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Thursday 10 November 2022

Peasant and Peasantry in Anthropology



Peasant: 1

History of the usage: 1

Anthropological attention to Peasant study: 2

Continuum vs social category: 2

Characteristics of peasants in continuum model 3

Characteristics of peasants in peasant as a social category model: 3

Approaches: 3

Economic approach: or the specific economy approach. 3

Cultural approach: 4

Political approach: 4

Sources used: 5

Further readings. 6




Peasants are small-scale agricultural producers organized into households that rely on family labor in a subsistence-oriented economy that is nevertheless a part of a larger state system that extracts various forms of rent from the communities it controls.          

In peasant communities households are the basic units of production and of consumption. Such households depend overwhelmingly on members of the household, both adults and children, to provide the labor needed to run a peasant farm and participate in a variety of reciprocal labor arrangements during peak labor periods. Peasants try to avoid hiring regular outside laborers except during periods of planting or harvesting, when they serve to supplement the labor provided by household members. Characteristically, outside helpers are often treated as if they were members of the household, particularly in the case of servants or adopted children (Chayanyov 1966).

Teodor Shanin, defined peasantry as having “four essential and inter-linked facets”: The family farm as the basic multi-functional unit of social organisation, land husbandry  and usually animal rearing as the main means of livelihood, a specific traditional culture closely linked with the way of life of small rural communities and multi-directional subjection to powerful outsiders.[i]

History of the usage:

The word “peasant” appears in English in late medieval and early modern times, when it was used to refer to the rural poor, rural residents, serfs, agricultural laborers, and the “common” or “simple” people. As a verb in that period, “to peasant” meant to subjugate someone as a peasant is subjugated. Earlier Latin and Latinate forms (French, Castilian, Catalan, Occitan, etc.) date as far back as the sixth century and denoted a rural inhabitant, whether or not involved in agriculture. Very early on, both the English “peasant,” the French “paysan” and similar terms sometimes connoted “rustic,” “ignorant,” “stupid,” “crass” and “rude,” among many other pejorative terms.[ii]

The word could also imply criminality, as in thirteenth-century Germany where “‘peasant’ meant ‘villain, rustic, devil, robber, brigand and looter.”[iii] According to anthropologist George Dalton, “Peasants were legal, political, social, and economic inferiors in medieval Europe. The structured subordination of peasants to non-peasants was expressed in many ways, de jure and de facto, from restraints on their physical movement to sumptuary restrictions on what kinds of weapons, clothing and adornments they could wear and use, and foods they could legally consume.”[iv]


Anthropological attention to Peasant study:

Although Robert Redfield’s fieldwork in Mexico as early as 1926 is considered to be the first attempt to see peasant as an analytical category, the study of peasant or the use of the term peasant is quite old. Historians of medieval Europe, jurists and political theorists, Russian economists and 'rural statisticians' who carried out sophisticated peasant studies on a national scale, Eastern European ethnographers of folk-life, rural sociologists stimulated by LePlay to record family budgets, and others. These scholarly traditions produced a wealth of theory and data that has been discovered by

contemporary anthropology, but they do not constitute the historical back ground of the anthropology of peasantry. To the extent that they dealt with peasants, the point of reference of such traditions was specific peasant groups, usually the politically problematic peasantry of particular nations. The roots of the anthropological interest in peasants were elsewhere, in the comparative study of the human condition.

This comparative interest led anthropologists to do field studies in settlements of small-scale agriculturalists within civilized, state societies—and sometimes to refer to their subjects as 'peasants'—long before they treated peasants as an analytic category. The central issue to which the early studies were addressed was the nature of human communities; they were, first of all, village studies, and only incidentally studies of peasants. The earliest of these village descriptions, Redfield's Tepoztlan (1930), emerged out of a concern with the 'human ecology' of communities, which marked the school of urban sociology developed at the University of Chicago under the auspices of Redfield's father-in-law, Robert E. Park. During the 1930s this school, along with Robert and Helen

Lynd's ground-breaking work on Middletown (1929, 1937), and W. Lloyd Warner's early initiatives stimulated a number of studies of 'communities'— from metropolitan ghettoes to whole American towns and, small communities in other societies.           


