In his seminal book, Peasants, Eric Wolf explains that peasants are “those large segments of mankind which stand midway between the primitive tribe and industrial society. “Wolf’s book is a tour-de-force explanation of who peasants are, as well as a 1960s state-of-the-art statement about what had become one of the more important classificatory categories in anthropology.
Peasants are generally considered to be farmers who sell their surplus in the market. How this surplus enters the market, conceived of broadly, can be in the form of hard goods directed at a marketplace, the payment of rent to a landlord, the payment of taxes to the government, or various combinations of these. Peasants are semi-self-sufficient, meaning they reproduce most but not all of their subsistence needs. In order to fulfill their basic needs they enter the marketplace, where they sell their surplus agricultural products and other crafts produced by members of the household. Peasants are members of states that, through various forms of coercion, also draw them into capitalist markets. However, as Wolf notes, peasants tend to be conservative and resist proletarianization.
From the beginning, anthropological studies of peasants have been concerned with the description of peasants—their life-ways and economic practices—and with the utility of the category itself. Since Redfield’s description of peasant life in Tepoztlan, Mexico, the concept has undergone numerous changes and continues to prompt new theoretical debates. Redfield’s ethnographic work in central Mexico and later in Yucatan awkwardly identifies his subjects not as peasants but as tribal people. He locates them on a primitive-civilized continuum that often overlooks their relationship to the state and to the capitalist economy. His student, Sol Tax, was one of the first anthropologists to correct this perception of indigenous people in Mexico and Guatemala by making the argument that they were not tribal people but farmers and members of states. Moreover, he recognized that the basic unit of production is at the level of household, not individual. Such observations anticipated the later theoretical and analytical work of anthropologists, such as Enrique Mayer, June Nash, James Scott, and Eric Wolf.
Peasants did not become a major focus of anthropological study until after World War II, when it was apparent that “primitive” and “tribal” were inadequate classificatory terms for many peoples around the globe. The interest in peasants related to the emerging crisis that the primary object of anthropological study, the primitive, was disappearing, and to the direction anthropological research had turned in order to explain this cultural change and the relationship of the state to “traditional” peoples. After the war, there was greater awareness on the part of anthropologists to conceive of all people as part of states and global economic systems, not as isolated groups.
As long as states have existed, so have peasants. Most anthropological research on peasant economics and on peasants as members of states has been influenced by Marxist theoretical perspectives, namely, that of Lenin and Chayanov. For Marx and his later followers, peasants are problematic. Because of their conservative tendencies to preserve their lifestyle, it was not clear with whom they would ally themselves— the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. Marx believed that eventually capitalism would destroy the peasant lifestyle, since it is incompatible with industrialization, and that most peasants would become proletarians.
Lenin postulated that industrialization could come from within an agrarian-based society though labor surpluses within the rural population and through market surpluses, which were necessary to feed the growing proletariat. As land became scarcer—something the state could control by encouraging privatization of land and altering traditional land tenancy systems—more peasants would be forced into the labor market. However, as the proletariat increased, the demand for food products would increase, which could only happen with the further capitalization of agriculture. Hence, while a few rich peasants transformed into landowners who hired wage-laborers, most peasants would become the laborers who worked for wages. Effectively, the household-based economic unit of peasants would be replaced by a class-based industrial system, where individuals sold their labor.
What Lenin did not recognize was that such transitions to capitalistic industrial farms were not compatible to all political and economic contexts. In Latin America, states have given concessions to peasants— land itself, support of communal land tenure systems, price protection of subsistence crops—which allowed them to maintain their lifestyle, in order to gain their political support. Even though land ownership continued to consolidate in places like Mexico and Southeast Asia, landlords still provided their workers with plots of land for them to cultivate. This inhibited the complete proletarianization of the peasantry. In Asia and Korea, for example, the landlord class, which had the potential to transform the peasant economy into a wage-based one, was destroyed by their Japanese occupiers, allowing peasants to maintain their household-based economic system.
Chayanov challenged Lenin’s perspectives on peasants. He believed that Lenin missed the true nature of peasants. For example, he contended that peasants were not per se opposed to or incompatible with capitalism. They provided surplus labor at times and sold their surplus products in the market. Lenin’s theory is flawed because it disregarded the ways in which peasants economically maintained their households. According to Chayanov, the peasant household was not capitalistic, but based exchange on use value. Families work to provide for a basic livelihood, which did not mean they maximized production or were profit oriented. Because of this, individual peasants and peasant households do not behave like proletarians and capitalistic firms. Instead, they balance labor with consumption. Household members work to fulfill needs, but because of the drudgery of the work, they do not strive to increase surplus much beyond basic needs. Fewer working members of the household in relation to non-able-bodied workers meant that they work more than those in households where the worker to nonworker ratio was less. Furthermore, this household-based unit of production is incompatible with capitalism, because in order to maintain their basic minimum subsistence level, members in a peasant household will produce more, even if doing so results in lower prices. In contrast, this practice would ruin the capitalist firm.
