Rural Societies and Agricultural History Research Paper

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The concept ‘rural societies’ is based on the fundamental division in our society between rural and urban, but usually refers to societies dominated by rural areas. It thus has a historical dimension, and is connected with the concept of peasant societies.

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1. Terminology

An intense discussion about the concept of peasant studies began in the 1950s. A large body of literature was published in the decades that followed. The discussion centered on the Anglo Saxon world since, unlike English, most other languages do not contain the same clear distinction between peasant and farmer. In German, for example, Bauer can mean both peasant and farmer (Rosener 1993). The need of a distinguishing term in English is also connected with the fact that peasant in English (like paysans in French) has a derogatory meaning which the German word Bauer (or the Scandinavian bonde) does not have.

Several contributions in the discussion about peasants and farmers were made from the 1950s until the beginning of the 1970s (important monographs: Redfield 1956, Wolf 1966, and readers: Potter et al. 1967, Shanin 1971). In recent decades, the concept of peasant has been questioned even in the Anglo Saxon world. For example, Tom Scott writes in an overview that the category of peasant ‘is so broad as to become not so much an archetype as a stereotype’ (Scott 1998, p. 1). However, the discussion which began during the post-war period, still forms a platform for the research on peasant and rural societies. Peasant society was defined on two levels; partly chronologically in relation to earlier and later types of social systems, and partly socially where the peasant society was defined in relation to the overall social structure of which it was a part.

In the case of the last-mentioned level of definition, the peasant society was seen as a part-society with a part-culture, i.e., a part of the large social structure. This formed the basis of the chronological separation of peasants from what was called the ‘tribal society’ (or even, but not any longer, the ‘primitive society’). Such a society was by definition an earlier system, not being a part of a larger social unit. The emergence of the town was identified as a decisive change and resulted in peasants either choosing or being forced to send some of their produce to the town. The establishment of the State and the state authorities has also been identified as a distinguishing factor. With the advent of the State, the peasant society became clearly subordinate to, but also alienated from, a larger social system as such. To some extent, both these criteria can be said to represent the same change. The peasant society has also been described as a part of an overall socioeconomic feudal system, but every peasant society can hardly be seen as part of a feudal system.

At the beginning of the 1970s, Teodor Shanin (in his Introduction to Shanin 1971) summarized the discussion and pointed at some of the characteristics that distinguished a typical peasant society: the family farm as the basic unit of multidimensional social organization; land husbandry as the main means of livelihood directly providing for the major part of the consumption needs; specific traditional culture related to the way of life of small communities; and the underdog position, specified as the domination of peasantry by outsiders. Shanin adds that, like every social entity, the peasantry must be seen as undergoing change as a part of a social process, which influences the definition of the concept peasant.

The chronological border, which separates peasants from the modern farmer has also been discussed. The modern farmer not only produces for a market, but all his actions are profit driven. He acts in the same way as other businessmen. The business itself has become increasingly industrial in nature. Different aspects were emphasised in the discussion. Wolf points to the relationship to the market as being decisive. Redfield emphasizes peasant tradition. The Marxists, who later entered the discussion, wrote that when the peasants acted as a group with class consciousness, they became a class in themselves. The Russian peasant researcher Chayanov, had been purged in 1930 by Stalin but his writings from the 1920s, which got a renaissance long after his death, emphasized the preservation of the family as being of central importance to the peasant (Chayanov 1966).

The discussion illustrates the complexity of the concept, and much of the discussion focused on the problem of definition. Could the specific African cultivator be categorized as peasant, or the Latin-American pastoralist? The fruitfulness of discussing such detailed classifications is questionable. When the core of the term has been identified, the borders drawn must be flexible to allow for interpretations, which in themselves include a dynamics. During the discussion, it also became increasingly clear that the specific historical situation must be taken into account. Rodney Hilton pointed at the essential elements in defining the English medieval peasant, but also made clear that this definition was specific for a part of Europe, where the peasantry must be seen in the context of the medieval feudal society (Hilton 1975).

The concept of peasant will be used in this research paper in a very comprehensive sense, which includes those who raise crops or cattle, on a partly nonprofitable base, and are integrated in larger social structures. The definition includes peasantries in all societies where the production of foodstuffs requires the major part of the society’s labor. It is debatable whether there could be peasants in societies where cultivators comprise a diminishing share of the population. Today in most countries outside the Western World, peasants continue to be tied to the soil and to the local community, with family, relatives and traditions, in a way that characterizes them as peasants. Also in a large part of Europe, there are still cultivators who live as traditional peasants. They live surrounded by their ancestors’ history in houses, land, and tales and they are bound to their own farm by family-traditions. This should not be underestimated as a fact that for instance decides the course of contemporary talks on agriculture and world trade between Europe and the US.

