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Human Capital Theory and the Defectology of Aspirations in Policy Research on Rural Youth


This article turns a sceptical eye on policy studies of youth aspirations, and specifically the reported aspirations of the world’s rural youth for mobility from farming to non-farming, and rural to non-rural futures. Four large-scale multi-country studies on young people’s aspirations are reviewed, and compared with the findings of more detailed, in-depth, local studies. Aspirations, it is argued, are viewed (and researched) much too simplistically in the policy world. Examples from many parts of the world suggest a need for caution about prevailing narratives that ‘rural youth today are not interested in farming futures’. They underline the importance of a life-course and generational perspective on young people’s aspirations and their mobility out of, and perhaps later back into, farming.


Cet article jette un regard sceptique sur les études politiques portant sur les aspirations des jeunes, et en particulier sur les aspirations que l’on rapporte des jeunes ruraux dans le monde, qui chercheraient à quitter le monde agricole et le monde rural pour un avenir non-agricole et non-rural. Quatre études multinationales à grande échelle sur les aspirations des jeunes sont passées en revue et sont comparées aux résultats d'études locales plus détaillées et approfondies. L’on soutient que les aspirations sont envisagées (et étudiées) de façon beaucoup trop simpliste dans le monde politique. Des exemples provenant de nombreuses parties du monde suggèrent qu’il faut être prudent quant aux discours dominants selon lesquels «les jeunes ruraux d'aujourd'hui ne sont pas intéressées par l'avenir agricole». Ils soulignent l'importance de garder en tête une perspective générationnelle qui suit le cours de la vie lorsque l’on considère les aspirations des jeunes et leur mobilité pour quitter l’agriculture, et peut-être plus tard, la retrouver.

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  1. 1.

    FAO: the UN Food and Agricultural Organization. IFAD: the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

  2. 2.

    Despite the obvious links between the two themes (the future of family farming, and of rural youth), and that they originate from the same organization, the UN Decade documents don’t mention the IFAD Rural Youth report, and vice versa. A similar hiatus could be seen a decade earlier in the World Bank, whose 2007 World Development Report Development and the Next Generation hardly mentioned agriculture, while the 2008 World Development Report Agriculture for Development hardly mentioned youth (World Bank 2006, 2007). The two teams of specialists may be aware of each other’s existence, but do not seem to communicate, like ships passing in the night.

  3. 3.

    By ‘defectology’ I mean the tendency to ascribe problems experienced by a particular social group to their individual shortcomings, rather than to larger structural forces and constraints in their environment.

  4. 4.

    ‘Farm heads’ are the (self-reported) primary managers of the farm in farming households.

  5. 5.

    McClelland’s theory of achievement motivation was famously de-bunked by Andre Gunder Frank (1971, pp. 45–53).

  6. 6.

    Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia, Guatemala, Bolivia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Viet Nam.

  7. 7.

    It is not clear how many individual interviews and how many FGDs were conducted, or how the groups were composed. I have not been able to locate more detailed information on the methodology of this study.

  8. 8.

    India, Mali, Malawi, Morocco, Mexico, Nigeria and the Philippines.

  9. 9.

    The research project Becoming a young farmer: young people's pathways into farming in four countries (China, Canada, India and Indonesia) is funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

  10. 10.

    With one small exception: the UNDFF report The Future of Family Farming in the Context of the 2030 Agenda has one brief mention of ‘the prevailing political economic structures that tend to bias food production and marketing towards large private companies in food systems. The latter aspect underpins a situation where family farmers in some contexts have their tenure rights to land and other natural resources impinged upon, with large industrial farms expanding the share of farmland and other natural resources under their control in many parts of the world’ (FAO-IFAD 2019b, p. 6).


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White, B. Human Capital Theory and the Defectology of Aspirations in Policy Research on Rural Youth. Eur J Dev Res 33, 54–70 (2021).

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  • Human capital theory
  • Rural youth
  • Aspirations
  • Agriculture