Puritan Work Ethic?

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The Puritan work ethic of the founding English Protestants of the early American colonies remains deeply embedded in modern Americans’ views towards hard work and determination as the only path to success and even salvation.

However, when considering the smallholder there are several competing views that regard their agricultural practices as either honest and idyllic, or backwards and grueling. Netting argues that before promoting an evolutionary trajectory that positions labor-saving technology as the pinnacle of progress, it is necessary to review the reasoning and ramifications. Smallholders, in fact, are placed in an economic and social position in which they must make the most out of limited resources. In order to increase the productivity of a small piece of land, they intensify their relatively abundant resources of labor and managerial forethought.  It must also be noted that while potential smallholders in the developed world have a myriad of occupational and technological options that they can incorporate into their productive endeavors, others in developing countries often do not have any full-time employment opportunities. By maintaining the means of production, the fruits of their own labor serves to support them and provide nourishment and security. As Netting argues, “smallholders do indeed invest a great deal of year-round labor, much of it manual, but whether the actual hours exceed those of a small restaurant keeper, a street vendor, or a stockbroker is open to question” (331).

Successful smallholder enterprises work as a family unit, performing complimentary tasks in order to provide nourishment and support their children, who quickly learn to become productive members of the household as well. Slow periods during the growing season are filled-in by increasing activities outside of the farm and through extending productive farm activities. In terms of the output over input ratio per unit of land, smallholders embody the Puritan notion of success. Describing one smallholder in North China in the early 1900s who grew enough cucumber vines on a half-acre plot of land to provide for 20 people, Netting quotes F.H. King who noted that “Forethought, after-thought, and the mind focused on the work in hand are characteristics of these people” (49).  The Protestant virtues of hard work, responsibility, and deferred rewards, along with a strong concept of private property and managerial acumen, strongly correlates with the requirements of a successful smallholder enterprise. Part-time farmers in Georgia describe the physical work of growing their own food as deeply and personally satisfying, but gave greater emphasis on the values and responsibilities that became part of their family heritage. As Netting argues, “Despite the popular prejudice, labor-saving is not the chief end of life, and farm work is not a bad thing” (331).

The American Context:

Review of Relevant Literature: