|Peasant Society and the Image of Limited Good*
GEORGE M. FOSTER University of California, Berkeley
American Anthropologist, Volume 67, Issue 2, (April 1965), pp. 293-315.
“Human behavior is always motivated by certain purposes, and these purposes grow out of sets of assumptions which are not usually recognized by those who hold them. The basic premises of a particular culture are unconsciously accepted by the individual through his constant and exclusive participation in that culture. It is these assumptions—the essence of all the culturally conditioned purposes, motives, and principles—which determine the behavior of a people, underlie all the institutions of a community, and give them unity” (Hsiao-Tung Fei and Chi-I Chang 1945:81-82).
“Human beings in whatever culture are provided with cognitive orientation in a cosmos: there is ‘order’ and ‘reason’ rather than chaos. There are basic premises and principles implied, even if these do not happen to be consciously formulated and articulated by the people themselves. We are confronted with the philosophical implications of their thought, the nature of the world of being as they conceive it/ If we pursue the problem deeply enough we soon come face to face with a relatively unexplored territory—ethno-metaphysics. Can we penetrate this realm in other cultures? What kind of evidence is at our disposal? . . . The problem is a complex and difficult one, but this should not preclude its exploration” (Hallowell 1960:21).
1. Cognitive orientation.
1. The members of every society share a common cognitive orientation which is, in effect, an unverbalized, implicit expression of their understanding of the “rules of the game” of living imposed upon them by their social, natural, and supernatural universes. A cognitive orientation provides the members of the society it characterizes with basic premises and sets of assumptions normally neither recognized nor questioned which structure and guide behavior in much the same way grammatical rules unrecognized by most people structure and guide their linguistic forms. All normative behavior of the members [beginning of page 294] of a group is a function of their particular way of looking at their1 total environment, their unconscious acceptance of the “rules of the game” implicit in their cognitive orientation.
A particular cognitive orientation cannot be thought of as world view in a Redneldian sense, i.e., as something existing largely at a conscious level in the minds of the members of the group.’ The average man of any society cannot describe the underlying premises of which his behavior is a logical function any more than he can outline a phonemic statement which expresses the patterned regularities in his speech. As Kluckhohn has pointed out, cognitive orientations (he speaks of “configurations”) are recognized by most members of a society only 3n the sense that they make choices “with the configurations as unconscious but determinative backgrounds” (1943:218),
A model or integrating principle is not the cognitive orientation itself, but for purposes of analysis the two cannot be separated, A well-constructed model is, of course, nut really descriptive of behavior at all (as is, for example, the term “ethos3 as used by Gillin.  to describe contemporary Latin American culture). A good model is heuristic and explanatory, not descriptive, and it has predictive value. It encourages an analyst to search for behavior patterns, and relationships between patterns, which he may not yet have recognised, simply because logically—if the model is sound—it is reasonable to expect to find them. By the same token, a sound model should make it pos-. Bible to predict how people are going to behave when faced with certain, alternatives- A model therefore has at least two important functions: it is conducive to better Held work, and it has practical utility as a guide to policy and action in developmental programs.
A perfect model or integrating principle of a particular world view should subsume all behavior of the members of a group. In practice il is unreasonable to expect this. But the best model is the one that subsumes the greatest amount of behavior in such fashion that there are no mutually incompatible parts in the model, i.e., forms of behavior cast together in what is obviously a logically inconsistent relationship. Kluckhohn speculated about the possibility of a single model, a dominant “master configuration” characterizing an entire society, for which he suggested the terms “integration” (1941:128) and “ethos” (1943:221), but I believe he never attempted the task of describing [beginning of page 295] a complete ethos. Opler, on the other hand, has described Lipan Apache culture in terms of twenty “themes” which are, however, to a considerable extent descriptive, and which in no way approximate a master model (1946).’
How does an anthropologist fathom the cognitive orientation of the group he studies, to find patterns that will permit building a model or stating an integrating principle? Componential analysis and other formal semantic methods have recently been much in vogue, and these techniques unquestionably can tell us a great deal. But the degree of dissention among anthropologists who use these methods suggests that they are not a single royal road to “God’s truth” (cf. Burling 1964). I suspect there will always remain a considerable element of ethnological art in the processes whereby we come to have some understanding of a cognitive orientation. However we organize our thought processes, we are engaging in an exercise in structural analysis in which overt behavior (and the simpler patterns into which this behavior is readily seen to fall) is viewed somewhat as a reflection or representation of a wider reality which our sensory apparatus can never directly perceive. Or, we can view the search for a cognitive view as an exercise in triangulation. Of each trait and pattern the question is asked, “Of what implicit assumption might this behavior be a logical function?” When enough questions have been asked, the answers will be found to point in a common direction. The model emerges from the point where the lines of answers intersect. Obviously, an anthropologist well acquainted with a particular culture cannot merely apply simple rules of analysis and automatically produce a model for, or even a description oi, a world view. In effect, we are dealing with a pyramidal structure; low-level regularities and coherences relating overt behavior forms are fitted into higher-level patterns which in turn may be found to fall into place at a still higher level of integration. Thus, a model of a social structure, sound in itself, will be found to be simply one expression of a structural regularity which will have analogues in religion and economic activities.
