Journal Article

IDS Bulletin Vol. 36 Nos. 2

The Centrality of the Social in African Farming

Published on 1 April 2005

There is a tendency when examining African agriculture to speak about “the farmer”, their “farm”, their “farming system”, or “the farming community”, and to understand the unfolding of African farming in relation to factors shaping these. Yet for more than a century, researchers working with African farmers have found this vocabulary unhelpful because they generate an image of farming which is divorced from the social relations of those who do it.

In this article, we recall some of the central themes of these literatures, and reflect on their renewed importance as African farming encounters regenerating interest in African agriculture within a rapidly transforming global agrarian order.

These literatures explore the social shaping of African farming from the most intimate domains of intra-household arguments to the most international, tracing the footprint in farming of global trade and travel.The literatures of the last few decades on gender and agriculture, showing the gendered relations of farming practices (e.g.Dey 1981; Guyer 1986), and on the social dimensions of resource access and control between different political communities (e.g. Bassett 1993), themselves draw on much earlier traditions of analysis, whether stemming from Marxist political economy or the real day-to-day dilemmas faced by colonial administrators. Equally, the literatures showcasing farmers’ know-how and its discerning logic not only within technical but also within moral and cultural orders (Fairhead 1992a) have roots in early anthropological inquiry into African social worlds (Richards 1939), and the observations of certain colonial agronomists who were as much apprentice to as administrators of those they worked with. As these issues are the stuff of rural society, they have long featured strongly in African fiction(Achebe 1996) and African anti-colonial and post-colonial writings (Kenyatta 1965; Amanor 1994).

Neither agricultural production and investment, the technologies employed in this, nor the operation of agricultural markets, can be understood outside of these social and cultural relations. Here we aim to illustrate this, and show the poverty of analytical frames that ignore them, and the impoverishment they would lead to. The new century brings revolutions in communication technology, biotechnology and mobility, and heightened challenges in health and a transforming and hostile global trading order. Yet in as much as these are new, they merely heighten the importance of understanding African farming in social relational terms, with older literatures becoming more, not less, pertinent in assessing agricultural development opportunities.

Related Content

This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 36.2 (2005) The Centrality of the Social in African Farming

Cite this publication

Fairhead, J. and Leach, M. (2005) The Centrality of the Social in African Farming. IDS Bulletin 36(2): 86-90

Citation copied


James Fairhead

Publication details

published by
Institute of Development Studies
IDS Bulletin, volume 36, issue 2


About this publication


Related content