Chayanov’s theories depend on the relative scarcity of land and lack of other employment options to absorb surplus labor. Also, they fail to take into consideration local cultural conditions about what constitutes appropriate consumption needs, nor do they consider the broader coercive mechanism of states and capitalistic markets. His theories, however, have inspired anthropologists. Marshall Sahlins began to think about domestic modes of production, and Eric Wolf began to think about the cultural conditions in which peasants replace those things necessary to their production and subsistence. June Nash has used Chayanovian theory to look at how capitalism has challenged domestic production in peasant households and contributed to gender conflicts.
Both Lenin and Chayanov challenged anthropologists to think about peasants’ relationship to the state. After World War II, a concern of First-World countries such as the United States was to help Third-World countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa to develop into comparable First-World countries. Anthropologists not only described the composition, and economic and cultural conditions, of peasant households, they were also concerned with how economic developments would positively and negatively affect peasants. When anthropologists observed that in societies with large peasant populations, the economic conditions did not improve—in fact, often worsened—they questioned the utility of development policies directed at these populations. They identified that peasants were drawn into exploitative systems, which undermined their traditional economic and cultural bases, while simultaneously incorporating them into a larger, global capitalist system in which their labor was further devalued and resulting in a greater market dependence.
Because such dire structural—economic and political—conditions have contributed to peasant revolts, peasant-supported revolutions, and other forms of resistance, anthropologists have studied what makes peasants engage in various forms of resistance, and why, more often than not, this resistance has not led to social and political change. Eric Wolf’s 1969 book, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century, outlines peasant participation in the main revolutions of the 20th century—Mexico, Russia, and others—to illustrate the conservativeness of peasants and the difficulty for peasant-based revolutions to lead toward meaningful social change. Peasants revolted, but usually in order to restore the status quo. In places where revolution led to real social change, Wolf notes that it is not the peasantry, but the proletariat, intellectual, and surviving bourgeoisie classes that guide the new direction that a country takes. Even so, this does not mean that peasants are passive and have no agency to resist. James Scott has contributed most to this line of research. Drawing on theories of hegemony and power, Scott’s ethnographic work highlights the everyday forms of resistance of peasants in Southeast Asia. His influential research shows how peasants find the means to resist the state and landlords, from foot-dragging to sabotaging harvests, and construct critical counter-discourses that evade repressive policies and mechanisms of control.
Contemporary anthropological studies of peasants have gone in three primary directions: the continued existence of peasants, the demise of peasants, and the emergence of the term peasant as a category of self-identification and political identity. Enrique Mayer is the leading proponent of the belief that peasants persist and are able to reproduce their ways of life, despite the effects of late-capitalism and neoliberal policies. He argues that theoretical models and ideal typologies of peasants can be misleading, and are not reflected in the lived realities of those people. Instead of arguing that recent and current economic and political conditions have undermined peasants and caused them to disappear, he shows how Peruvian peasants since pre-Columbian times have adapted to Inca, Spanish Colonial, and Peruvian national political changes, as well as accompanying economic changes like the development of commodity markets and neoliberalism.
Michael Kearney takes the opposite perspective, arguing that late-capitalist economic conditions have contributed to the end of the peasant lifestyle. Based on his research in Oaxaca and in California with Zapotec and Mixtec transnational migrants, he contends that, as a classificatory term for contemporary people, the term peasant has little utility. He offers evidence that former Mexican peasants are changing into wage-earning laborers who crisscross international borders in search of work. No longer can peasants sustain themselves in this period of late-Capitalism. It has ruptured the basic unit of peasant production— the household, taking former peasants away from agricultural-based subsistence strategies in which they strived for self-sufficiency, and thrusting these people into a global commodity and labor market that can alienate them from their home, community, and cultural traditions. Even when they maintain cultural traditions and stay connected to their communities of origin, the context in which they do so is profoundly altered from when they were peasants.
Marc Edelman, in contrast, does not engage so much in debates about the empirical existence of peasants or the categorical significance or insignificance of peasants. In his research on Costa Rican coffee growers and workers, Edelman observes that his subjects use the term peasant as a type of political identity. It becomes an important way for these growers and workers to politically position themselves against large transnational coffee companies and the government, to oppose international trade agreements and unfair purchasing practices, and to attract the support of non-governmental aid organizations. What is significant is that these growers and workers call themselves peasants.
Although peasant studies do not figure prominently in anthropological research in the early 21st century, peasants and the very concept of “peasant” continue to attract anthropological inquiry and stimulate theoretical debates about classificatory terms, agency, political identity, and even modernity.
- Chayanov, A. V. (1966). The theory of peasant economy. D. Thorner, B. Kerblay, & R. E. F. Smith (Eds.). Homewood, IL: Irwin.
- Cook, S. (2004). Understanding commodity cultures: Explorations in economic anthropology with case studies from Mexico. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
- Durrenberger, E. P. (Ed.). (1984). Chayanov, peasants, and economic anthropology. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
- Edelman, M. (1999). Peasants against globalization: Rural social movements in Costa Rica. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
- Kearney, M. (1996). Reconceptualizing the peasantry: Anthropology in global perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Mayer, E. (2002). The articulated peasant: Household economies in the Andes. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Scott, J. (1985). Weapons of the weak: Everyday forms of peasant resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Wolf, E. (1966). Peasants. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.