Q.H. Nguyen

University of Bonn, Center for Development Research (GERMANY)
Under shifting development paradigms, the agricultural and rural development of many countries including Vietnam has undergone critical transformations particularly within the umbrella of ‘participatory’ and sustainability. In the Mekong Delta (MD), the most productive agriculture region in Vietnam, a participatory approach has recently been promoted in agricultural extension work. Also, a number of well-organised educational projects combining global and local efforts such as integrated pest management (IPM) have for long been conducted to help farmers better manage their farms and natural resources. Preliminary outcomes of our one-year (April 2010-11) field-research in the MD suggested that the alternatives have not sustained in local communities: local extensionists commented that participatory extension was a more interactive method with farmers but could hardly be operationalised without sufficient time and financial allocation; whereas many farmers who had attended field-based learning forgot or even misconceived IPM central ideas and returned to their old habits of insecticide overuse after a pest outbreak. Previous research on the subjects accordingly proposes repeated training or mobilised supporting resources as solutions.
Against this background and based on the two aforementioned cases illustrating liminal states local knowledge users inhabit, this paper investigates knowledge acquisition for sustainable agriculture within the threshold concept research. A threshold concept is described as akin to a ‘portal’, opening up the learner’s internally transformed way of thinking and practising within disciplines (Meyer and Land 2003). A two-round internet-based Delphi survey of 16 principal researchers from the MD was employed to identify and rank threshold concepts in two discipline clusters: agricultural extension (case 1) and pest management (case 2). Most of the respondents maintain the dual-profession of knowledge creators (academic, governmental or corporate researchers specialised in entomology, soil science, agronomy and agricultural extension) and knowledge disseminators (for the rural community development). The survey results report that besides recognised threshold concepts including participatory extension (case 1) and economic threshold, IPM (case 2) that originate from the scientific community and global development discourse, others such as farmers are experts (case 1) or care (case 2) are developed from the researcher’s life experiences and practical engagements in locally specialised conditions. Further our interview data with local farmers who make progress in IPM application largely back up the importance and comprehensibility of an everyday threshold concept like care rather than science-reliant IPM though the two are believed to share and complement meanings that can create changes in farmer’s pest management.
It is highlighted from our findings that ‘core’ concepts should be emphasised to assist those who get ‘stuck’ in learning to practise participatory and sustainable development and that threshold concept discovery should be a joint-journey of global-local, trainer-trainee and science-everyday knowledge. The paper thus contributes to the growing research body of threshold concepts by integrating the ontological dimension, the level of social interaction in knowledge creation, into the current framework that primarily concentrates on epistemological discussions - a direction that invites further research.