(by Clifford Geertz)



Although sometimes applied to any permanent small settlement consisting of more than a few scattered dwellings, the term "village" usually refers to a consolidated agricultural community. In this usage, it is distinguished from such other types of settlement pattern as tribal camps, dispersed hamlets, suburbs, and towns, although in practice the lines of demarcation cannot always be drawn with unequivocal sharpness. So defined, the village was the predominant type of human community for over three millennia and continues to be so in most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as in some parts of Europe.


The domestication of plants appeared in southwestern Asia perhaps as early as 10,000 B.C., but the emergence of the first true villages based on fully effective food production seems to have taken place almost three thousand years later, the earliest general date being 6750 B.C. for Jarmo in northeastern Iraq. In lower Egypt, this "village threshold," as it has been called, was crossed about 5000 B.C., in Atlantic Europe about 4000 B.C., in India about 2500 B.C., in west Africa about 1500 B.C., and in Mesoamerica it may have been as early as 3000 B.C. (The dates for China, although almost certainly prior to the second millennium B.C., remain undetermined.) Wherever the foodproducing revolution effectively replaced earlier hunting and gathering patterns, village life became established. The techniques of domestication spread rapidly, even to areas ecologically quite different from those in which they arose. Man's first serious attempt to shape his environment actively, rather than passively adapt to it, marked anew era of cultural development.


The fullest achievements of this new era came only with what has sometimes been called the "urban revolution," or the appearance of civilizalion. Towns arid cities emerged, based on the altered economic relationships. Paradoxically, it was the appearance of the political, economic, social, and religious developments associated with urban centers that brought village life to its full development. With but a few exceptions, and those only partial--the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest, the villages based on shifting cultivation in the tropical forest regions in Africa, South America, and southeast Asia, the taiga settlements of Siberia--the primary farming community did not long remain independent and autonomous but became an integral part of one or another civilizational complex, Mayan or Peruvian, Mesopotamian or Egyptian, Indic or Sinitic. Between the folk culture of the village and the sophisticated culture of urban or quasi-urban settlements, there developed a multifaceted interdependence that bound them, for all their contrasts, into a single sociocultural whole. Most recent research on village life has focused upon the analysis of this interdependence.


The development of village studies 


Feudal Europe was the first field of research within which such a bipolar approach to the study of village life evolved. This was not altogether fortunate, since medieval Europe represented a somewhat atypical civilization, in which sophisticate culture was carried less by urban classes in the proper sense than by a dispersed, at least semi-rural, clergy and nobility. The studies of medieval village organization by von Maurer, Maine, Seebohm, Maitland, Vinogradoff, Coulton, Bloch, and Homans moved steadily from formal analyses centered mostly on land tenure regulations, systems of field rotation, and details of legal status to more broadly sociological interpretations that emphasized the deep embeddedness of the local community in an institutional structure which far transcended its boundaries. The growth of the manor system, the development of fairs and markets, the evolution of lords' courts, the growth of towns, and the increasing penetration of ecclesiastical institutions into local contexts knitted the village firmly into what Bloch pronounced the most characteristic feature of the civilization of medieval Europe: "the network of ties of dependence, extending from top to bottom of the social scale" ( 1939-1940). It was recognized that the picture of the fully self-contained farming community of preindustrial Europe, especially western Europe, facing the outside world as a hermetic unit is more a figment of a romantic imagination than asocial reality. This recognition was rather more belated in studies of the Orient, the Middle East, and the New World, where the myth of a nearly absolute social discontinuity between the world of the ruling classes and that of the peasantry continued, and in fact persists in some quarters today.


There were several reasons why the view that the traditional peasant village could be studied as a self-contained social microcosm rather than as a node in an extended social field disappeared more slowly outside the restricted purview of medieval studies. Perhaps the most important reason was that whereas the European researches were first undertaken by historians moving in upon the village to fill out their over-all picture of the feudal social order, those elsewhere in the world were, in the main, first undertaken by anthropologists transferring their interests, techniques, and concepts from the study of more or less isolated primitive tribes. The historian entered complex civilizations from above, the anthropologist from below, with the consequence that where the latter's village studies were, in general, far fuller, sociologically much more realistic, and more delicately sensitive to the quality, rather than the formal outlines, of peasant life, they were also, at first, generally more parochial, less analytically penetrating, and more flatly descriptive. The tendency to view a peasant village as yet one more bit of humanity complete in itself cut anthropologists off from some of the theoretically most significant dimensions of village communities. However, it brought them into a more intimate contact with the detailed content of life in such communities than even the most sociologically minded of the historians could achieve.