During the 1960s and 1970s, peasants excited new interest among social scientists. Over the previous half century, peasant wars and revolutions—in Mexico, China, Algeria, and Vietnam, among other places—indicated that peasantries had become important political protagonists.[v]

Development imperatives in what was then widely termed the “Third World” required in-depth understanding of rural populations. East-West geopolitical competition and spreading anti-colonial struggles also fuelled concern about the peasantry, which was at the time and by almost any definition the majority of humankind.

Continuum vs social category:

Anthropologists’ early efforts to define peasants emphasized that peasantries emerged in order to provision the first cities and market towns. The category “peasant” was thus only meaningful in relation to a larger society that included non-peasants. Such definitions tended to be ample, often including rural artisans, fisherfolk, pastoralists and small-scale miners in addition to agriculturalists. Some scholars emphasized generic cultural or “folk” characteristics of peasants.[vi] These scholars are the generations of researchers inspired most notably by Robert Redfield’s Folk Urban Continuum. Redfield's formal statement on 'the folk society and culture,' as a comparative type apart from any specific cultural setting, appeared first in 1940— appropriately enough, in a volume edited by Louis Wirth. Publication of 'The Folk Society' in the American Journal of Sociology in 1947 then stimulated a

large literature (much of it critical) on folk-urban and rural-urban types and continua both in anthropology and in sociology. Later scholars would find a shift in terminology from 'folk' to 'peasant' an easy step to take; for instance, Foster commented in 1967 that when he had talked about 'folk' in his 1953 article 'What is Folk Culture?', in fact he was talking about 'peasants' [1967:4]. However, the term 'folk' addressed a specific set of interests, which are not identical to the range of interests encompassed by 'peasant' studies. Redfield's corpus of writing reveals consistent themes: recurrent references to 'life in' a place, 'the way of life,' and 'the good life'; a stress on values, meanings, and understandings; and a view of social relations primarily as a vehicle of communication of ideas. When he devotes himself specifically to social dimensions, he reveals an evaluative framework. The reader is left with no doubt about his preferences as between 'the folk society' and 'urbanism as a way of life,' and the social polarities in the folk-urban continuum carry explicit evaluations—clearly, organization is more valued than disorganization, sacred ways more than secular, group relationships more than individualized ones. The central interest of Redfield's work appears to be in the quality of life and the quality of human relations, as these are shaped in communities of different kinds and in different phases of the human career.

Characteristics of peasants in continuum model

Characteristics of peasants therefore according to Redfield include severalconsistent themes: recurrent references to 'life in' a place, 'the way of life,' and 'the good life'; a stress on values, meanings, and understandings; and a view of social relations primarily as a vehicle of communication of ideas.



Other scholars, notably Eric R. Wolf, sought to delineate social structural “types,” based on whether they had secure land rights or, alternatively, were tenants, sharecroppers or resident laborers on large properties. “Peasants” tended to be distinguished from “farmers,” since the former were said to aim at “subsistence” and produced cash crops primarily for survival and to maintain their social status rather than to invest and expand the scale of their operations, as was allegedly the case with the latter.[vii] In several widely separated zones of the world, such as in much of Latin America and Indonesia, peasants were found to be living in territorial “corporate communities” that barred membership to outsiders, held exclusive rights to land and systematically redistributed surplus wealth through obligatory ritual expenditures. Indeed, as David Mosse points out, “[a]lmost every region of the world that experienced colonial rule had some form of ‘government through community.’”[viii] These “closed” communities contrasted with others elsewhere in which residence was more open, property and market relations more fluid, and cash crop production more extensive.[ix]


Characteristics of peasants in peasant as a social category model:

Wolf further argued that peasants characteristically had to produce a “replacement fund” that provided a caloric minimum and assured biological reproduction; a “ceremonial fund” to support weddings, community festivals and other social responsibilities; and a “fund of rent” that consisted of wealth in labor, produce or money transferred to superordinate sectors, such as landlords, moneylenders, intermediaries, religious specialists, and tax collectors.


The most fundamental point about peasantry is the structural relationship between it and the rest ofsociety. This relationship, and the prevailing economic forces that impinge upon the countryside, have stamped certain qualities on the peasants and largely determine the underdog position in which they continue to live. We need, however, to move beyond this broad structural relationship to consider more closely both peasant culture and peasant economy. Following is a discussion of the major approaches to the study of peasantry.

