Stanley Cup at The Hockey Hall of Fame! A dream come true.

Even with the international scope of the research and attendees, the conference organizers made sure to give us a taste of Canada. The opening reception was in the historic Maple Leaf Gardens (a hockey lovers’ dream!), one of the films shown focused on the indigenous communities south of the Canadian Oil Sands, there were lots of suggestions for great local spots, and numerous community and government organizations from the Ontario province were present for the talks.

Attending IRSA was a fantastic experience – I was able to gain further presentation experience, listen to new and exciting research, learn new theories and methods, along with making new contacts while maintaining old ones. Not only was it a great academic experience, but a fantastic personal one as well! Despite being from the US, I had never been to Canada before and loved seeing ‘The Great White North’. I was also able to cross an item off my bucket list by visiting The Hockey Hall of Fame on my last day before flying off – something I’ve been dreaming of doing for over a decade!