Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 May 2014
Peasants are an ambiguous social category. They are difficult to define and their political behavior defies most generalizations. Nevertheless, social scientists, many working outside of Africa, have produced a voluminous literature debating both the critical characteristics and the analytical utility of the term peasant.
Some take the view that peasants have been defined so broadly and contradictorily as to render the concept virtually useless and that the notion should either be discarded or referred to only by negation (Dalton, 1972; Hill, 1963; Moore, 1972; Ennew, Hirst, and Tribe, 1977; Friedmann, 1980). Other scholars obviously disagree, having advanced definitions of the essence of peasants and varieties of agrarian change. Culturalists such as Kroeber (1948) and Redfield (1956) highlighted the peasants' folk version of a higher culture. Chayanov (1966) emphasized the demographic cycle of the peasant household, exhibiting a natural pattern of growth and change. Wolf (1966) and Godelier (1973) shifted the focus to the historically derived relationships of domination in which peasants were subsumed. Shanin defined peasants “as a kind of arrangement of humanity” (1973: 76) in which their partial involvement in the market and their partial subordination to the state or appropriating class were their most salient characteristics.
These debates were reproduced within African Studies. Those skeptical that the concept had any analytical value initially prevailed. This position was defended most vigorously in a theoretical essay by Fallers (1961) and in Hill's (1963) masterful work on agrarian change in southern Ghana. As late as 1972, Post noted that “most writers either evade this issue or display analytical uncertainty or forthrightly reject the term [peasant]” (1972: 223).