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Peasant Society

Sociologists and anthropologists have defined peasant society in different ways. A.L Kroeber was the first anthropologist who tried to provide a formal definition of peasant societies. He described peasant societies as a part society indicating its dependence in technological, economic, political, administrative, religious and moral spheres on a larger society.  George Foster described peasant as a half society. He implied that a larger society such as a nation may consists of two parts- first part consisting of cultivating class living in villages and the second part consists of upper classes living in urban centers. That part or a larger society that is composed of cultivating classes is peasant society or half –society. Robert Redfield followed Kroeber and defined peasant society as a part society. From 1960s onwards the publication of key works such as Erie Wolf (1966) and Harrington Moore (1967) saw the introduction of sociology perspectives in the peasant studies. Within Marxist work, partly under the influence of Maoism and events in China around the 1949 revolution the role of peasantry was discussed. There is a debate among scholars whether a distinctive category of peasantry can be identified both conceptually and empirically. Sahlin presents one of the strongest defenses of the concept. Drawing his inferences from various peasant studies, he argues that there are four inter-related characteristics of the peasantry.


  • The family farm is the major economic unit around which production, labor and consumption are organized.
  • There is a particular peasant way of life based on the local village community which covers most areas of social life and culture and that distinguished it from urban life and from those of other social groups.
  • Peasants are politically, economically and socially subordinated to non-peasant groups against whom they have devised various methods of resistance, rebellion or revolt.
  • A specific social dynamics involving a cyclical change over generations that removes inequalities over time via land division and the rise and fall of the availability of family labor through the domestic cycle.


Robert Redfield in his work, Peasant Society and Culture( 1956) placing peasant society between folk and urban communities has described the following three as the important features of peasant culture.

  • High reverent attitude towards land.
  • Acceptance of agriculture as the noblest, best and ideal job.
  • A pronounced, industrious attitude of the people demonstrating a firm belief in the dignity of labor.

All definitions of peasant society agree on emphasizing the importance of the opposition or contrast between the peasant stratum and the urban elite.The peasantry and the urban center are two opposing poles of a single socio-economic system and it is reflected  not only in their economic interdependence but also in the complex relationship which exists between peasant and urban culture. They may be seen in the concepts of Great/ Little Tradition and folk-urban continuum. Erie Wolf emphasizes the economic aspect when defining peasantry as those whose surplus production is transferred to a dominant ruling group that employs this surplus both to maintain itself and to redistribute it to other non-agricultural sectors of the population. 

Cultivators are not the only segment of population constituting a peasant community, people who are not defined as peasants but are still part of the peasant community. They may be traders, labors without land and artisans who may have close social and economic links with the peasants.