What role does rural people’s agency play in finding pathways out of poverty?

Women working in a waterlogged field

by Saurabh Arora, Divya Sharma, M. Vijaybaskar, Ajit Menon and Joanes Atela

This is the inaugural blog post for the project Relational Pathways: Mapping Agency and Poverty Dynamics through Green Revolutions. Based on extensive fieldwork in India and Kenya, we are developing a relational pathways approach, which posits poverty as a process rather than as a state. Poverty is constituted by evolving webs of relations, between human beings and with the natural world. Relations that are mediated by knowledges and artefacts, including those associated with modern science and technology.

Our approach draws on theoretical insights from Science, Technology and Society studies, particularly Actor-Network Theory (ANT), while incorporating the STEPS Centre’s ‘pathways approach’ to environmental sustainability and social justice. We are using a varied methodology (ethnographic life histories, archival data, multi-criteria mapping) to trace and assess poverty pathways of farmers and agricultural workers in northern Tamil Nadu, India. The approach will be tested and further developed in Machakos County in Kenya. The two regions have produced long-term historical research in the past. They provide useful points of comparison, having fared very differently in terms of crop yield increases and poverty reduction associated with the Green Revolution (GR).


Rural poverty is a complex process in the 21st century. Social exclusions and durable inequalities based on gender, race, ethnicity, caste and religion are exacerbated by climate events, resource conflicts, continuing wars and environmental degradation.

At the same time, agricultural workers and smallholders are often adversely incorporated into global and local supply chains.

This means that to understand rural poverty, we need new approaches that take account of these kinds of changes. Any such approach must make agency central. As argued by Amartya Sen, poor people must be viewed “as agents who can think and act, not just as patients who have needs that require catering.” Yet we must also be careful to not reinforce individualising notions of agency.

Agency and structural constraints

Perhaps more severely than other social classes, poor people’s agency to build sustainable and resilient livelihoods is constrained by unfavourable terms of exchange in markets and by social structures such as gender- and caste-based hierarchies. Agency of the rural poor is also often hindered by ecological factors such as water shortages and degraded soils.

By emphasising structural constraints, however, research can close down avenues for identifying the conditions under which people may reconfigure, circumvent or overcome the constraints. And if structural constraints are assumed to be generally applicable, they can prevent us from appreciating the diversity of actual poverty pathways.

In shaping poverty-reducing pathways, people’s agency may manifest in myriad forms including through grassroots mobilizations, innovations in work practices, access to assets, public healthcare and education, diversification of livelihoods (also through migration), networks providing information about employment opportunities, as well as trusting informal relationships conceptualised as social capital.

Relational Agency and Poverty Pathways

Focusing on the politics of asymmetric structures and unequal exchanges which keep people poor, we are developing a relational approach to agency in unfolding poverty pathways.

Accounting for gender, class and caste as intersecting relations of power which mediate ecological and technological developments, we are mapping the negotiation of structural constraints on agency of poor people, in practice, over time.

People hesitate and resist, in different ways, as they relate to structural conventions, rules, norms, values and beliefs. And through this everyday struggle and hesitation, structures constraining agency may be evaded or transformed. We ask what relations enable people to hesitate and resist, leading to poverty reduction along diverse pathways.

Devoting equal attention to people’s social and ecological relations, as mediated by technologies and markets, we map how relations constrain agency along particular pathways rather than others. We also map the relations that enable the diversification of possible pathways.

Within agriculture, Green Revolution technologies (such as hybrid seeds, chemical fertilisers, pump sets) and markets have been shown to work in favour of dominant farmers. Yet critical perspectives have paid insufficient attention to diverse adaptations of GR technologies by farmers and workers. They have also not accounted for sustainable practices that were marginalised and replaced through the GR.

Overall, we are mapping agency in the construction of poverty pathways, which is distributed across webs of relations between humans, their organisations, the surrounding ecologies and available technologies. ANT scholars have termed these webs as actor-networks, hybrid collectives, or socio-technical agencements (PDF). We use the term relational agency.

Relational fields

We are mapping the poverty pathways across two ‘fields’ of relations. The first relational field is that of the farm, where cultivation practices are reconfigured due to social struggles for better working conditions, ecological constraints and the adjustment of new technologies into everyday work. We emphasise not only the access to technologies and resources, but also how they are put into actual use.

The second field is that of relations established and reconfigured in the process of making a harvested crop, such as rice or maize, into a commodity for the market. As Michel Callon has argued, for commodities to be circulated, they need to be first disentangled from the producer’s “complicated and heterogeneous world” (PDF). In the case of farmers, this world is constituted by land and soil, seeds and fertilisers, arrangements with farmworkers, subsistence needs, credit arrangements, farm-machinery and so on.

The harvested crop is simultaneously entangled into entities of the market, including weighing scales, means of transportation, processing machinery, their operators, and eventually the consumers. Most importantly perhaps, for the crop to be exchanged as a commodity, it must be associated with a price that might itself depend on the crop’s values and qualities. Assessing a commodity’s value and quality involves negotiations that bring cognitive, economic and cultural hierarchies to the fore.

Life histories

We are currently mapping relational agency pathways of about 20 smallholders and landless workers in Thiruvannamalai district of Tamil Nadu. In each life history, we focus on specific ‘critical episodes’ that people attach significance to. It is during these episodes that new relations were formed and older ones severed or altered. Such episodes include adoption of new technologies and crops, deficient or excessive rainfall, declining water level in wells, occupational shifts, temporary migration, illness, work-related injuries and changes in familial circumstances.

Focussing on such episodes during our interviews with respondents, we map how people adapt new technologies into their practices while developing new skills and knowledges in the process, shift their food consumption practices, manage care work inside the home, meet ritualistic obligations, and negotiate crises while drawing on existing relations or forging new ones.

These adaptations, shifts and negotiations are crucial in understanding how relations are forged and altered, of men with women, the land with its tillers, a technology with its users, technologies with surrounding ecologies, farmers with traders, and landless workers with farmers.

We ask in what ways do these relations reproduce structures of domination. And in what ways do they involve mutual adjustments of interests and concerns, through hesitation and resistance, between different actors and groups?

It is in these everyday adjustments, hesitations and struggles that we look for possibilities of transforming relations of power, as they intersect with people’s relations with nature and technology, in order to build sustainable pathways for reducing poverty.

One comment:

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