views updated May 18 2018


VILLAGES. The village, alongside the parish and the family, was the most widespread unit of social organization throughout the early modern period. There were well over 130,000 villages in western Europe, each a largely self-sufficient rural community with a population that averaged between 100 and 500 inhabitants. Flexibly adapted to a wide range of state structures and environments, villages often enjoyed high degrees of self-government. Many also performed essential state services, including tax collection, poor relief, and the maintenance of order. Although far from democratic in modern terms, village assemblies at times displayed the most broad-based political participation of any governing institution in western Europe. Villages were anything but static communities; rates of mobility and exogamy were significantly higher than once thought. This mobility in turn reflected major changes in land exploitation patterns and in world markets, which permanently altered the economic balance of communities between 1450 and 1789. By 1550, the polarization of villages into a minority of prosperous peasants exploiting large holdings and a majority of nearly landless rural laborers had dramatically changed the social landscape. By the end of the seventeenth century, the economic division of Europe into regions closely connected to the Atlantic and world economies and regions left behind affected patterns of wealth and power within villages.


Social hierarchy in the village was well defined in most regions. As serfdom or villeinage declined by 1450, a new pyramidal social structure had emerged over a broad swath of western Europe. At the base of the peasantry were landless day laborers, joined by cottagers who rented or sharecropped less than enough land to live on in bad years. In many regions they constituted 50 to 60 percent of the village population, and increasingly depended upon weaving and cottage industry to eke out a subsistence living. One grade above were those who leased, rented, or sharecropped a self-sufficient holding. In upper Normandy, a relatively prosperous region, these modestly independent farmers represented only about 20 percent of the village households in the late seventeenth century, and they leased fewer than twenty-five acres apiece. But this middling sort (in England, husbandmen) were universally shrinking in numbers. Provinces as diverse as Languedoc and Normandy in France, as well as much of England and Scotland, the maritime provinces of the Dutch Republic, and northwestern Germany, all experienced significant losses of middling peasantry beginning in the mid-fifteenth century.

At the pinnacle of village society a new peasant elite had fully developed by 1550, composed of large leaseholders (copyholders) or freeholders (owners). Known as laboureurs in France, yeomen in England, or Vollbauern in Germany, they typically owned their own plow and team, employed other villagers as day laborers, and exploited a minimum of about 50100 acres. Strongest in wealthier regions along the cereal plains of Europe and in England, these substantial peasant exploiters typically represented between 5 and 15 percent of village households. But they were surprisingly evident in poorer regions as well; they made up nearly 10 percent of the population in parts of Naples, for example. This peasant elite was essential to the stability of the community as a whole. They often lent seed, livestock, and cash to their poorer neighbors, though often at ruinous interest rates. Landless villagers in turn depended upon casual wage labor from wealthy peasants and landlords for their survival. In larger villages, the nucleus of cultivators and laborers was complemented by a small group of rural artisans (especially coopers and blacksmiths) and service providers (millers and innkeepers).

This core of peasants, artisans, and wage laborers was topped by a thin layer of privileged rural elites. These were men (and occasionally women) who were of the village, but not entirely in it. Noble lords or seigneurs resided in some villages, although they were increasingly absentee landlords by the seventeenth century. Their estate stewards and seigneurial court judges, along with well-to-do landlords who were not yet noble (gentry or sieurs ), priests and pastors, royal judges, and rural merchants all exercised substantial control over land useand wages in the village. This group also collectively controlled civil, canon, and customary laws; criminal punishment; public works; and some poor reliefpowers that affected villagers on a daily basis.

The physical maps of western European villages varied greatly, but tended to fall into two main patterns. Across the broad band of open cereal plains like the Beauce, the nucleated village with its outlying fields cut up into plow strips or furlongs was typical. In wooded areas like Shropshire, England, or mountainous regions like the Pyrenees, Alps, and Apennines, isolated farms and scattered hamlets were common. They enjoyed some of the highest levels of autonomy and self-government, remote as they were from the central state. But these scattered settlements were intimately tied together by common social institutions, particularly the parish church, the local market, and the law courts.

