Theoretical Debates In The Field Of Agrarian Studies


  1. Introduction
  2. Diverse Approaches
  3. The Question of Class Structure
  4. Beyond Class: Chayanov and Agrarian Populism
  5. Existence of Personal Bonds in Agricultural Communities
  6. Conclusion


In this article, we make an effort to give you an idea of the various perspectives on the understanding of agrarian social structure and change. It gives a comprehensive overview of the pertinent theoretical arguments in the area of agrarian studies. The development of capitalism in agriculture, the relative appropriateness of Marxist and non-Marxist categories of analysis, the nature of class formation in agriculture, and how land-based social relations interact with other axes of social stratification are major topics of discussion in this debate. We will make an effort to incorporate the complexity of India's agrarian social structure while discussing these more general theoretical issues.

Diverse Approaches

Different theoretical stances have been taken on the agrarian issue in India. Marxist class analysis is not widely accepted as a viable theoretical framework for comprehending India's agrarian and social structure, according to many social scientists. The two main types of arguments for or against the applicability of Marxist categories to the Indian agrarian question are as follows:
  • i. Indian society is a complex society with elements of both capitalism and pre-capitalism coexisting. As a result, it is not compatible with the two-class system that underlies the concept of the mode of production. The precapitalist characteristics can be seen in the rural areas of India thanks to the Jajmani system and remnants of bonded labor. The late K is credited with coming up with this line of reasoning. N. Raj.
  • ii. In India, the caste system is still extremely important. Caste and class are not always related, and there are times when caste may be more crucial in explaining the dynamics of the current social structure than class. Caste as an institution is said to be unique to India on a regular basis, and contrary to popular belief, it has shown a remarkable capacity for survival and adaptation.
In addition, one can find elements of a third strategy in Utsa Patnaik's writings. She claims that because of the complexity of the socio-economic situation in India, it is necessary to analyze the current social formation and its changing processes using Marxian methods. She places emphasis on the characteristics of the pre-capitalist economy at the time of the British conquest and the role that colonial rule played in changing that structure. Furthermore, these kinds of justifications draw attention to how quickly pre-capitalist production relations have been replaced by capitalist ones as a result of state-supported capitalist industrialization. This perspective emphasizes the lack of a coordinated effort to completely abolish feudal systems of production and exploitation in the area of agrarian relations. Likewise, it underlines the character of the changes which tends to promote capitalist production in the wake of land reforms and Green Revolution. The ultimate argument is that continuing capitalist transformation of Indian agrarian structure can very well be grasped in a Marxist framework.

Additionally, the Marxist historian D. D. The mode of production framework is expanded by Kosambi to include historic India. He holds that understanding the origin and historical function of caste in India requires a close examination of its economic underpinnings, and as a result, any changes to the caste system over the course of its nearly two millennia-long existence must necessarily be connected to shifts in the means of production. He links the development of caste to the Aryans' transition from a pastoralism-based economy to a food-producing one in late Vedic and post-Vedic times, as well as to the conquest and exploitative assimilation of non-Aryan tribes (Dasa and Shudra). According to his interpretation, the protracted transition to food production (circa 800 BC–A. D. Parallel changes in tribe and caste were noticeable around 400. The caste system's unique characteristics, the Hindu religion's ideological counterpart that reflects tribal acculturation, and the centralized absolute monarchies from the Maurya to the Gupta periods, according to Kosambi, were required by the practical needs of increasing food production in a hostile environment. The ensuing endless growth of Hindu gods and goddesses, as well as the subsequent endless proliferation of sub-castes or jatis, were reflections of the evolving labor division within the settled village as well as the ongoing acculturation of the tribal elements. The new food-producing economy continued tribal endogamy and commensality as caste endogamy and commensality. Even today, in a few tribal pockets, when food-gathers and mobile farmers discover that their former environment is being destroyed, they are assimilated into the established village as outcasts doing other people's work or as a subcaste that is still inferior. e. exploitation of the food-gathering practices of native peoples in the food-producing sector.