Since all normative behavior of the members of a group is a function of its particular cognitive orientation, both in an abstract philosophical sense and in the view of an individual himself, all behavior is “rational” and sense-making. “Irrational” behavior can be spoken of only in the context of a cognitive view which did not give rise to that behavior. Thus, in a rapidly changing world, in which peasant and primitive peoples are pulled into the social and economic Context of whole nations, some of their behavior may appear irrational to others because the social, economic, and natural universe that in fact controls the conditions of their life is other than that revealed to them—however subconsciously—by a traditional world view. That is, a peasant’s cognitive view provides moral and other precepts that are guides to—in fact, may be said to produce—behavior that may not be appropriate to the changing conditions of life he has not yet grasped. For this reason when the cognitive orientation of large numbers of a nation’s people is out of tune with reality, these people will behave in a way that will appear irrational to those who are more nearly attuned to reality. Such peoples will be seen as constituting a drag (as indeed [beginning of page 296] they may be) on a nation’s development, and they will be cutting themselves off from the opportunity to participate in the benefits that economic progress can bring.
In this paper I am concerned with the nature of the cognitive orientation of peasants, and with interpreting and relating peasant behavior as described by anthropologists to this orientation. I am also concerned with the implications of this orientation-and related behavior to the problem of the peasant’s participation in the economic growth of the country to which he may belong. Specifically, I will outline what I believe to be the dominant theme in the cognitive orientation of classic peasant societies,* show how characteristic peasant behavior seems to flow from this orientation, and attempt to show that this behavior—however incompatible with national economic growth—is not only highly rational in the context of the cognition that determines it, but that for the maintenance of peasant society in its classic form, it is indispensable.4 The kinds of behavior that have been suggested as adversely influencing economic growth are, among many, the “luck” syndrome, a “fatalistic” outlook, inter- and intra-familial quarrels, difficulties in cooperation, extraordinary ritual expenses by poor people and the problems these expenses pose for capital accumulation, and the apparent lack of what the psychologist McClelland (1961) has called “need for Achievement.” I will suggest that peasant participation in national development can be hastened not by stimulating a psychological process, the need for achievement, but by creating economic and other opportunities that will encourage the peasant to abandon his traditional and increasingly unrealistic cognitive orientation for a new one that reflects the realities of the modern world.
2. The model of cognitive orientation that seems to me best to account for peasant behavior is the “Image of Limited Good.” By “Image of Limited Good” I mean that broad areas of peasant behavior are patterned in such fashion as to suggest that peasants view their social, economic, and natural universes—their total environment—as one in which all of the desired things in life such as land, wealth, health, friendship and love, manliness and honor, respect and status, power and influence, security and safety, exist in finite quantity and are always in short supply, as far as the peasant is concerned. Not only do these and all other “good things” exist in finite and limited quantities, but in addition there is no way directly within peasant power to increase the available quantities. It is as if the obvious fact of land shortage in a densely populated area applied to all other desired things: not enough to go around. “Good,” like land, is seen as inherent in nature, there to be divided and re-divided, if necessary, but not to be augmented.8
For purposes of analysis, and at this stage of the argument, I am considering a peasant community to be a closed system. Except in a special—but extremely important—way, a peasant sees his existence as determined and limited by the natural and social resources of his village and his immediate area. Consequently, there is a primary corollary to The Image of Limited Good: if “Good” exists in limited amounts which cannot be expanded, and if the system is [beginning of page297] closed, it follows that an individual or a family can improve a position only at the expense of others. Hence an apparent relative improvement in someone’s position with respect to any “Good” is viewed as a threat to the entire community. Someone is being despoiled, whether he sees it or not. And since there is often uncertainty as to who is losing—obviously it may be ego—any significant improvement is perceived, not as a threat to an individual or a family alone, but as a threat to all individuals and families.
This model was first worked out on the basis of a wide variety of field data from Tzintzuntzan, Michoacin, Mexico: family behavior, exchange patterns, cooperation, religious activities, court claims, disputes, material culture, folklore, language, and many other bits and pieces. At no point has an informant even remotely suggested that this is his vision of his universe. Yet each Tzintzuntzeno organizes his behavior in a fashion entirely rational when it is viewed as a function of this principle which he cannot enunciate.’