From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, however, the twin processes of enclosure and engrossment (consolidation) of fields wrought significant changes in village land-use patterns. The English enclosure movements of the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, like the notorious highland clearances in Scotland, fenced off common lands for sheep runs or agricultural improvements. Engrossment allowed larger blocks of fields to be brought under the management of one owner or lessor, which made enclosures easier. The social consequences were often dire: increasing pauperization or flight of villagers who no longer had crucial access to the common lands. Even without these new stresses, village communities were the sites of a delicate balancing act between resources and population throughout the early modern period. Late marriages, low rates of illegitimacy, and limitation of family size were the key factors that allowed villages to survive under near-subsistence conditions.

Despite their small size, there was a high degree of social and economic mobility bubbling below the surface of western European villages. Some was downward mobility, driven by growing rural stresses from the mid-sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Economic polarization that pushed more peasants into the landless category, population growth that overburdened villages, and the enclosure and engrossment of land caught many in the economic downdraft. Villages across Europe expressed increasing concerns about (and often a hardening of attitudes toward) vagabonds, "sturdy beggars," and the settled poor. Expanding cities like London and Paris were one of the safety valves for the rural needy. The resultant rates of mobility are sometimes striking: One English village in Northamptonshire experienced a 52 percent turnover in households in just the twenty years before 1638.

Upward mobility was still in the grasp of other village groups, however. Prosperous peasants became the feeder school for the gentry. Those who had acquired roughly a hundred acres or more could begin the delicate process of insinuating themselves into the landlord class of the village by ceasing to work with their hands, educating sons in the law, marrying into gentry families, and having themselves duly noted down in the parish records as sieurs or "gentlemen." Indeed, the wealthy peasantry and the gentry often formed a kind of social convection zone in the village, where gentry who failed to maintain their position sank back into the peasantry, and careful peasants moved up to replace them. In the parish of Myddle in seventeenth-century England, only half the gentry were able to maintain their status over two or three generations; the rest were replaced by yeomen and merchants. The most difficult step upward was from the day laborer or cottager class into the ranks of the wealthy peasantry. One expert has estimated that it required an English day laborer's wages for a hundred years to acquire a self-sufficient farm holding. Moreover, the numerous advantages held by village elites made it difficult to become a self-sufficient landowner. Through strategic marriages, command of property law, control of the village assembly and common lands, and usurious loans secured by farms, land was magnetically attracted toward those who already had land.


The organization of western Europe into villages, as opposed to tribal or kinship organization, was based on neighborhood solidarities among distinct families. This sense of neighborhood emerged in the language as voisinage in France and Nachbarschaft in Germany, and it was cemented by a number of institutions and traditions. At the center was the parish church, which united even scattered farms and hamlets into the village community. (In many regions parish and village boundaries were largely coterminous, but they were not always so.) Sunday services were only one of the occasions for creating parish bonds. Religious confraternities, celebrations of holy days, marriages, and baptisms all helped to cement communal bonds across family lines. The parish church, in tandem with the village assembly, organized poor relief for the community. Even the arrangement of the church served to remind villagers of their assigned place in the social hierarchy: church benches, for those important enough to sit during services, were strictly arranged according to rank.

Beyond the doors of the parish church, taverns, alehouses, and weekly markets served as vital centers of sociability. On winter evenings, villagers often congregated together to save light, repair tools, and tell stories. Seigneurial and royal assizes regularly brought villagers together to resolve (or occasionally inflame) their disputes in court. Many of these institutions and traditions cut through social hierarchies and regularly brought poorer and wealthier members of the village into contact with each other. But villages were also arenas of conflict, which was expressed in endemic lawsuits, physical violence, charivaris, and witchcraft accusations. The inherent tensions created by wide gulfs in economic, honorific, and power status were always latent. Even a relatively small community of forty or fifty families might encompass a family of supernova aristocrats and landless paupers.

