The IFSA Conference has new dates:

- 10 to 14 APRIL 2022 -

We thank you all for your understanding and look forward to welcoming you in Évora in 2022!

PhD Course

Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) in PhD Research

Registration for the course

If you want to participate in the course, please send an email to Ika Darnhofer, briefly (5-6 sentences) describing your background and what you expect from the course, i.e. how might it contribute to your research.

Contact: Ika Darnhofer

There will be a fee of 120 Euros for this course, in addition to the conference registration fee and your accommodation fee. All fees will be charged when you register for the IFSA conference:

14th IFSA Conference – Registration website

Through joining this course you will:

  • gain an overview of the intellectual traditions of Farming Systems Research and make links to the history of IFSA
  • strengthen your research through developing your understanding of systems theories and methodologies
  • have the opportunity to reflect on strengths and weaknesses of different systems approaches and methodologies in relation to your own PhD research
  • get added value from your participation in the conference at the Institute of Mediterranean Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in Évora by becoming part of a parallel critical learning systems community
  • critically review potential contributions of your research to help meet farming systems challenges, including climate change and resource challenges
  • develop an appreciation of multiple perspectives on contemporary issues across multiple disciplines
  • build and strengthen your personal networks within the research community

Core team designing the course and/or presenting in Évora

Chris Blackmore, Senior Lecturer at the Open University Applied Systems Thinking in Practice Group, UK

Ika Darnhofer, Associate Professor at the Univ. of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU), Austria

Ma Helena Guimarães, Researcher at the University of Évora, Portugal

Chris Kjeldsen, Senior Researcher at Aarhus University, Denmark

Teresa Pinto Correia, Professor at the University of Évora, Portugal

Nadarajah Sriskandarajah, Professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden

Full Details


Research has a key role to play in appreciating and knowing how to act in relation to climate change and resource challenges relating to farming, food, rural areas and environment. Farming Systems Research uses systems thinking to focus on particular systems of interest, to be able to make relevant connections, to work with multiple stakeholders and to contextualize research activities without becoming overwhelmed by potential complexity and uncertainty.
The contexts of: the increasingly complex and multifaceted issues of sustainability, water, food and soil security and climate change in relation to food and fibre production and consumption; the maintenance or enhancement of ecosystems services and the concomitant enhancement of rural livelihoods are particularly challenging for PhD research. These contexts are, however, a core part of the IFSA community’s experience.
The purpose of this course is to help you, the PhD student, develop your STiP skills in contextualizing your research, to make connections among issues using systems thinking and to so improve your ability to work both strategically and purposefully in relation to transformations. The course is also designed to help you build on what other researchers have done.


The course will be integrated with the 14th  European IFSA Conference and draw on the gathering of specialists and researchers within this field. Its design draws on tried and tested ways of experiential learning. The course will be grounded in examples, including your own and other students’ PhD work.

In your time in Évora you will participate in an inquiry with three main parts: before, during, and after the conference.

  1. Before coming to Évora, you will be asked to complete an assignment in which you describe and reflect on either (i) your understanding and use of system theories in your research; or (ii) the rationale you have followed, or would follow, in making a choice to include (or not) systems theories in your PhD research.
  2. In Évora, before the conference, the course will be offered in a workshop format consisting of a mixture of lecture inputs, group work, and student presentations. This part will start on Friday 10th July at 09:00 hrs and finish on Sunday 12nd March at 15:00 hrs.
  3. During the IFSA conference you will attend workshops of your own choosing. As part of the course, you will also have two evening sessions that will provide an opportunity for joint reflection and feedback as the conference progresses. You will work with other students to provide feedback to the conference at the IFSA2020 closing session on Thursday 16th
  4. After the conference, you and the other students will work in groups to recapitulate, and to reflect on possible improvements of your own PhD study design, or future research trajectory, linking it to systems thinking in practice. The course will end by 19:00 hrs on Thursday 16th

When planning your travel and accommodation, take into consideration that to successfully complete the PhD course, you need to be in Évora from early on 10th July until late on 16th July 2020.

An on-line platform (learn.boku.ac.at) will be used for uploading your assignments and for discussions between participants before, during, and after the conference.

Ties to the IFSA Conference

This PhD course will benefit strongly from the fact that many outstanding researchers within farming system approaches will be gathered at the Conference of the International Farming Systems Association (http://www.ifsa2020.uevora.pt/). Experienced researchers who have been a part of the IFSA community for many years will contribute to the PhD course.

They will include lectures and/or workshops that:

  • discuss experiences with using systems theories and methods, focusing on how they were used to purposefully make a contribution to farming, food, rural areas, and environment
  • explore how systems tools and methods were used to handle complexity and uncertainty
  • critically discuss the role of researchers
  • critically review the role of action, learning, and reflexivity
  • consider how system approaches can be applied in your own research situation

Literature for the course

Blackmore, Chris (Ed.) (2010). Social learning systems and communities of practice. Springer: London.

Darnhofer, Ika, David Gibbon and Benoit Dedieu (2012). The farming systems approach into the 21st  century: The new dynamic. Springer: Dordrecht.

Ison, Ray (2017). Systems practice: How to act in situations of uncertainty and complexity in a climate-change world. Springer: London.

Ramage, Manus and Karen Shipp (2009). Systems thinkers. Springer: London.

Reynolds, Martin and Sue Holwell (2010). Systems approaches to managing change: A practical guide. Springer: London.

Sriskandarajah, N., N. Giva, and H.P. Hansen (2016). bridging divides through spaces of change: action research for cultivating the commons in human-inhabited protected areas in Nicaragua and Mozambique. In: H.P. Hansen, B.S. Nielsen, N. Sriskandarajah, E. Gunnarsson (eds). Commons, sustainability, democratization: Action research and the basic renewal of society, Routledge.

Key reading material will be provided on the on-line platform (learn.boku.ac.at).

Course assessment

Upon completion a certificate for 4 ECTS will be issued by Aarhus University. To obtain the course certificate you will be required to:

  • complete the assignments before the course and after the conference
  • participate in the lectures and group discussions
  • participate in one or more of the workshops of the IFSA conference
  • work in a group and present a feedback at the closing session of the IFSA conference
  • after the conference, discuss improvements to your own PhD study, or future research trajectory design linking it to systems thinking and practice.