Eventually it was precisely this greater realism that caused anthropologists to recognize the limitations of the microcosmic approach and compelled them to widen their field of interest beyond the boundaries of the village proper. Perhaps the most representative, as well as the most influential, figure in this transitional development was Robert Redfield. In his very first book, Tepoztlˇn, a Mexican Village (1930), Redfield was already concerned with the "impact" of the towns and cities of greater Mexico upon the life of his villagers. He set forth one of the earliest explicit conceptualizations of the peasant village as a type of community "intermediate between the primitive tribe and the modern city"; however, the study itself still treats the village as an autonomous unit, complete in itself, at best reacting defensively, and not very adequately, to external influences. It was not until his third, and perhaps still best-known, book, The Folk Culture of Yucatan (1941), that the focus on the theme, "city, town, village and tribe" moved to a central position. He attempted to relate these different types of human community to one another and to postulate a series of changes that transform those at the "simpler" end of the continuum into those at the more "complex." However, the analysis of the peasant village of Chan Kom is still largely in terms of an independent, relatively isolated, and more or less homogeneous community of "folk culture" responding to forces impinging upon it from outside its well-defined boundaries. It was only in his later works, of which Peasant Society and Culture (1956) is perhaps most representative, that Redfield took the final step and specifically discarded the older anthropological model of the primitive isolate. He replaced it with a view of compound peasant society, of peasant communities as (borrowing a term from A. L. Kroeber) "part societies," and peasant cultures as "part cultures" in which their relations to the over-all civilization of which they are a part are not external, irritant elements, but integrated in their internal composition. Noting Kroeber's remark that anthropologists used to study organisms, societies by themselves, but now study organs, societies that are parts of larger societies, Redfield asked: "How are we to think about and study the small community as an organ and to study the larger organism of which it is a part?" And with this question the corner is turned in modern analyses of "non-Western" peasant villages as earlier it had been turned, less suddenly and less self-consciously, in the study of "Western" ones.


Contemporary trends in analysis


In contrasting "great" and "little" traditions Redfield himself provided one of the more useful tools in attacking the bipolar nature of the peasant village. In themselves, the ideas are not particularly novel. By a "great" tradition Redfield meant the refined, systematically organized, and consciously cultivated belief and value systems of the gentry, the clergy, etc., often referred to as "high culture"; by a "little" tradition he meant the cruder, less systematic, largely uncriticized cultural systems, often referred to as "folk culture," of the peasantry proper. If this unoriginal distinction has proved surprisingly useful in understanding the cultural metabolism of village life, it is because both Redfield and, more importantly, those who have followed in his footsteps have not been content merely to describe the two sorts of traditions but have directed their efforts toward tracing out the interactions between them.


Attention has been given to the way in which elements of high culture filter down to local contexts to become part of one or another little tradition, a process called "parochialization," and the way in which elements of local custom rise to become part of the over arching great tradition, a process called "universalization." In India, the advance of "Sanskritization"--the progressive penetration of high Indic culture patterns into village life--has been carefully analyzed (and debated) ; in Middle America, the peculiar process by which the folk culture of yesterday becomes the avantgarde culture of today has been examined; in southeast Asia, where several great traditions exist in one region, the effect on village religious patterns has been probed. Much interest has centered, also, on so-called cultural brokers, men (priests, schoolteachers, village chiefs, etc.) whose position permits or obligates them to mediate between the great traditions of the urban centers and the little traditions of the villages. This has also been true in studies of social institutions (pilgrimage sites, religious schools, artistic troupes) that, well or badly, play a similar role. And finally, some research has been directed toward analyses of the way in which tribal peoples, originally outside the sphere of a civilization, come to be integrated into it as true peasants through rephrasing their own cultural concerns in the vocabulary of the more comprehensive tradition. There has also been some examination of the adjustments necessitated on the local level when one great tradition more or less totally replaces another, as in post-Conquest Middle America.


A somewhat different, but equally influential, approach to the analysis of the village has been that associated with Julian Steward in his treatment of "complex societies" (1955; Steward et al. 1956). Here, the emphasis is less cultural and more on social structure, but the reduction of the village from an organism to an organ is no less apparent. Steward sees the various part-societies of a complex or compound society as divided into vertical segments, horizontal segments, and formal institutions. Vertical segments are local units of various sorts, such as villages, neighborhoods, and households. Horizontal segments are special subsocieties--occupational, class, ethnic, and the like--which, like local units, may have a somewhat distinctive way of life, but which crosscut localities. Castes are a good example, but so also are interlocal trading communities, monastic orders, regional, political, or culural elites, and so on. Finally, formal institutions include the monetary system, the law, education, and organized religion -generalized structures that run through the whole society, "binding it together and affecting it at every point." In this type of conceptualization, the peasant village is a vertical segment connected to towns, cities, and other villages by means of horizontal segments and formal institutions, which, spreading out from it in various directions, are at the same time basic elements of its internal organization. The very form of the village, much less the processes by which that form is maintained or changed, cannot be seen except against the background of the wider society in which it is embedded.


