Rachel Bezner Kerr

Associate Professor of Development Sociology, Cornell University

My research interests converge on the broad themes of sustainable agriculture, food security, health, nutrition and social inequalities, with a primary focus in southern Africa.

Research Focus
I have four major areas of research: 1) historical, political and social roots of the food system in northern Malawi; 2) sustainable agriculture, food security and social processes in rural Africa; 3) social relations linked to health and nutritional outcomes and 4) local knowledge and climate change adaptation. My general approach to food systems has been holistic, interdisciplinary and collaborative, drawing from both the natural and social sciences. I examine the social relations and processes that interact with environmental, political and economic processes within food systems. I often collaborate with researchers in different disciplines, including those working in agricultural and nutritional science, public health and ecology. Most of my research is also applied, community-based and participatory, involving local organizations and community members addressing ways to develop a sustainable food system. I use principles from participatory action research and integrate local knowledge and perspectives into my research. In my work I pay attention to different scales of a problem, as well as the historical roots that shape contemporary realities, drawing on political ecology theory. I also study discursive framings of food issues, using post-structural and feminist theory for this approach. Concepts drawn from agroecology, public health and international nutrition have also been important in my research. A major theme of my work is a deeper understanding of the historical, political, economic and social dimensions of agricultural practices and policies in southern Africa.My long-term collaborative research project has shown evidence-based improvement in nutrition, food security and soil management in Malawi.

Outreach and Extension Focus
I have three major goals for my extension and outreach work: 1) to share, learn from and enhance information for those groups most immediately affected by my research findings (e.g. rural farming families in northern Malawi); 2) to disseminate my findings to government agencies and non-governmental organizations who might conduct related community work or integrate the findings into policy outcomes; 3) to share my research with the broader North American public, in order to increase knowledge and understanding of food and agricultural issues and to foster change in our food system in North America. In order to meet these three goals, I participate in the publication of relevant materials (e.g. pamphlets, handouts), take part in as many opportunities for public speaking events as possible, develop documents that are relevant and timely for policy-makers, and meet with relevant organizations and government officials where possible. I also travel to Malawi at least twice a year and help to organize and facilitate workshops with smallholder farmers and hospital staff regarding ongoing research findings, relevant international development topics and at times capacity-building, for example, in research methods. I use the ‘transformational’ approach to educational materials, rather than an ‘information transmission’ model – that is, I assume that it is not a one-way direction of ‘spreading’ information, but rather, I share, learn from, and adapt information based on the specific experience of those affected by the information. Part of my ongoing research project in Malawi involves developing agricultural and nutrition education approaches that take into account my research findings on social dynamics. I also maintain a public website for our non-governmental organization in Malawi, and participate in any media opportunities related to my work when possible.

Teaching Focus
My overall goal is to foster critical thinking and a passion for learning that goes beyond the classroom and sparks a lifetime of concern and interest in the world. My teaching philosophy fosters critical thinking, encourages active student participation, has high expectations of students, and teaches material in creative and interesting ways. I believe that students bring valuable perspectives to the material, and the work of teaching must reflect the positive tension between established ideas, and new ways of critiquing received wisdom. I think that University-level teaching is both a privilege and a significant responsibility, involving mentoring and supporting students as they develop skills for future employment, learning and life in the broader global community.

Experience

  • 2013–present
    Associate Professor of Development Sociology, Cornell University