Most citizens in modern societies have little personal knowledge or experience of animal farming. This study explores the social construction of animal farming by studying how citizens perceive and evaluate modern farming after visiting a farm in real life. We wanted to understand how (non-farming) citizens develop an opinion of modern dairy farming when experiencing dairy farming in real life and practice, and how they translate what they see, smell and feel into an evaluative perception and mental image. We therefore conducted dairy farm visits with citizen panels in Norway and the Netherlands and asked the panel members to register what they saw, heard, smelled and felt and what they appreciated (or not) on the farm. The aspects that respondents registered could be grouped into four themes: the animals and their products, the rural landscape, farm practices and the farmer. When respondents described their experiences of these aspects on a specific farm, they appeared to look at them from three angles: modernity, tradition and naturality. Most respondents wanted farms to be modern, traditional as well as natural, but they were ready to negotiate and to accept compromises. Many respondents considered the farmer to be responsible for reconciling modernity, tradition and naturality. By taking different topics and issues into account and looking at animal farms from multiple angles, the respondents’ developed a balanced and nuanced opinion of animal farming. The image that they constructed was not dualistic (arcadia versus factory) but pluralistic, thus at the same time more complex but also more flexible than expected. We expect that the development of a pluralistic image and balanced opinion was facilitated through the direct experience of dairy farming and farm life.
The article starts with a theoretical analysis and aims to contribute to recent debates in rural sociology in two ways: 1) it studies how material experience and mental perception interact in the construction of an evaluative image of animal farming; and 2) it explores the social construction of animal farming as embedded into to the construction of nature, rurality and human-animal relationships. It concludes by discussing the contribution of the findings to the ongoing theoretical debate in this field.
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