Friday, 24 May 2013

Forty years of peasant studies

The  image was designed by Jesse Ribot and painted by the Senegalese
reverse-glass painter Mor Gueye.

by Ian Scoones, IDS Fellow and member of the JPS Editorial Collective

Over the last 40 years the Journal of Peasant Studies has been publishing critical scholarship examining the political economy of peasant systems across the world. To mark the fortieth anniversary of the journal, a virtual special issue of 40 ‘JPS Classics’ has been published with freely available articles (if you sign up - it’s quick and easy!). The ‘classics’ cover the full period: from the 1960s to the present, with contributors analysing changes in all parts of the world.

Earlier contributors, such as Eric Hobsbawm and Theodor Shanin, adopted a fairly classic Marxist analysis that saw peasant production systems in terms of a longer historical process of transformation. Analyses of labour, class and processes of differentiation were the key dimensions of analysis. More recently, the scope of ‘peasant studies’ has been extended to include discussions of gender, livelihoods, migration, environment, resistance and social movements. Reflecting this, there are contributions from Jan Breman, Sam Jackson, Bridget O’Laughlin, Joan Martinez-Alier, James Scott, among many others. This work locates the classic concerns with accumulation, social reproduction and class differentiation in wider analyses, particularly in the context of processes of globalisation, urbanisation and social and environmental change.

Over the last 40 years, researchers associated with IDS at various times have contributed to these discussions. For example, the ‘JPS classics’ include a contribution by Henry Bernstein who was a researcher at IDS in the late 1960s soon after its founding, before moving to Manchester and later SOAS. Another contributor is Cristobal Kay, now Emeritus Professor at ISS, who did his PhD in development studies at Sussex in the early 1970s. Other contributors include Bina Agarwal who was a Visiting Fellow at IDS and a Research Fellow at SPRU in the late 1970s, and is now at Manchester, and was formerly director of the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi. Gordon White was a Fellow at IDS from 1978 until his death in 1998, also has a contribution, based on his pioneering work on the politics of China, focusing on emerging rural inequalities in the 1970s. Recognising the importance of gender analysis, Naila Kabeer, again a former IDS Fellow (from 1985-2009) and soon to be at the Gender Institute at LSE, has an article on rural gender relations in Bangladesh. And finally, Ian Scoones has a piece on livelihoods and rural development, reflecting on much work emanating from IDS, including by Robert Chambers, Susanna Moorehead, Jeremy Swift and others.

As a source of commentary and debate, today the journal is widely read by academics, activists and practitioners across the world, and is currently ranked top in ‘planning and development’, according to the Thomson Impact Factor rating, and has article downloads in excess of 100,000 each year. Under its current editor, Jun Borras of the ISS, the journal has published extensively on the phenomenon of ‘land grabbing’. With special issues on biofuels, ‘green grabs’ and the politics of corporate land deals, these themes link to work undertaken by the IDS-based Future Agricultures Consortium and the STEPS Centre, that have co-sponsored several major conferences on this issue.

As the poor, rural settings across the world are transformed by diverse drivers, detailed theoretical and empirical work to understand such dynamics is essential. Looking back across 40 years of scholarship in this anniversary special issue, it is interesting to see how contexts change, yet some underlying patterns and processes remain remarkably similar.