The model of Limited Good, when “fed back” to behavior in Tzintzuntzan, proved remarkably productive in revealing’ hitherto unsuspected structural regularities linking economic behavior with social relations, friendship, love and jealousy patterns, health beliefs, concepts of honor and masculinity, egoismo manifestations—even folklore (Foster 1964a). Not only were structural regularities revealed in Tzintzuntzan, but much peasant behavior known to me from other field work, and reported in the literature, seemed also to be a function of this cognitive orientation. This has led me to offer the kinds of data I have utilized in formulating this model, and to explain the interpretations that seem to me to follow from it, as characterizing in considerable degree classic peasant societies, in the hope that the model will be tested against other extensive bodies of data. I believe, obviously, that if the Image of Limited Good is examined as a high-level integrating principle characterizing ‘ peasant communities, we will find within our individual societies unsuspected structural regularities and, on a cross-cultural level, basic patterns that will be most helpful in constructing the typology of peasant society. The data I present in support of this thesis arc illustrative, and arc not based on an exhaustive survey of peasant literature.
2.1. When the peasant views his economic world as one in which Limited Good prevails, and he can progress only at the expense of another, he is usually very near the truth. Peasant economies, as pointed out by many authors, are not productive. In the average village there is only a finite amount of wealth produced, and no amount of extra hard work will significantly change the figure. In most of the peasant world land has been limited for a long, long time, and only in a few places have young farmers in a growing community been able to hive off from the parent village to start on a level of equality with their parents and grandparents. Customarily land is not only limited, but it has become increasingly limited, by population expansion and [beginning of page 298] soil; deterioration. Peasant production techniques remained largely; unchanged for hundreds, and even thousands of years; at best, in farming, this means the-Mediterranean plow drawn by oxen, supplemented by human* powered hand tools. Handicraft techniques in weaving, pottery-making, wood-s working and building likewise have changed little over the years.7
2.2. The evidence that friendship, love, and affection are seen as strictly limited in peasant society is strong. Every anthropologist in a peasant village soon realizes the narrow path he must walk to avoid showing excessive favor or friendship toward some families, thereby alienating others who will feel deprived, and hence reluctant to help him in his work. Once I brought a close friend from Tzintzuntzan, working as a bracero in a nearby town, to my Berkeley home. When safely away from the camp he told me his brother was also there. Why did he not tell me, so I could have invited him? My friend replied, in effect, that he was experiencing a coveted “good” and he did not want to risk diluting the satisfaction by sharing it with another.
Adams reports how a social worker in a Guatemalan village unwittingly prejudiced her work by making more friends in one barrio than in the other, thereby progressively alienating herself from potential friends whose help she needed (1955:442). In much of Latin America the institutionalized best friend, particularly among post-adolescents, variously known as the amigo carnal, or the cucllo or camaraderia (the latter two described by Reina for Guatemala ) constitutes both recognition of the fact that true friendship is a scarce commodity, and serves as insurance against being left without any of it. The jealousies and feelings of deprivation felt by one partner when the other leaves or threatens to leave sometimes lead to violence.
Widespread peasant definitions of sibling rivalry suggest that a mother’s ability to love her children is viewed as limited by the amount of love she possesses. In Mexico when a mother again becomes pregnant and weans her nursing child, the child often becomes chipil. It fusses, cries, clings to her skirt, and is inconsolable. The child is said to be celoso, jealous of its unborn sibling whose presence it recognizes and whom it perceives as a threat, already depriving him of maternal love and affection. Chfpil is known as chip or chipe in Guatemala, where it is described in a classic article by Paul (1950), as sipe in Honduras, and simply as celos (“jealousy”) in Costa Rica. Chucaque [beginning of page 299] in southern Colombia, described as the jealousy of a child weaned because of its mother’s pregnancy, appears to be the same thing (communicated by Dr. Virginia Gutierrez de Pineda).
A similar folk etiology is used among the semi-peasant peoples of Buganda to explain the onset of kwashiorkor in a child recently weaned. If the mother is again pregnant, the child is said to have obwosi, and shows symptoms of pale hair, sweating of hands and feet, fever, diarrhea, and vomiting. “The importance of pregnancy is such that if a woman takes a sick child to a native doctor the first question he asks is ‘Are you pregnant?’” (Burgess and Dean 1962:24). The African logic is the reverse of, but complementary to, that of Latin America: it is the unborn child that is jealous of its older sibling, whom it tries to poison through the mother’s milk, thereby forcing weaning (Burgess and Dean 1962:25). In both areas, insufficient quantities of love and affection are seen as precipitating the crisis. In Buganda, “In the local culture it is essential that the mother should devote herself to the unborn child or a child recently born, at the expense of any other children; there does not seem to be an easy acceptance of the idea that there can be enough love for all” (Burgess and Dean 1962:26. Emphasis added).
