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‘small agricultural producers, who, with the help of simple equipment and the labour of their families, produce mostly for their own consumption, direct or indirect, and for the fulfilment of obligations to holders of political and economic power’ (Shanin, 1988).

Until the 1960s, the peasantry were largely ignored in sociology as having no significant role to play in history This was despite the now recognized point that peasants have existed for most of recorded history and in many parts of the world. From the 1960s the publication of key works, such as Wolf (1966) and Barrington MOORE (1967), began to change this perception, introducing to sociology perspectives developed in anthropology and political economy The role of the peasantry in the Vietnam war, and the growth of peasant political activity in Latin America and Asia raised questions about the assumed passivity of the peasantry Within Marxist work, partly under the influence of MAOISM (see MAO TSE-TUNG) and events in China around the 1949 Revolution and subsequently, there emerged the question of whether the peasantry in the Third World represented the revolutionary force of socialism. This was especially so in the light of analyses which saw the proletariat of the advanced capitalist world incorporated as a labour aristocracy into the dominant capitalist world. There is now a major area of interdisciplinary peasant studies. But, one of the most important debates is still over whether a distinctive category of peasantry can be identified both conceptually and empirically. Shanin presents one of the strongest and most influential defences of the concept. Drawing on all strands contributing to peasant studies this century, he argues that there are four main interrelated characteristics of the peasantry (Shanin, 1982; Shanin (ed.), 1988, Introduction):

  1. The family farm is the major economic unit around which production, labour and consumption are organized;
  2. Land husbandry is the main activity combined with minimal specialization and family training for tasks;
  3. There is a particular ‘peasant way of life’ based on the local village community which covers most areas of social life and culture and which distinguishes it from urban life and from those of other social groups;
  4. Peasants are politically, economically and socially subordinated to nonpeasant groups against whom they have devised various methods of resistance, rebellion or revolt; There are two further subsidiary facets:
  5. A specific social dynamic involving a cyclical change over generations which irons out inequalities over time via land division and the rise and fall of the availability of family labour through the DOMESTIC CYCLE;
  6. Especially in the contemporary world, a common pattern of structural change, drawing peasants into market relationships, often through the influence of outside bodies such as AGRIBUSINESS, and incorporation into national politics. The precise outcome of these common changes is not predetermined.

According to circumstances, the peasantry may survive, they may migrate because of declining opportunities on the land, they may combine wage labour in urban or rural areas with some elements of land husbandry becoming worker-peasants, they may become totally reliant on wage labour without land becoming a rural PROLETARIAT, or some combination of these.

Further, two general distinctions are usually made between peasants and other farmers. The first contrast is with TRIBAL peoples. Post (1972) distinguishes peasants as having:

  1. group or individual rather than communal land ownership;
  2. a social division of labour which is not exclusively based on kinship;
  3. an involvement in market relationships even though the extent of this will vary;
  4. political hierarchies which are not exclusively based on kinship and with a state structure to which they are subordinated;
  5. a culture which is not as homogeneous as tribal people's. Peasant culture coexists with cultures of other groups in the same society.

The second contrast is with small CAPITALIST family-farmers who may rely predominantly on family labour, but who may also employ wage labour, who buy in seeds, fertilizer, livestock and so on, and sell most of the output rather than using it for the family's own consumption. Thus both inputs and outputs are COMMODITIES.

Peasants can be most clearly distinguished in AGRARIAN SOCIETIES. A key issue is what effect the emergence of CAPITALISM has on the peasantry. For some authors this raises the issue of differentiation of the peasantry which may increase with the development of capitalism. Following LENIN, one distinction is between rich peasants who have more land than they need for their own consumption and either rent it out or employ others to work it, middle peasants who conform to the definition of peasant used here, and poor peasants who do not have enough land to supply their own needs and who may have to sell their labour for an income. A graphic definition of a poor peasant is given by a Malaysian who said he ‘had to shit on someone else's land’ (Scott, 1985). An important debate has been whether, with the development of capitalism, rich peasants become capitalist farmers and poor peasants become PROLETARIANS, with middle peasants becoming one or the other.

Neglected in peasant studies until the last decade has been the question of GENDER. In the past, the structure of the peasant household was treated unproblematically but now it is increasingly recognized that PATRIARCHAL relationships are central. Thus women are frequently subordinated in many ways and carry a heavy burden of work. The division of labour between men and women varied in time and place but was rigid. Peasant women have limited public identity and in extreme cases, such as China before the 20th century, scarcely counted as human beings.

There are several strong arguments that the concept of‘peasant’ has no place in social-scientific analysis. Polly Hill (1986), drawing on her work in Africa and Asia, argues that there are such variations over time and place of the ways in which rural farmers make a living and organize their social life, that only a small proportion of people fit usual definitions of the peasantry: an individual over a lifetime may engage in trade, wage labour, small-plot farming, trucking, or employing others. Conceptually, others have argued that the term peasant has vague implications: one cannot read off from the definitions of‘peasant’ implications for understanding the wider society, economy or politics in the same way that one can for other concepts. Finally there is debate whether the central importance attached to the peasant HOUSEHOLD in Shanin's and other formulations is appropriate. The focus on the household is derived from the work of the Soviet economist, Chayanov (see Thorner et al., 1966). However, given the extent of interhousehold activities, the importance of the village in many peasant communities, and the influence of nonpeasant groups on the peasants, it remains open to question as to whether the dynamics of peasant life are best approached with the household as the main unit of analysis. Some of these arguments are persuasive and still inform the current debates. See also PEASANT SOCIETY, PEASANT POLITICS, SERFDOM, TRANSITION FROM FEUDALISM TO CAPITALISM, SHARECROPPING.