75th Anniversary: 46) Research at Rural Sociology: The everyday political economy of rural livelihoods in South and Southeast Asia

Mark Vicol

How do rural people make their livelihoods? What determines who prospers and who is left behind? How should we study and understand rural development and agrarian change? These questions are core to critical development studies of Global South countries with significant rural populations. The answers, however, often reflect deeply held ontological and epistemological differences and assumptions about what counts and what doesn’t (or what’s important and what isn’t) in the analysis of rural development. Despite parallel developments in social theory in recent decades to bridge these divides (e.g. Elder-Vass 2010), approaches to rural development in low-income countries tend to fall in one of two camps: those that emphasize structure; and those that privilege agency. Although there are exceptions that integrate across analytical approaches, two exemplars of this agency/structure divide in development studies are actor-oriented livelihoods analysis, and agrarian political economy. Each has been critiqued and often dismissed by the other for what they don’t do: livelihood or actor-oriented approaches critique agrarian political economists on grounds of determinism and for discounting the diversity of practices and actors at the micro level; while agrarian political economy dismisses livelihoods research for its failure to account for broader relations of power, production, reproduction and property. Both approaches also imply rather different outcomes for policy or praxis: the former focuses on increasing autonomy and individual choice; the latter focuses on the role of the state and/or class-based political movements.

According to Scoones (2015: 37), this debate is summarized by the question “what is more important: what people actually do or the factors that constrain or enable their actions?” This question has animated my research on small farming, rural development and agrarian change in South and Southeast Asia over the last decade. My research shows that not only, as Scoones notes, is the answer to this question quite obviously neither, but also that we can consider both livelihoods (agency) and political economy (structure) simultaneously in studies of rural development. The shortcomings of each approach correctly identified by the other should not be taken as further encouragement to retreat into theoretical or methodological fortresses. Instead, I argue it is possible to productively combine the contextual richness of livelihood approaches with the structural insights of agrarian political economy (Scoones, 2015). By moving beyond an agency/structure dualism in critical development studies, we can pay attention to both at the same time as part of the same process. Put differently, livelihoods are central to understanding agrarian change, and vice versa. We can therefore begin to ask questions such as what does it mean to be a poor or rich rural household? What do the livelihood pathways of different social groups look like? How do livelihood practices produce, reproduce or challenge patterns and processes of differentiation in rural areas? And, how do broader patterns of structural change in turn act back upon livelihoods?

In fact, the rationale for combining the insights of agrarian political economy and rural livelihood analysis can be read as coming from Marx himself. In the Grundrisse (1973), Marx argues that to arrive at a concrete understanding of historical change, one must dialectically move in from the abstract towards the “many determinations and relations” that make up the whole, what Marx called the “unity of the diverse”. The core questions that inform contemporary agrarian political economy (Who owns what? Who does what? Who gets what? What do they do with it? See Bernstein, 2010) are also inherently questions about livelihoods. The idea of a combined approach that asks these questions at multiple scales is that on the one hand, a deep understanding of rural livelihoods can unpack the complexity of everyday practices, whereas political economy can make concrete the ways in which social relations at various scales shape livelihood practices and trajectories and ultimately determine patterns of winners and losers in rural spaces. I have used such an approach, what I call the everyday political economy of livelihoods, to try and understand the multiple determinations of agrarian change and the everyday experiences of such change in smallholder farming communities in India, Myanmar and Indonesia (see Vicol, 2017; Vicol, Pritchard & Htay, 2018; Vicol et al. 2018; Vicol, 2019; Vicol & Pritchard 2021).

In India, this approach was applied to explore the implications of contract farming for household livelihood trajectories and broader patterns of agrarian change. In a case study of potato contract farming in three villages in Maharashtra, a wealth ranking exercise, along with household interviews, was used to construct local understandings of differentiation (Vicol, 2017; 2019). Participants in each village constructed three ‘wealth groups’ of best off, middle and lower households, with each category associated with particular landholding patterns, income sources, balance of on- versus off-farm livelihood activities, use of wage labour, and caste. Dominant narratives around contract farming typically conceptualize it as either ‘win-win’ (for farmers and agribusiness) or ‘win-lose’ (agribusiness wins, farmers lose). My research showed that a) participation in contract farming was concentrated in the ‘middle’ group of households; and b) that rather than sparking dynamic new processes of accumulation among contract farmers or leading to new forms of exploitation, contract farming is contributing to processes of agrarian change already under way. More specifically, participation in contract farming tended to reproduce the middling livelihood trajectories of middle households, while best off households concentrate on non-farm activities for their accumulation strategies (engaging in what Gillian Hart has called ‘diversification for accumulation’). These findings challenge existing policy narratives centered around ‘value chain development’ interventions such as contract farming that promote a simplified vision of ‘market-led’ agricultural development and agrarian change.

My research in India and elsewhere demonstrates that processes of rural development and agrarian change can’t be reduced to simplified narratives. Instead, it is the complex interplay of everyday livelihood practices and social and economic structures that shape patterns of winners and losers in agrarian spaces. To paraphrase Marx (1852; see also de Haan and Zoomers, 2005), what an everyday political economy of livelihoods reveals is that rural people in the Global South do make their own livelihoods, but not necessarily under conditions of their own choosing.


