Apr 1, 1987
Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland
senses. First, it contained several diverse social, economic and political formulations which were explicable in ecological and historical experience. Second, these persisted or changed over time, and interacted differently with Western or market forces. The story begins with an agrarian order based on rice paddy and South Indian gods, but is most concerned with migrations, military force, the growth of state and local power, and market networks, which diversified the society both within communities and across regions. The XlXth century redefined social relations, through the state, law and the market, but as a continuation of far earlier trends. In rich irrigated tracts, British rule allowed the perpetuation of the alliance between a literate agrarian elite and the state. In dry areas rich peasants were able to take advantage of commercial opportunities. The result was a "distinct style of agrarian capitalism", the product of "local creativity and peasant learning" (p. 14). It is impossible in a short review to do justice to the richness of the data marshalled in support of these arguments, or to the sophistication of the case put forward. Three points may be made, however, to provide a measure of the achievement. First, the broad lines of the approach are not new, or at least will not be unexpected. Ludden's work marks a refinement and an authoritative endorsement of a trend in recent South Asian economic history. This trend has not the advantage (if such it be) of a label, but could perhaps be described as a new empiricism. It is new because it offers radical rethinking, about concepts, sources, periods, and subjects. It is empirical because it is firmly based upon an historical appreciation and is not beholden to any particular set of assumptions or ideological priorities. An important feature of such work, exemplified in its most chronologically extensive form by Ludden, is the idea that particular circumstances must be explained in long-term influences and particular influences assessed against long-term conditions. Ludden calls this the "salience of diversity" (p. 218). In consequence, such forces as imperialism may be understood in a rounded and complex way, so as to make many former controversies seem facile or irrelevant. Secondly, the very nature of the historical method is being rethought. Ludden writes of the need for a comparative approach, by which he means working on the basis of respect for differences. Comparative method, in its earlier sense, is in fact precisely what is ruled out. There are no lessons of a definite kind to be learnt from one society for another, no assumptions to be made about development or change, except after the fullest allowance for the "salience of diversity". And finally, in spite of the title of Ludden's book, dichotomous treatment of rural and urban society has to be abandoned. The word "peasant" itself is condemned, at least in the senses in which it is customarily understood. The peasant is neither autonomous nor undifferentiated; or, to put it another way, if there are subsistence family-farmers, they represent only one of a range of different actors in the society, with whom they are intricately related. How much more interesting and formative such ideas are, than some of the alternative views of rural or subordinate peoples that have become fashionable!