A peasant, from 15th century French pa´sant, from Latin pagus, country district, is someone who lives in the country either working for others or, more specifically, owning or renting and working by his own labour a small plot of ground. Peasants depend economically on the cultivation of their land. They typically make up the majority of the agricultural labour force in a pre-industrial society. Though a word of not very strict application, it is now frequently used of the rural population of countries where the land is chiefly held by smallholders, peasant proprietors.
In the great majority of pre-industrial societies, peasants constitute the bulk of the population. A rural, peasant population differs enormously in its values and economic behaviour from an urban worker population. Peasants tend to be more conservative than urbanites, and are often very loyal to inherited power structures despite their low status within them.
Peasant societies generally have very well developed social support networks. Especially in harder climates, members of the community who have a poor harvest or suffer some form of hardship will be taken care of by the rest of the community. Loyalty runs very deep. Their communities are extremely tight, and are often difficult to access or understand by outsiders.
Peasant societies can often have very stratified social hierarchies within them.
In a pre-commercial peasant society, peasants usually have a different attitude to work than peasants in a money society, or urbanites, would. Most of them are content to live at a subsistence level and will not expend unnecessary labour raising their standard of living. Traditionally many non-peasants have viewed this as laziness. However, it does make sense from their perspective, since there would rarely be any point in producing more than could be consumed.
The word peasant is sometimes used as an insult by those townsfolk who consider themselves superior to rural labourers.
This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 EncyclopŠdia Britannica.
Last updated: 02-06-2005 13:15:51