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About … the Theme, 2009–2010

to top Hinterlands, Frontiers, Cities and States:
Transactions and Identities

Rare are the societies in which the binary distinction between the countryside and the city does not carry enormous weight, denoting different cultural patterns, different forms of economic production, and different units of settlement and social life.

The Program in Agrarian Studies, in its eighteenth year, hopes to encourage imaginative work that both questions these categories and examines their practical and symbolic meaning.

How do different societies in fact understand the spatial order they exhibit? What terms are meaningful and how are they related? e.g. frontier, wilderness, arable, countryside, city, town, agriculture, commerce, hills, lowlands, maritime districts, inland. How have these meanings changed historically?

Above all, what are the exchanges and transactions between these key units? In the case of frontier or countryside and city, this would require attention to such issues as trade, credit, migration, kinship, economic dependency, and land ownership at a minimum. In the case of the hinterland and the state, it would imply a concern with grain requisitions, corvée, taxes, conscription, judicial systems, law, rural administration, as well as with flight, resistance, and rebellion.

The cultural and symbolic content of these exchanges is as important as their material content. How do urban populations view the countryside and how are they, in turn, seen by villagers and farmers? How have these reciprocal views changed over time and how have they been expressed and codified in institutions?

At one time in some societies, for example, the countryside has been seen as a place of toil, ignorance, barbarism, paganism, and depravity, while at another time in the same society, it has been seen as a source of honest work, natural virtues, simple piety, ‘family values,’ solidarity, and honesty. These views (and those of the countryside vis-à-vis the city) are often reflected in literature, oral traditions, pastoral poetry, jokes, painting, political rhetoric, social movements, and economic policy.

We believe this theme, broadly conceived, offers promising terrain for collaboration between humanists and social scientists and between students of western and non-western societies.

As an example, it might prove fruitful to study “frontiers” as distinctive social formations. compared say, to older settled agricultural areas, it has been claimed, “frontiers” have a unique culture, a highly mobile pattern of stratification, a particular view of gender and the family, a disregard for formal law and convention, a tradition of freedom, and their own brand of “frontier” politics and “frontier” literature.

Are such assertions meaningful? how have conceptions of the frontier changed historically? what are the cultural relations between the frontier and the center/city/state, and how have they changed historically? What difference does it make if the frontier is a military frontier, a penal settlement, an aristocratic fief, a slave or serf society, a region of small holders, if it is producing cash crops for export or subsistence crops, if it is ethnically diverse or homogeneous? To what degree do frontier populations see themselves (and are they seen) as having a distinctive way of life with definite political, cultural, and economic interests?

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We do not intend the theme to be confining and we welcome work that challenges the terms we have used to describe it. the theme represents a range of analytical concerns of interest to faculty at yale associated with the program. by no means do we wish to foster some orthodoxy, but we hope the issues raised will be engaged by a fair number of the Postdoctoral Fellows invited and the colloquia given in the next year.

Applications for research fellowships by scholars working outside the confines of this broad theme will also be entertained. We are committed to encouraging the best and most imaginative work on agrarian issues; if such work falls within the theme, so much the better, if not, too bad for the theme.


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Last updated 7/24/11 at 1:52 PM

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