Similarly, in an Egyptian village, sibling rivalry is recognized at this period in a child’s development. As in Latin America, jealousy is one way; it is always the older who is jealous of the younger. “It is also acknowledged that the youngest child becomes jealous immediately his mother’s abdomen becomes enlarged on pregnancy and he is usually told of the forthcoming event.” This jealousy, in excess, may have ill effects on the child, causing diarrhea, swellings, lack of appetite, temper tantrums, and sleeplessness (Ammar 1954: 107-109).’
In parts of Guatemala chipe is a term used to express a husband’s jealousy of his pregnant wife, for temporary loss of sexual services and for the attention to be given to the baby. Tepoztlán husbands also suffer from chipilez, becoming sleepy and not wanting to work. Oscar Lewis says a husband can be cured by wearing a strip of his wife’s skirt around his neck (1951:378). In Tonalá, Jalisco, Mexico, husbands often are jealous of their adolescent sons and angry with their wives because of the affection the latter show their offspring. A wife’s love and affection are seen as limited; to the extent the son receives what appears to be an excessive amount, the husband is deprived (communicated by Dr. May Diaz). In the Egyptian village described by Ammar a new mother-in-law is very affectionate toward her son-in-law, thereby making her own unmarried sons and daughters jealous. By showing affection to the outsider, the woman obviously is seen as depriving her own offspring of something they wish (Ammar 1954:51, 199).
2.3. It is a truism to peasants that health is a “good” that exists in limited quantities. Peasant folk medicine does not provide the protection that scientific medicine gives those who have access to it, and malnutrition frequently aggravates conditions stemming from lack of sanitation, hygiene, and immunization. In peasant societies preoccupation with health and illness is general, and [beginning of page 300] constitutes a major topic of interest, speculation, and discussion. Perhaps the best objective evidence that health is viewed within the framework of Limited Good is the widespread attitude toward blood which is, to use Adams’ expression, seen as “non-regenerative” (Adams 1955:446). For obvious reasons, blood is equated with life, and good blood, and lots of it, means health. Loss of blood—if it is seen as something that cannot be renewed—is thus seen as a threat to health, a permanent loss resulting in weakness for as long as an individual lives. Although best described for Guatemala, the belief that blood is non-regenerative is widespread in Latin America. This belief, frequently unverbalized, may be one of the reasons it is so difficult to persuade Latin Americans to give blood transfusions: by giving blood so that someone can have more, the donor will have less.
Similar beliefs are found in Nigeria (communicated by Dr. Adeniyi-Adeniji Jones) and they are well known in Indian peasant villages. Here the psychological problem is further compounded by the equation of blood with semen: one drop of semen to seven (or forty, depending on area) drops of blood. The exercise of masculine vitality is thus seen as a permanently debilitating act. Only so much sexual pleasure is allotted man, and nothing he can do will increase his measure. Sexual moderation and the avoidance of bloodletting are the course of the prudent man.
2.4. Oft-noted peasant sensitiveness to real or imagined insults to personal honor, and violent reactions to challenges which cast doubt on a man’s masculinity, appear to be a function of the belief that honor and manliness exist in limited quantities, and that consequently not everyone can enjoy a full meas ure. In rural Mexico, among braceros who have worked in the United States, American ethnologists have often been asked, “In the United States it’s the wife who commands, no?” Masculinity and domestic control appear to be viewed much like other desirable things: there is only so much, and the person who has it deprives another. Mexican men find it difficult to believe that a husband and wife can share domestic responsibilities and decision making, without the husband being deprived of his machismo. Many believe a wife, / however good, must be beaten from time to time, simply so she will not lose sight of a God-decreed familial hierarchy. They are astonished and shocked to learn that an American wife-beater can be jailed; this seems an incredibly unwarranted intrusion of the State into God’s plans for the family.
The essence of machismo is valor, and un hombre muy valienle, i.e.j-a macho, is one who is strong and tough, generally fair, not a bully, but who never dodges a fight, and who always wins. Above all, a macho inspires respeto (“respect”). One achieves machismo, it is clear, by depriving others of access to it. [beginning of page 301]
3. If, in fact, peasants see their universe as one in which the good things in life are in limited and unexpandable quantities, and hence personal gain must be at the expense of others, we must assume that social institutions, personal behavior, values, and personality will all display patterns that can be viewed as functions of this cognitive orientation. Preferred behavior, it may be argued, will be that which is seen by the peasant as maximizing his security, by preserving his relative position in the traditional order of things. People who see themselves in “threatened” circumstances, which the Image of Limited Good implies, react normally in one of two ways: maximum cooperation and sometimes communism, burying individual differences and placing sanctions against individualism; or extreme individualism.