Accordingly, the term peasant also has some relevance in today’s society, and this is the explanation of why many languages have not developed the terminological difference found in English between peasant and farmer. However, the difference between peasant and farmer identifies an important historical change, and the peasant society is a purely historical concept for the Western World. Rural society should be regarded as a broader unit comprising, in addition to cultivators, craftsmen and rural industry. Rural society thus contains the seeds of proto-industrialism, and the concept is more relevant to today’s conditions.

2. Historiography

To understand the discussion about the peasant and rural societies, it must be placed in a historiography, which both precedes and follows the postwar discussion. Rural society as a historical concept must be related to agricultural history, which mainly concerns agricultural production, but also includes other elements related to agriculture, such as politics and village communities. In rural history, the emphasis, formally speaking, is placed more on the societal aspect and in the case of agricultural history, more on the history of production and distribution. But since agricultural production is the basic activity of all peasants, in practice, rural history and agricultural history are parts of the same historiography. Rural history and agricultural history are an important part of general history, as the farming population for centuries was in the majority, but despite this, rural history and agricultural history emerged as specific disciplines relatively late.

2.1 The First Folk-Life Studies

Scientific research into peasants and rural history in Europe began at the end of the nineteenth century. In many parts of Europe, i.e., Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, interest focused on the countries’ own peasants. In the UK, research primarily focused on peasants in the colonies. In countries where agriculture played a dominating role, agricultural history was linked to the creation of national identity, demonstrated in national ‘agricultural museums.’ In Hungary, what is still one of the world’s most important agricultural museums was founded in conjunction with the country’s millennial celebration in 1898. National agricultural museums were also established in the Czech Republic and Denmark at the end of the nineteenth century.

In Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and Germany, folk-life studies focused on the peasants who were regarded as the real heart of the nation. Later, these studies also played a prominent role under the name of ethnology or ethnography in France, Portugal, Ireland, Scotland, and other countries, but never in England. Folk-life research studied both spiritual and material culture, and described tools and houses together with folksongs and riddles in peasant societies. A large knowledge-base was built up.

The scientific question that crystallized concerned regionality. Even if the original question was couched in terms of national identity, the answer increasingly proved the opposite. The cultural phenomena moved freely across borders, there were no obvious and given national borders in Europe. The Swede Sigurd Erixon played an important role, and a number of national ethnographic atlases, where the focus was on peasant society and its manifestations, were published. There were plans to publish a common European ethnographic atlas, but today these plans have been put on ice.

In the countries with colonies, above all the UK, the study of peasant societies outside Europe became increasingly popular at the end of the nineteenth century. Originally, these studies were part of the colonial administration, e.g., in the genre of studies of the Indian countryside, which the British Empire created as early as in the middle of the nineteenth century. Eventually social anthropology became a discipline in its own right, less and less connected with the colonial administration. In the twenty-first century it has a strong position in the Anglo Saxon world, not least in the US. Like European ethnography, anthropology was linked to the museums and the decades around the turn of the century were spent gathering data.

The goal of these studies was to understand the local community, in all its details but also its internal structure. The focus was on the individual village or region as an isolated entity. The level of detail could also be very high in the case of the material culture, but the focus was often on the relationships between the people, e.g., family relationships. But even though the research concentrated on clarifying the internal structure of the local society, the studies gradually pointed to a different result. It was increasingly realized that the local society was integrated with, and subordinate to, larger social structures. This was one of the most important reasons why parts of the Anglo Saxon world of anthropology started using the term ‘peasant’ instead of ‘people,’ and it lead to the above mentioned debate on peasant societies.

Early on, the combination of ethnology and anthropology resulted in impressive surveys. The German researcher Paul Leser, for example, published an authoritative survey in 1931 of different types of ploughs in different parts of the world (Entstehung und Verbreitung des Pfluges, Munster). Not long afterwards, Leser, who was Jewish, was forced to emigrate. Folk-life studies in Germany increasingly became a part of the nationalistic ideology in the 1930s, and was concentrated on studies about the spirit and ‘soul’ of the people.

