3. Social and cultural factors in extension

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Social structure
Social and cultural change
Social and cultural barriers to agricultural change


Farmers and their families are members of the society in which they live. In any society there are strong pressures on its members to behave in certain ways. For the farmers, some of these pressures will come from within. In all societies there are accepted ways of doing things and these ways are directly related to the culture of the society. Farmers' attitudes and desires are influenced by their society's culture. If it is customary in a certain community for farmers to scatter seed and plough it into the soil, people will grow up to believe that that is the only correct way of planting. Even if the benefits of other methods are explained to them, their strongly held attitudes may make it difficult for to them change.

Yet not all of these pressures will come from the farmers' own attitudes and beliefs; some will come from other people. Any society expects its members to behave in certain ways. No one is seen by others as an isolated individual. Each person is seen as occupying a position in society, and each position carries expectations with it. In some communities, an unmarried man is expected to work on his father's farm; only when he marries will people expect him to start farming his own plot. A successful farmer may be expected to give food, money and shelter to relatives who have not been so successful, or to pay for his relatives' children to go to school. If a person resists these expectations, those around him will show their disapproval. Because most people like to feel acceptance and approval from those around them, they tend to behave in accordance with such expectations.

An extension agent will be more effective if he understands the social and cultural background of the farmers with whom he works. He will then be better able to offer advice that fits in with the culture of the society, and he can use the structure and culture of the society to the benefit of his work. It is useful, therefore, to examine the main features of societies and cultures that are relevant to extension work.


Social structure

The structure of a society is the way it is organized into families, tribes, communities and other groupings or divisions. A person's attitudes, and people's expectations of that person, are influenced by the groups to which he or she belongs; so too is the individual's access to opportunities, jobs and land.

Social divisions

Divisions within a society can be based on several different factors, including age, sex, religion, residence, kinship and common economic interest.


People of the same age usually have similar interests and attitudes. Young people tend to have different values, attitudes and aims in life from those of older people. In many societies, elderly people are treated with great respect, and their advice is listened to carefully. An extension agent needs to learn the particular aims, expectations and restrictions of different age groups in the society in which he works.


Traditionally, in rural areas, specific tasks are done either by men or women. Usually women are responsible for household jobs, such as cooking, collecting water and firewood or looking after children. However, in many countries, women also do a lot of farm work. In a number of African countries, over 60 percent of all agricultural work is usually done by women. Often, women have their own fields in which they grow food crops, while the men are responsible for commercial cash crops such as tobacco or oil-palm.

Elsewhere, men and women work the same fields, but carry out different tasks. In Botswana, for example, ploughing and all work connected with cattle are traditionally a man's job, while weeding, bird-scaring and threshing are done by the women. Agricultural extension often concentrates on men, with male extension agents visiting male farmers. But any change in the way people farm will also affect the women, and thus may well fail unless extension agents involve women in their programmes.


Members of religious groups have common beliefs and attitudes, and these may influence their willingness to work closely with people of other religions. Religious differences can create tensions in a rural community: the extension agent should be aware of these. Some religions impose patterns of behaviour which may affect extension. Certain times of day, particular days of the week or seasons of the year may be devoted to religious ceremonies, which means that farmers are not available for farm work or for extension activities.


People who live close to one another usually have some interests in common. Residents of a village will want facilities such as a school, clean water and health services. They will want access to roads and a fair share in government development programmes. These common interests can unite the village, particularly if such interests are threatened. Where possible, extension agents should try to include in their programmes activities which will unite the whole community in a common task. But they should be aware that there may also be divisions within a village. For example, residents of one part of the village may want a new water tap to be put near their homes, while others will argue that it should be near them.

Where there is tension between different parts of a community, extension agents should as far as possible avoid making it worse and, wherever possible, they should seek ways to reduce this tension. If an agent is seen to be working on behalf of one particular group in the village, other groups may make it very difficult for him to be effective.