Peasant societies seem always to choose the second alternative. The reasons are not clear, but two factors may bear on the problem. Cooperation requires leadership. This may be delegated democratically by the members of a group itself; it may be assumed by a strong man from within the group; or it may be imposed by forces lying outside the group. Peasant societies—for reasons that should be clear in the following analysis—are unable by their very nature to delegate authority, and assumption of authority by a strong man is, at best, temporary, and not a structural solution to a problem. The truncated political nature of peasant societies, with real power lying outside the community, seems effectively to discourage local assumption and exercise of power, except as an agent of these outside forces. By the very nature of peasant society, seen as a structural part of a larger society, local development of leadership which might make possible cooperation is effectively prevented by the rulers of the political unit of which a particular peasant community is an element, who see such action as a potential threat to themselves.
Again, economic activities in peasant societies require only limited cooperation. Peasant families typically can, as family units, produce most of their food, farm without extra help, build their houses, weave cloth for their [beginning of page 302] clothes’, carry their own produce to market and sell it—in short, take care of themselves with a degree of independence impossible in an industrial society, and difficult in hunting-fishing-gathering societies. Peasants, of course, usually do not live with the degree of independence here suggested, but it is more clearly possible than in any other type of society.
Whatever the reasons, peasants are individualistic, and it logically follows from the Image of Limited Good that each minimal social unit (often the nuclear family and, in many situations, a single individual) sees itself in perpetual, unrelenting struggle with its fellows for possession of or control over what it considers to be its share of scarce values. This is a position that calls for extreme caution and reserve, a reluctance to reveal true strength or position. It encourages suspicion and mutual distrust, since things will not necessarily be what they seem to be, and it also encourages a male self image as a valiant person, one who commands respect, since he will be less attractive as a target than a weakling. A great deal of peasant behavior, I believe, is exactly what we would predict from these circumstances. The works of Lewis (1951), Banfield (1958), Simmons (1959), Carstairs (1958), Dube (1958), the Weisers (1963), and Blackman (1927) (summarized by Foster 1960-1961) and my others testify to the “mentality of mutual distrust” (Friedman 1958: 24) that is widespread in peasant societies.
Since an individual or family that makes significant economic progress or acquires a disproportionate amount of some other “good” is seen to do so at the expense of others, such a change is viewed as a threat to the stability of the community. Peasant culture is provided with two principal mechanisms with which to maintain the essential stability:
A family deals with the problem of real or suspected improvement in its relative position by a combination of two devices. First, it attempts to conceal evidence that might lead to this conclusion, and it denies the veracity of suggestions to this effect. Second, it meets the charge head on, admits an improvement in relative position, but shows it has no intention of using this position to the detriment of the village by neutralizing it through ritual expenditures, thereby restoring the status quo.
Accounts of peasant communities stress that in traditional villages people do not compete for prestige with material symbols such as dress, housing, or food, nor do they compete for authority by seeking leadership roles. In peasant villages one notes a strong desire to look and act like everyone else, to be inconspicuous in position and behavior. This theme is well summed up in the Wisers’ paragraph on the importance of dilapidated walls suggesting poverty as a part of a family’s defense (1963:120).
Also much remarked is the peasant’s reluctance to accept leadership roles. He feels—for good reason—that his motives will be suspect and that he will be subject to the criticism of neighbors. By seeking, or even accepting, an authority position, the ideal man ceases to be ideal. A “good” man therefore usually shuns community responsibilities (other than of a ritual nature); by so doing he protects his reputation. Needless to say, this aspect of socially-approved behavior heavily penalizes a peasant community in the modern world by depriving it of the leadership which is now essential to its development.
The mechanism invoked to minimize the danger of loss of relative position appears to center in the machismo-philotimo complex. A tough, strong man whose fearlessness in the face of danger, and whose skill in protecting himself and his family is recognized, does not invite exploitation. A “valiant” individual can command the “respect” so much sought after in many peasant societies, and he can strive toward security with the goal in mind (however illusory) of being able to live—as is said in Tzintzuntzan—sin compromises (“without obligations” to, or dependency on, others). A picture of the ideal
The ideal man must avoid the appearance of presumption, lest this be; interpreted as trying to take something that belongs to another. In tracing’ the diffusion of new pottery-making techniques in Tzintzuntzan I found that no one would admit he had learned the technique from a neighbor. The inevitable reply to my question was Me puse a pensar (“I dreamed it up all by myself”), accompanied by a knowing look and a tapping of the temple with the; forefinger. Reluctance to give credit to others, common in Mexico, is often; described as due to egoísmo, an egotistical conceited quality. Yet if egofsmo, f as exemplified by unwillingness to admit profiting by a neighbor’s new pottery knowledge, is seen as a function of an image of Limited Good, it is clear that a potter must deny that the idea is other than his own. To confess that he “borrowed” an idea is to confess that he has taken something not rightfully his, that he is consciously upsetting the community balance and the self image he tries so hard to maintain. Similarly, in trying to determine how compa-drazgo (godparenthood) ties are initiated, I found no informant who admitted he had asked a friend to serve; he always was asked by another. Informants | appear to fear that admission of asking may be interpreted as presuming or imposing on another, trying to get something to which they may not be entitled.
