Subsistence Agriculture Research Paper

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The peasant concept of the good life is the minimum expenditure of physical labor. When applied to food production, peasants expend only enough labor to grow enough food to last until the next harvest. Labor expenditures are matched to the food needed for a subsistence diet. This defines the subsistence compromise and explains why peasant societies experience endemic seasonal hunger and are vulnerable to famine conditions in consecutive poor crop years. Seasonal hunger and peacetime famine conditions affect all peasant societies regardless of race, religion, climate, population density, cultivation practices, and subsistence crops grown. Even peasant societies with low population densities that cultivate fertile soils experience endemic hunger and famine conditions.

Three social values govern subsistence agriculture: (1) equalized opportunities for qualifying households to share cultivation rights on village land, (2) minimal labor expenditures in food production (subsistence labor norms) on the assumption that every crop year will be normal, and (3) equalized sharing of harvests in poor crop years to ensure the survival of all village households. Only by analyzing the operation of the subsistence compromise at the village level can scholars and political leaders understand why seasonal hunger is endemic in peasant societies and why famine conditions recur.


The primary source of subsistence food safety for peasant households is communal land tenure, the equalized allocation of cultivation rights on land controlled by village councils. The purpose of communal tenure is to distribute enough land to qualifying households to grow subsistence amounts of food with subsistence labor norms.

Partible inheritance is the usual way for equalizing subsistence opportunities. Customary law mandates equally dividing land among surviving sons at the death of the household head. Inheriting households acquire cultivation rights to equal portions of each category of land. Each household gets a parcel in the most fertile field (irrigated or best drained) and in as many other fields as there are variations in fertility. A common result of partible inheritance is households cultivating several parcels that are scattered on village land. As population densities increase, village land is divided into many small parcels (morselation).

Equalized access to land use is also often enforced by periodic redistribution of land by lot. Redistribution may be done annually or every second, third, fourth, or tenth year. Customary law mandates that land in communal tenure is a perpetual reservoir for periodic redistribution. It cannot be sold by occupying households because they do not own it; nor can fences be built because they would impede periodic redistribution.

When a village’s land can no longer be physically divided without drastically impairing productivity, the number of parcels is stabilized. Harvest sharing, however, continues. Clifford Geertz in his 1963 book calls land and harvest sharing “agricultural involution” because it seeks to maximize the number of households that can be fed from a fixed area of arable land.


As long as communal tenure operates, customary law protects the performance of subsistence labor norms. Control of land use allows landholding households to control labor expenditures through several strategies, the most common of which is parents’ transferring as much labor as possible to dependents. All peasant societies have high birthrates because households desire many children so that large amounts of agricultural labor can be transferred to them at a young age. Transferring agricultural labor to dependents also occurs through the use of slaves; the use of sharecroppers; the assignment of gender tasks; having multiple wives; and in India, through the Hindu caste system. These practices rely on the least motivated or physically weakest members of peasant societies to perform agricultural labor. Seasonal hunger is often an annual event in normal crop years because their inefficient labor is combined with minimal agricultural labor performed by adult male heads of households.

Peasants believe that a fixed amount of annual labor will produce adequate subsistence harvests in normal crop years although they know that not all crop years are normal. Nonetheless, they willingly risk seasonal hunger to preserve subsistence labor norms. Households always calculate how much labor is required to feed their households until the next harvest, and after this labor is performed, peasants view indolence as the proper use of time.

Harvest Sharing

In poor crop years, customary law mandates harvest sharing, which is most clearly visible in densely populated villages that must practice intensive cultivation. Landless households acquire claims to shares of harvests, usually through sharecropping, by performing disproportionately large amounts of agricultural labor for landholding households.

The ethic of harvest sharing dampens the motivation of a small minority of households to respond to commercial incentives to grow enlarged food surpluses for sale on anonymous markets. Harvest sharing is a leveling institution that enforces a near equality in food-producing capabilities. Preventing households from growing enlarged harvests for market sale ensures that food loans (however small) are available for hungry households. The result is that households that are receptive to commercial incentives do not perform the necessary labor to grow enlarged harvests because any surpluses they produce will not be theirs to sell. Although certainly not economic, harvest sharing is the moral economy of the peasantry. It sustains subsistence agriculture because it tries to ensure that all village households will have enough food to survive poor crop years.

Cultivation Practices

The fixed amount of agricultural labor required to produce subsistence-sized harvests is proportional to population density. Labor expenditures are minimal in shifting cultivation but increase as land is more intensively cultivated. Shifting cultivation, practiced where land is abundant and people are few, requires less per capita labor than any other cultivation practice because there is no ground preparation. Trees are cut and burned and women and children dibble the seeds of food grains (rice, barley, rye, maize, sorghum) into the ground among charred stumps and a tangle of partially burned branches. Thereafter weeding is haphazard and is done by women and children. Land is cultivated for two, three, or four years and then allowed to revert to secondary forest. In eight to twenty years the canopy of the secondary forest shades grasses to death. The forest is recut and burned and the ground replanted. Yields are low, but so too are labor inputs.

