Economic transition without agrarian transformation: the pivotal place of smallholder rice farming in Vietnam's modernisation

Tuan Anh Nguyen, Jamie Gillen, Jonathan Rigg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


Vietnam's economic transformation has been widely celebrated. Since the onset of market reforms in the late 1980s, rural communities with endemic rural poverty in the Red River Delta have become middle-income settlements. While there are many reasons for this uptick in economic prosperity, keeping land holdings for rice growing is not one of them: rice cultivation is unprofitable, hard work, and exposes families to significant opportunity costs. In an era of enhanced land commoditization and plentiful off-farm employment, what accounts for the widespread insistence on maintaining household rice land? Through a mixed methods study of three communes in northern Vietnam, we argue that smallholders are simultaneously reflecting historically on their family's embedded relationship to rice cultivation, thinking beyond the farm to other opportunities in the present, and hedging future economic risks against the constancy of rice land and what it can yield. Rural households pivot between past, present, and future when considering the value and role of their rice land. We show through the cases of these three communes that rural economic growth and national structural change do not automatically result in a diminution of rice farming. Understanding this ‘fact’ requires an approach that is sensitive to the shadows of history, aware of the multiple and different pressures in the present, while also being alert to people's sense of what the future might hold. This resonates with smallholder farming across Asia, the direction and shape of the wider agrarian transition, and helps to explain why policies aimed at agricultural modernisation have often failed, at least in their own terms.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Rural Studies
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2020


Dive into the research topics of 'Economic transition without agrarian transformation: the pivotal place of smallholder rice farming in Vietnam's modernisation'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this