The Question of Class Structure

Following from the aforementioned and as is to be expected, the economic and social traits of classes in rural India have dominated academic discussions in agrarian sociology. Based on data from both extensive surveys and ethnographic field studies, many economists and sociologists in India have contributed to these theoretical discussions. In the paragraphs that follow, we'll try to give you a taste of these scholarly endeavors.

Ramkrishna Mukherjee classified households under various categories based on household occupation in his Six Villages of Bengal, one of the earliest studies of the agrarian class structure. According to Mukherjee, there is economic segregation, a decline in average holding sizes, with the exception of landlords and professionals, a slow breakdown of the middle class of independent farmers and artisans, as well as an increase in the number of share-croppers, laborers, and the poor. The following classification of various agrarian classes is proposed by Mukherjee using a Marxian framework.
  • Jotdar and big raiyats
  • Rich farmer
  • Ryot
  • Non-cultivating owner, petty employer, rentier, artisan
  • Ryotbargadar
In another instance, Andre Beteille's widely discussed book Caste, Class and Power: Changing Patterns of Stratification in a TanjoreVillage focuses on the organization of production, that is, the relationships that village members enter into with one another and with outsiders in order to produce goods and services. In essence, he investigates the village's agrarian class structure because class system is a system of social relations entered for the purpose of production as manifest in a specific productive organization. Since agriculture is the mainstay of the village's economy, the relations of production are relationships between groups of people who contribute in various ways to the process of agriculture. In this light, he proposes a three-tiered class structure that includes landowners, tenants, and laborers.

However, this perspective on the agrarian classes challenges Marx's theory of class. Because of this, Beteille has come under fire for using the three different class stratifications as descriptive legal categories rather than analytical ones. A person's class status in the Marxist sense is not automatically determined by their ownership of land or their ability to cultivate leased-in land. If the producer uses the labor of others to make a profit, pay rent, or pursue other goals, that does define class status in the Marxist sense. Alternatively, consider whether the cultivator is self-employed or whether he is being taken advantage of. According to Marx, a landowner may be a member of any of the various distinct classes. He could be a landlord or a destitute peasant. In a similar vein, a tenant can also be a rich peasant, a small peasant, a middle peasant, or a capitalist.

Despite the fact that, according to Beteille, "landowners and tenants do not actually form distinct groups of people; rather, they are conceptual categories that do. Landowner and tenant status can both belong to the same person, and this happens frequently. Understanding these various class affiliations is crucial because they frequently cause one individual to be pulled in multiple directions by opposing interests. The general effect of this is to prevent class interests from becoming sharply focused and from showing clearly how different classes are positioned in opposition to one another.

Even so, Beteille takes into account three categories of factors that have influenced the agrarian hierarchy: market forces, governmental actions like land reforms and minimum wage increases, and political action. Regardless of the rate of change, market forces have altered the relationship between caste and land ownership in the majority of the country. The 1950s were long ago, F. G. The marketization of land in Orissa was mentioned by Bailey in Caste and the Economic Frontier. When land entered the market, it was common for some castes, whose members had never owned any land before, to be able to purchase it. Concurrently, the proportion of land owned by the traditional landowning castes declined. In fact, a strong correlation between caste and agrarian hierarchy could be seen in the 19th century with relative ease. In Beteille's field village of Sripuram, for instance, Brahmins owned the land, Non-Brahmins typically served as tenants, and AdiDravidas worked as laborers. Once the Brahmins began selling land and the Non-Brahmins began purchasing it, this symmetry began to break down. The Adi-Dravidas embraced tenancy as well. This is an instance of the transition from harmonic to disharmonic inequalities. A shift from a system of cumulative inequalities to one of the dispersed inequalities, or from a relatively closed to a relatively open system of stratification, is what this means. Without a doubt, the following two trends are apparent:.
  • a. Transfer of land from landowning to cultivating castes.
  • b. A high concentration of land within a single caste, for example, Vokkaligas in Karnataka
Generally speaking, castes like Brahmins and Kayasthas who owned land in those areas have sold it and relocated to the cities in search of jobs in the professions and the services. The non-cultivating owners, they have always been. Wherever it was held by people whose ancestors were cultivators by tradition, like Jats, or whose ancestors did not have a strong connection to the urban workforce, like Rajputs, they have kept it and, in some cases, strengthened their control over the land. The introduction of land to the market does not imply that it will eventually become more evenly distributed among the various castes. It is likely a case of members of the same caste purchasing and selling land frequently. There is little evidence that members of the lower castes have purchased large amounts of land. The transfer of land from small holders to large proprietors can also occur in reverse. However, it is important to remember that the owner is socially superior and the tenant is inferior. Similarly, tenants have a higher social status than workers do. Sharecroppers are preferred by Jats over wage laborers.

