What is Critical Agrarian Studies?

By A. Haroon Akram-Lodhi

When Marc Edelman and Wendy Wolford (2017) published Critical Agrarian Studies: An Introduction, it represented a significant intervention to seek to realign a number of heterodox strands of rural development theory and practice into a pluralist field of study, action and advocacy. It is, for example, notable that none of the references to their article actually contained the phrase ‘critical agrarian studies.’ A Google Ngram – which is an online search engine that records the frequencies of search terms – for critical agrarian studies for the period between 1900 and 2008 reveals precisely zero ngrams, which begs the question: what is critical agrarian studies? The phrase itself has its most direct origin in the creation, in 2009, of the Initiatives in Critical Agrarian Studies (ICAS) at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague. The Initiative describes itself as:

a community of like-minded critical scholars, development practitioners and movement activists from different parts of the world who are working on agrarian issues. It responds to the need for an initiative that builds and focuses on linkages and advocates a mutually reinforcing co-production and mutually beneficial sharing of knowledge.

What is striking about this description is that it does not actually state what is meant by critical agrarian studies. In this light, Edelman and Wolford’s paper represents the first attempt to try and map out the meaning of the field and, as such, it ambitiously seeks to shape the future of scholarship, practice and activism in the broader field of rural international development studies. This note seeks to summarize and assess the main contribution of Edelman and Wolford, as a means of framing the proposed structure of The Edward Elgar Handbook of Critical Agrarian Studies.

Why “critical”?

Edelman and Wolford stress that ‘critical frameworks … call into question dominant paradigms.’ In rural international development studies, the dominant paradigm remains, in essence, modernization theory, which first emerged in the 1950s. As they might note, modernization theory is predicated on a dualism: that “traditional” small-scale subsistence-oriented agriculture must be transformed into “modern” capital-intensive market-oriented agriculture, and that this requires that the bulk of farmers eventually seek out off-farm livelihoods as waged workers or entrepreneurs in manufacturing and services. This approach to rural development remains hegemonic within the management of the World Bank; it is implicit within some strands of the United Nations such as divisions of the Food and Agriculture Organization; it lies behind the contemporary teaching of agricultural economics in most universities around the world; and in many corners of the developing world, it is the foundation upon which ministries of agriculture operate.

Critical agrarian studies does not accept this orthodox narrative, suggesting that the values that underpin it are predicated on the need to subsume everything to the market, most particularly land, labour and money (Polanyi 1957). These values are associated with modernity but are historically such recent social constructions that they are a dramatic break with the past, in that the forms of knowledge they promote are not open-ended but rather closed-off. While neoclassical economics is the obvious example of a closed body of knowledge, it is, within social theory, far from the only one. The rise of quantitative sociology and quantitative political science is predicated upon a social-scientific method that assumes rationality and methodological individualism and in so doing not only closes off the manifest complexity of social relationships but also forcibly homogenizes that which is heterogeneous. Therefore, closed bodies of knowledge make historically-constructed social structures appear to be the way societies must be ordered.

It is therefore necessary to return

to the use of concepts that describe the world as empirically given, to the assumptions and beliefs that underlie these concepts, and to the creation of theories that seek to explain the realities of the current order of things … (When) reality is the baseline for theory, and theory is tested against further empirical research … social analysis is scientific in the broadest sense of the term (Veltmeyer 2011: 1).

Thus, the identification and analysis of biases within dominant paradigms in social science is done in order to construct “alternative forms of knowing and of acting in the world” (Edelman and Wolford 2017: 4) that are a better reflection of the lived realities of people. In contemporary rural worlds, this is the purpose of critical agrarian studies.

From peasant studies to critical agrarian studies

The origin of critical agrarian studies lies in peasant studies, which as a distinct field of investigation emerged during the 1960s and early 1970s rooted in a triptych of complementary but distinct epistemological approaches: theories of agrarian change derived from the classical analysis of the so-called “agrarian question” (Akram-Lodhi and Kay 2010); quantitative analysis of large farm-level agricultural data sets that featured in the analysis of the Organization and Production School (Chayanov 1986), the Agrarian Marxists (Cox and Littlejohn 2015) and the Indian “mode of production” debate (Patnaik 1990); and the finely-grained, intimately detailed ethnographic analysis that featured in the work of a host of anthropologists who often took their initial impetus from the work of such luminaries as Eric Wolf, Maurice Godelier, Jack Goody and Sidney Mintz.

To put it simply, but not simplistically: in peasant studies agrarian political economy framed the central research questions, quantitative data provided the “what”, and ethnography provided the “why”. Cumulatively, powerful explanations of social change in rural societies around the world were established in the peasant studies literature.