2.2 Agricultural History In The Interwar Period

The US was still regarded by its inhabitants as an agricultural nation into the twentieth century. In the democratic and popular tradition that was this nation’s identity, the history of agriculture played a role in the explanation of its progress and success, and agricultural history crystallized early into a discipline in its own right. The oldest national journal on the subject, Agricultural History (1927–), was founded in the US. From the very beginning, this journal contained articles about conditions outside the US, but it has focused mainly on American agricultural history. Initially, many of the articles discussed progress in agriculture at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. A special genre consisted of articles about diaries kept by peasants.

In Europe, the first wave of interest in the history of agriculture, in ethnography and anthropology, focused on the immediate past. There were few attempts made to create a broader time perspective, as the discipline of history was still oriented towards the history of the State and the elite. Rural history developed in France under the influence of geography, where a dominating group of scholars favored allembracing studies where every aspect of a region should be described, including historical aspects. With geography’s starting-points in the land, these studies also touched on rural history.

The historian who succeeded in giving rural history a scientific basis was the Frenchman Marc Bloch in his Les characteres originaux de l’histoire rurale francaise, which was published in 1931 (Bloch 1966). This was based on a series of lectures he had held in Oslo in 1929 at a research institute, which had been established to promote and carry on Scandinavian folk-life studies. Here the different threads meet. In the words of the American agrarian historian Richard Herr, Bloch was able to provide ‘the kind of insights that would spark the imagination of other historians’ (Herr 1993, pp. 4–5). In a subsequent study of European feudalism, Bloch explained how a rural society is part of a large social structure (Bloch 1961, in French 1939–40). He thus anticipated the discussion about peasant societies during the postwar period.

Bloch’s work still provides inspiration and guidelines in a number of areas: the role of the village community, peasant uprisings, the connections between technology and social change, etc. But years passed before his books were considered to be important. General acceptance did not come until after World War II. In part, this was a result of the myths created about Bloch after he had joined the French Resistance to fight the Germans and was executed in 1944.

2.3 Agricultural History’s Breakthrough After World War II

The reason for the rise in appreciation of Bloch’s work should, however, be explained in terms of the large changes that occurred in the study of rural societies and agricultural history. During the 10-year period following the end of World War II agricultural history became a discipline in its own right in Western Europe. Departments of Agricultural History were established in several European countries: in the Netherlands at the agricultural university in Wageningen, in Germany at the agricultural university in Stuttgart and in the UK at the Faculty of Agriculture at Reading University.

National journals were started up in Europe: The Agricultural History Review (1953–) in the UK, Historia Agriculturae (1953–) in the Netherlands, Zeitschrift fur Agrargeschichte und Agrarsoziologie (ZAA) (1953–) in Germany, Bol og by (1956–) in Denmark, Rivista di storia dell’ agricoltura (1960–) in Italy and Etudes rurales (1961–) in France. In time, the breakthrough for agricultural history resulted in national synthesis covering several volumes. In the UK, a huge project in eight volumes was started in 1967, The Agrarian History of England and Wales. This work has yet to be completed. The German synthesis, Deutsche Agrargeschichte, consists of six volumes and was published between 1962 and 1984. In France, Histoire de la France rurale was published in four volumes between 1975 and 1978. Although the French volumes emphasise rural history in the title, there is no major difference between this and the other national works. In the German, two volumes are devoted to purely social questions, i.e., legal questions and peasants as a social category.

This wave of research resulted in a focus on the long-term change, and not least on the Middle Ages. At the beginning of the 1960s, two important works were published. One of these was Georges Duby’s L’economie rurale et la vie des campagnes dans l’Occident medie al, published in 1962, which was a study in the tradition of Bloch (in English 1968). The following year, 1963, saw the publication of an English translation of a study published in Dutch some years earlier. Slicher van Bath’s The Agrarian History of Western Europe AD 500–1850.

During the postwar period the agricultural crisis in the late Middle Ages became a central field of research. This economic decline had been observed before World War II (i.e., for Germany, Abel 1980). The discovery was theoretically significant since it showed that the development of production had not always been positive. Another important theoretical change was that agriculture was seen as a dynamic sector in medieval Europe, which partly rejected earlier theories about the countryside as having a restraining effect on economic development. The aftermath of World War II continued to leave its mark to some extent. Slicher van Bath, who had built up the Department of Agrarian History at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Wageningen in the Netherlands, mainly collaborated with Anglo Saxon researchers and not with the German, e.g., at the agricultural university in Stuttgart-Hohenheim. The reason for this was that Gunter Franz, who had built up the Department of Agricultural History in Stuttgart, was not only a leading expert on the German Peasant War, but also had been an active Nazi. However, the journal founded by Franz, ZAA, published early on historiographical surveys of agricultural history in Europe. These surveys were written by Duby, Postan, and other leading European agrarian historians. It must also be stated that several leading agrarian historians in Germany during the 1930s never became engaged in the Nazi movement, for instance, Wilhelm Abel and Friedrich Lutge.

