Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Enterprising Yeoman

As Durkheim pointed out in his paper “Primitive Classification,” humans have been classifying things (specifically) each other for a very long time.  Sometimes we define according to similarities, and other times we define according to differentiation.  We can attempt to dissect the reasoning behind these classifications to better understand not only the classified but also the classifiers.  Whatever we decide to do with this tendency to sort and organize the stimuli in our daily lives, it will never be a neat and tidy process.  Classification is generalization, and there will inevitably exist certain outliers that contradict our identification of a class.  However, despite the occasional contradiction, classifications endure, and so it is with Sonya Salamon’s classification of two agricultural demographics she labels the ‘yeoman’ and the ‘entrepreneur.’

To be critical, Salamon is theorizing on a specific group of farmers from rural Iowa who happen to be in relatively easily divided ethnic groups she refers to as ‘German’ and ‘Yankee’, and we’d be erroneous to presume her classification scheme might be easily transferred to a broader agricultural spectrum.  Salamon herself raises a question in her yeoman/entrepreneur split when she discusses the rearranging of identifying characteristics that occurs when a marriage bridges the two orders, and I’m sure she would agree that to assume all farmers associate completely with either one or the other is a gross simplification of reality.  That said, however, it is this simplification I’d like to focus on.  While Salamon’s constructs of yeoman versus entrepreneur may have questionable gaps and incongruities, yes, but in general theoretical application they appear to hold up quite well—even in other settings.  I have a hunch that perhaps Salamon’s groupings are simplistic for the sake of explaining and belie the true complexities within all cultural issues, but when I apply her models to farming families I know the classifications work surprisingly well. 

At the first mention of the ‘yeoman’ classification, I identified my host family in Senegal as such.  Everyone always says that in Senegal farming is very much a man’s work: the women help weed and harvest and typically keep a small vegetable patch during the rains but the seeding, the plowing, the weeding, and the harvesting is all controlled and decided by the man of the family—it’s his job.  The women labor because they are an extra set of hands to work the tools, but the decisions on which field is seeded with what and the order of weeding and harvesting is never a woman’s decision.  The women are responsible, too, for furnishing the labor force with the morning and afternoon meals, as men only ever cook if they desire something extra (and even then they’ll often order a woman to do it for them) or if there are no women present to do the cooking.  They may ‘own’ a field originally under the ownership of their father, but this ownership is merely in title only (i.e. ‘Aysatu’s field’ is used mainly as an identifier), and the only economic gains of the harvest come from women’s gleaning work done after the main harvest.   Succession is clear—it will always be a son who takes over the farm management (and household management, too, for that matter) and typically the son will only take over the farm once the father is ready to relinquish his hold as farm manager.  Here, the similarities with the yeoman model become blurred, as more often than not the father only relinquishes his position as farming head once he is too old and feeble to physically continue with the tasks.  Even then, many sons lament the fact that their father, too frail to visit the fields himself, will still manipulate the goings-on from the household compound.  It might be expected that the eldest son assume position as head of the household and therefore the head farmer once the father passes, but as many sons migrate from village to town in search of additional income, this is not always an option.  In this respect, my host family followed the entrepreneur model: the sons were encouraged to leave the compound in search of merchant jobs in the city instead of remaining in the community as the yeoman model predicts.

My host family, however, deviated from the normal succession expected within Senegalese culture.  My host father—who was the eldest of his brothers—had traveled and experienced a lot before he returned to take over the family farm from his own father.  He was an extremely enterprising man, and he worked hard to exploit the market in his favor.  He was one of the first farmers in the area to embrace agroforestry as an investment for his children, and the year after he made a killing in the habanero pepper market everyone in a 15km radius was growing hot peppers.  He understood the importance of a steady income and encouraged both of his eldest sons to migrate to Seracounda in the Gambia so they could open a hardware store.  He dreamed of them remaining in Seracounda and providing steady economic support to the family back home in Senegal while the youngest son would take over the farming and essentially become the main man of the house.  There was some talk about why he had encouraged the family to set up in this way: Sosay, the youngest son, was an ambitious man with a tendency to daydream, start projects, and never finish them—perhaps Baay had figured the compound would be the safest bet for him, and he groomed him as best he could to take over managing the farm.  When Baay, passed away, however, it became quickly apparent that the family did not approve of planned succession.  Domb, who had been absent for all of his young adult life and knew very little of farming, was promoted instead, and I saw him work hard the next year and half to learn as much as possible.  Sosay had openly expressed interest in running the household and farming pursuits, but he’d also expressed interest in moving elsewhere and becoming an entrepreneur himself…but in a business besides that of agriculture.  Perhaps the family tension would have been less had Baay followed the traditional yeoman model instead of creating a divergent model of his own.  Or perhaps Sosay’s ambivalent and hesitant attitude is primarily a result of Baay’s overindulgent, insistent grooming of Sosay to fit the part: Salamon does suggest that yeoman models of succession might in fact spawn unenthusiastic successors due to the lack of a real challenge or fight for the right of succession.  This example is certainly not a clean one (I never promised it would be) but it does draw on many of the points Salamon makes with regard to yeoman classification.  American and Senegalese cultures are arguably dissimilar in many aspects, but the similarities of agricultural schemes makes me wonder as to the underlying culture of farming families and whether or not it can span seemingly disparate social cultures.   

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