In the past 25 years this triptych has, to a degree, unraveled. There can be little doubt that rural research framed by the central concerns of the agrarian question has declined as social science orthodoxies replace critical analysis, particularly in undergraduate university degrees. Moreover, the quantitative analysis of large data sets has now become the preserve of resolutely neoclassical economists, who have shaped statistical tools to reflect their concerns, in ways that can seriously compromise the reliability of the data that is collected and the resulting analysis that is produced. Finally, contemporary ethnographers are less interested in the rural, and those that face significant personal, professional and financial constraints if they want to engage in the serious long-term work of understanding the detailed nuances of a rural social formation and the processes of change within which it is enmeshed.

The recent emergence of critical agrarian studies as a field of study is a response to the unraveling of this triptych. Its key point of departure is to move beyond the individual and recognize the social dimensions of identity, in the form of class analysis, however classes are defined. Thus, how agrarian classes are historically and contemporarily formed, reproduced, transformed and cease to be is a central component of its analytical framework. Moreover, class analysis needs to be multidimensional, identifying and exploring the cultural, ecological, social, political and economic factors and forces that facilitate or impede class formation. This common point of departure is then, according to Edelman and Wolford (2017), reinforced by three shared assumptions. The first is that dualist categories of rural and urban, or town and country, which are so common with orthodox dominant paradigms are, in the 21st century, not appropriate. Rather, the rural and the urban are mutually constitutive of each other, and thus interdependent components of a whole social formation. The second is that an analysis of actually-existing rural societies cannot just focus on what was, within the agrarian question literature, an evaluation of the political economy of production, distribution, accumulation, consumption and the structural and institutional governance of these stocks and flows, but must also, critically, integrate within its arguments the cultural dynamics of these stocks and flows. This is because “relations and tensions within and between … groups” (Edelman and Wolford 2017: 8), including but not exclusively classes, will reflect and affect cultural dynamics.  Thirdly, and finally, assessing any historical or actually-existing agrarian society must reflect the “political culture” (Edelman and Wolford 2017: 8) of those societies. Edelman and Wolford highlight interactions between men and women over generations, as well as interactions between the rural and the urban.

In this light, critical agrarian studies remains firmly rooted in ‘agrarian questions’: whether, and if so, how, the transformation of rural society is taking place in ways that are socially, economically and ecologically detrimental to female and male small-scale farmers. As has been nicely stated by Henry Bernstein (2010), empirically evaluating actually-existing agrarian questions requires focusing upon four central questions of agrarian political economy: 1. who owns what? 2. who does what? 3. who gets what? 4. what do they do with it? These four questions align with changes in: agricultural production, most notably the distribution of assets, the capture of the benefits of technical change by social forces, and processes of commodification; the accumulation that emerges out of changing technical coefficients of production; and the political implications, across a myriad variety of forms, of changing patterns of production and growth. Cumulatively, these changes may or may not facilitate the rural transformation that is the object of knowledge and the purpose of action and advocacy.

However, critical agrarian studies has a much broader approach to agrarian questions, reflective of its more open and pluralist lines of enquiry. Its foundation, it appears to me, is to base its theory and its empirics, in some way, within varieties of structure versus agency. Structure, in this regard, refers to recurring arrangements that influence, and so limit, the opportunities and hence choices of individuals. Agency is the capacity of individuals to act autonomously in the choices that they make. So, the structure versus agency debate within development sociology concerns the extent to which behaviour reflects the continuum of possibilities from the dictates of social structure and the socialization of individuals to the complete autonomy of free individuals. In actually-existing structure and agency situations, power is asymmetrical and relational, and thus critical agrarian studies seeks to uncover the sources of social power. While assets and their distribution may be an important determinant of power, as in agrarian questions, critical agrarian studies stresses the intersectionality of structure and agency, and in so doing, does not exclusively focus upon assets and their distribution as the sole basis or expression of power.

Indeed, this helps explain why the phrase ‘critical agrarian studies’ has emerged. As Edelman and Wolford note, the ‘institutional forms’ that critical agrarian studies takes are epitomized by The Journal of Peasant Studies and the Journal of Agrarian Change. Both these journals were founded by Terence J. Byres, who then later co-edited both with Henry Bernstein. Under their editorships, both journals utilized explicitly Marxist theoretical frameworks to frame the empirical studies that they published. However, when the editorship of The Journal of Peasant Studies passed to Saturnino M. Borras, Jr., the journal adopted a more pluralist heterodox standpoint, continuing to publish papers within an explicitly Marxist framework but also publishing work rooted in critical non-Marxist social theory that nonetheless was rooted within a structure – agency framework. This greater diversity within the ranks of engaged scholar-activists serves to broaden the field of critical agrarian studies, make possible conversations rather than polemics, while at the same time, it must be said, making it more broadly acceptable within the United States, where international development studies more generally is both underdeveloped as a field of study while at the same time being dominated by liberal orthodoxies.