2.4 The Transformation Of Folk-Life Studies After World War II

The discussion about the concept of ‘peasant’ resulted in a number of studies of peasant and rural societies. These include the classic studies made by Oscar Lewis in Mexico and India. Daniel Thorner’s studies of peasants in India are another example (a Bibliography: in: Peasants in History: Essays in Honour of Daniel Thorner, Hobsbawm (ed.) 1980). Several studies were also carried out in Europe, often by American researchers who used anthropological methods to study villages in Southern Europe. They were somewhat surprised to meet an entirely different type of cultivator from those they usually met in the US. It was still peasants and not farmers who dominate the European villages. The classic studies here include those by Julian A. Pitt-Rivers, who studied a Spanish village (1954), and by Joel Halpern, who studied a Serb village (1958).

In anthropological research, the large databases, e.g., the Human Relations Area Field (HRAF) in Yale has been gathering information on several hundred cultures since the 1930s. But the previous focus in anthropological research on material cultural products has weakened. True, encyclopedic studies were still being made, for example, by the Frenchman Leroi-Gourhan (1943–5), but this was more and more pushed into the background. Instead, it was the social structure that attracted increasing attention, and this is noticeable not least in the discussion about peasant societies. It was still the hidden patterns that research wanted to be clarified, but now as part-cultures subordinate to the principal culture. Clifford Geertz, had made an important description of the history of agrarian technology in Indonesia (Agricultural Involution 1964), became even more influential as a father of the concept ‘thick description,’ which became a leading method in anthropology (see articles in Geertz 1973).

In Eastern Europe, folk-life studies retained and, to some extent, strengthened their, role when the Socialist people’s republics were established. Research into ‘the people’ was emphasized as one of the main tasks of historical research. At the same time, contacts with the West were broken off. An example is how seldom the German researchers in the East and West referred to each other, even though they often made research about the same subjects.

Some contacts were however upheld. Association International des Musees d’Agriculture (AIMA) gradually became the meeting place between East and West for the study of rural society. AIMA was an association of agricultural museums all over Europe as well as in the US, which was formally under the jurisdiction of UNESCO. The association was formed in 1974 and its meetings were held alternately in Eastern and Western Europe (or the US). Many of the questions discussed were classic in European ethnography, e.g., the history of the plow. After the Communist collapse, this association has had a difficult time.

2.5 Reasons For The Breakthrough After World War II

There are many underlying reasons for the breakthrough of rural history in the 1950s. In the Netherlands, one of the reasons given for the establishment of a Department of Agricultural History was that the severe food shortage at the end of World War II illustrated the importance of agriculture. In all social sciences the American influence increased after World War II, not the least in sociology of agriculture and in studies of non-European peasants. This influence may also have had an impact on agricultural history.

A factor, which can hardly be underestimated, was the increased political importance of peasants on a worldwide scale and in conjunction with colonies attaining independence, but the immediate conclusion was not that scholars regarded the peasants as decisive actors in history.

Peasants and rural societies were identified as essential elements of the social structure. Initially, the new research focused on concepts and ideas from the earliest period of folk-life studies in Europe, and emphasized that peasant culture had filtered down to the peasants from the elite. Villagers had taken over and simplified traditions from the towns or from the elite. The goal of the peasants was to imitate the leaders of society. The ideological basis for this interpretation was that society’s leaders were considered to represent a higher form of civilization. The interpretation was made in more or less explicit forms by almost all the scholars participating in the discussion after World War II and in particular by George Foster (1967). Robert Redfield (1956) distinguishes between a great tradition and a little tradition, between the classical, learned elite culture, and the peasant tradition. He emphasizes that a mutual exchange takes place, where also the elite draw inspiration from below.