The village in turn was more deeply embedded in larger economic and social circuits than was once believed. Annual fairs brought into the village country dwellers from a wide circumference, as well as merchants from urban areas; in France these often included theater troupes and peddlers of cheap popular books (the famous Bibliothèque Bleue). Royal courts on the Continent, and circuit assizes in England, drew university-trained lawyers and judges into the countryside. English justices of the peace, drawn almost exclusively from the rural gentry class, had become fixtures in the House of Commons by the seventeenth century and were expected to help control elections to Parliament in the county. Aristocrats and nobles took rural servants, particularly women and girls, into the cities with them; many of them returned to the village as young women with dowries. In transhumance areas and coastal regions, it was the young men who typically left home for months at a time, to follow herds of sheep or to fish as far away as Newfoundland. Above all, the production of both bulk goods and luxury goods for the Atlantic trade tied villages into global cycles of boom and bust. Production of cotton, linen, and flax, the weaving and dying of fabric and lace, cheese making, wine making, and glassmaking became central to village economies from the Veneto in Italy to western France to Flanders and the Dutch Republic. As both the state and impersonal economic forces made a wider impact on village life, they became the source of new discontents.

Their solidarity helped to make villages the natural locus of rural riots and protests against these wider powers. Enclosure riots in England and Scotland, periodic tax and bread riots, and poaching and smuggling everywhere expressed the villagers' firm sense of their customary rights against landlords, tax officials, and grain suppliers. One need only think of the German Peasants' War of 15241525, the revolt of the Nu-Pieds in Normandy in 16391640, or the rebellion of the Bonnets Rouges in Brittany in 1675 to see that grievances over seigneurial exactions and innovative tax schemes were always simmering in rural communities. Moreover, these disturbances were almost never led by the landless poor, but rather by those who had something to lose in the village: the natural peasant leadership.


Villages were composite entities made up of overlapping institutions, above all the family, the parish, the seigniory (or lordship), and the village assembly. This last institution is what gave the village community its formal coherence; it developed special characteristics in the West. In France, village communes or assemblies (communautés, assemblées) had received formal charters by the thirteenth century in some areas; in others, they remained informal but recognized institutions. They were composed of heads of households, since the household, not the individual, was the fundamental social unit. But within the assembly, the hierarchical village social structure was instantly apparent. The households of laboureurs or yeomen normally dominated land-use issues, tax matters, and village offices. Assemblies were predominantly male, although evidence indicates that widows with substantial holdings were sometimes admitted.

Although the constellation of powers in any given village was unique, their local functions were quite similar. The Gemeinde in northwestern Germany, like the assembly in England and the commune in France, met periodically after Mass to elect syndics or council members and other minor officials. They managed most communal aspects of life, from grammar schools to ale quality, by appointing schoolmasters, aleconners, shepherds, and harvest guards. Through the fabrique (vestry), they jointly shouldered responsibility for the upkeep of the parish church. Above all, the assembly controlled crucial aspects of land use and labor. They set the dates of the grain or wine harvest, fixed wages for day laborers, and controlled the sale, lease, or rental of the common lands. Waters, woods, wastelands, and meadows were collectively managed, which provided a crucial margin of survival for many villagers.

The village assemblies also performed critical functions for the early modern state, which had only a thin presence at the local level. By far their most contentious task in regions like France and the Italian city-states was apportioning and collecting royal taxes in the village. In France, the community was then burdened with collective responsibility for making up any shortfall in uncollected taxes. Villages often exercised important legal and policing powers at the local level. Some German assemblies were allowed to set their own weights, measures, and prices. French assemblies increasingly used lawsuits in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to contest their rights with other villages, their lords, or even with royal officials. Drunken or disorderly behavior, domestic fights, scolding, and marketplace fraud were typically handled through local seigneurial courts, in petty sessions, or by village arbiters.

While communes or assemblies provided a significant measure of self-government under normal conditions, they were nevertheless sharply circumscribed in their ability to protect the village from environmental or political disasters. Cycles of famine and disease, escalating tax demands from the central state, and marauding armies spawned by the civil, religious, and international warfare of the age regularly decimated individual villages. Nevertheless, villages collectively remained a resilient and adaptable social unit throughout the early modern period, and one on which the wealth of most of Europe depended.

See also Agriculture ; Landholding ; Mobility, Geographic ; Mobility, Social ; Peasantry ; Peasants' War, German ; Popular Protest and Rebellions ; Wages .


Primary Source

Gough, Richard. The History of Myddle, edited by David Hey. Harmondsworth, U.K., and New York, 1981. Printed version of manuscript (1703).

