A village is a relatively stable human community, in terms of location and composition, that is generally larger than a camp or dispersed hamlet but is smaller than a town or city. Some villages, however, only exist for a few months, as they represent a phase of an annual cycle (for example, the band villages of Kirghiz herders in central Asia). Although the term is commonly used for small agricultural communities, it can also be applied to communities that engage in fishing or other activities such as the production of handicrafts, or that have mixed economies; the latter, in fact, is increasingly the case in many parts of the world. Due to this diversity, it is not always easy to distinguish unequivocally a village from other types of communities.
Anthropologists have long debated the origin and growth of the village. Typical questions have been: Did the village arise because of settled agriculture with a degree of economic specialization, the advent of private proprietorship of land, growth of seigniorial power, or because of consolidation for mutual protection? Did some hamlets coalesce into villages while others did not? Until recently, the emergence of villages was regularly associated with the Neolithic Revolution (dated to about 10,000-12,000 years ago). The assumption, promoted by V. Gordon Childe’s work, was that humans became more sedentary as they moved from food collection to food production because settled agriculture and the domestication of animals require close contact with fields and herds. As a result, agriculture and village life were considered to go hand in hand. Today many archaeologists have parted company with this model as new research and restudies of former key sites, such as ((atalhoyuk, located in central Turkey and about 10,000 years old, point to a more nuanced and complex interpretation.
In southwest Asia, Natufian village sites dating to about 11,000 years ago provide good evidence for a preagricultural tradition of village life based on hunting and the collection of wild grains and nuts. Current archaeological work at ((atalhoyuk, some of it spearheaded by Ian Hodder, suggests that this perhaps was an overgrown village without advanced agriculture. The people who inhabited the site depended to a large extent on wild plants and animals, even though they did tend some livestock and grew some crops. Similarly, Asikli, a Central Anatolian site about 1,000 years older than ((atalhoyuk, was a large stable settlement with a population that relied mainly on hunting and gathering. In sum, in the Near East some villages emerged before agriculture or before agriculture became the main subsistence strategy. All of this suggests that the transition from foraging to domestication took various paths and that some peoples developed mixed economies that combined reliance on wild and cultivated foods (and, maybe, with periods of no cultivation). This transition, likewise, included various types of communities that reflected different degrees of mobility and population densities. Research in other areas of the world besides the Near East (for example, South America, Mesoamerica, North America, and China), has furthermore revealed that people domesticated plants well before farming villages were established. Therefore, though settled life and agriculture are related, they are not necessarily coterminous.
Yet, many of the early domesticators did become settled agriculturalists by about 10,500 years ago in the Near East, 7,000 years ago in China, and later in Africa and the Americas. On the whole, the early settlements they constructed were small and dwellings were situated in close proximity to each other, perhaps for sociability, defensive purposes, or both. Even though the expansion of many of these settlements— from hamlets to villages—roughly coincides with the rise of agriculture, it is not clear whether agriculture fueled settlement growth or whether other factors were involved. As the archaeology and ethnohistory of California and the Northwest coast of North America reveal, substantial housing can exist without food production.
Because villages were the prevalent type of community settlement in most of the world until the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent spread of urbanization, many social scientists of the 19th century regarded the village as a universal stage in human evolution. The scientific study of the village dates to that century, and it by and large centered on Feudal Europe and land tenure rules, systems of field rotation, the legal status of villages, the emergence of village fairs and markets, and the growth of towns. Sir Henry Maine (1822-1888), one of the early writers on this topic, attributed the emergence of villages to the evolution of more elaborate political structures, which in turn altered land ownership. Instead of searching for absolute theories of origins, which were quite popular in the 19th century, contemporary anthropologists concentrate on the structure, function, and networks of village communities and their links to regional, national, and global economic, political, and social processes. Neoevolutionary theorists, though, remain interested in village formation and its relation to social evolution, in particular, its relation to the evolution of human sociability, internal-external conflicts, leadership, and institutions of authority. Archaeologists still debate how best to document, archaeologically, village formation and its fissioning.
