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Methods for agrarian political economy: reflecting on Sam Moyo’s contributions

Some of the articles for a new special issue of Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy commemorating the massively important work of Sam Moyo, who tragically died in a car accident in November 2015, are now out online. As a towering contributor to debates on land and agrarian change in Africa and beyond, Sam had huge influence. Papers by Samir Amin, Tendai Murisa and William Martin are available already – and there are many more to come.

My article focuses on Sam’s methodological contributions (repository version here), which emerge from his training as a geographer, his keen interest in environmental issues and his deep commitment to thorough political economy analysis. Here’s the abstract:

This article focuses on the methodological lessons from Sam Moyo’s scholarship. Sam’s research is characterised by a combination of detailed empirical investigation, deep knowledge of the technical and practical aspects of agricultural production and farming livelihoods, and big-picture political economy analysis and theory. Sam’s method is an insightful contemporary application of the method originally set out in Marx’s Grundrisse. Many contemporary explorations of agrarian political economy fail to sustain the important tension and dialectical debate, between diverse empirical realities and their ‘multiple determinations and relations’ and wider theorisation of the ‘concrete’ features of emergent processes of change. The implications of Sam’s methodological approach for the analysis of Zimbabwe’s land reform are discussed, especially in relation to the land occupations and the politics of agrarian reform since 2000.

Reflecting on Sam’s work, especially on land in Zimbabwe, two methodological themes conclude the paper:

“First, and perhaps most obviously, empirical detail really matters. Whether from surveys or case studies or biographies or deeply immersive ethnographic engagements, the data that highlights the texture, nuance, and variation of what is happening is vital. Using mixed methods, combining quantitative and qualitative insights, is essential. This is not just the formulaic approaches of the standard consultancy, with a rushed survey and a focus group or two providing the data, but requires deeper, engaged work that allows confidence in the material produced. Such work becomes especially powerful if carried out over a long time, to get a sense of temporal dynamics, and over space in multiple locations, to get a sense of spatial variability. Comparative analysis, over time and space, can in turn add to our depth of understanding. Context, contingency, and conjuncture are all vital features of any dynamic situation, and essential for grasping what is happening. Sam’s work, especially with the impressive team at the African Institute for Agrarian Studies in Harare, showed all these features of empirical methodology and a commitment to fieldwork in particular places over time, even when funding was very short.

Data that accumulates as solid evidence is essential when confronting contested issues. Having reliable and robust data is the core of a strategy for influencing change. It may not result in a simple narrative, and may add layers of complexity, but it provides the grounding on which challenges to existing policies, or media and academic commentary, can be made. In the period from 2000, when the global media and many academic colleagues too, railed against the land reforms in Zimbabwe, many without having done any recent empirical work, and with scant attention to any that had been produced, having a solid basis to develop arguments and counter misinterpretations was important. In this, the work of a growing group of committed scholars in Zimbabwe, with Sam central to this network, was essential.

Second, without a wider theorisation, it is impossible to make sense of the diversity, variety, and general confusion that much empirical work throws up. Single cases are insufficient, and theorisation must emerge from engagement with diverse sources. Theory that is grounded and robust must engage with the ‘many determinations and relations’, defining the ‘concrete’, while at the same time avoiding a ‘chaotic conception of the whole’. To reiterate Marx’s point in the Grundrisse, ‘the concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse’. For Sam, an analysis centred on class, but sensitive to other axes of difference, including gender, was at the core. But empirical contexts meant that static class assignations were inadequate, and a sophisticated, fluid interpretation, appropriate to the southern African context, had to emerge. Thus ‘real relations’ inform what Stuart Hall calls the ‘differentiated unity’ of analytical phenomena, such as class. Linked to a located understanding of class relations and struggle, Sam’s work articulated with wider understandings of finance and capital in the context of globalisation, within an unequal, evolving post-colonial world order. These broader assessments, inspired by the likes of Samir Amin and Giovanni Arrighi, for example, in turn informed more micro-analyses of particular places and processes.

Sam was deeply committed to both these elements of method in political economy, and deployed them effectively in combination, one dialectically informing the other. The key lessons from Sam’s work were to keep both strands of thought and action alive, and in dialogue. For him, both the geographer and the political economist were ever-present. The lesson for us all is: neither to disappear into grand theory, nor into micro-empirical detail, but capture them both, holding them in tension. Sam’s impressive approach combined a sustained commitment to fieldwork, to people and places – a direct result of his training in geography – and his ability to theorise the political economy of land, emerging from his engagement with radical scholars rooted in agrarian struggles around the world. It is a rare skill to observe in one person, and across such an impressive career, but a skill that is essential, and one we can all learn from Sam’s work.

Rigour in method arises from keeping these tensions in play, always being reflexive about how evidence is constructed, and for what purposes. Big surveys, micro-case studies and wider political analysis can all come together, but only with a really deep sense of how connections are made, and how each informs each other. This was Sam’s great skill”.

Those committed to a political economy approach can learn much from Sam’s approach. Reflecting the productive tensions described by Marx in the Grundrisse between diverse empirical detail and more concrete structural analysis, his work combined diverse methods, quantitative and qualitative, and engaged rigorous analysis with controversial policy, making research knowledge count. He is very much missed, although his work continues through many colleagues linked to the now renamed Sam Moyo African Institute for Agrarian Studies in Harare.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


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Class and rural differentiation after land reform

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

A new paper in the Journal of Agrarian Change by the team that wrote the Zimbabwe’s Land Reform book examines the processes of rural differentiation that have occurred following land reform in 2000, and their political and economic consequences.

The paper points out that “acquiring land through reform processes… and allocating it to a mix of largely land and income poor people from nearby rural areas is not the end of the story. As new livelihoods are established, investments initiated and production, business, trade and marketing commence, processes of differentiation begin – within households, between households in a particular place and between sites”.

A simplistic, populist back-to-the-land narrative is therefore insufficient. Rural economies are always dynamic – some win, some lose. So what happened across the 16 sites studied over a decade in Masvingo province?

The story is interesting – and complex. The paper shows how, among 400 households, 15 different livelihood strategies are observed, classified into four broad groups (stepping up, stepping out, hanging in and dropping out, following Andrew Dorward and Josphat Mushongah). These can be broadly associated with rural classes. These include an emergent rural bourgeoisie, and a larger group of petty commodity producers doing quite well by stepping up through agricultural production and stepping out through diversified livelihoods, and often a combination of both. There are worker-peasants who farm but also sell their labour, and the semi-peasantry who are struggling.

Linking the diversity of livelihood strategies – what Karl Marx in his treatise on the method of political economy called ‘the rich totality of many determinations’ focusing on real life on the ground – and broader patterns, tendencies and class formations (‘the concrete – the unity of the diverse’) is not an exact science, but the paper makes an attempt.

Why is this important? First, it is vital to realise that the new resettlements are not static or homogenous. The instability of class formations, and the overall fluidity of social and economic relations is emphasised. Efforts to support the new resettlement areas must take this into account. Who to back? The new emergent middle farmers or the poor and struggling? Second, the dynamic formation of class – cross-cut by differences of gender, age and ethnicity – has implications for political dynamics in the countryside. Again, who will have the political voice in the future? Will it be the ‘chefs’ who are small in number but who have grabbed land, or a larger group of emerging farmers who are doing well? And will workers, poorer peasants and others ally with them in pushing for a better deal?

These political dynamics are discussed at the close of the paper. Much is speculation, but informed by an understanding of emerging patterns of socio-economic differentiation. If political parties in forthcoming elections want to know a bit more about their constituencies, then the paper offers some food for thought.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland


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