James Scott on Why We Should Study Agriculture

You are an agrarian by training; yet all of your texts are decisively political. What’s so political about agriculture? And what are the policy implications for state-making and development in the Third World?

I think that as the major way of sustenance, as the major resource over which people struggle—questions of land and irrigation water and food supply and famine—are at the very center of the history of political struggles. They are the elementary version of politics and that’s why it seems to me that a concern with such issues as farming is directly and immediately a concern with politics.

Back to the ‘modern, developed world’: in Western Europe and the US, the agricultural section makes up typically 5% of the population. Yet they tend to be heavily overrepresented politically in respect to their demographic weight in many respects because of questions of rural policy, political districting, subsidies… Smallholders and petty bourgeoisie are very important for right-wing parties. They are protected and subsidized to a point where surpluses accumulate and we actually make it difficult for the Third World to export. In a truly neoclassical world, we wouldn’t be subsidizing agriculture and we’d be getting most of our agricultural supplies from poor countries on the periphery of Europe and Latin America. Even in a place like India, which is industrializing and urbanizing rapidly, the fact is that the rural population and the people that live off of agriculture and related activities has never been higher than it is today—even though the proportion is declining, the population is growing at such a rate that this tendency can be marked.

That’s James Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale University and author of The Moral Economy of the PeasantSeeing Like a State, as well as quite a few other influential social science books, on why social scientists should study agriculture, agrarian societies, and agricultural policy.

That interview with Scott, which is interesting throughout and which every reader of this blog should read in full, is part of an excellent series of similar interviews called Theory Talks, which includes interviews with many great social scientists working in the broad area of international relations: Robert Bates, Jean-François Bayart, James Fearon, James Ferguson, etc.

HT: Matt Dickenson.

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