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Manufacturing dissent: work, gender and the politics of meaning in a peasant society

Introduction: The Manufacturing of Dissent

This article addresses the changing nature of farm work in a peasant society in The Gambia, West Africa. The practice of farm labour has been transformed in the most palpable way by the advent of radically new technical and social relations of production associated with mechanised double-cropping of irrigated rice. Technical change, agricultural intensification and a new labour process are, however, all built upon the bedrock of household production, since peasant growers are socially integrated into the new scheme as contract farmers, specifically as contracted sharecroppers. Family labour continues to be the dominant social form in which labour power is mobilised, but under conditions directly determined and shaped by the contractors, namely project management. Irrigated double-cropping of rice production is particularly labour-demanding and makes expanded claims on customary structures of domestic labour recruitment. These new economic practices subject the culturally dominant representations of work, labour obligations and property rights—the constituents of custom and tradition— to the test of social practice. In our examination of Mandinka rice growers we suggest, following T. J. Clark, that ‘society is a battlefield of representations on which the limits and coherence of any given set are being fought for and regularly spoilt’ (Clark, 1984: 6). The introduction of a new production regime has converted rural Mandinka society into a contested social terrain; the primary struggle is a contest over gender and the conjugal contract in which property, or more accurately constellations of property rights, is at stake. By seeing economic life as, among other things, a realm of representations, we argue that the struggles over meaning and the manufacture of symbolic and material dissent in central Gambia—a proliferation of intrahousehold conflicts, juridical battles over divorce in the local courts, renegotiations of the conjugal contract—are the idioms of what Burawoy (1985) calls production politics.

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