Bernstein, H. (2010). Class dynamics of agrarian change. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood.

de Haan, L., & Zoomers, A. (2005). Exploring the frontier of livelihoods research. Development and Change, 36(1), 27–47.

Elder-Vass, D. (2010). The causal power of social structures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marx, K. (1852/2008). The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: Cosimo.

Marx, K. (1973). Grundrisse. London: Penguin.

Scoones, I. (2015). Sustainable livelihoods and rural development. Rugby, United Kingdom: Practical Action.

Vicol, M. (2017). Is contract farming an inclusive alternative to land grabbing? The case of potato contract farming in Maharashtra, India. Geoforum, 85, 157-166.

Vicol, M. (2019). Potatoes, petty commodity producers and livelihoods: Contract farming and agrarian change in Maharashtra, India. Journal of Agrarian Change, 19(1), 135-161.

Vicol, M., Pritchard, B., & Htay, Y. (2018). Rethinking the role of agriculture as a driver of social and economic transformation in Southeast Asia’s upland regions: The view from Chin State, Myanmar. Land Use Policy, 72, 451-460.

Vicol, M., Neilson, J., Hartatri, D.F.S., & Cooper, P. (2018). Upgrading for whom? Relationship coffee, value chain interventions and rural development in Indonesia, World Development, 110, 26-37.

Vicol, M. & Pritchard, B. (2021). Rethinking rural development in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady Delta through a historical food regimes frame. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 42, 264-283.

Looking back, Looking Forward: Setting a future agenda for rural sociology

We are proud to announce our upcoming seminar series ‘Looking back, Looking Forward: Setting a future agenda for rural sociology’ as part of the 75th anniversary celebration of Rural Sociology. We will kick off the series in February and continue throughout 2021, leading up to our grand anniversary celebration on the 24th of September. Continue reading

Introducing RSO’s new Assistant Professor!

Well, the last four months has been a whirlwind of moving houses, living out of suitcases, new climates, new friends, stroopwafel, bicycles and mind-blowing public transport (for an Australian, anyway). Having finally set up some photos on my desk, and unpacked all my boxes, I thought it was time to introduce myself to all you past, present and future RSO blog readers out there.

G’day, I’m Mark, RSO’s new assistant professor, and yes that is an Australian accent you hear.

Moving to the Netherlands to join WUR has been a mix of the old and the new for me. It’s been a great thrill to reconnect with friends and colleagues from around the world who have also found their way to Wageningen, including some fellow survivors from my PhD days in the Geography school at the University of Sydney.

A little bit about me then…Coming from an environmental science/development studies background, it was in Sydney that I discovered my love for the discipline of Geography (how does a geographer end up in a sociology group you may ask? More on that later). There, I pursued a PhD thesis project working with small farmers in Maharashtra, India who were being enrolled in potato contract farming schemes by agribusiness firms.

It was through this work that I developed my ongoing interest in what is known as ‘the Agrarian Question’, which connects to old debates about agrarian change and rural development going all the way back to Karl Marx himself, implicating Lenin, Karl Kautsky, and Alexander Chayanov along the way, before being renewed and applied to current agrarian and rural development problems by my contemporary intellectual heroes including Henry Bernstein, Harriet Friedmann, Michael Watts and Jan Douwe van der Ploeg. My time in India also triggered a life-long love affair with the country (not to mention the humble potato…).

That interest has since taking me to Indonesia (working with smallholder coffee farmers engaged in global value chains), Myanmar (working on a large-scale rural poverty, food and nutrition security, and livelihoods project), and back to India (studying the links between land and livelihoods). My own take on rural development in South and Southeast Asia is that we need approaches that bridge the structural insights of agrarian political economy with a ‘people-first’ approach that explicitly acknowledges the agency of rural people.

My ongoing task then has been to break down unhelpful dualisms by attempting to construct a political economy of everyday livelihoods in South and Southeast Asia. If you’re interested, you can find a list of my publications here. I’d love to hear from any students interested in pursuing a thesis on any of these topics!

Back to the new about moving to WUR. Well, while I’ve always looked to Wageningen as a place I’d love to work, I never quite saw myself joining a sociology group! Of course, there is a lot of overlap between geography and sociology, and you can find us geographers infiltrating all sorts of university departments all over the world.

One challenge I’m looking forward to is learning about the different frameworks and conceptual approaches that my colleagues at WUR apply to these common themes of sustainability, justice, equity and transformation in global food systems, while also getting my head around the teaching program! This academic year, you’ll be able to find me teaching into RSO34806 (Transforming Food Systems), RSO21806 (Origin Food), and RSO20806 (Agricultural and Rural Development). I’m excited to meet all the students studying these courses!

Finally, with my lovely partner, Katharine (who is actually a sociologist, and an amazing one at that!), we have a project investigating social, organisational and technological change in the global hops industry. I have to say, this involves the most enjoyable fieldwork I’ve been a part of. If you are interested in craft beer, the sociology of agricultural, and talking with hop farmers we are currently looking for one or two thesis students to work on this topic.

As winter approaches, I am starting to miss the sun and surf of Sydney a little bit. However, the cosy houses, the numerous Wageningen pubs, day trips to Den Haag, my clumsy attempts at learning Dutch, and my wonderful new colleagues more than make up for it. Thanks to everyone for the warm welcome so far, and I’m looking forward to all that is ahead in RSO!