The view of the conservative peasant society which was unwilling to accept changes that upset traditions is similar to what is sometimes called ‘the dumb peasant theory.’ This implied that peasants had to be forced to develop, and this assumption guided much of the Western World’s relations with the Third World throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

2.6 New Interpretations In The 1970s And 1980s

Beginning in the 1970s, studies of peasants and rural societies increased in number and became more diversified. Two partly connected phenomena began to change the picture. One was the Marxist challenge in the academic world, the other was the successful peasant uprisings in different parts of the world, not least the civil war in Vietnam. These two phenomena challenged the old thought structures, but did not lead to a new hegemony. Instead, after the major theoretical battles in the 1970s, the field was left open to a large number of different theories. This can be compared with the change undergone by rural sociology at the same time. A survey from 1990 shows that what the authors call ‘the new rural sociology’ from the 1970s and 1980s was characterized by a large number of interpretations (Buttel et al. 1990).

The common question with which many of the new interpretation struggled was the relationship between actors and structure, where the peasants were increasingly regarded as real actors in the historical process. One expression of this new and deeper interest in peasant studies was the Journal of Peasant Studies (1974–). In its editorial policy, it was emphasized that the journal would be concerned with political economy and that it would attempt to understand the role of the peasants, especially outside Europe and North America.

At the same time we also see a growing interest for rural history in the third world, and for instance, a journal on the subject was founded in India: History of Agriculture (1973–).

The role of class conflicts became more important, which at times resulted in very detailed analyses of the social structure of the countryside. Studies of peasant revolts and peasant uprisings were developed into a special genre with a series of studies. Searches in international databases show that there is an interesting geographical distribution of the studies. Most of the studies of peasant revolts outside Europe concern Asia (India, China, Japan, South East Asia, and Indonesia) or Latin America (Mexico, El Salvador, Bolivia, and Brazil). Studies concerning Africa, on the other hand, began early on to be more focused on the environment, while studies of peasant revolts are less common.

An example of this new orientation is the rapidly growing interest in ‘Maroon societies.’ The fact that slaves in Latin America as well as in the American South were able to break free and establish societies, which in some cases were able to survive for hundreds of years partly outside the control of the authorities, added a new dimension to peasant society. The first comprehensive study of Maroon societies as a specific form of peasant societies in 1970s was followed by many more (Prize 1996). This history from below was also applied in other areas.

In the European research about long-term changes new interpretations emerged. The dominating researchers had initially been supporters of Malthusian interpretations, but other interpretations gradually began to be given greater emphasis. One example of this is the class perspective introduced by Guy Bois (1976) into the interpretation of the agrarian crisis in the late Middle Ages.

The older type of studies of material culture continued, not least in the exchange between East European and West European researchers in classic fold-life research. In Denmark, the journal Tools & Tillage was established in 1971 and became the leading international journal dealing with the development of agriculture technology in peasant societies.

2.7 Diversification At The End Of The Century

The late twentieth century has seen a gradually growing interest in rural and agricultural history. New journals have been started up, including Rural History (1990–) in the UK, Noticiaro de historia agraria (1991–) in Spain, Skrifter om skogs- och lantbruks-historia (1991–) in Sweden, and Histoire et societes rurales (1994–) in France.

There are new elements in this growing interest. One that is very important is the interest in environmental questions. This has had an impact on agricultural history not least in the US in the form of studies comparing how Indians and Europeans used the environment in a social context (i.e., Merchant 1989). Specialist journals have also been established, the most important of which is Environmental History (1989–) in the US, formed by merging two journals with the same orientation, which had been published since the 1970s. The issues dealt with have concerned sustainability in a long-term perspective in relation to current problems such as soil erosion, salinization, etc.

Interest in popular culture and social structure is increasing, and one example is the research group around Jan Peters (Peters 1997). This group also represents a successful wedding between East and West in Germany in the late twentieth century. Another strong orientation, although not only in the study of rural and peasant societies, is gender studies. Technology research has also been revived although here, more specific questions are being raised concerning the connection between technological and social change.

3. Theories And Methods—A Summary

When the question of the definition of peasants and peasant societies was raised after World War II, it proved to be both fruitful as well as inspirational to further research. The connection between peasants and social structure was brought out more clearly. However, this was only one step in a long development process involving research, and rural and agricultural history. At the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, researchers concentrated on gathering material. In Europe, individual cultural elements were registered, and outside Europe whole peoples and their characteristics were dealt with. Theories about isolated nations and communities were proposed, and abandoned.

In the 1950s larger structures were identified. In anthropology, peasant societies were regarded as being a part of larger society, and in history the long waves came into focus of the research. During a following phase, which began in the 1970s, research became increasingly diversified. Much of the research emphasized the capacity of peasants to take independent action, and new fields of research, such as environmental questions and gender research, were opened up. This eventually resulted in a new wave of interest about the subject at the turn of the twenty-first century.


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