A complementary pattern is manifest in the general absence of compliments in peasant communities; rarely is a person heard to admire the performance of another, and when admiration is expressed by, say, an anthropologist, the person admired probably will try to deny there is any reason to compliment him. Reluctance of villagers to compliment each other again looks, at first glance, like egofsmo. But in the context of the Limited Good model, it is seen that such behavior is proper. The person who compliments is, in fact, guilty of aggression; he is telling someone to his face that he is rising above the dead level that spells security for all, and he is suggesting that he may be confronted with sanctions.
Consider this interpretation as applied to an incident reported in southern Italy: “My attempt, in private, to praise a peasant friend for his large farm and able system of farming brought a prompt and vigorous denial that he did anything special. He said, ‘There is no system, you just plant.’ This attitude was expressed by others in forced discussions of farming” (Cancian 1961:8). Dr. Cancian offers this as illustrating the peasant’s lack of confidence in his own ability to change his environment. Speaking specifically of agriculture, he [beginning of page 305] writes that “All the examples indicate denial of the hope of progress in agriculture and alienation from the land” (Cancian 1961:8). I believe the peasant viewed Dr. Cancian’s praise as threatening, since it reminded him of his vulnerability because of his superior farming methods. His denial is not of hope of progress, but of cause for anyone to envy him.
Negative sanctions, while usually informal, can be institutionalized. In peasant Spain, especially in the north, the charivari (cencerrada) represents such an instance. When an older man marries a much younger woman— usually a second marriage for the groom—marriageable youths serenade the couple with cowbells (cencerros) and other noisemakers, parade straw-stuffed manikins representing them through the streets, incense the manikins with foul-smelling substances, and shout obscenities. It seems clear that this symbolizes the resentment of youths, who have not yet had even one wife, against the inequalities represented by an older man who has already enjoyed marriage, who takes a young bride from the available pool, thereby further limiting the supply for the youths. By institutionalizing the sanctions the youths are permitted a degree of freedom and abuse not otherwise possible.
3.3. Attempted changes in the balance of a peasant village are discouraged by the methods just described; achieved imbalance is neutralized, and the balance restored, on an institutional level. A person who improves his position is encouraged—by use of the carrot—to restore the balance through conspicuous consumption in the form of ritual extravagance. In Latin America he is prcssured into sponsoring a costly fiesta by serving as mayordomo. His reward is prestige, which is viewed as harmless. Prestige cannot be dangerous since it is traded for dangerous wealth; the mayordomo has, in fact, been “disarmed,” shorn of his weapons, and reduced to a state of impotence. There is good reason why peasant fiestas consume so much wealth in fireworks, candles, music, and food; and why, in peasant communities the rites of baptism, marriage, and death may involve relatively huge expenditures. These practices are a redistributive mechanism which permits a person or family that potentially threatens community stability gracefully to restore the status quo, thereby returning itself to a state of acceptability. Wolf, speaking specifically of the “closed” Indian peasant community of Mexico as it emerged after the Conquest, puts it this way: “the system takes from those who have, in order to make all men have-nots. By liquidating the surpluses, it makes all men [beginning of 306] rich in sacred experience but poor in earthly goods. Since it levels differences of wealth, it also inhibits the growth of class distinctions based on wealth. . . . In engineering parlance, it acts as a feedback, returning a system that is beginning to oscillate to its original course” (1959:216).
4. I have said that in a society ruled by the Image of Limited Good there ‘is no way, save at the expense of others, that an individual can get ahead. This is true in a closed system, which peasant communities approximate. But even a traditional peasant village, in another sense, has access to other systems, and an individual can achieve economic success by tapping sources of wealth that are recognized to exist outside the village system. Such success, though envjed, is not seen as a direct threat to community stability, for no one within the community has lost anything. Still, such success must be explained. In today’s transitional peasant communities, seasonal emigration for wage labor is the most available way in which one can tap outside wealth. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican peasants have come to the United States as braceros in recent years and many, through their earnings, have pumped significant amounts of capital into their communities. Braceros generally are not criticized or attacked for acquisition of this wealth; it is clear that their good fortune is not at the direct expense of others within the village. Fuller finds a similar realistic appraisal of the wealth situation in a Lebanese community: “they [the peasants] realize . . . that the only method of increasing their incomes on a large scale is to absent themselves from the village for an extended period of time and to find work in more lucrative areas” (1961:72).
