CIP’s remembered ancestors still relevant today: Robert Rhoades, agricultural anthropologist (1942–2010)

Rhoades worked with farmers to learn their understanding of and approaches to technology.

Scientists build on the evidence of their peers, passing it on, improving their methodologies and creating new solutions from old ones. And every so often a scientist changes the mould of thinking, establishing ideas that shape a generation. Robert Rhoades was one of those.

He joined the International Potato Center (CIP) in 1979 at its headquarters in Lima, Peru. Robert was only the second anthropologist to work at CIP, which at the time of his arrival was primarily staffed by biophysical scientists. His influence on the organization was immense as he added diversity to CIP’s methodological approaches, building a foundation for participatory studies and interdisciplinary research that still influences its research agenda today.

In March 2021, at the annual conference for the Society for Applied Anthropology, a special session was held on the 10th anniversary of Rhoades’ death to commemorate his many contributions to agricultural research.[1] In the opening message, Dr. Oscar Ortiz, CIP’s Deputy Director General for Research said, “Historically, agricultural research organizations have been using exclusively quantitative research methods. Bob, however, emphasized the value of qualitative research methods. His work inspired future interdisciplinary and participatory research work, not only at CIP but also in other CGIAR centers and more broadly in international agricultural communities.”

Rhoades brought radical changes to CIP’s approaches to research such as having field-based interdisciplinary teams learning from farmers, working with those farmers and co-developing solutions to the problems they identified.  In his seminal paper, “Farmer-back-to-farmer: a model for generating acceptable agricultural technology,” Rhoades demonstrated that finding an appropriate agricultural technology is best determined by starting from what farmers already know. These ideas were tested in Peru’s Mantaro Valley with groundbreaking research around improved potato seed storage methods based on farmers’ actual practices. At the time, Rhoades’ ‘Farmer-back-to-Farmer’ model contrasted sharply with the prevailing approach of top-down technology transfer from researchers to extensionists to farmers.

Rhoades strongly supported the adoption of the food system concept by CIP and the CGIAR, shifting the focus from the (usually adult male) farmer toward an understanding of the agricultural household as a unit of production, as well as a unit of food and seed storage, food processing, and food consumption.

Gordon Prain, the third anthropologist at CIP, who worked with Rhoades in the late 1980s in Peru, remembers his work style in the field: “Bob adopted the unhurried, methodical rhythm of rural life in the interviews he and team members conducted. He made sure the team’s attention was on the household members and not on each other. He wanted to hear from those in the household with the practical experience, not the household head’s ‘official’ knowledge.”

On the topic of potato seed storage, Rhoades wanted to hear from women, because they were the guardians of the stored seed. His approach was later applied for developing the ideas of in-situ, rather than ex-situ, conservation of crop genetic resources.

As CIP celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Rhoades work maintains important relevance to the organization’s research and its transition to the One CGIAR. Graham Thiele, an anthropologist and Director for CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas said, “It would be great for CIP scientists to know about our eminent ancestor, Bob. There are many lessons for our work today around practical experience of learning from working side-by-side with farmers and paying careful attention to what they do. We shouldn’t lose sight of this [approach] as we introduce new technologies and work with virtual platforms which may make us more remote from our actual clients.” Nozomi Kawarazuka, a CIP anthropologist said, “I am very proud of working at CIP which strongly values qualitative research and interdisciplinary research built on Bob’s passion and principles.”

Agricultural research today has changed dramatically from the 1970s and 80s when Rhoades worked at CIP. Plant breeding is increasingly supported by molecular biology and there is greater capacity to fine-tune varietal development and other agricultural technologies to different user groups. Similarly, CIP’s anthropology and other social sciences have evolved further to critically explore gender norms and relations in regard to access to resources and adaptation to change that have various consequences across social groups. With the emergence of the COVID-19, new information and communication technologies have been required to register quantitative responses of farmers to agricultural innovations.  But none of these changes will eliminate the fundamental requirement, pioneered Rhoades, that agricultural research engage directly with women and men members of farming households.


For further reading:

Kawarazuka, N. et al. (2021). “The evolution of the legacy of Robert Rhoades’ work at the International Potato Center (CIP).” Presentation at the annual conference for the Society for Applied Anthropology, 23 March 2021.

Ortiz, O et al. (2020). “Participatory Research (PR) at CIP with Potato Farming Systems in the Andes: Evolution and Prospects.” In The Potato Crop, pp. 451-473. Springer, Cham.

Rhoades, R.E. and Booth, R. H. (1982). Farmer-back-to-farmer: a model for generating acceptable agricultural technology. Agricultural administration, 11(2):127-137.

Rhoades, R.E. (2007). Listening to the mountains. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company

Riley, K. W., Mateo, N., Hawtin, G. C., & Yadav, R. (1990). International Workshop on Mountain Agriculture and Crop Genetic Resources, Feb. 16-19 1987, Kathmandu, Nepal. Oxford & IBH Publishing, New Delhi, IN.

[1] The actual 10th anniversary and conference were postponed due to COVID-19.