The strongest groupings are often those based on relationships of birth and marriage within and between families. The smallest of these groupings is the family, which consists of a man and woman and children. In some societies, such families are independent and make their own decisions about where to live, where to farm and what crops to grow. These families will, however, usually have certain duties toward close relatives that they will be expected to fulfil, and these could restrict their freedom of action.

In other societies, larger kinship groups may live together, own land in common or even take joint decisions about farming. When this happens the individual farmer may have little freedom of decision. An extension agent would need to find out who are the leaders and decision-makers of such groups, and work closely with them.

Common economic interest

Economic differences are an important part of social structure. The type of job people do, the amount of money they earn and the quality of land they own or can rent are factors which can divide society into distinct groupings, each with its own concerns, interests, values and attitudes. In a rural area, there may be cattle owners and crop farmers; subsistence farmers who cannot afford to buy costly inputs; commercial farmers who are interested in learning about the latest farm equipment; and landowners and tenants. Each group will have its own requirements and expectations of the extension agent, and the agent will need to adjust his approach to each group's interests.

The most important economic factors creating divisions within rural societies are the amounts of land and money that each farmer has. This is particularly clear in some Latin American countries where a small proportion of families own very large estates while most families work as farm labourers or farm their own very small plots on a subsistence basis. Most Asian countries also have large numbers of landless labourers as well as small and large farmers. Each of these categories of farmers has very different needs in terms of extension support.

Economic differences affect the type of advice and support that an extension agent should offer each category of farmer. Such differences determine the standard of living that people can achieve and they also affect a farmer's relative economic and political influence. Large farmers are more likely to be given credit than small farmers, and merchants and traders will give them better terms because they buy and sell in larger quantities. Planners and political leaders often listen to them more readily. Extension agents may also find it more attractive to work with the larger farmers. But if smaller farmers are to be helped, extension agents should be aware of these divisions and look for ways of supporting those farmers who are keen to improve their farms but have not much political or economic influence.


The broad social divisions that affect the attitudes, needs and interests of the members of a society have been discussed. There are also, in all societies, small groups of people who come together for a common purpose or activity. Some of these groups may stay in existence for a long time. A savings club, for instance, may continue to meet week after week for many years. Although the members may change, the club will remain. Other groups may be temporary, such as when several neighbours agree to help with the farm work on each other's land.

These groups can be very useful for extension agents and can often form the basis of extension groups. In the Republic of Korea, for example, traditional women's savings groups have developed into Mothers' Clubs, which are extremely influential in village development activities. These clubs raise large sums of money for community projects, contribute labour for selfhelp projects, and are a channel for information on farming and popular education for rural women.

People, however, vary in their readiness to join groups. In some communities, for example, kinship groups may own land jointly but leave each small family to farm its own plots. In this situation, any change in farming practice would depend on separate decisions by many individual farmers. Elsewhere, the members of the kinship groups may farm the land together. In that case, an extension agent should work with the group as a whole, probably through its traditional leaders, to improve farming practice.

An extension agent should use such groups whenever possible, and to assist his work he should try to find out (a) what groups there are in the region, (b) what joint activities are undertaken by members of each group, (c) the interests of each group, and (d) whether any of the groups could form the basis of an extension group.

Formal and informal leaders

In all societies there are men and women who make decisions on behalf of others, or who are respected by others, and therefore have some influence on their attitudes and behaviour. Such leaders can be very important for the success of extension work.

People who hold recognized positions of authority are known as formal leaders. They are usually easy to identify once the pattern of leadership in the society is understood. Some inherit their position; others are elected, and others are appointed by someone in higher authority. Leadership may be shared by several people or be held by a single person. In most social communities there are religious leaders, such as priests, as well as secular leaders, such as elected councillors and village heads.

In any rural community there will be a number of formal leaders: for example, religious leaders; the chairman of a cooperative; a traditional headman supported by an advisory group of elders; heads of kinship groups and families; a village development committee; local leaders of political parties; or elected councillors. The exact pattern will vary from one society to another, but the extension agent should learn what the role of each leader is, and how much influence each has within the community. A village headman, for example, may have the power to allocate land to farmers who want to expand their holdings. In this situation, the extension agent will need the headman's support if he is to encourage farmers to invest in new enterprises which require additional land.

Extension agents should try to work through formal leaders. They must learn which person is the best to approach on a particular issue. This may vary from place to place, even within an extension agent's area. A traditional chief in one village may be more influential than an elected councillor, while in a neighbouring village the opposite may be the case.

In many rural societies, the extension agent will have little success unless he first gains the support of the traditional leaders. Only then will he be able to win the trust and confidence of the members of the community.

Informal leaders are not so easy to identify, because they do not hold any particular position of authority. They are individuals who are respected by other people, not because they hold an official position but because they have an attractive or forceful personality or because they seem to know the best action to take in any situation. Whatever the reason may be, other people are influenced by them. If informal leaders in a community support a new idea, such as the planting of a village wood-lot or the setting up of a cooperative, then others will be more ready to support it. Extension agents can find out who these influential people are by observing who speaks out at village meetings or by asking farmers who they normally go to for advice.

An extension agent can be more effective if he works through the existing structure of a rural society and through its formal and informal leaders. However, such an approach also has its limitations. Influential leaders often come from the more privileged sections of the community. They may simply keep the benefits of extension, and of agricultural credit and inputs, to themselves and their friends. By working through such leaders, extension may widen the gap in living standards between the different sections of society. The agent, therefore, should seek to work through existing formal and informal leaders, but should ensure that this approach does not leave some farmers at a disadvantage.

Social expectations

It was stated earlier that a person's position will determine the way others expect him or her to behave. These expectations are known as norms. It is the norm in some societies, for example, for a married woman to eat her meal only after her husband has finished eating. These norms are deeply ingrained in people's attitudes and beliefs. They not only determine how other people think an individual should behave; they determine what behaviour the individual feels is correct. Extension agents should be sensitive to these expectations and should not underestimate their influence on people's behaviour, however irrational they may seem at first.



The culture of a society is the accepted way of doing things in that particular society. It is the way in which people live, their customs, traditions, methods of cultivation and so on. The culture of a society is learned by each individual member of that society. Children are not born with this knowledge; they learn by seeing how older children and adults behave. As they grow up, older members of their family or kinship group teach them about the customs and traditions of the group and the society. Later still, they may be initiated more fully into the society at ceremonies where they are taught traditional habits and customs, and their expected role. Experience also gives the individual a better understanding of the behaviour pattern of the community and may teach the individual how to change some of the traditional forms of behaviour for newer, more modern forms.

Culture is not an accidental collection of customs and habits but has been evolved by the people to help them in their conduct of life. Each aspect of the culture of a society has a definite purpose and function and is, therefore, related to all the other aspects of its culture. This is important to remember when planning extension programmes. Changes in one aspect of culture may have an effect on other aspects of that culture. If changes in one aspect of culture are introduced, and these are likely to have an unacceptable effect on other aspects, then a programme may have little chance of success. This is one reason why local leaders and farm people should help in planning an extension programme. They will know whether or not the changes proposed will be acceptable to the society.

The more an extension agent learns about and comes to respect the culture of the people with whom he works, the more he will be accepted by them. He will also be more sensitive to the type of advice and support that will be useful.

There are five particular aspects of local culture that the extension agent should be aware of: the farming system, land tenure, inheritance, ceremonies and festivals, and traditional means of communication.

Farming systems

Before he can offer any advice to farmers, the extension agent must understand their present farming system. What crops are grown and in what sequence or combination? How important is each crop in the local diet? How is land prepared for planting? When are the main farm operations carried out? Why do people farm in the way they do? Farming systems are complex, and change in one aspect may create problems in others. In parts of Nepal, for example, millet is sometimes planted between maize plants. Thus, any change in maize spacing or subsequent weeding practice will affect millet production. Similarly, in regions of Nigeria, up to 12 crops may be grown together on a single plot.

