Developing a Holistic Approach to the Analysis of Farmer Decision-making: Implications for Adaptation Policy and Practice in Developing Countries

Chandni Singh, Peter Dorward and Henny Osbahr  |  June 2016


Smallholder farmers operate within a risky and uncertain context. In addition to climate variability and climate change, social, environmental, institutional, and market-related dynamics affect their agricultural decisions and ability to cope and adapt. In this paper, we develop and apply a set of framing questions to investigate the factors shaping farmer decision-making and how these are situated in pathways of response. Drawing on a literature review of decision-making for risk management, five questions are posed to frame enquiry: what livelihood decisions are undertaken by households, who makes what decisions, when do households make decisions and why do they make them, and how do decision making processes evolve and response pathways arise. This approach conceptualises and explores household decision-making in a holistic manner, moving beyond previous studies that examine smallholder decisions through disciplinary boundaries (e.g., psychology, economics, risk management) or particular theoretical approaches (e.g., bounded rationality, theory of planned behaviour). The framing questions together with key insights from literature are used to design and interpret empirical evidence from Pratapgarh, a tribal-dominated rainfed district in southeast Rajasthan, India. The findings suggest that while resource ownership and access are the main drivers of decision-making, socio-cognitive factors such as perceived adaptive capacity and perceived efficacy to carry out adaptive actions are equally important factors mediating farmer responses. We also find that the holistic approach helps explain how personal motivations and individual perceptions of adaptive capacity interact with socioeconomic, climatic, and agro-ecological dynamics at local and regional scales to mediate risk perception and inform response behaviour. A typology of response pathways demonstrates how different households’ trajectories are determined. Making a case for mixed methods to investigate farmer decision-making holistically, this paper provides an approach that reflects the complex and iterative nature of real farmer decision-making and can be used by researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to better understand and describe decision making and to develop informed policies and interventions.