||The term was in common use in English from the fifteenth century referring to individuals working on the land and residing in the countryside. By the nineteenth century \'peasant\' was employed as a term of abuse (for example, by Marx on the idiocy of rural life) and in the recent past it has been imbued with heroic and revolutionary connotations (as in Maoism, for example). In modern usage peasants are on family farms (farming households) which function as relatively corporate units of production, consumption and reproduction (Chayanov, 1966). The particular social structural forms of the domestic unit (nuclear families, multi-generational extended families, intra-household sexual divisions of labour and property systems), the social relations between households within peasant communities, and the ecological relations of production (the peasant ecotype) are, however, extremely heterogeneous (Wolf, 1966). The terms peasant and peasantry have often been employed loosely to describe a broad range of rural producers as generic types characterized by certain social, cultural or economic traits: the backward or anti-economic peasant, the rational and moral peasant, the uncaptured peasant. These and other terms such as traditional, subsistence, or smallholder, detract however from the important analytical task of situating peasants as specific social producers in concrete, historically specific political economies with their own dynamics and laws of motion.
Peasants are distinguished by direct access to their means of production in land, by the predominant use of family labour and by a high degree of self-sufficiency (see subsistence agriculture). Nonetheless, all peasants are by definition characterized by a partial engagement with markets (which tend to function with a high degree of imperfection) and are subordinate actors in larger political economies in which they fulfil obligations to holders of political and economic power. Peasants as forms of household enterprise rooted primarily in production on the land have a distinctive labour process (the unity of the domestic unit and the productive group) and a unique combination of labour and property through partial market involvement. Peasants stand between those social groups who have lost all or most of their productive assets (proletarians or semi-proletarians), on the one hand, and farming households which are fully involved in the market (so-called petty or simple commodity producers), on the other. Seen in this way peasants have existed under a variety of economic, political and cultural circumstances (feudalism, capitalism; state socialism) spanning vast periods of history and are \'part societies\'. Peasant societies are often seen as transitional â€” they \'stand midway between the primitive tribe and industrial society\' (Wolf, 1966, p. vii) â€” and yet are marginal or outsiders, \'subordinate to a group of controlling outsiders\' (Wolf, 1966, p. 13) who appropriate surpluses in a variety of forms (rent, interest, unequal exchange).
In many Third World societies in which peasants constitute an important and occasionally dominant stratum, a central question pertains to the fate of the peasantry in relation to growing state and market involvement. Peasants are invariably the victims of modernity (Moore, 1966). The question of growing commercialization and mechanization of peasant production and of the growth of off-farm income (migration, craft production, local wage labour), is reflected in the long-standing concern with internal differentiation among peasantries and hence their long-term survival (hence the debates over peasant persistence, de-peasantization, and captured peasants). It is probably safe to say that the period 1950-75 witnessed an epochal shift in which the peasantry became for the first time a global minority.
The proliferation of peasant studies in the last 30 years has been the source of important theoretical innovations in political economy speaking to questions of commoditization, class formation, resistance and rebellion (Shanin, 1988). The study of peasants was also key to the evolution of cultural ecology and political ecology insofar as peasant knowledge and practice is an indispensable starting point for the understanding of household management of resources, and hence the processes of ecological change and rehabilitation (Watts, 1983; Blaikie and Brookfield, 1987).
In the context of the transitions to and from capitalism, the role of the peasantry is central. Barrington Moore (1966) argued that the relations between landlord and peasantry are fundamental in understanding the various routes of democracy and dictatorship in the modern world. Peasant revolutions in Mexico, Algeria and China for example â€” the antithesis of the idea of apolitical or tradition-laden peasantries â€” have fundamentally shaped the twentieth century (Skocpol, 1980). Kautsky (1899) referred to the agrarian question in western Europe in the nineteenth century to underscore the political ramifications of the new forms of differentiation and proletarianization associated with growing commercialization, and the political and strategic questions which arose from peasant protest and struggle. One of the major features of the period since 1989 and the decollectivization of agriculture in the former socialist bloc (cf. collective), has been the re-emergence of millions of peasant households (re-peasantization) in China, Russia and eastern Europe. The role of peasants in post-socialist transitions has been a crucial part of the political landscape in these parts of the world and they represent intriguing cases for the study of new forms of agrarian capitalist trajectories (see Verdery, 1996; Selenyi, 1998).Â (MW)
References Blaikie, P. and Brookfield, H.C. 1987: Land degradation and society. London: Methuen.Â Chayanov, A.V. 1966: The theory of peasant economy, ed. D. Thorner, B. Kerblay and R.E.F. Smith and trans. R.E.F. Smith. Homewood: American Economic Association (first Russian edition, 1912).Â Kautsky, K. 1899: The agrarian question. London: Zwan.Â Moore, B. 1966: The social origins of dictatorship and democracy. Boston: Beacon.Â Shanin, T., ed., 1988: Peasants. London: Blackwell.Â Selenyi, I., ed., 1998: Privatizing the land. London: Routledge.Â Skocpol, T. 1980: States and social revolutions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Â Verdery, K. 1996: What was socialism and what comes next? Princeton: Princeton University Press.Â Watts, M. 1983: Silent violence. Berkeley: University of California Press.Â Wolf, E. 1966: Peasants. New York: Prentice-Hall.