Secondary Sources

Davis, Natalie Zemon. The Return of Martin Guerre. Cambridge, Mass., 1983.

Forster, Robert, and Orest Ranum, eds. Rural Society in France: Selections from the Annales; économies, sociétiés, civilisations. Translated by Elborg Forster and Patricia M. Ranum. Baltimore, 1977.

Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. Translated by John and Anne Tedeschi. Baltimore, 1980.

Goubert, Pierre, and Daniel Roche. Les Français et l'Ancien Regime. Paris, 1984.

Huppert, George. After the Black Death: A Social History of Early Modern Europe. Bloomington, Ind., 1986.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. The French Peasantry, 1450 1660. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Berkeley, 1987.

Porter, Roy. English Society in the Eighteenth Century. London, 1982.

Sabean, David Warren. Power in the Blood: Popular Culture and Village Discourse in Early Modern Germany. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1984.

Underdown, David. Revel, Riot, and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 16031660. Oxford and New York, 1985.

Vardi, Liana. The Land and the Loom: Peasants and Profit in Northern France, 16801800. Durham, N.C., 1993.

Wegert, Karl H. Popular Culture, Crime, and Social Control in Eighteenth-Century Würtemberg. Stuttgart, 1994.

ZoË A. Schneider


views updated May 11 2018


The development of village studies

Contemporary trends in analysis

Emerging issues in theory and research


Although sometimes applied to any permanent small settlement consisting of more than a few scattered dwellings, the term “village” usually refers to a consolidated agricultural community. In this usage, it is distinguished from such other types of settlement pattern as tribal camps, dispersed hamlets, suburbs, and towns, although in practice the lines of demarcation cannot always be drawn with unequivocal sharpness. So defined, the village was the predominant type of human community for over three millennia and continues to be so in most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as in some parts of Europe.

The domestication of plants appeared in southwestern Asia perhaps as early as 10,000 b.c., but the emergence of the first true villages based on fully effective food production seems to have taken place almost three thousand years later, the earliest general date being 6750 b.c. for Jarmo in northeastern Iraq. In lower Egypt, this “village threshold,” as it has been called, was crossed about 5000 b.c., in Atlantic Europe about 4000 b.c., in India about 2500 b.c., in west Africa about 1500 b.c., and in Mesoamerica it may have been as early as 3000 b.c. (The dates for China, although almost certainly prior to the second millennium b.c., remain undetermined.) Wherever the food-producing revolution effectively replaced earlier hunting and gathering patterns, village life became established. The techniques of domestication spread rapidly, even to areas ecologically quite different from those in which they arose. Man’s first serious attempt to shape his environment actively, rather than passively adapt to it, marked a new era of cultural development.

The fullest achievements of this new era came only with what has sometimes been called the “urban revolution,” or the appearance of civilization. Towns and cities emerged, based on the altered economic relationships. Paradoxically, it was the appearance of the political, economic, social, and religious developments associated with urban centers that brought village life to its full development. With but a few exceptions, and those only partial—the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest, the villages based on shifting cultivation in the tropical forest regions in Africa, South America, and southeast Asia, the taiga settlements of Siberia—the primary farming community did not long remain independent and autonomous but became an integral part of one or another civilizational complex, Mayan or Peruvian, Mesopotamian or Egyptian, Indie or Sinitic. Between the folk culture of the village and the sophisticated culture of urban or quasiurban settlements, there developed a multifaceted interdependence that bound them, for all their contrasts, into a single sociocultural whole. Most recent research on village life has focused upon the analysis of this interdependence.