Beyond Class: Chayanov and Agrarian Populism

Although many studies have been influenced by the Marxian framework, Chayanov's agrarian populism has always been a rival tradition. Following this, the dominant anthropological understanding of peasant society and culture was informed by Chayanovian understanding of the peasant economy. The key elements of Chayanov's agrarian populism are highlighted below:
  • i. Peasant economy involves an intrinsic social relation: self-exploitation of labour power. The measure of self-exploitation is the number of days in the year which the peasant ‘compels’ himself to work. The inequalities within peasant society spring from this subjective relation and do not involve exploitation of some people by the other. 
  • ii. Peasant economy reproduces itself through the family. The family is the progenitor of family life-cycle and of population growth. It is the owner of property. As such, it expresses the fact that the aim of production is household consumption, not feudal rent or bourgeois profit. In other words, peasant world signifies subsistence motivation and static economy. 
  • iii. Peasant economy embodies a contradiction between human needs and the forces of production. This is what generates the laws of motion of both household and economy and which propels agricultural production towards more highly developed system of cultivation and more valuable products. But, this contradiction is not antagonistic. Not only is the scale of peasant production technically appropriate, it is also more appropriate, more efficient and more competitive than capitalist production. Peasants do not need to earn a profit; where capitalists go bankrupt, peasants survive.
In conclusion, Chayanov had a clear theory about how peasant labor and production methods interacted. It was based on a non-social theory of human nature that sometimes viewed man as a utilitarian agent with free will, whose actions are then analyzed as a collection of revealed preferences, and other times as the agent who chooses the purpose of his own labor, such as production for consumption or, more often than not, subsistence.

Chayanov belonged to the Russian populist tradition known as neo-populism, which dates roughly from the turn of the 20th century and is characterized by social science, rural statistical agronomy, and extension work. In line with the neo-populist tradition, peasant agriculture was emphasized for its resilience and capacity to thrive in any environment. Because of this, the peasantry did not necessarily have a tendency to grow the widening economic disparities and class animosities of bourgeois industrial society. There was no tendency to divide peasants into ever-larger groups of rich and poor or landless people, with a smaller and smaller middle-class peasant group in between. The village was a remarkably homogeneous community that was constantly capable of socially and economically reproducing itself. Therefore, Chayanov saw the modernization of traditional small farming as following neither a capitalist nor a socialist road, but rather as a peasant path of increasing the technical level of agricultural production through agricultural extension work and co-operative organization, while also preserving the peasant institutional framework of the family small holding.