Economic approach: or the specific economy approach

This approach views peasant social structure as being characterised by a specific type of economy, which is a kin-based small farm enterprise, highly autonomous and consumption-based. This in turn generates a typical peasant social structure and a /non-peasant dualism at the national level," The roots of this approach go back to Marx, but its main proponents are Chayanov (originally 1925, this edition 1966), and more recently the anthropologists Firth (1951) and M. Nash (1966), and the

geographer Franklin (1969) . In economic anthropology, some scholars have adopted a 'substantivist' approach which rejects the claim of 'formalists' that the conceptual framework developed by modern economics can be used to study any form of economy (to know more on formalist substantivist debate click here). In contrast, they emphasise that the economies of non-Western peasant or tribal societies have to be studied in their own right and that processes such as production, distribution and exchange should be seen in the context of these particular societies and their peculiar institu[1]tions . As Firth has noted, a 'production relationship is often only one facet of a social relationship. .. . Economic relations can be understood only as a part of a scheme of social relations." This is clearly true of the Andean peasantry: a number of scholars, such as Alberti and Mayer (1974) and Murra (1972) have shown how important the roles of reciprocity and redistribution are for understanding Andean peasant society over time and as it continues to function today. Reciprocity is of vital importance not only for understanding relations among peasants themselves.!" but also between peasants and mestizos'! and be[1]tween peasants and their deities."


Moreover, as the analysis of Gonzalez de Olarte (1984) shows clearly, the production and consumption behaviour of Andean peasants is explained partly by the semi-mercantile and non[1]capitalist character of communal production as well as the extreme poverty of the peasants. A 'communal economy' is characteristic of the peasantry, with the organisation of production and work being affected by a system of family interrelations that has a 'communal effect'. While economic benefits in production, income and well-being are gained that are higher than would accrue to peasant families that operated entirely individually, it is also true that the comunidad (community) as an organisation induces through its poverty a series of individual and collective behaviours and survival strategies (such as levelling devices) which reinforce tradition and the subsistence priorities of the family components. A logical consequence is the formation of restricted markets characterised by small volumes of merchandise traded.

Cultural approach:

This approach treats peasants as representatives of an archaic rural social order, the heirs of an earlier national tradition. Such societies, inherently conservative and traditional, are characterised by inertia and acculturate only slowly to Western and urban standards of rationality. Such an analysis often arises from developmentalists who focus on traditional obstacles to industrialisation and 'modernisation'. A number of well-known studies of peasantry use this approach. Erasmus (1968) concluded that peasantry disappeared only because great changes occurred in infrastructure and technology, permitting a transition from a 'paleotechnic ecotype" to a neotechnic (machine age) ecotype. In this transition process, the encogido personality syndrome (the timid and withdrawn personality of the 'passive peasant' who avoids persons of higher status except those who serve as culture or power brokers) becomes less common as a prominent type among rural lower classes; and the contrasting syndrome of the entron personality becomes more common. The entron person is aggressive, con[1]fident, achievement-oriented, extroverted and not opposed to making contacts with higher status individuals whose friendship will be to his advantage.

Another variant of this approach was offered by Foster (1965) as an explanation for the reluctance of peasants of Tzinzuntan, Western Mexico, actively to follow development-oriented strategies. In this corporate peasant community, the desirable things in life - whether land, money, livestock or women - existed only in finite quantities, and one could obtain the desired goods only at the expense of someone else. One person's gain is another's loss, and the person who appropriates more than his fair share of the 'limited good' is strongly criticised and condemned. This concept helps to explain the reluctance of peasants to innovate, to become achievement-oriented or to show more entrepreneurial spirit than their neighbours." Rogers's model of the 'sub-culture of peasantry'," derived from the work of various social scientists, also exhibits this approach. A sub-culture contains many elements of the broader culture of which it is a part, yet it is also characterised by other qualities that separate it from other sectors of the general culture. Peruvian peasants share many national characteristics with other , but as primarily subsistence farmers who have experienced poverty and exploitation over a long period, the Southern Andean people possess certain traits that make them members of a 'peasant culture' which transcends national boundaries.

