Doctoral Dissertation Research: Maize Cultivation and the Politics of Agricultural Modernization

Project: Research project

Project Details


This doctoral dissertation research project will focus on the complex relationship between agricultural modernization and tradition by studying the practices and perceptions of three key categories of actors in central Mexico. Agricultural modernization (the process of intensifying agricultural production through mechanization, chemical inputs, and high-yield crop varieties) has been a top priority of governments and development agencies around the world since the Green Revolution. Mexican research organizations dedicated to breeding high-yield maize varieties have become world leaders in the development and dissemination of modernized maize technologies since their founding in the 1940s. These programs have had limited success, however, in stimulating the adoption of such technologies among Mexican farmers. Despite decades of government policies promoting high-yield maize, the overwhelming majority of maize farmers in Mexico continue to cultivate traditional varieties that they have bred themselves. Existing research on the persistence of traditional agricultural systems has concentrated on farmer perspectives, seeking to explain why they do or do not adopt modern maize varieties, to the exclusion of actors working within development institutions who likewise have a livelihood stake in the process of modernization. This project will explore how agricultural modernization is engaged and negotiated by agricultural scientists, extension agents, and small-scale maize farmers in the Central Highland region of Mexico. The doctoral student will seek answers to the following sets of research questions: (1) How do those involved in maize production directly and indirectly conceive of and engage particular development institutions, agricultural technologies and practices, and processes of agricultural change? (2) How do these relationships vary within and across livelihoods? (3) How do these relationships shape existing development institutions, and whose purposes do they serve as a result? Using a combination of oral histories, semi-structured interviews, and participant observation, the student will examine how participants' understandings of and motivations for engaging in particular agricultural practices and partnerships have developed over time. The student will determine whether actors working both inside and outside of development institutions engage in livelihood practices that subvert agricultural modernization in partial yet significant ways.

Project findings will provide insight into the overlapping effects of investment in modernizing agricultural systems and adherence to traditional cultivation methods by filling in gaps in basic understanding regarding the network of actors implicated in agricultural change. The project also will provide insights into the contingency of agricultural modernization in Mexico's Central Highlands, a region that hosts some of the world's foremost centers of maize research and is a global center of maize diversity. Greater understanding of the relational process through which development is negotiated will aid in the conservation of agricultural biodiversity and will increase the effectiveness of development policies designed to serve the needs of farmers in a region where maize cultivation is a source of food security, livelihood, and cultural identity. As a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement award, this award also will provide support to enable a promising student to establish a strong independent research career.

Effective start/end date8/15/121/31/14


  • National Science Foundation: $15,362.00


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