Working within this framework, Eric Wolf (1955) has attempted to devise a typology of peasant villages in Latin America and then to apply the typology more generally to villages in the Old World as well as the New World. Starting with the assumption that a useful classification of peasant communities must center on differences in the way in which the communities are integrated with the outside world, he discriminated two main types: "closed" or "corporate" as opposed to "open." Closed, or corporate, communities are marked by a clear structural identity that persists over time, a sharp distinction between members and nonmembers, a steady-state approach to economic activities, and a number of characteristic cultural traits--a "cult of poverty" extolling hard work and simple living, "institutionalized envy" designed to keep any individual from advancing very far ahead of his fellows, and a self-conscious maintenance of local distinctiveness in dress, language, custom, etc. Open communities are marked by cash crop cultivation and consequently a less standoffish relation to the outside world. In fact the open community is in fairly continuous interaction with the outside world and is marked by greater social heterogeneity, intense concern with social status, and less attachment to established patterns of equilibrium. Wolf did not argue that these two categories provide an exhaustive typology, and suggested, in passing, five others that are also defined largely in terms of their form of integration with larger sociocultural systems. Other students have analyzed villages that combine elements from both of Wolf's primary types, referring to them as "open, corporate" villages. Still others have attempted to use the rubrics "centripetal" and "centrifugal" to express differences in community structure. These are similar in context, although not identical, to the types Wolf has isolated: centripetal villages are those in which social institutions--economic, kinship, political, ritual--produce a constant tendency for members to move out beyond the village boundaries into the world of the larger sociey; centrifugal villages are those in which such institutions tend to hold or draw back members within those boundaries. The classification of peasant villages has just begun, and largescale revisions in existing typologies must be expected as a greater knowledge of cross-cultural variations in community--society relationships accumulates.


  Apart from typological work (always no more than a preliminary to analysis), the study of the actual modes of linkage, the specific bonds between the village and the other segments and institutions of complex societies, has also been advancing, if hesitantly and on a rather mundane level of abstraction. Social networks, in contrast to social groups, are being examined. These are the widespread, intricate, usually rather irregular, and often rather fragile patterns of interpersonal relationships formed by trade, friendship, locally exogamous marriage, extravillage political loyal. ties, religious affiliation, and the like. As person-to-person (or family-to-family) ties are brought from the periphery of anthropological analysis to its very center, the village is coming to be seen less as a solidary bloc unit set over against other solidary bloc units than as a focus upon which dissimilar social filaments partially converge. Studies of bazaar-type markets, of class-based or caste-based service ties, or geographically extended kinship relations, arid of religious discipleship have all been conducted in these "field theoretical" terms in recent years. Except for the work on markets, where a veritable revolution in our notions about the role and nature of trade in traditional civilizations is underway, pertinent cqncepts remain largely undeveloped. Having dealt with long-established customs on the one hand and defined social groups on the other, anthropologists are experiencing some difficulty in devising methods and concepts for coping with a type of social order in which both the form of personal relationships and their content are neither very clearly outlined nor neatly organized.


Emerging issues in theory and research


The increasing interest in the study of peasant villages--an interest bound to accelerate even further as the remaining independent tribal groups of the world themselves become integrated into larger sociocultural units--has thus brought with it not only new advances in the scientific analysis of society but has as well uncovered some awkward problems whose solutions are not yet in sight. Rather like the consideration of psychoanalytic ideas that in the 1930s forced anthropology to confront the individual, village studies have introduced a serious conceptual and methodological crisis into that generally somewhat matter-of-fact discipline.


One of the more important of such awkward problems is that of devising ways and means by which to characterize the commonly quite wide variability of village organization within a given region, civilization, society, nation, etc. Traditionally, anthropologists worried little about "representativeness." They assumed that the particular community under study was essentially so similar to other communities within the same culture sphere that its idiosyncrasies could be viewed as of secondary interest at best; or, alternatively, they attempted to isolate similarities shared by all or most of the communities lying within that sphere, and thus present some ideal typical image of "the village." It soon became quite apparent that, with respect to India, China, Middle America, medieval Europe, the Middle East, or even the more developed parts of Africa, neither of these approaches would really bear up under scrutiny. If village studies were not to abandon all claims to general significance, it became necessary to find some other, more differentiated way of describing village life in complex societies. Although both the "typical case" and the "common denominator" approaches have largely faded from the scene, at least in their more naive forms, there is as yet very little agreement as to what sort of approach is to replace them.