These examples, however, are but modern variants of a much older pattern in which luck and fate—points of contact with an open systen—are viewed as the only socially acceptable ways in which an individual can acquire more “good” than he previously has had. In traditional (not transitional) peasant communities an otherwise inexplicable increase in wealth is often seen as due to the discovery of treasure which may be the result of fate or of such positive action as making a pact with the Devil. Recently I have analyzed treasure tales in Tzintzuntzan and have found without exception they are attached to named individuals who, within living memory, have suddenly begun to live beyond their means. The usual evidence is that they suddenly opened stores, in spite of their known previous poverty (Foster 1964a). Erasmus has recorded this interpretation among Sonora villagers (1961:251), Wagley finds it in an Amazon small town (1964:128), and Friedmann reports it in southern Italy (1958:21). Clearly, the role of treasure tales in communities like these is to account for wealth that can be explained in no other manner.
The common peasant concern with finding wealthy and powerful patrons who can help them is also pertinent in this context. Since such patrons usually are outside the village, they are. not part of the closed system. Their aid, and material help, like bracero earnings or buried treasure, are seen as coming from beyond the village. Hence, although the lucky villager with a helpful patron may be envied, the advantages he receives from his patron are not seen as depriving, other villagers of something rightfully theirs. In Tzintzuntzan [beginning of 307] a villager who obtains a “good” in this fashion makes it a first order of business to advertise his luck and the source thereof, so there can be no doubt as to his basic morality; this behavior is just the opposite of usual behavior, which is to conceal good fortune.
Treasure tales and concern with patrons, in turn, are but one expression of a wider view: that any kind of success and progress is due to fate, the favor of deities, to luck, but not to hard work, energy, and thrift. Banfield notes in a south Italian community, “In the TAT stories, dramatic success came only as a gift of fortune: a rich gentleman gave a poor boy a violin, a rich gentlewoman adopted an abandoned child, and so on” (1958:66). Continuing, “Great success, then, is obtained by the favor of the saints or by luck, certainly not by thrift, work, and enterprise. These may be important if one is already lucky, but not otherwise, and few would invest large amounts of effort—any more than they would invest large amounts of fertilizer—on the rather remote possibility of good fortune” (Banfield 1958:114). Friedmann also finds that the south Italian peasant “firmly believes that the few who have succeeded in making a career were able to do so for some mysterious reason: one hit upon a hidden treasure; another was lucky enough to win in the lottery; another was called to America by a successful uncle” (1958:21).
All such illustrations underlie a fundamental truth not always recognized in comparing value systems: in the traditional peasant society hard work and thrift are moral qualities of only the slightest functional value. Given the limitations on land and technology, additional hard work in village productive enterprises simply does not produce a significant increment in income. It is pointless to talk of thrift in a subsistence economy in which most producers are at the economic margin; there is usually nothing to be thrifty about. As Fei and Chang point out, “In a village where the farms are small and wealth is accumulated slowly, there are very few ways for a landless man to become a landowner, or for a petty owner to become a large landowner…. It is not going too far to say that in agriculture there is no way really to get ahead. . . . To become rich one must leave agriculture” (1945:227). And again, “The basic truth is that enrichment through the exploitation of land, using the traditional technology, is not a practical method for accumulating wealth” (Fei and Chang: 1945:302). And, as Ammar says about Egypt, “It would be very difficult with the fellah’s simple tools and the sweat involved in his work, to convince him that his lot could be improved by more work” (1954:36).
5. It is apparent that a peasant’s cognitive orientation, and the forms of behavior that stem therefrom, are intimately related to the problems of economic growth in developing countries. Heavy ritual expenditures, for example, are essential to the maintenance of the equilibrium that spells safety in the minds of traditional villagers. Capital accumulation, which might be stimulated if costly ritual could be simplified, is just what the villager wants to prevent, since he sees it as a community threat rather than a precondition to economic improvement.
The Anglo-Saxon virtues of hard work and thrift seen as leading to economic success are meaningless in peasant society. Horatio Alger not only is not praiseworthy, but he emerges as a positive fool, a clod who not knowing the score labors blindly against hopeless conditions. The gambler, instead, is more properly laudable, worthy of emulation and adulation. If fate is the only way in which success can be obtained, the prudent and thoughtful man is the one who seeks ways in which to maximize his luck-position. He looks for the places in which good fortune is most apt to strike, and. tries to be there. This, I think, explains the interest in lotteries in underdeveloped countries. They offer the only way in which the average man can place himself in a luck-position. The man who goes without lunch, and fails to buy shoes for his children in order to buy a weekly ticket, is not a ne’er-do-well; he is the Horatio Alger of his society who is doing what he feels is most likely to advance his position. He is, in modern parlance, buying a “growth stock.” The odds are against him, but it is the only way he knows in which to work toward success.
