The anthropological interest in peasant studies is recent. With few exceptions it post-dates a professional awareness that anthropologists were proliferating while the traditional subjects of their studies, the world's primitive societies, were disappearing at an alarming rate. In contrast to the primitive peoples' minute and shrinking percentage of the world's population, it could be stated that peasantries represented
a genuine social and cultural form to which half or more of the people who have lived since time began have conformed! The fact that peasants -- like primitives -- are on their way out in no way invalidates their right to be studied as a unique form.
Peasants, if not necessarily to be regarded as the architects of grand historical events in the world's great cultural traditions, were nevertheless influenced by them and, more important, provided such basic ingredients as the privates for the army, the tillers of the fields, the faithful for the church pews, without which the roles of general, ruler and priest were inconceivable. However, from the outset, the anthropological treatment of world peasantries foundered on several issues.
There was the thorny problem of methodology for a discipline whose data collection and analysis rested upon the twin pillars of participant observation and an ahistorical holistic approach to the study of discrete social units. This has been labelled the "island mentality" as it stenuned from the early years of the discipline when anthropologists studied remote corners of the Pacific in which a people, illiterate and hence largely ahistorical, representative of a culture, occupied an island whose physical isolation supported strongly the observer's model of a closed, self-contained society. Some felt that the little community within a peasantry might provide a social isolate somewhat analagous to the Pacific Island. Not surprisingly, they were attracted by the caricaturization of the peasant as a hide-bound traditionalist with fierce local loyalties stemming from a world view that valued the past, ignored or feared the future, and regarded the present as being played out within local community limits.
However, there remained a major conceptual problem. If, by the standard anthropological definition, peasantries were "part societies and part cultures", the "little traditional" dimensions of the world's "great traditions", it became impossible to treat whole peasantries as social isolates since the model required some mutual interpenetration of the peasant and other sectors of society. Rather, by ignoring the studies of . . .