Once he is familiar with local farming systems, the extension agent can explore the possibilities for improvement. New farming practices will be more acceptable to farmers if they can be introduced into existing systems without drastic changes. Perhaps the timing of certain operations can be adjusted, or weeding carried out more regularly. Different seed varieties could be tried, or water use improved to provide more irrigated land. It is important to begin with what is already there and build upon it.

Farming practice is not isolated from the rest of the society's culture and it cannot be treated as a purely technical subject. It influences, and is influenced by, other aspects such as food preferences, land tenure and family relationships. In one African country, for example, extension agents encouraged farmers to plant their crops a few weeks earlier than they usually did. Research findings showed that output would increase and that even if the early sowing failed because of lack of rain, farmers would have the chance of re-planting. However, this advice challenged the authority of traditional leaders. Nobody was supposed to begin ploughing and planting until the village headman had declared that the time was right. The advice also conflicted with the relationship between cattle owners and arable farmers: cattle were allowed to graze freely on the stubble and grass in the fields until the planting season began. This simple recommendation, therefore, had implications for other aspects of culture, which made it difficult for individual farmers to change their farming practice.

Farming systems: change in one part of a complex system will affect other parts

Land tenure

Land tenure consists of the ways in which people obtain the right to possess and use land. Land-tenure systems vary from one society to another. In some communities land is owned by a tribe or kinship group, and each family has the right to use as much land as it needs to feed itself. It cannot sell or rent that land to anyone else, and there may be restrictions on the uses to which the land can be put. In other societies individuals can buy land and do what they like with it.

The land-tenure system will affect people's ability and incentive to take extension advice. In some countries, for example, land is farmed on a share-cropping basis. The farmer gives a fixed proportion of everything that is produced on the land to the landowner. The farmer will, therefore, be unwilling to adopt new practices if most of the benefits will go to the landowner. Elsewhere, a young farmer may want to plant a tree crop, but is not allowed to do so by the leaders of the kinship group that owns the land. Or perhaps a tenant would like to improve his farm by fencing it or installing an irrigation pump but may decide not to, fearing that his landlord may take back the land without paying him any compensation for the improvements.


The way in which land and other possessions pass from one generation to the next also affects extension work. In some cultures, a man's possessions are inherited not by his children but by his mother's brothers and their children. This may reduce a farmer's incentive to develop the farm. In many areas, it is normal practice for a man to divide his land between his sons and daughters before he dies. Such a farmer will not want to do anything to the land that will make it difficult for each portion to be farmed separately later. In other rural societies, land is not inherited at all. When farmers die, the land they farmed is taken back by their kinship groups for reallocation. Extension agents should understand the local inheritance rules, because they will affect the ability of young farmers to acquire land, and the incentive of farmers to take their advice.

Ceremonies and festivals

Ceremonies are a central feature of culture. They include religious festivals, celebrations to mark important seasons, such as the start of planting or the end of harvest, and ceremonies for events within the life of a family or community, such as marriage, birth and death. An extension agent needs to know when these take place so that he can plan his activities around them. He should also take care to behave in the appropriate way on such occasions.

Traditional means of communication

All societies have ways of spreading information and sharing ideas. Songs, proverbs, drama, dancing, religious gatherings and village meetings are just a few of the traditional means of communication that an extension agent may find in a rural area.

There are two main reasons why these means of communication are important for extension:

- The extension agent can learn from them what people in the community are saying and thinking. An understanding of local proverbs, for example, will give the agent an insight into people's knowledge of their environment and their attitudes toward farming. Songs and dances often express deeply held feelings which an extension agent should be aware of when planning his programmes.
- The extension agent can make use of these traditional means of communication to pass on information and ideas. Many extension services now use drama, puppets and songs to convey new ideas.


Social and cultural change

Social structures and cultures are never completely static; they can and do change. The speed at which change takes place depends to a large extent on the contact people have with other cultures and new ideas, and on the ability of individuals within the society to initiate and accept change. Although the extension agent should respect and work through the existing culture and social structure, his task should be to help to speed up cultural change in farming. This may in turn contribute to wider social changes.