Existence of Personal Bonds in Agricultural Communities

Researchers studying India's agrarian scene have frequently debated the effects of the persistence, deterioration, or disappearance of interpersonal ties that unite various groups and classes that work in agriculture. The Jajmani system, customary obligations on the part of landlords and landless laborers, and similar other non-contractual and personal bonds have historically characterized the life of the agricultural communities in India and elsewhere. Small face-to-face groups, tight-knit social networks, and a focus on community life have given rise to multiplex social relations between the various members of agricultural communities. Purely economic relationships are significantly impacted by kinship, caste, location, and paternalistic values. In a sense, the horizontal ties of kinship and caste frequently restrain the vertical hierarchy based on land ownership and control. The decline of the communitarian aspects and the significant reorganization of personal ties in recent years are facts that cannot be disputed. As a result, patronage-based morality and contractual relations based on instrumental rationality are found to be intertwined in rural areas. In contrast to zamindars or brahmins, one might not find the presence of conscious identity at the top. However, the unity of caste and class interests undoubtedly reflects the identity of material interests.

The question of whether wealth, power, and status disparities are caused by caste or class has received little consensus among Indian scene scholars. We can be certain that social inequality has both material and immaterial (ideological) components, and that these two reinforce one another. The axiom that "class inheres caste and caste inheres class" has long been held to be conventional sociological wisdom. Without a doubt, the most significant material cause of inequality in India has been the distribution of land. As correctly stated by Gunnar Myrdal, "land ownership is, in fact, primarily a question of inequality, with which are associated leisure, enjoyment of status, and authority.". Despite this, a small class of people still owns and controls a sizable portion of the land, while a large population of landless agricultural laborers occupies the base of the agrarian pyramid. Numerous different tenancy relations can be found in between. There are a number of other inequalities in addition to this one in the material sphere. But even so, Bailey contends that a variety of relationships, such as those involving land ownership and control and the ties that flow from those relationships, can be studied without regard to caste. However, even in these studies, castes—rather than people or other groups—are used to measure interaction.

In general, social class in India has not received the same direct attention as caste in Indian society. One could argue that caste does not exhaust the categories (such as landlords, owner cultivators, tenant cultivators, and agricultural laborers) in which an Indian villager thinks and behaves. In a society where land is highly concentrated among some caste groups and is scarce among others, it is equally important to ask who owns how much land. Of course, Marxist scholars have emphasized the fact that land ownership is invariably linked to wealth, power, and privilege in a rural setting. To classify the agrarian hierarchy in terms of Malik, Kisan, and Mazdoor, Daniel Thorner created his three-fold system. Here, the emphasis is on land as the primary source of social division.

Overall, agrarian relations in India paint a complex and varied picture with an odd amalgam of beliefs and customs derived from caste, society, local traditions, the market, and the government. So far as P. C. Joshi, the complexity of the agrarian structure can be divided into the following categories:
  • i. There are areas where absentee landlordism still persists in various guises.
  • ii. There are areas of non-cultivating landlordism; open or disguised.
  • iii. There are areas of change-over from non-cultivating landlordism to commercially oriented
  • landlordism or the large scale farming by landlords.
  • iv. There are areas of transfer of land from landlords to a section of the peasantry and the
  • emergence of a Kulak economy.
  • v. There are areas of predominance of self-employed small and middle peasants.
  • vi. There are areas of landlessness as distinguished from areas of wage labour.
In any case, economic change cannot be fully understood in isolation from the social context in which it occurs. There is less autonomy in India's economic organization. It is intricately entwined with a variety of social institutions (kinship, caste, and locality) whose purposes are split between the two. Significant changes in economic activity also affect the social organizations' core values. In theory, modernization results in a decline in hierarchical values and the development of an impersonal structure for organizations, values, and norms. Caste or caste-like organizations and the agrarian way of life have historically had a striking relationship in India.

Agriculture is more than just an economic activity. It has been a way of life with distinct organizational configurations and formative forms or patterns of values. Land is more than just a tool for production. It also serves as a cultural asset. It serves as a metaphor. One's position in the hierarchy is established by it. Naturally, the social environment in which agricultural operations take place must be taken into account. In a village or rural social system generally, caste has been significant in the social system centered on agricultural production, particularly the control and use of land. The caste system has provided an ideological justification for social inequality, whereas land (income from property) has served as the objective basis of traditional hierarchy. Additionally, there has been a negative correlation between land ownership and manual labor. The high caste groups have been kept apart from the actual cultivation industry due to status considerations, lifestyle choices, and cultural norms associated with particular status groups. As a result, the peculiar combination of the caste hierarchy and the agrarian hierarchy is presented by the Indian agrarian structure.


