Chapter 26: Peasants
Mark Harris There was a time in anthropology when peasants were the new tribals. While the number of anthropologists was growing, especially in the United States after the Second World War, the number of people who were living in culturally distinctive tribal groups was diminishing. What were these fledgling fieldworkers going to study? Building on the central methods and units of anthropological research, participant observation in rural villages, ethnographers headed off to new research sites, such as Central America and the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. And peasants became an established area of anthropology with its own questions and issues. What characterised this work from the beginning was a concern to move away from the idea of what Robert Redfield (1956: 7) called the ‘primitive isolate’. In that idea, tribal societies could be ‘regarded without reference to anything much outside of them; they could be understood more or less by one man working alone. Nor need that man be a historian, for among these nonliterates there was no history to learn’ (1956: 6). This approach was wholly inadequate for understanding peasants because they were ‘part-societies’ (Kroeber 1948: 284), encompassed by a larger whole: the nation-state and global markets. So for Redfield (1956: 37) the question becomes: Considering a peasant community as a system of social relations, as a social structure, how shall we describe its relations with the world outside of that community? What are the modifications of concept and procedure that come about if we study a peasant village, thinking...
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