As population increases, shifting cultivation is replaced by continuous cultivation; and as population further increases, continuous cultivation evolves into intensive cultivation. The most visible signs of continuous cultivation are fields and terraces without stumps and ground preparation by plows pulled by oxen or water buffalo. Rice cultivators build terraces to retain a water cover to drown competing weeds, and seeds are broadcast sown. When rice cultivation intensifies, women plant germinated blades one at a time. Further intensification requires irrigation, double cropping, intense weeding, and fertilization. Ester Boserup (1965, 1970) has documented that a high percentage of the additional labor required for intensive cultivation is done by women.


All contemporary peasant societies are monetized. As long as peasants control enough land to achieve subsistence diets in normal crop years, their money needs are minimal. Cultural anthropologists have documented that peasant households produce only enough exchange commodities to acquire target sums of money. Typically exchange commodities are one or two bags of grain, but they can be seed cotton, wool, unprocessed coffee beans, tobacco, cinnamon bark, latex sheets, or fowls.

The money acquired through trade is used to purchase a limited variety of manufactured products. Typically these products are textiles, edged tools, cooking pots, plastic pails, and plastic sandals. Manufactured products substitute for fragile handicraft products that need continuous replacement. Peasants compute the durability and utility of manufactured products over handicraft products by comparing the amount of labor required to make handicraft products with the amount of labor required to produce exchange commodities. If the terms of trade are favorable, measured in the amounts of labor saved, peasant households produce commodities specifically for sale. Often these products—coffee, tea, latex sheets—have minimal or no household use, and frequently much of the labor is done by children. Target sums of money are not incomes because in poor crop years little money is acquired and peasant households make few purchases. The welfare of peasant households does not depend on money incomes but rather on control of land use.

Economic Development

Economists like Theodore W. Schultz observed subsistence agriculture without understanding the revolutionary differences between subsistence and commercial social values, between subsistence and commercial labor norms, or between communal and freehold tenure. Nor do most economists understand how assured food surpluses came to be produced in some European nations after 1600 with fewer laborers working longer hours.

Schultz’s analysis of peasant agriculture is based on the false assumption that commercial social values and commercial labor norms are universal and that they operate in peasant villages. On the basis of this assumption, Schultz claimed that peasants were eager to adopt green revolution technologies, improved seed, mechanical plowing, fertilizers, all of which must be purchased if investments made them available. For Schultz and economists who followed his lead, the green revolution was technology that could magically end peasant privation. But peasant privation was not in fact ended because Schultz and most economists did not understand that peasant societies have huge amounts of unused male labor. Assured food surpluses can be produced by supervising agricultural labor—similar to labor performed on plantations. Some of this labor entails better ground preparation, timely seeding, more weeding, and better feeding of draft animals. Peasants reject green revolution technologies because increased per capita yields require adopting these technologies as a package, and applying the package requires much more labor. Only when more people must be fed from the same area of land are some green revolution technologies adopted, because they are necessary to sustain a subsistence level of food production and consumption.

W Arthur Lewis was an experienced observer of peasant labor norms. He understood that the first step in ending subsistence privation was more agricultural labor performed by males. Unfortunately, policies prescribed by international aid agencies continue to be guided by Schultz’s misconception that peasants are eager to adopt green revolution technologies. In most peasant societies per capita food production remains stationary.


  1. Boserup, Ester. 1965. The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure. Chicago: Aldine.
  2. Boserup, Ester. 1970. Woman’s Role in Economic Development. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  3. Geertz, Clifford. 1963. Agricultural Involution: The Process of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  4. Lewis, W. Arthur. 1955. The Theory of Economic Growth. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
  5. Schultz, Theodore W. 1964. Transforming Traditional Agriculture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  6. Seavoy, Ronald E. 1973a. The Shading Cycle in Shifting Cultivation. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 63: 522–528.
  7. Seavoy, Ronald E. 1973b. The Transition to Continuous Rice Cultivation in Kalimantan. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 63: 218–225.
  8. Seavoy, Ronald E. 1977. Social Restraints on Food Production in Indonesian Subsistence Culture. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 8: 15–30.
  9. Seavoy, Ronald E. 1980. Population Pressure and Land Use Change: From Tree Crops to Sawah in Northwestern Kalimantan, Indonesia. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 1: 61–67.
  10. Seavoy, Ronald E. 1986. Famine in Peasant Societies. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  11. Seavoy, Ronald E. 2000. Subsistence and Economic Development. Westport, CT: Praeger.

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