During much of the 20th century, anthropologists spent considerable time debating the nature of social relations within villages and between the village and the outside world. Were villages teeming with social tensions or did they have less social strife than towns and cities? Why did some villages seem more open to external influences whereas others appeared to shun them? Most of these studies were part of a broader concern over peasantries, culture change, and the impact of economic development in the Third World. These studies often established a contrast between traditional villages and modern or modernizing villages. The traditional village was considered subsistence-oriented, egalitarian, community-oriented, religious, and peaceful. Influenced by commercialization and commoditization, these villages were transformed into the modern type, which was characterized by dependency, socioeconomic stratification, individualism and competition, jealousy and strife. This characterization cannot be divorced from romantic images about village life and earlier, yet still influential, speculations about social evolution. Persuasion and egalitarianism, not coercion and stratification, have been seen as the rule in early village society due to conditions of low population density, which allowed for the option of fissioning when conflicts arose.
Some also attribute this depiction to a conceptual and methodological pitfall of classical anthropology, namely, to its great emphasis on the study of autonomous, small-scale societies, and to the transfer of concepts and methods designed for the study of such societies to the study of transitional and large-scale societies. Robert Redfield’s earlier work among peasants in the village of Tepoztlan, Mexico, reflects this difficulty. In his later work, however, villages are no longer conceptualized as isolated and autonomous units but as part of a folk-urban continuum in which human communities range from simple to complex.
According to Redfield’s later view, communities along this range exchange cultural traits and cultural brokers fUnction as mediators between the different types of community and their traditions. What was lacking in Redfield’s theory was an explanation for how macro political and economic processes shaped the various communities. Julian Steward’s The People of Puerto Rico also attempted to deal with the methodological problems associated with the issues of scale, modernization, and social complexity. Perceiving villages as part societies, like Redfield, Steward— influenced by his views on cultural ecology—related village types to local ecological factors and to their degree of vertical and horizontal integration to the nation. Eric Wolf, influenced by Redfield’s and Steward’s work, similarly constructed a typology for peasant villages that was meant to emphasize degree of interaction with the outside world because he believed that the peasantry became more heterogeneous under the influence of the global economy. Wolf’s classification had two main types, closed and open communities, besides other possibilities. In closed, corporate peasant communities, people labored primarily for subsistence instead of the market, and land was held communally. Also, there was a great deal of internal solidarity and homogeneity. In open communities peasants were drawn into the market and land was held individually; thus, individualism and strife were salient factors. Wolf’s two main types fed directly into the dichotomy of traditional versus modern village even though he was cognizant of the processes at work.
Over the years various scholars—not just anthropologists but geographers, sociologists, and historians—have challenged the traditional versus modern typology. Several have argued that inequality, at times based on prestige, power, and access to nontangible ritual wealth, was part of village life in various areas even before contact with Westerners or the advent of mercantile capitalism and colonialism. Differential access to land and village labor—frequently conditioned by native social and symbolic constructs—at times contributed to inequality in some places, such as Java. Critics have also charged that if some households seemed to labor to benefit their community, it was because of an overlap of interests with those of the wider community and not because self-interest and individualism were absent. In addition, historical and archaeological work revealed that villages far removed from urban centers were often impacted by the political and economic activities of states (for example, 19th-century rural villages in Siam, present-day Thailand), a line of inquiry that Wolf paid much attention to during his later work. Actually, the interdependence between villages and quasi-urban and urban centers contributed to the structure and particulars of village life. Some villages, regarded as stable and identifiable units since time immemorial, were colonial creations. For instance, in Southeast Asia and Latin America, colonial powers combined and divided indigenous communities to create villages, facilitating control over labor, lands, and natural resources.