We can conceptualize three methods for comprehending agrarian change. For us, agrarian change refers to a transformation of all the interdependent systems that characterize agrarian economies and societies. This system includes social, cultural, and environmental factors and relationships in addition to technological and environmental ones.

Approaches to Systems: This approach focuses on environmental, technological, and demographic factors and tries to explain how they relate to the farming system. They view the agrarian system as being made up of interdependent socioeconomic components that are geared toward the needs of the family calendar and have built-in safeguards to ensure its survival in the face of frequent natural disasters. The communities of peasants are seen as sound structures. Many aspects of the peasant economy and society can be viewed as mechanisms that share resources in order to prevent the emergence of stark inequalities and, in some ways, to maintain a general state of equilibrium within the community. One set of factors affecting agrarian systems comes from the natural environment; these are of more immediate and direct relevance, and how they function is closely related to the technologies used by people to exploit natural resources. Additionally likely to have an impact on these relationships are demographic variables, population density, and trends in population growth. The problem with such approaches to the study of agrarian societies is that they can only really explain change as something that results from external forces acting only upon the local community because they emphasize the systemic quality of the local community, which is governed by values. Thus, the divergent reactions in two villages to the creation of an irrigation system by the state are described and explained in Scarlett Epstein's famous study of economic development and social change in south India. In this place, the state or broader society is thought to encompass the villages. It is a method that both disregards the mutually determining relationship between localities and states—in which each exerts some determining influence over the other—and ignores potential internal processes of change in peasant society.

Models for making decisions: This strategy is focused on how resources are distributed on farms and how farmers react to new technologies and markets. People are thought to change their own societies by making decisions about their actions and values. It recognizes the notion of entrepreneurship. Structural-historical approaches: This approach begins by looking at the production itself. It is good at explaining the success or failure of individuals within the system, but the system itself is not examined. Therefore, they are interested in how people interact with the environment and how they interact with one another during the production process. In actuality, the natural environment is also thought of as the result of historical interactions between humans and the physical world. This method centers analysis on who owns and controls the resources.

This approach, which may be seen as one of the major sources of change, places a lot of emphasis on the social relationship and conflict structures, or social classes, which are based on differences in the ownership and control of resources by various groups of people. The commercialization of agricultural production is a key historical theme, and this approach takes that into account along with the exchange and sales of inputs and the marketing of goods within the agrarian economy. Small-scale producers are incorporated into the market when they start producing for exchange rather than primarily for their own consumption or to meet the demands of those in positions of political authority. This causes them to become more dependent on purchases for at least some of the items they need. Perhaps the most important process of change in modern agrarian societies is the process of commoditization and the growth of capitalism, or the various ways in which producers in rural households are linked to capitalist production. The relationships between developing capitalism and other non- or pre-capitalist forms of production are thus a focus of this approach. According to one school of thought, capitalism has historically absorbed or completely eliminated other forms of production. Other academics contend that capitalism frequently coexists with other forms or modes of production. They refer to this coexistence as "articulation" of capitalism with other modes of production.


  1. D. D Kosambi 1965. The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 
  2. Mukherjee, Ramkrishna. 1971. Six Villages of Bengal. Bombay: Popular Prakashan. 
  3. Lerche J., Shah A. and Harriss-White B. (2013) Introduction: Agrarian Questions and Left Politics in India, Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 13 No. 3, pp. 337–350. 
  4. Beteille, Andre. 1974. Studies in Agrarian Social Structure. Delhi: Oxford University Press. 
  5. Patnaik, Utsa.1990. Agrarian Relations and Accumulation: “Mode of Production debate” in India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.


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