There has been an attempt to refine the "typical case" approach by choosing for study a number of villages that are representative of at least the major variants in community type found in the society. Ecological variations have sometimes been employed in such studies, as for example in the multiple-investigator study The People of Puerto Rico (Steward et al. 1956) where villages based on coffee, tobacco, and sugar cultivation were studied independently and then compared and contrasted to give a differentiated picture of peasant life on the island. Dry-crop and irrigationbased, hill and plains, settled and shifting agriculture villages have been used in the same way. Another approach has been to choose villages in the major subcultural regions--a method virtually imposed by the variegated histories of such civilizations as the Indic or the Indonesian. Others have attempted to find some basic structural themes that are found in all or most villages in a given society; the limited range of variation is set by the restricted forms by which these themes may be expressed. Still others have traced the varying expression of a single dominant institution in the society to the same end--caste in India, politicoceremonial organization in Mesoamerica. These attempts all reduce village organizations to a repeating entity or an abstracted ideal type. A genuinely satisfactory method for discovering, analyztng, and describing the village society as an ordered set of variations has yet to be developed.


The factor of social change has increasingly forced its way into the center of attention in village studies. The fact that virtually all the peasant villages of the world are now caught up, to some degree, in the deep-going processes of cultural transformation associated with the universal diffusion of the social and economic patterns of modern industrial civilization makes any static analysis of village life seem quaint to the point of irrelevancy. There has been an upsurge of concern with both the histories of particular villages and with refining our methods for distinguishing between legend, myth, and factual history in such away that these varying views of the local past can be effectively related to one another in analyzing processes of change. Although such studies can hardly be said to have advanced very far, such historical analyses can no longer be dismissed as "mere speculation." There have also been a few tentative attempts, usually based on ecological considerations, to trace the general, long-term pat. tern of village development in a particular region. Recognition that most of the villages in Europe, Japan, and much of Latin America stand in complementary relationship not to a classical great tradition of great antiquity, a bazaar-type market system, or a traditional hereditary elite, but rather to modern mass culture, a highly industrialized economy, and a thoroughly bureaucratized government, has led to a search for new formulations of the bipolar nature of. village life. Although here, too, little more than a recognition of the problem and a certain amount of descriptive work has been so far achieved, research on what might be called "postpeasant" villages is going on with increased intensity in many areas-Italy, Japan, France, Brazil, Yugoslavia, Holland, Scandinavia, etc.and can be expected to lead to important revisions in both theory and method.


In the most general terms, the conceptual and methodological crisis that the study of village life has forced upon anthropology can be phrased as a pressing necessity to discover the ways in which the findings of studies of small-scale communities can be made relevant to the understanding of large-scale societies. The exact place of anthropological analyses of village life among the quite differently oriented studies made by economists, political scientists, historians, sociologists, psychologists, and others in the countries of the so-called underdeveloped world is not yet clear. In this very old but also very new field of scientific interest, the major task is to make clear, and thus to demonstrate the significance of, a multidimensional understanding of traditional, transitional, and modern society.





[Directly related are the entries ANTHROPOLOGY, article on THE ANTHROPOLOGICAL STUDY OF MODERN SOCIETY; FEUDALISM; HISTORY, article on SOCIAL HISTORY; PEASANTRY; URBAN REVOLUTION. Other relevant material may be found in the biography of REDFIELD.]





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BEARDSLEY, RICHARD K. et al. 1959 Village Japan. Univ. of Chicago Press.

BLOCH, MARC (1939-1940) 1961 Feudal Society. Univ. of Chicago Press. -> First published as La societe feodale: La formation des liens de dependence and La societe feodale: Les classes et le gouvernement des hommes.

BRAIDWOOD, ROBERT J.; and WILLEY, GORDON R. (editors) 1962 Courses Toward Urban Life: Archeological Considerations of Some Cultural Alternates. Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, VoI. 32. Chicago: Aldine.

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HOMANS, GEORGE ( 1941) 1960 English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century. New York: Russell.

MARRIOTT, McKIM ( editor) 1955 Village India: Studies in the Little CommunitY. Univ. of Chicago Press. -> Also published as Memoir No.83 of the American Anthropological Association.

REDFIELD, ROBERT 1930 Tepoztldn, a Mexican Village: A Study of Folk Life. Univ. of Chicago Press.

REDFIELD, ROBERT 1941 The Folk Culture of Yucatan. Univ. of Chicago Press.

REDFIELD, ROBERT 1956 Peasant Society and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Civilization. Univ. of Chicago Press; Cambridge Univ. Press.

STEWARD, JULIAN H. 1955 Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

STEWARD, JULIAN H. et al. 1956 The People of Puerto ci Rico: A Study in Social Anthropology. Urbana: Univ. of IlIinois Press.

WOLF, ERIC 1955 Types of Latin American Peasantry: A Preliminary Discussion. American Anthropologist ", New Series 57: 452-471.



Village, in: Sills, David L. (ed.): International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (16 volume edition). New-York/N.Y./USA 1968: Macmillan & Co., vol. 16 (Thorn-Zoos), pp. 318-322


full text source: scan of a hardcopy & corrected OCR-conversion by Ingo Moerth (20/ 06/ 2005).


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