Villages remain the main type of rural settlement in much of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Today, however, most villages maintain strong ties to one or more urban centers, are linked to the global market, and may contain diverse residents that migrated to the area. Televisions, radios, cell phones, computers, missionaries, tourists, traders, and nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers help maintain these connections; so do migrant labor arrangements and improvements in systems of transportation, the latter often encouraged by NGOs, foreign aid to developing countries, and the local government’s (or residents’) desire to embrace modernity, the global market, and the technological devices all of this brings. In remote places like Nepal, wireless Internet technology is being used to link remote villages and enable residents to sell goods online. Village members are also able to communicate with coresidents who are grazing yaks in distant locations far away from the village. Due to all of this, some scholars contend that modernization may actually lead to greater levels of political and economic participation in villages. Increasing economic differentiation and specialization, though fostering dependency, can promote cooperation. In addition, the recording of village census data and the construction of village schools, infirmaries, collective water pumps and storage tanks, among other projects, may be contributing to a coherence that was lacking or minimal in the past. In sum, modernization does not necessarily undermine a village’s communal orientation, but may actually strengthen or create it.
In contemporary industrial and postindustrial nations the concept of the “village” remains important even if it is no longer part of everyday reality. Ideas about cultural and ethnic identity, place, history and change, economic production, and local political administration are wedded to the concept. Hence, the study of post-peasant villages in many areas (for example, France, Italy, Japan, Spain, and Portugal) could yield significant theoretical and methodological insights for the study of contemporary ethnicity and imagined communities, historicity, culture change and continuity, and the evolution of institutions of local government.
In some parts of the United States, for example, New England and New York, the term village may refer to a unit of local government. Today, however, “the village” usually denotes the social and commercial hub of a town and is readily distinguished by its pleasing architecture, diverse shops and coffee houses, and pedestrian-friendly walkways. The term can also be used in whimsical ways (for example, “the punker’s village”), to refer to a residential district within an inner city usually composed of people with similar cultural backgrounds or interests, such as Greenwich Village in New York City, or to conjure up romantic notions or feelings generally associated with ideal village life. In truth, many small towns in the United States, villages by most standards, have been absorbed by nearby cities, suburbs, and suburbs of suburbs (exurbia). The prevalence of a basically urban-industrial civilization, frequency of residential mobility, and the global market fuels this process of “villagephagy” in the United States and sustains our longing for “uncomplicated village life.”
The desire to experience village life and its idealization are not new. During the mid-19th century, some newly rich Yorkshire industrialists (Titus Salt, Edward Ackroyd, and the Crossleys), concerned about the poor living conditions of their factory workers, promoted the idea and creation of “model villages” in England. They established the villages in the countryside because their proponents assumed that a good environment fostered good health and morals. These villages were small and were meant to be self-sufficient communities where people would work and live. Contemporary eco-villages, also known as sustainable villages, resemble these early model villages, including, for instance, the push for self-sufficiency that now has been reworked into the concept of sustainability. Eco-villages have sprung up in numerous places such as Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, North America, and Central and Eastern Europe. They are located in both urban and rural areas and usually rely on renewable energy sources and eco-friendly architectural methods. The residents manage waste locally and engage in organic farming. For the most part, these villages support themselves via grants, donor agencies such as the European Union, tourism, summer schools and various workshops, festive events, and volunteerism. The extent to which eco-villages in post-Soviet bloc countries can be related to former workers’ brigades and agricultural communes, and the mindset those arrangements fostered needs to be investigated.
The advent of computer networks has also enabled the creation of various electronic or cybervillages. Electronic villages can exist partially or entirely on cyberspace, depending on the activities of their “residents.” The villages have emerged because local residents wish to communicate, build, and enhance relationships with each other through computers and the Internet. Thus, most electronic villages have a private e-mail component and public forums. Most also provide on-line information about local government agencies, housing, businesses, and community activities. The electronic meeting “place” is viewed as an addition to the community’s physical places where folks can meet; people frequently meet in actual locations for social events and business transactions. Curiously, some of the most successful electronic villages in the United States are in smaller communities. A pressing need for contemporary anthropology is to understand the impact that these electronic villages have on local political and economic behaviors as well as on broader national trends. Another avenue of research would explore whether participation in electronic villages leads to changes in cultural models of friendship, intimacy and trust, accountability, community, and citizenship.
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- Gaia Trust. (2005). What is an ecovillage? Copenhagen, Denmark: Gaia Trust. Retrieved January 2,2005
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