Peasants and Peasantry
Defining The Modern Peasantry
Currently concentrated in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the peasantry has been defined differently by various scholars, depending on the degree of emphasis placed on any one of several characteristics. Definitions of the peasantry embrace some of the following characteristics: ownership and use of land, production methods, subordination to other social sectors, and the degree of integration into the market. For some scholars, therefore, peasants are agriculturalists who control most of the land they work, produce for the market, and who have obligations to other social classes, while for others, they are farmers who lack control over the land, labor, and capital they need to produce crops. For yet others, peasants are farmers who control the land they work as tenants or smallholders and who produce for the market and have obligations to other social classes.
Generally, however, with the exception of the more well-to-do peasant classes who own land and exploit the labor of poorer peasants, most peasants are associated with poverty; primitive production methods using little if any modern technology; small-scale production, mostly for subsistence purposes; and economic exploitation by and political and social subservience to a dominant elite class such as landlords or urban elites. They also lack capital and other production resources and, often, do not have control over the land on which they live and work. Where they do own the land, they tend to regard it as family property and not a commodity. In peasant societies, the family tends to be the central economic unit of production, consumption, reproduction, socialization, and welfare, while socially and culturally, peasant communities tend to be isolated from mainstream society and to have a distinctly local culture, as opposed to the dominant wider or higher national culture. They also have a conservative, inward-looking worldview revolving around the household and the kin group and are suspicious of outsiders and new ideas. Peasant communities are sometimes looked down upon by other social sectors who regard them as not only poor, ignorant, and subservient, but also backward, parochial, and closed.
Scholars, however, sometimes make a distinction between closed and open peasant communities; describing closed societies as being highly exclusive, suspicious of outsiders and new ideas, separated from wider society, and determined to protect their way of life by, among other things, discouraging the accumulation and display of wealth. Open societies, on the other hand, are characterized as being plugged into the modern capitalist economy and made up of individuals who own their own land, welcome change, and are largely integrated into the larger society. According to some scholars, therefore, open peasant societies are relatively independent actors who produce for the market and exercise considerable autonomy in deciding what to produce, depending on their analysis of inputs that have to be sourced outside the community and rent and tax requirements.
Clearly, while there are certain characteristics common to most peasant societies, there can be no simple all-embracing definition of peasants and peasantry, as scholars tend to highlight different aspects of what marks peasants as a class. Indeed, while the terms are widely used to describe rural communities all over the world, it is evident that they can no longer be regarded in their classical sense, since the groups that are now referred to as peasants in most countries no longer live exclusively by agriculture, as did most of the serfs in medieval times, but combine various survival strategies that often include wage labor, craft making, trading, and other off-farm activities. They can be part-time farmers, factory workers, small business people, traders, and workers on commercial agricultural establishments or seasonal workers in urban factories, all at the same time. Others maintain links with members of the family unit who are urban workers and who send money to supplement the rural family members' income. This leads to the conclusion that, although large populations who live in rural areas derive most of their livelihood from agriculture and regard themselves as peasants, it no longer really makes sense to identify rural society with the role of the peasant farmer.
Yet other scholars insist that the terms peasant and peasantry can only be appropriately applied to medieval or early modern Europe, as the African, Asian, and Latin American situations are so different as to make any comparisons meaningless. With respect to Africa, specifically, the question of whether small-scale agrarian communities on the continent can be regarded as peasants or not has been contentious, with some scholars arguing that Africa did not have distinct social classes, let alone a class that could be identified as peasants. Consequently, Africa only had primitive, rather than peasant, economies. According to this view, distinguishing features of peasant economies include production for the market by the majority of the people and access to resources such as land, labor, and tools, either for purchase or for rent. African rural dwellers, on the contrary, neither had access to nor produced for the market, being merely subsistence producers.
Thereafter, following a prolonged debate, the existence in Africa of a distinct class that could be called peasants was gradually and begrudgingly acknowledged, and discussion moved on to analyze the experiences and role of this class in recent history. By the 1980s, studies were recording peasants' lived experiences and analyzing peasant social structures, histories, inter-and intrapersonal relations, and relationships with the dominant social and economic structures and systems such as colonialism or the postcolonial state and elites. Peasants had, thus, become fully integrated into African studies.