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peasants

peasants, peasantry The word ‘peasant’ is a typical example of the confusion of the common use of a word with its sociological definition. Probably the common use, in this case, is more correct. People always know whether or not a person is a peasant, even though they may be referring to rich smallholders, share-croppers, or landless labourers, in a vast range of historical and cultural contexts. Social scientists, on the other hand, have devoted a good deal of time and passion to arguing over the exact definition.

There have been attempts to define peasant economies, particularly in Marxist theory, in such a way as to link social groups as diverse as feudal tenants, independent farmers, and rural day-labourers. These have variously stressed the importance of the peasant family as a unit of both production and consumption, the relationship of capitalist to non-capitalist agriculture, the use of family labour in a rural setting, and the exploitation of poor, or relatively poor, agricultural producers. There have been attempts to define a peasant mode of production, through the notion of the family-labour farm, as well as assertions that the peasantry is a class. The latter is related to debates about the revolutionary potential of the peasantry—again particularly among Marxist theorists.

Among social anthropologists, peasants have been defined by their cultural habits and norms, by narrowness of vision, and clinging to tradition. These attempts to characterize peasants as a generic human type have been littered with typologies that try to agglomerate all the different social and economic forms that are variously called peasant. However, as with Marxist economics, no precise or useful definition has been produced, and the term is best regarded as an imprecise socio-economic category of descriptive rather than heuristic usefulness.

There are extensive literatures on the social structure of peasant societies and on peasant movements and rebellions. The writings of Eric R. Wolf still offer one of the best introductions to these topics (see Peasants, 1966, and Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century, 1971
).

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