Plants, People and Work

14 May 2019 - 15:09

The project Plants, People and Work: The Social History of Cash Crops in Asia, 18th to 20th Centuries started in 2007with a  500,000 euro grant from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (N.W.O.). It fits  in the central 'Global Labour History' research program of the IISH.

This research programme compared the social role of three important cash crops (tobacco, sugar and indigo) that were transferred from the Americas to Asia. The comparison, which covered the last 200 years, concentrated on how each crop was embedded in Asian societies, the way in which labour was mobilised to produce and process the crop, and the social after-effects of its cultivation.

The programme was unusual in that we explored not only socio-economic aspects but linked these with ecological, political and cultural aspects. We used careful empirical case studies of local circumstances as building blocks for a synthesis that demonstrated the need to understand globalisation in a social-historical perspective. Socio-ecological and socio-cultural processes have been far more influential in making cash cropping in Asian societies a success (or failure) than current theorising acknowledges.

The programme’s innovative aspects were primarily theoretical and methodological. Our principal purpose was to contribute to revitalising and broadening the study of cash-crop systems as they relocated across the rapidly globalising world of the 19th and 20th centuries. We sought to link insights in ecology with those in social history, to reinterpret local/national history writing within broader systematic comparisons, and to show how cash-crop production influences many aspects of long-term societal change.

Researchers involved: Marcel van der Linden, Willem van Schendel, Ratna Saptari, Kathinka Sinha-Kerkhoff, Ulbe Bosma, Anil Persaud, Bhaswati Bhattacharya.