As ideas or methods are accepted within a society, they gradually come to be regarded as customary. A hundred and fifty years ago, land preparation in most of what is now Botswana was done with hoes. Farmers saw ploughs being used in what is now South Africa and introduced them to their own farms, with the result that an ox-drawn plough is now regarded as the normal equipment for land preparation and planting. More recently, in parts of Pakistan and Egypt, tractors are becoming part of the culture as they gradually replace draught animals as a source of power in farm operations.

New crops can also be introduced. Cocoa was unknown in Ghana until it was brought from the United States. Ghanaian farmers began to cultivate it in the nineteenth century when traders were keen to export the cocoa beans to Europe. Farmers learned the necessary techniques of raising young trees, fermenting and drying the beans and storage. Land-tenure rules changed as families moved to new areas to acquire land from other people on which to start cocoa farms. Cocoa gradually became a central part of Ghana's economy, tradition and culture.

As well as being aware of the social and cultural changes occurring in the area where he is working, the agent should try to understand the factors that can bring about such change.

Factors in change


In every society, there are some individuals who are more ready than others to accept new ways of life. These people have a certain influence, but they can also often cause suspicion and jealousy among those who are less eager to change. However, if the new ways are seen to benefit those who have adopted them, the rest of the community may eventually come to accept them. The innovator may then be regarded without suspicion, and even gain in influence. General attitudes toward cultural change can then shift; new ideas may be welcomed as promising a better life instead of being regarded as a threat to established ways of doing things.

Contact with other cultures

Contact with other societies is an important force for cultural change. Cassava, for example, was first introduced to the west coast of Africa by Portuguese travellers who brought it from South America. It is now an important element in the diet in West African towns, and its introduction has led to many changes in farming systems. Similarly, maize spread from the United States throughout the world as people took it with them on their travels to other countries.

Extension agents often travel outside their areas in order to study. People who leave their society, to study or work among another society, bring back ideas which may change their way of life and be adopted by other people in their society. New styles of clothing, music, religious beliefs, house designs, political ideas and so on are spread from culture to culture by visitors and returning travellers. The more people are exposed to new ideas, the more likely it is that change may be accepted by the society as a whole.


Contact between different cultures is far more widespread than it used to be. New methods of communication bring societies throughout the world relatively easily into contact.

On a more local scale, roads and railways have brought many changes to rural society. Travel has been made easier and more people can visit other places and learn different ways of doing things. Traders establish shops and the goods in them may act as incentives for farmers to produce more in order to buy them. Crops can be marketed more easily and farming inputs brought into rural areas more quickly and cheaply.

Air travel has also had important effects. In Papua New Guinea, air services have enabled isolated mountain communities to market vegetables in towns and mining settlements that used to be inaccessible. The aeroplane has also helped to open up previously inaccessible areas of the Peruvian and Bolivian mountain regions. Villagers can now visit other communities and receive visitors from all over the world.

Newspapers, radio and television can also bring rural people in remote areas into contact with the outside world. People in rural communities who have radio sets or who read newspapers are usually influential and can spread their knowledge or new ideas to their neighbours. Education is another way of introducing people to the ideas, values and way of life of other societies.

Population growth

There is a close relationship between population size, farming systems and other aspects of culture. Where there are not many people in an area and there is plenty of farming land, farmers may abandon their fields after two or three seasons and move on to fresh, fertile land. The old fields then have a chance to recover during a fallow period. Whole villages may move as new land is cleared and prepared for farming but as population grows, land becomes scarce. New methods of farming have to be developed which allow fields to be cultivated year after year. Villages become permanent settlements. More elaborate houses can then be built because they do not have to be abandoned or moved every few years. As land becomes more and more scarce, individuals or families may move to other areas or to towns to look for work.

Economic factors

Economic development leads to changes in many aspects of people's lives and culture. The growth of towns and cities and the development of mines and industries have created new kinds of work in new places. People leave their rural homes to find work. In southern Africa, many men go to work in the mines and cities for a year at a time, leaving their wives to look after their farms. Jobs on the farm that were traditionally done by men now have to be done by women.