It is worth reflecting, finally, how critical agrarian studies differs from peasant studies and the investigation of agrarian questions, as typified by the content of The Journal of Peasant Studies between 1973 and the creation of the Journal of Agrarian Change in 2001. Here, it is possible to identify three specific analytical differences. First, the analysis of large data sets is fundamentally absent from much – but not all – of critical agrarian studies. This reflects, secondly, a reduced emphasis on economic analysis, as this terrain has, unfortunately, been ceded to orthodox neoclassical economics, and a far greater emphasis on the social, political and cultural insights that can be gathered from nuanced and granular ethnographic and sociological investigations. Thirdly, critical agrarian studies embeds its analysis within the context of more global processes: the food regime, which are the international relations of food production and consumption that can be directly linked to forms of accumulation on a global scale.

In providing this macro and global context, critical agrarian studies goes significantly beyond the terrain of peasant studies as it developed in the 1970s through the 1990s. It connects the local to the global, in terms of both structures and agency, and this, in an era of neoliberal globalization, allows it to ask a broader set of questions beyond those of the agrarian question, which focuses upon rural class formation, in order to point toward alternatives. Indeed, this may well be the reason critical agrarian studies should be considered to be a distinct field. It is clearly the case that the historical and contemporary transition from country to town have forcefully impacted upon the character of a number of crises evident around the world and which will continue to play out through the 21st century. Some of these crises are global in character: access to food, climate change and migration, to name three. However, these global crises take singular and specific forms and characteristics around the rural world, rendering global crises as local agrarian crises. Four aspects of local agrarian crises around the rural world can in particular be identified, for they are essentially global in nature:

the global crisis of the peasant economy, processes of de-agrarianization, and the rise of precarious and feminized waged labour in the countryside

land concentration, land grabbing and the rise of agro-industrial capital

the financialization of food and agriculture

the undermining of the biophysical foundations of agriculture

In terms of resolving these local agrarian crises and moving forward toward the creation of alternatives, there are five key domains in which scholar-activists engaged in critical agrarian studies need to build knowledge:

the extent, manifestations and impacts of rural poverty and inequality, about which remarkably little is known, particularly with regard to rural inequality

the mechanics of pro-poor gender-responsive redistributive agrarian reform

the regulation of politically-constructed asset, input, output and labour markets so that they do not favour the powerful but can work for the poor

further increasing agricultural productivity through agroecology

constructing a global and local food system based on food sovereignty

In this way, critical agrarian studies is in fact part of a movement for a new set of political, civil, economic and social arrangements predicated upon the rights of individuals as citizens and self-identifying collectivities of people to express their agency against the structures that constrain them.


Akram-Lodhi, A H (2010) ‘Land, labour and agrarian transition in Vietnam’, Journal of Agrarian Change 10 (4): 564 – 580.

Akram-Lodhi, A H and Kay, C (2010) ‘Surveying the agrarian question (part 1): unearthing foundations, exploring diversity’, The Journal of Peasant Studies 37 (1): 177 – 202.

Barker, C (2005) Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage.

Bernstein, H (2010) Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change. Halifax and Winnipeg: Fernwood Books.

Chayanov, A V (1986) The Theory of Peasant Economy (edited by D. Thorner, B. Kerblay and R.E.F. Smith). Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Cox. T and Littlejohn, G (eds.) (2015) Kritsman and the Agrarian Marxists. London: Routledge.

Edelman, M and Wolford, W (2017) ‘Critical Agrarian Studies in theory and practice’, Antipode doi: 10.1111/anti.12326.

Oya, C and Pontara, N (eds) (2015) Rural Wage Employment in Developing Countries: Theory, Evidence and Policy. London: Routledge

Patnaik, U (ed.) (1990) Agrarian Relations and Accumulation: The “Mode of Production” Debate in India. Mumbai: Sameeksha Trust.

van der Ploeg, J D (2013) Peasants and the Art of Farming: A Chayanovian Manifesto. Halifax and Winnipeg: Fernwood Books.

Polanyi, K (1957) The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press.

Veltmeyer, H (2011) ‘Section 1: Introduction’ in Veltmeyer, H (ed.) The Critical Development Studies Handbook: Tools for Change. Halifax and Winnipeg: Fernwood Books.

Haroon Akram-Lodhi is Professor of International Development Studies and Chair of the Department of International Development Studies at Trent University, Peterborough, Canada.  

Featured Photograph:  A woman in famine hit Eastern Uganda sells vegetables (David Oduut, 30 January, 2017).



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.