Political approach:

This school ofthought, which usually employs a two-class model of society , studies the peasantry in terms of power relationships. Peasants are viewed as the suppressed and exploited producers of pre-capitalist society, and contemporary peasantry appears as a leftover from an earlier social formation, with its members being powerless to climb out of their position since they remain at the bottom of the social pyramid. In this approach the state is usually seen as representing and maintaining the position of the dominant class; state institutions fetter the majority of the masses, including the peasantry, in the historical development of the pre-capitalist and capitalist sys[1]tems. Powerlessness and productivity are the two key aspects of peasantry under such a definition. The peasants are dominated by powerful outsiders or minorities and their agricultural sur[1]pluses are expropriated by the ruling class, leading to repeated attempts at peasant revolt. The process of expropriation leads to accumulation of capital and creation of new class structures, culminating, it is believed, in the disappearance of both the old rural aristocracy and the peasantry as such."

In Peru the Marxist approach to the peasantry has been used to explain the exploitation of the Andean peasant by the local hacendados (estate owners), middlemen, government employees and the state bureaucracy. Many approaches in Peru and in Latin America draw on the seminal work of Wolf (1957 and 1966), which emphasises the structural position of the peasantry in relation to the rest ofsociety rather than dwelling on peasant culture. Wolf's analysis is not characteristically Marxist, but in identifying and emphasising the importance of power relationships in peasant societies he has made a major contribution. The relationship between the hacendado and the peasants is not purely economic: the patron is also a power broker who is expected to reciprocate with certain social obligations, from helping 'his people' avoid the draft to the armed services, to baptising their children. In the same way the economic surplus of peasants, whether in labour, produce or cash, is siphoned off by the local power structure in return for some small acts of reciprocity. Although peasants are quite aware of their dependency on the local power structure and the extreme asymmetrical nature of many such relationships, there is little they can do about it as they have few options available.

A variant of class domination and exploitation is the 'internal colonialism' thesis. This view suggests that relationships between regions such as the Andes and the dominant coastal region are similar to those between a colony and its metropolis.

Another variant is the 'triangle without a base' approach." The apex of each baseless triangle is the patron. He is not only sovereign in the local area because of the power he wields over his subordinates (peasants or serfs), but he also represents the essential link with the outside world from which all information is likely to come that might be used by the subordinates towards their own emancipation.

In such a baseless triangle the subordinate peasants are isolated and atomised. It is only where the base of the triangle is closed by alliances (when the subordinate populations become aware of their conditions of subordination and common class) that they achieve the means to enable them either to challenge the power of the patron, or to establish links with new , more beneficial patrones.


Sources used:

Sydel Silverman (1979) The peasant concept in anthropology, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 7:1, 49-69

Marc Edelman (2013). What is a peasant? What are peasantries?  A briefing paper on issues of definition. Graduate Centre, City University of New York

Watters, R.F. (1994). Approaches to the Peasantry. In: Poverty and Peasantry in Peru’s Southern Andes, 1963–90. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-12319-3_2

Barfield, T. (1997). The Dictionary of Anthropology. New York: Blackwell.


Further readings

[i] Teodor Shanin, “The Nature and Logic of the Peasant Economy 1: A Generalisation,” Journal of Peasant Studies 1, no. 1 (October 1973): 63–64

[ii] Oxford English Dictionary, “Peasant, N. and Adj.,” Oxford English Dictionary, 2005, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/139355?result=1&rskey=F232n4&

[iii] Jacques Le Goff and Edmund King, “The Town as an Agent of Civilisation, C. 1200-c. 1500,” in The Fontana Economic History of Europe: The Middle Ages, ed. Carlo M. Cipolla (London: Collins/Fontana, 1972), 71.

[iv] George Dalton, “Peasantries in Anthropology and History,” Current Anthropology 13, no. 3–4 (October 1972): 391.

[v] Eric R. Wolf, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper & Row, 1969)

[vi] Sydel Silverman, “The Peasant Concept in Anthropology,” Journal of Peasant Studies 7, no. 1 (1979): 49–69.

[vii] Eric R. Wolf, “Types of Latin American Peasantry: A Preliminary Discussion,” American Anthropologist 57, no. 3 (June 1955): 452–471.

[viii] David Mosse, “Collective Action, Common Property, and Social Capital in South India: An Anthropological Commentary,” in The Contested Commons: Conversations Between Economists and Anthropologists, ed. Pranab K. Bardhan and Isha Ray (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2008), 83.

[ix] Eric R Wolf, “Closed Corporate Peasant Communities in Mesoamerica and Central Java,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 13, no. 1 (Spring 1957): 1–18; Eric R. Wolf, “The Vicissitudes of the Closed Corporate Peasant Community,” American Ethnologist 13, no. 2 (May 1986): 325–329.

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