Session proposal ESEH 2017: “Peasants and resilience to environmental challenges”

Session proposal for the ESEH Conference 2017

Peasants and resilience to environmental challenges, a comparative approach.

Organizers of the session:
Maïka De Keyzer (University of Utrecht)
Eline Van Onacker (University of Antwerp)

Peasant societies and resilience are not often put together. Often peasants are perceived as one of the more vulnerable social groups. Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and re-organize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks (Walker 2004). In this sense, resilience provides adaptive capacity (Smit and Wandel, 2006) that allows for continuous development, like a dynamic adaptive interplay between sustaining and developing with change (Folke, 2006). The flexibility and dynamism to absorb shocks is most often not attributed to peasant societies, but rather to societies that have capital intensive technologies, well-functioning markets, demographic safety valves through migration and efficient institutions such as social security systems.

Peasants have been defined as primarily small-scale agricultural producers, who control the means of production and who use these means directly to provide for their own subsistence or use. Their productive activity generally is based around the household unit of immediate family and servants. Their activities were integrated into the market economy, but not dependent on markets (Larson, 2006). Throughout history peasants have been portrayed as conservative and rigid, by being risk-aversive and subsistence orientated. Peasants are considered as vulnerable because of two aspects. First of all, their path dependency would prevent the adaptation of new strategies, institutions or technologies during periods of change and thwart a swift response to crises. Secondly, small-scale agricultural producers are supposed to be more vulnerable, because of a lack of wealth, market integration, political power and their dependency on their land.

Nevertheless, peasant societies are currently being re-evaluated. Path dependency, subsistence farming and communal practices did not necessarily hamper an efficient reaction to shocks and changing conditions. In fact, peasant strategies, such as communal organisation, common property, subsistence farming and non-specialised activities are currently explored as alternatives to counter the effects of a globalised, capitalistic and technology-dependent world (vander Ploeg, 2009; Infante Amate -Gonzalez de Molina, 2013).

Nevertheless, it remains unclear whether all types of peasant societies were able to cope with environmental challenges and reach high levels of resilience. Therefore a better understanding of both contemporary as well as historical peasant societies and their struggle with environmental issues is needed. This research session will attempt to do so, by combining research from different disciplines and looking at the longue durée, in order to distinguish some vital strengths and weaknesses of peasant societies in coping with environmental challenges.

We aim to receive papers on modern or pre-modern peasant societies and their level of resilience towards environmental challenges, based on empirical research. Researchers interested in participating in the conference are invited to send their abstracts (c. 200-300 words) before 20 September 2016 to Maïka De Keyzer (M.dekeyzer[at] or Eline Van Onacker (Eline.vanonacker[at]