Dissertation Abstracts

Connecting through relations and stories. Integration in inter-organisational agri-food networks

Author: Kirsten Vanderplanken, kirsten.vanderplanken@gmail.com
Department: Sociology
University: University of Antwerp, Belgium
Supervisor: Ilse Loots
Year of completion: 2017
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: inter-organisational networks , agri-food , social network analysis , qualitative research
Areas of Research: Organization , Agriculture and Food , Visual Sociology


Contemporary agri-food systems have developed intricate organisational structures and are confronted with complex challenges such as market liberalisation, food safety, and the dominance of industry and retailers. To address these challenges, collective efforts and solutions are required. Against this background, inter-organisational networks (i.e. groups of three or more organisations that are connected in ways that facilitate the achievement of a common goal) are considered an adequate solution. The development, functioning and management of inter-organisational agri-food networks, however, is often shrouded in complexity. The disparate activities, efforts, beliefs, perceptions and objectives of individual organisations need to be unified in order to achieve the common goal. Integration is indispensable in this regard. Integration refers to relational patterns as well as feelings of belonging, commitment and identification. To operationalise this definition, five interconnected network domains are distinguished that collectively shape integration: network structure, network geography, roles, culture and governance. Since traditional network approaches tend to focus on measuring network structure, they are not suited to study network integration in this way. Therefore, a qualitative approach to social network analysis was developed. By applying the method in single and comparative case study research, valuable insights are gained that have implications for theory, methodology and practice. Overall, the functioning and integration of inter-organisational networks necessitate sensible and strategic choices in all five domains. It is important to recognise that there is no standard solution or network design. There is no one optimal network structure, geography, role division, culture or governance structure. Inter-organisational networks take different forms depending on their aims and objectives, implying that interventions aimed at triggering integration must be tailored to the specific network. Possible interventions include facilitating interactions between network members, developing local alliances, assigning roles to network members, culture management and shared ownership.