The development of village studies

Feudal Europe was the first field of research within which such a bipolar approach to the study of village life evolved. This was not altogether fortunate, since medieval Europe represented a somewhat atypical civilization, in which sophisticate culture was carried less by urban classes in the proper sense than by a dispersed, at least semi-rural, clergy and nobility. The studies of medieval village organization by von Maurer, Maine, See-bohm, Maitland, Vinogradoff, Coulton, Bloch, and Homans moved steadily from formal analyses centered mostly on land tenure regulations, systems of field rotation, and details of legal status to more broadly sociological interpretations that emphasized the deep embeddedness of the local community in an institutional structure which far transcended its boundaries. The growth of the manor system, the development of fairs and markets, the evolution of lords’ courts, the growth of towns, and the increasing penetration of ecclesiastical institutions into local contexts knitted the village firmly into what Bloch pronounced the most characteristic feature of the civilization of medieval Europe: “the network of ties of dependence, extending from top to bottom of the social scale” (1939-1940). It was recognized that the picture of the fully self-contained farming community of preindustrial Europe, especially western Europe, facing the outside world as a hermetic unit is more a figment of a romantic imagination than a social reality. This recognition was rather more belated in studies of the Orient, the Middle East, and the New World, where the myth of a nearly absolute social discontinuity between the world of the ruling classes and that of the peasantry continued, and in fact persists in some quarters today.

There were several reasons why the view that the traditional peasant village could be studied as a self-contained social microcosm rather than as a node in an extended social field disappeared more slowly outside the restricted purview of medieval studies. Perhaps the most important reason was that whereas the European researches were first undertaken by historians moving in upon the village to fill out their over-all picture of the feudal social order, those elsewhere in the world were, in the main, first undertaken by anthropologists transferring their interests, techniques, and concepts from the study of more or less isolated primitive tribes. The historian entered complex civilizations from above, the anthropologist from below, with the consequence that where the latter’s village studies were, in general, far fuller, sociologically much more realistic, and more delicately sensitive to the quality, rather than the formal outlines, of peasant life, they were also, at first, generally more parochial, less analytically penetrating, and more flatly descriptive. The tendency to view a peasant village as yet one more bit of humanity complete in itself cut anthropologists off from some of the theoretically most significant dimensions of village communities. However, it brought them into a more intimate contact with the detailed content of life in such communities than even the most sociologically minded of the historians could achieve.

Eventually it was precisely this greater realism that caused anthropologists to recognize the limitations of the microcosmic approach and compelled them to widen their field of interest beyond the boundaries of the village proper. Perhaps the most representative, as well as the most influential, figure in this transitional development was Robert Redfield. In his very first book, Tepoztldn, a Mexican Village (1930), Redfield was already concerned with the “impact” of the towns and cities of greater Mexico upon the life of his villagers. He set forth one of the earliest explicit conceptualizations of the peasant village as a type of community “intermediate between the primitive tribe and the modern city” however, the study itself still treats the village as an autonomous unit, complete in itself, at best reacting defensively, and not very adequately, to external influences. It was not until his third, and perhaps still best-known, book, The Folk Culture of Yucatan (1941), that the focus on the theme, “city, town, village and tribe,” moved to a central position. He attempted to relate these different types of human community to one another and to postulate a series of changes that transform those at the “simpler” end of the continuum into those at the more “complex.” However, the analysis of the peasant village of Chan Kom is still largely in terms of an independent, relatively isolated, and more or less homogeneous community of “folk culture” responding to forces impinging upon it from outside its well-defined boundaries. It was only in his later works, of which Peasant Society and Culture (1956) is perhaps most representative, that Redfield took the final step and specifically discarded the older anthropological model of the primitive isolate. He replaced it with a view of compound peasant society, of peasant communities as (borrowing a term from A. L. Kroeber) “part societies,” and peasant cultures as “part cultures” in which their relations to the over-all civilization of which they are a part are not external, irritant elements, but integrated in their internal composition. Noting Kroeber’s remark that anthropologists used to study organisms, societies by themselves, but now study organs, societies that are parts of larger societies, Redfield asked: “How are we to think about and study the small community as an organ and to study the larger organism of which it is a part?” And with this question the corner is turned in modern analyses of “non-Western” peasant villages as earlier it had been turned, less suddenly and less self-consciously, in the study of “Western” ones.

Contemporary trends in analysis

In contrasting “great” and “little” traditions Red-field himself provided one of the more useful tools in attacking the bipolar nature of the peasant village. In themselves, the ideas are not particularly novel. By a “great” tradition Redfield meant the refined, systematically organized, and consciously cultivated belief and value systems of the gentry, the clergy, etc., often referred to as “high culture” by a “little” tradition he meant the cruder, less systematic, largely uncriticized cultural systems, often referred to as “folk culture,” of the peasantry proper. If this unoriginal distinction has proved surprisingly useful in understanding the cultural metabolism of village life, it is because both Redfield and, more importantly, those who have followed in his footsteps have not been content merely to describe the two sorts of traditions but have directed their efforts toward tracing out the interactions between them.

