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Operationalizing agency in livelihoods research: smallholder farming livelihoods in southwest Ethiopia

Aisa O. Manlosa, Social Sciences Department, Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT)


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Livelihoods are activities and practices in which social and environmental factors interlink, and they play a key role in achieving human well-being and environmental conservation. Livelihood analyses are therefore important to social-ecological systems research. With a few exceptions, however, the concept of agency has been largely missing in research applying the social-ecological systems approach. This is an important gap to address, because humans are not passive victims of broader sociopolitical trends and environmental changes, but rather play causative roles that shape history. This paper presents a conceptual framework that enables the explicit integration of agency into livelihood analyses, and is useful for examining the extent to which livelihoods enable people to be agents of their own well-being, and stewards of their environment. The framework has four pillars of agency: preconditions (referring to capital assets and resources, or CARs); processes (feedbacks and dynamics); power (the social and political fabrics, and relations in which livelihoods are embedded); and possibilities (the extent to which a present livelihood expands into future options, and builds the ability to act on options). The framework is then applied to a case study analyzing smallholder farming livelihoods and food security in southwest Ethiopia. The case study is based on empirical work involving quantitative survey, in-depth interviews, and focus-group discussions. This paper demonstrates the applicability of the framework to identifying agency constraints in smallholder farming, and helps determine areas where agency can be further strengthened. Beyond the case study, the framework may also be applied in other contexts and to other livelihood types. Its application can strengthen the contribution of livelihood analysis to social-ecological systems research by providing a way to operationalize and foreground agency.

Key words

agency; agriculture; empowerment; livelihoods; social-ecological systems approach; sustainability

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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087