A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
April 5, 2007 Volume 37 / Number 6


The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath the Level of the Marketplace

Tony Waters (Lexington Books)


Tony Waters spent 15 years developing the thesis for his new book, The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture (Lexington Books), which analyzes the nature of modern social change in 18th-century Scotland, 19th-century United States, and 20th-century Tanzania. The idea grew out of his work in remote subsistence farming villages in Tanzania from 1984 to 1987 through the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).

While in Tanzania, Waters said, he and other relief workers grew frustrated with the villagers’ reluctance to provide labor for “self-help” projects such as building schools and clinics, digging wells, and planting trees. The LWF workers were offering food to the hungry villagers in exchange for labor, assuming that this would make up for the loss of time spent farming. When the villagers resisted, the Westerners would often assume they were lazy. Imagine the LWF workers’ surprise when they removed all incentives to labor on these projects—and more people started showing up at construction sites.

Waters realized that he and other Western relief workers were so embedded in the “rules” of the labor market that they failed to understand the importance of mutuality and kin loyalty in the villagers’ lives. “We didn’t recognize that other people don’t automatically want to buy and sell everything to strangers,” he said.

Waters returned to Tanzania three times: in 1994–1996 to work with refugees from the Rwandan genocide, in 2001 on a CSU, Chico grant to do social and oral history studies, and in 2003–2004 as a Fulbright Scholar teaching at the University of Dar Es Saalam. He also continued to research various societies’ changes from self-sufficient rural farmers to specialized jobs and a market economy.

In the resulting book, The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture, Waters looks at the decline of subsistence farming in Africa, Europe, and the United States. American readers will be particularly intrigued by the discussion of frontier icons such as Daniel Boone and Charles Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, men caught between two worlds. “There is this proud and independent but poor and dangerous lifestyle and this new modern life with a focus on marketplace and factories and buying and selling things to subsist,” said Waters. “[Boone and Ingalls] ran from that market culture.”