Attention has been given to the way in which elements of high culture filter down to local contexts to become part of one or another little tradition, a process called “parochialization,” and the way in which elements of local custom rise to become part of the overarching great tradition, a process called “universalization.” In India, the advance of “Sanskritization”—the progressive penetration of high Indie culture patterns into village life—has been carefully analyzed (and debated); in Middle America, the peculiar process by which the folk culture of yesterday becomes the avant-garde culture of today has been examined; in southeast Asia, where several great traditions exist in one region, the effect on village religious patterns has been probed. Much interest has centered, also, on so-called cultural brokers, men (priests, schoolteachers, village chiefs, etc.) whose position permits or obligates them to mediate between the great traditions of the urban centers and the little traditions of the villages. This has also been true in studies of social institutions (pilgrimage sites, religious schools, artistic troupes) that, well or badly, play a similar role. And finally, some research has been directed toward analyses of the way in which tribal peoples, originally outside the sphere of a civilization, come to be integrated into it as true peasants through rephrasing their own cultural concerns in the vocabulary of the more comprehensive tradition. There has also been some examination of the adjustments necessitated on the local level when one great tradition more or less totally replaces another, as in post-Conquest Middle America.

A somewhat different, but equally influential, approach to the analysis of the village has been that associated with Julian Steward in his treatment of “complex societies” (1955; Steward et al. 1956). Here, the emphasis is less cultural and more on social structure, but the reduction of the village from an organism to an organ is no less apparent. Steward sees the various part-societies of a complex or compound society as divided into vertical segments, horizontal segments, and formal institutions. Vertical segments are local units of various sorts, such as villages, neighborhoods, and households. Horizontal segments are special sub-societies—occupational, class, ethnic, and the like —which, like local units, may have a somewhat distinctive way of life, but which crosscut localities. Castes are a good example, but so also are interlocal trading communities, monastic orders, regional, political, or culural elites, and so on. Finally, formal institutions include the monetary system, the law, education, and organized religion —generalized structures that run through the whole society, “binding it together and affecting it at every point.” In this type of conceptualization, the peasant village is a vertical segment connected to towns, cities, and other villages by means of horizontal segments and formal institutions, which, spreading out from it in various directions, are at the same time basic elements of its internal organization. The very form of the village, much less the processes by which that form is maintained or changed, cannot be seen except against the background of the wider society in which it is embedded.

Working within this framework, Eric Wolf (1955) has attempted to devise a typology of peasant villages in Latin America and then to apply the typology more generally to villages in the Old World as well as the New World. Starting with the assumption that a useful classification of peasant communities must center on differences in the way in which the communities are integrated with the outside world, he discriminated two main types: “closed” or “corporate” as opposed to “open.” Closed, or corporate, communities are marked by a clear structural identity that persists over time, a sharp distinction between members and nonmembers, a steady-state approach to economic activities, and a number of characteristic cultural traits—a “cult of poverty” extolling hard work and simple living, “institutionalized envy” designed to keep any individual from advancing very far ahead of his fellows, and a self-conscious maintenance of local distinctiveness in dress, language, custom, etc. Open communities are marked by cash crop cultivation and consequently a less standoffish relation to the outside world. In fact the open community is in fairly continuous interaction with the outside world and is marked by greater social heterogeneity, intense concern with social status, and less attachment to established patterns of equilibrium. Wolf did not argue that these two categories provide an exhaustive typology, and suggested, in passing, five others that are also defined largely in terms of their form of integration with larger sociocultural systems. Other students have analyzed villages that combine elements from both of Wolfs primary types, referring to them as “open, corporate” villages. Still others have attempted to use the rubrics “centripetal” and centrifugal” to express differences in community structure. These are similar in context, although not identical, to the types Wolf has isolated: centripetal villages are those in which social institutions—economic, kinship, political, ritual—produce a constant tendency for members to move out beyond the village boundaries into the world of the larger sociey; centrifugal villages are those in which such institutions tend to hold or draw back members within those boundaries. The classification of peasant villages has just begun, and large-scale revisions in existing typologies must be expected as a greater knowledge of cross-cultural variations in community-society relationships accumulates.

