Topic: Whither sustainable livelihoods? Understanding rural inequality through a political economy-informed livelihood pathways approach
Livelihood approaches to understanding rural poverty and inequality in low-income countries have had a significant influence over the last three decades. Such approaches have enabled a welcome shift in rural poverty research from conventional econometric-driven and single sector analysis to a ‘people-first’ approach that takes the individual life-world as the starting point of analysis. However, in recent years formal livelihood frameworks have increasingly been critiqued as ‘a method in search of theory’: that is, pre-occupied with micro-individualism and agency, particularly in the unproblematised and overly-instrumental use of the livelihood capitals framework. This is at the expense of understanding the broader social and political relations that structure livelihood possibilities and outcomes. In response, Ian Scoones (2015) has recently proposed an integrated approach that combines the insights of livelihoods analysis with critical agrarian political economy. Such a combined approach can address critical questions of why certain livelihoods are possible for some, but not for others. There remain, however, theoretical tensions in combining these two different frameworks, particularly because for agrarian political economy the primary analytical category is class, while for livelihoods the focus is the individual or household. This paper proposes that a livelihood pathways-based approach provides a way forward for resolving these tensions. This is illustrated with reference to insights from a study of contract farming in Maharashtra, India.