On the basis of research conducted on a Brazilian fazenda in 1966–67 (Johnson 1971), I formulated a hypothesis concerning the emergence of class consciousness among tenant farmers in a highly class-structured society (Johnson 1975). Recent restudies in 1988–89 offer the opportunity to evaluate that hypothesis in the light of twenty-two years of significant change in the Brazilian political economy. In this paper I will illustrate the value of long-term research (field studies of the same community over many years) as a type of comparative research capable of generating and testing hypotheses of theoretical and practical importance.
I will show that the tenant farmers' political consciousness — that aspect of thought and belief relevant to political action — has changed substantially during a quarter-century of change in Brazil at large, in a direction that partically (but not entirely) confirms my original hypothesis. I will also argue that, in speaking of a change in political consciousness, we are not so much speaking of the transformation of one belief into another, as of a shift in the weights assigned to the elements of a complex of interrelated, sometimes contradictory, beliefs.
The theoretical problem
During my original field research on Boa Ventura in 1966–67 I lived for a year among forty-five households of peasant sharecroppers (moradores, or “tenants”) who raised subsistence and cash crops on land provided by a wealthy absentee landlord, in return for which they provided the landlord with shares of their harvest or days of labor as their “fund of rent” (Wolf 1966: 9–10).