Apart from typological work (always no more than a preliminary to analysis), the study of the actual modes of linkage, the specific bonds between the village and the other segments and institutions of complex societies, has also been advancing, if hesitantly and on a rather mundane level of abstraction. Social networks, in contrast to social groups, are being examined. These are the widespread, intricate, usually rather irregular, and often rather fragile patterns of interpersonal relationships formed by trade, friendship, locally exogamous marriage, extravillage political loyalties, religious affiliation, and the like. As person-to-person (or family-to-family) ties are brought from the periphery of anthropological analysis to its very center, the village is coming to be seen less as a solidary bloc unit set over against other solidary bloc units than as a focus upon which dissimilar social filaments partially converge. Studies of bazaar-type markets, of class-based or caste-based service ties, of geographically extended kinship relations, and of religious discipleship have all been conducted in these “field theoretical” terms in recent years. Except for the work on markets, where a veritable revolution in our notions about the role and nature of trade in traditional civilizations is underway, pertinent concepts remain largely undeveloped. Having dealt with long-established customs on the one hand and defined social groups on the other, anthropologists are experiencing some difficulty in devising methods and concepts for coping with a type of social order in which both the form of personal relationships and their content are neither very clearly outlined nor neatly organized.

Emerging issues in theory and research

The increasing interest in the study of peasant villages—an interest bound to accelerate even further as the remaining independent tribal groups of the world themselves become integrated into larger sociocultural units—has thus brought with it not only new advances in the scientific analysis of society but has as well uncovered some awkward problems whose solutions are not yet in sight. Rather like the consideration of psychoanalytic ideas that in the 1930s forced anthropology to confront the individual, village studies have introduced a serious conceptual and methodological crisis into that generally somewhat matter-of-fact discipline.

One of the more important of such awkward problems is that of devising ways and means by which to characterize the commonly quite wide variability of village organization within a given region, civilization, society, nation, etc. Traditionally, anthropologists worried little about “representativeness.” They assumed that the particular community under study was essentially so similar to other communities within the same culture sphere that its idiosyncrasies could be viewed as of secondary interest at best; or, alternatively, they attempted to isolate similarities shared by all or most of the communities lying within that sphere, and thus present some ideal typical image of “the village.” It soon became quite apparent that, with respect to India, China, Middle America, medieval Europe, the Middle East, or even the more developed parts of Africa, neither of these approaches would really bear up under scrutiny. If village studies were not to abandon all claims to general significance, it became necessary to find some other, more differentiated way of describing village life in complex societies. Although both the “typical case” and the “common denominator” approaches have largely faded from the scene, at least in their more naive forms, there is as yet very little agreement as to what sort of approach is to replace them.

There has been an attempt to refine the “typical case” approach by choosing for study a number of villages that are representative of at least the major variants in community type found in the society. Ecological variations have sometimes been employed in such studies, as for example in the multiple-investigator study The People of Puerto Rico (Steward et al. 1956) where villages based on coffee, tobacco, and sugar cultivation were studied independently and then compared and contrasted to give a differentiated picture of peasant life on the island. Dry-crop and irrigation-based, hill and plains, settled and shifting agriculture villages have been used in the same way. Another approach has been to choose villages in the major subcultural regions—a method virtually imposed by the variegated histories of such civilizations as the Indie or the Indonesian. Others have attempted to find some basic structural themes that are found in all or most villages in a given society; the limited range of variation is set by the restricted forms by which these themes may be expressed. Still others have traced the varying expression of a single dominant institution in the society to the same end—caste in India, politico-ceremonial organization in Mesoamerica. These attempts all reduce village organizations to a repeating entity or an abstracted ideal type. A genuinely satisfactory method for discovering, analyzing, and describing the village society as an ordered set of variations has yet to be developed.

