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Durham University

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Challenges of the agrarian transition in Southeast Asia, The

A research project of the Department of Geography.


A thing of the past for fully industrialized countries, the agrarian transition is currently being experienced by the vast majority of developing countries. Much has been written and continues to be written about this fundamental ‘rite of passage’. The major goal of this project is the reformulation, through the study of Southeast Asia’s current and intensive socio-economic transformation, of the theory of the ‘agrarian transition’.


In strict terms, the agrarian transition has been traditionally defined as a range of processes linked to the increasing importance of the market economy, which are at work within the agricultural sector and affect the agricultural as well as the rest of the rural population. Classical conceptions of the agrarian transition have however been widely critiqued for being excessively unilinear, too narrowly focused on political economy, and too Eurocentric. For a review and critique of the immense literature devoted to the theory as well as to the practice of the agrarian transition, see, among others, Kautsky, 1899; Thorner et al, 1966; the Journal of Peasant Studies and the recently launched Journal of Agrarian Change, particularly the lead article by Bernstein and Byres, 2001; Rigg, 2001 and Wilson and Rigg, 2003.

In broader terms, the agrarian transition refers to a larger societal transformation, from an agrarian society – for which agriculture represents the central occupation, the most important source of income, and the largest proportion of GDP – to one based increasingly on industrial production and services, while urbanisation and livelihood changes proceed apace. Nowadays, this broader transformation is closely dependent on a country's degree of integration in the world market.

Over the last twenty years, the literature on agrarian and rural relations in both the developed and the developing world has been marked by an explosion of innovative theoretical approaches, many of which have been inspired in part by the analytical challenges posed by globalisation. New research, on such topics as geography and place, identity, commodity chains, gender, agro-food systems, power and the production of knowledge, regulation and certification (both private and public), political ecology and network theories, has brought about dramatic shifts in the way that central concepts such as the rural, the market, environment and development are understood. Southeast Asia is one of the key areas where these new insights are being developed and Canadians are at the forefront of this research.

The diversity of this research has come, however, at the cost of fragmentation in the understanding of the broad outlines of agricultural change and rural life. Scholars working within the diverse research fields listed above – which themselves emerge out of a variety of disciplines – do not always communicate effectively, failing to build on each other’s insights and findings. In trying to reformulate the concept of ‘agrarian transition’, we need as a team to acknowledge powerful trends that are at work across the countries under consideration – trends like urbanisation, the decline of agriculture as a source of income, and rural commercialisation – while also recognising the remarkable spatial and cultural diversity of the agrarian transition and the agency of the people involved. Given that similar or at least comparable processes are underway in other parts of the world, notably Latin America and Africa, this conception of the agrarian transition should travel well. The project will also contribute to the theorisation not just of agrarian Southeast Asia or agrarian transitions more generally, as well as related poverty and livelihood transitions, but to the question of the relations between the global and the local, one of the most pressing research questions in contemporary social science.

Generic Research Questions

Our approach is structured by two major axes, one defined by the four major conceptual windows or lenses: globalisation, livelihoods, spatiality, actors; the other by the six sets of processes at the core of the agrairian transition: 1) agricultural intensification and expansion; 2) market integration; 3) urbanisation and industrialisation; 4) population dynamics; 5) intensification of regulation; 6) environmental change.

At a conceptual level, the four major conceptual windows will provide the integrative framework for the various research sub-projects being developed. Every sub-project will explicitly address questions of globalisation, livelihoods, spatiality and actors. In this way, each will contribute to the conceptual innovation that lies at the heart of the ChATSEA project.

A further level of integration will be provided by the six sets of processes, each one coordinated by a process coordinator. This will serve to integrate research on specific issues across Southeast Asia and will ensure comprehensive coverage of all dimensions of the contemporary agrarian transition.