Modern lotteries are very much functional equivalents of buried treasure tales in peasant societies, and at least in Tzintzuntzan the correlation is clearly understood. One elderly informant, when asked why no one had found buried treasure in recent years, remarked that this was indeed true but that “Today we Mexicans have the lottery instead.” Hence, the “luck” syndrome in underdeveloped countries is not primarily a deterrent to economic progress, as it is sometimes seen from the vantage point of a developed country, but rather it represents a realistic approach to the near-hopeless problem of making significant individual progress.
David C. McClelland has argued persuasively that the presence of a human motivation which he calls “the need for Achievement” (« Achievement) is a precursor to economic growth, and that it is probably a causative factor, that it is “a change in the minds of men which produces economic growth rather than being produced by it” (McClelland 1963:81; 1961). McClelland further finds that in experimental situations children with high n Achievement avoid gambling situations because should they win there would be no sense of personal [beginning of page 309] achievement, while children with low n Achievement do not perform in a way suggesting they calculate relative risks and behave accordingly. “They [low n Achievement children] thus manifest behavior like that of many people in underdeveloped countries who, while they act very traditionally economically, at the same time love to indulge in lotteries—risking a little to make a great deal on a very long shot” (McClelland 1963:86). McClelland sees this as showing an absence of a sense of realistic risk calculation.
If the arguments advanced in this paper are sound, it is clear that n Achievement is rare in traditional peasant societies, not because of psychological factors, but because display of « Achievement is met by sanctions that a traditional villager does not wish to incur. The villager who feels the need for Achievement, and who does something about it, is violating the basic, un-verbalized rules of the society of which he is a member. Parents (or government school programs) that attempt to instill n Achievement in children are, in effect, training children to be misfits in their society as long as it remains a relatively static system.
As indicated above, I would argue in opposition to McClelland that the villager who buys a lottery ticket is not behaving in an inconsistent fashion— that is, rationally in traditional economic matters, irrationally in his pursuit of luck—but in the most consistent fashion possible. He has calculated the chances and risks, and in a most realistic manner in the context of the way in which he sees his traditional environment. The man who buys a lottery ticket in a peasant society, far from displaying lack of « Achievement, is in fact showing a maximum degree of it. It simply happens that this is about the only display of initiative that is permitted him by his society, since it is the only form not viewed as a threat to the community by his colleagues.
Banfield, and Fei and Chang, appear to see the economic factors in the presence or absence of initiative in much the same light. The former writes about the Italian peasant, “The idea that one’s welfare depends crucially upon conditions beyond one’s control—upon luck or the caprice of a saint—and that one can at best only improve upon good fortune, not create it—this idea must certainly be a check on initiative” (Banfield 1958:114). The latter sec, in the Chinese data, evidence that a particular economic attitude is a function of a particular view of life. The traditional economic attitude among Chinese peasants is that of “contentment … an acceptance of a low standard of material comfort” (Fei and Chang 1945:82), which is contrasted to “acquisitiveness” characteristic of “modern industry and commerce in an expanding universe” (Fei and Chang 1945:83). “Both attitudes—contentment and acquisitiveness—have their own social context. Contentment is adopted in a closed economy; acquisitiveness in an expanding economy. Without economic opportunities the striving for material gain is a disturbance to the existing order, since it means plunder of wealth from others. . . . Therefore, to accept and be satisfied with the social role and material rewards given by the society is essential. But when economic opportunity develops through the development of [beginning of 310] technology and when wealth can be acquired through the exploitation of nature instead of through the exploitation of man, the doctrine of contentment becomes reactionary because it restricts individual initiative” (Fei and Chang 1945:84. Emphasis added). In other words, change the economic rules of the game and change the cognitive orientation of a peasant society, and a fertile field for the propagation of n Achievement is created.
For the above-reasons, I believe most strongly that the primary task in development is not to attempt to create n Achievement at the mother’s knee but to try to change the peasants’ view of his social and economic universe, away from an Image of Limited Good toward that of expanding opportunity in an open system, so that he can feel safe in displaying initiative. The brakes on change are less psychological than social. Show the peasant that initiative is profitable, and that it will not be met by negative sanctions, and he acquires it in short order.
Viewed in the light of Limited Good peasant societies are not conservative and backward, brakes on national economic progress, because of economic irrationality nor because of the absence of psychological characteristics in adequate quantities. They are conservative because individual progress is seen as—and in the context of the traditional society in fact is—the supreme threat to community stability, and all cultural forms must conspire to discourage changes in the status quo. Only by being conservative can peasant societies continue to exist as peasant societies. But change cognitive orientation through changing access to opportunity, and the peasant will do very well indeed; and his n Achievement will take care of itself.