The factor of social change has increasingly forced its way into the center of attention in village studies. The fact that virtually all the peasant villages of the world are now caught up, to some degree, in the deep-going processes of cultural transformation associated with the universal diffusion of the social and economic patterns of modern industrial civilization makes any static analysis of village life seem quaint to the point of irrelevancy. There has been an upsurge of concern with both the histories of particular villages and with refining our methods for distinguishing between legend, myth, and factual history in such a way that these varying views of the local past can be effectively related to one another in analyzing processes of change. Although such studies can hardly be said to have advanced very far, such historical analyses can no longer be dismissed as “mere speculation.” There have also been a few tentative attempts, usually based on ecological considerations, to trace the general, long-term pattern of village development in a particular region. Recognition that most of the villages in Europe, Japan, and much of Latin America stand in complementary relationship not to a classical great tradition of great antiquity, a bazaar-type market system, or a traditional hereditary elite, but rather to modern mass culture, a highly industrialized economy, and a thoroughly bureaucratized government, has led to a search for new formulations of the bipolar nature of village life. Although here, too, little more than a recognition of the problem and a certain amount of descriptive work has been so far achieved, research on what might be called “postpeasant” villages is going on with increased intensity in many areas—Italy, Japan, France, Brazil, Yugoslavia, Holland, Scandinavia, etc.— and can be expected to lead to important revisions in both theory and method.

In the most general terms, the conceptual and methodological crisis that the study of village life has forced upon anthropology can be phrased as a pressing necessity to discover the ways in which the findings of studies of small-scale communities can be made relevant to the understanding of large-scale societies. The exact place of anthropological analyses of village life among the quite differently oriented studies made by economists, political scientists, historians, sociologists, psychologists, and others in the countries of the so-called underdeveloped world is not yet clear. In this very old but also very new field of scientific interest, the major task is to make clear, and thus to demonstrate the significance of, a multidimensional understanding of traditional, transitional, and modern society.

Clifford Geertz

[Directly related are the entriesAnthropology, article onthe anthropological study of modern society; Feudalism; History, article onsocial history; Peasantry; Urban revolution. Other relevant material may be found in the biography ofRedfield.]


Banfield, Edward C. 1958 The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Beardsley, Richard K. et al. 1959 Village Japan. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Block, Marc (1939-1940) 1961 Feudal Society. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published as La société féodale: La formation des liens de dépendence and La société féodale: Les classes et le gouvernement des hommes.

Braidwood, Robert J.; and Willey, Gordon R. (editors) 1962 Courses Toward Urban Life: Archeological Considerations of Some Cultural Alternates. Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, Vol. 32. Chicago: Aldine.

Cohn, B. S. 1961 The Pasts of an Indian Village. Comparative Studies in Society and History 3:241-250.

Friedl, Ernestine 1963 Studies in Peasant Life. Biennial Review of Anthropology[1963]: 276-306.

Geertz, Clifford 1962 Studies in Peasant Life: Community and Society. Biennial Review of Anthropology[1961]: 1-41.

Romans, George (1941) 1960 English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century. New York: Russell.

Marriott, McKim (editor) 1955 Village India: Studies in the Little Community. Univ. of Chicago Press. → Also published as Memoir No. 83 of the American Anthropological Association.

Redfield, Robert 1930 Tepoztlán, a Mexican Village: A Study of Folk Life. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Redfield, Robert 1941 The Folk Culture of Yucatan. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Redfield, Robert 1956 Peasant Society and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Civilization. Univ. of Chicago Press; Cambridge Univ. Press.

Steward, Julian H. 1955 Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Steward, Julian H. et al. 1956 The People of Puerto Rico: A Study in Social Anthropology. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Wolf, Eric 1955 Types of Latin American Peasantry: A Preliminary Discussion. American Anthropologist New Series 57:452-471.


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vil·lage / ˈvilij/ • n. a group of houses and associated buildings, larger than a hamlet and smaller than a town, situated in a rural area. ∎  a self-contained district or community within a town or city, regarded as having features characteristic of village life: the Olympic village. ∎  (in the U.S.) a small municipality with limited corporate powers.DERIVATIVES: vil·lag·er n.


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a small group or cluster of burrows of the prairie dog. 18008; a collection of dwelling houses and other buildings, 1386; the occupants of a village, collectively.