The four concepts or windows determine the generic or overarching research questions to which we will be seeking answers in relation to each of the six sets of processes. These generic questions are:

Globalisation. How are supra-national structures, flows, relationships and contexts interacting with, and influenced by, the six processes, for example agricultural intensification?

Livelihoods. How are livelihoods and social inequalities being constructed and affected by the six processes in question, for example, market integration?

Spatiality. How are conventional spatial categories of analysis being blurred or reworked by the six processes in question, for example industrialisation? How are the processes differentially effective across space?

Actors. How are gender, class, ethnic and regional identities reworked by the actions of the six processes? What are the networks of actors and institutions constituting the process in question, such as the intensification of regulation, and what are the key sites/nodes for policy intervention or resistance?


The research will rest upon, first, established research methods, including field visits involving a wide range of data gathering techniques (questionnaires, in-depth interviews, focus groups, participant observation, etc.), library consultation and secondary data collection, and data analysis. In many instances, reliance on existing material, including archival and cartographic, will be essential. For this, the participation of Southeast Asian institutions and researchers will be crucial. These methods will be utilised via a number of research sub-projects, ranging from village to regional, national and cross-national investigations of specific issues. These in turn will inform regional overviews based around each of the six key processes. Second, the research will be carried out within a comparative context and constantly evaluated through email, the WIKI, the knowledge base, and cluster meetings and seminars as well as broader workshops.

These methodologies will in many cases support longitudinal studies of a number of village communities that have been studied by several of the team members, in some instances as far back as the early 1970s, in particular in Central and Northern Thailand and on the Kedah plain (Bruneau, 1980; De Koninck, 1992). While no pre-set questionnaire will be imposed on the individuals and teams involved in these diachronic or longitudinal studies, as with all other sub-projects, the aim will still be to investigate the key concepts and processes among these communities. Such revisits will rest largely on time series data and qualitative research components, while other sub-projects will employ the most appropriate methods with regards to the participants, the locations and, obviously, ethical considerations. All methods will be constantly evaluated by team members, as well as Southeast Asian resource persons.

Over the five-year period, at least forty-five graduate students will be trained. As well as essential training in conducting fieldwork, students will learn how to transform and interpret data, represent findings and develop appropriate strategies for specific research problems, and will gain an in-depth appreciation of the politics of fieldwork, the need for reflexivity, and the importance of research ethics. This training, in all of the universities involved, and the integration of two post-graduate fellows in two Canadian universities, will constitute an essential goal of the project. In many cases, this will involve the pairing of graduate students from Canada and Southeast Asia, following a successful model applied in previous research ventures supervised by the project director, which involved the cooperation of IDRC, CIDA and NGOs. Shared field visits for researchers and students will be encouraged. Since a good number of the students associated with the project will benefit from additional sources of funding, such as scholarships or other research projects in which the team members are involved, not all of those formally participating in the ChATSEA project will be fully funded by it. This implies that, as the project develops, an even larger number of graduate students will be formally associated with it and benefit from funding and networking. In addition, a number of Southeast Asian undergraduate students will be hired and trained, as many as ten per year, to help with and learn the skills to undertake fieldwork, particularly surveys and interviews.

As well as the institutions and scholars formally associated with the project, a substantial number of research partners, collaborators and stakeholders will be involved. These include, notably, several NGOs (see list), and government institutions. Several of these partners and local stakeholders will be directly involved either in the actual designing of specific research sub-project questions or in active field research, or both. This will be the case, for example, of LATIN, in sub-projects dealing with resource access and livelihoods in Indonesia, or of the Muda Agricultural Development Authority (MADA) staff members, with research to be carried out within the Muda irrigation scheme, in Kedah, Malaysia. This will allow for the supervision of students operating in the field to be achieved through local universities and institutions, including those formally involved in the project, partner institutions (e.g. Yayasan Akatiga), stakeholder institutions (e.g. MADA) or universities and institutions with which we have close contacts (e.g. Khon Kaen University).


From the Department of Geography