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Abstract

Engineering new networks between state agencies, farmers and other actors is central to contemporary agri-environmental policy. This article examines relationships between network membership, identity and changes in farming practice from the perspective of three different conceptualisations of social networks. These include social network analysis, the network society thesis and actor-network theory. Despite their common reliance on the metaphor of ‘networks’ to focus sociological analysis, these approaches are based on divergent ontological assumptions and suggest a number of different research foci. The paper finds that while social networks embedded in group membership and interactions among farmers appear to have had dramatic impacts on the expression of personal and group identities – particularly in relation to women – their impact on the adoption of more overtly environmentally sound farming practices has been limited in several important ways. By contrast, less visible relationships of knowledge and expertise that extend beyond the co-present interactions of producers appear to shape farming identities and practices ‘at a distance’, in ways that contribute to the limited impact of agri-environment group membership.