Elsewhere, on the fringes of the city, farming may become only a part-time occupation. Most families' main income may come from jobs in the city, but they keep their farmland as an insurance against unemployment and as a source of food. The presence of large numbers of part-time farmers will affect extension. Day-time meetings may be poorly attended, and part-time farmers will not necessarily be interested in new farming practices that increase output if it means spending more time working in the fields.

The growth of towns affects other aspects of culture, as well as the pattern of farming. Inheritance and land-tenure rules may change as people no longer have to rely on farmland to make a living. Where a lot of people from a village work in towns, they may be unable to attend traditional rural ceremonies and festivals which may then decline in importance. At the same time, those working in towns bring money and new possessions back to the village. These can improve rural living standards and have an important influence on values at the village level.


Social and cultural barriers to agricultural change

Although cultures and social structures are always changing, the process is often slow. In the short term, there will be features of society and culture that may act as barriers to change in agriculture. It is important that the extension agent be aware of the existence of such barriers and to take them into account in his work.

Respect for tradition

Many rural societies look upon new methods with indifference and sometimes with suspicion. Respect for elders often results in the attitude that the old ways are best. Farmers not only fear the unknown and untried but they also fear criticism for doing something different from other farmers. In such situations, the motives of extension agents and others seeking to promote change can often be misunderstood. Village people may think that the extension agent is introducing changes to benefit himself. Such attitudes explain the behaviour of farmers who seem to agree that a new method is good but are not prepared to put it into practice.

Belief in one's own culture

Members of all societies believe that their way of life is best. "These new methods of farming may be all right for some people but they are no good for us." This attitude results in reluctance to try something new. "How can it be better than our way?" and "We know what is best for us" are reactions that extension agents may meet in opposition to suggestions for change.

Pride and dignity

Farmers may be too proud to practice ways of farming that could result in other farmers looking down on them. For example, they might be too proud to carry cattle manure to the fields. Many young people leaving school look down on farming, even though some successful farmers earn more than most government employees and schoolteachers.

Relative values

Extension agents often emphasize the improved yield or cash return that can be gained by adopting new farm practices. However, farmers may value taste, appearance or some other factor more than the level of output. They may also value their leisure time so highly that they are not prepared to work longer hours on their farms. Certain improved varieties of maize have been rejected by small-scale farmers in several countries because of their poor flavour, even though they have shown a much better yield than local maize. Farmers and their families have to eat what they produce as well as sell some of it, so taste and cooking quality are very important.

Responsibilities and social obligations

Individuals within a society or a kinship group have responsibilities which they are expected to carry out. People who avoid such responsibilities anger other members of the society. As an individual's income increases, so obligations to society or family increase. The more money a farmer earns, the more help kinsmen will expect. This can be a very serious barrier to change if the individual sees little advantage in improving his or her position because there is not much personal benefit from the improvement. However, this may be overcome by concealing wealth, by distributing cattle among friends, or by burying or banking money so that relatives can be told that no money is available to help them. This may result, for example, in a farmer being reluctant to carry out visible farm improvements such as fencing, buying farm implements and other things which might suggest to kinsmen that the farmer is wealthier than they think.

Traditional ceremonies

Ceremonies such as weddings, funerals and religious festivals can take up so much time that the farmer may be unable to work to the maximum efficiency. The farmer is, therefore, unlikely to adopt new methods, which, while they might increase income, would mean that more time had to be devoted to working the farm and less to ceremonial and social obligations.

The extension agent needs to understand and to be sensitive to these potential social and cultural barriers to change; however, by carefully selecting what he encourages farmers to do, and how to convey the message, their effect can be reduced. Winning the support of traditional community leaders, for example, may lessen the effects of tradition. Furthermore, by making sure that popular food crops are included in agricultural programmes and that the recommended varieties are acceptable on grounds of taste and cooking quality, the extension agent can increase the likelihood of his advice being accepted. Extension programmes aiming at introducing new methods should take into account the possible effect on the whole society and its culture, and not merely the technical results of the methods recommended.

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