Saturday, September 22, 2012

Commonplace: rural generalists (Dunham)

TYPICALLY AN ETHNOGRAPHY of a peasant group will devote a hundred pages or more to describing the agricultural sector in great detail, and then dismiss peasant industries in a few throwaway lines. Peasant industries are frequently characterized as "spare time" activities, low in productivity and profitability, which are carried out mainly by poor women and children, and then only when they can find no agricultural work to do…

[Peasant society] produces rural generalists rather than specialists. By this I mean that nearly every peasant has a repertoire of various skills which can be utilized for productive or income-generating purposes. A Javanese man, for example, may have skills in plowing and land preparation which are related to rice agriculture, but he may also know how to repair bicycles, make bricks, drive a pedicab (becak), raise fish or eels in ponds, make noodle soup and hawk it around the streets of a nearby town, etc.

Similarly, a Javanese woman may have agricultural skills in transplanting, weeding and harvesting rice, but she may also know how to make batik cloth, operate a roadside stall or coffee shop (warung), collect teak leaves from a nearby forest for sale as food wrappers, trade vegetables or spices in a nearby marketplace, deliver babies for her neighbors, make palm sugar or cassava chips, etc."

—Stanley Ann Dunham, "Occupational Multiplicity as a Peasant Strategy," as quoted in Janny Scott, A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother (New York: Riverhead Books, 2011), pp. 174-75

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