These past decades, agrarian contracts such as sharecropping have re-emerged as a major focus of interest. Economists typically conceptualize these contracts as an agency relationship (in the economic sense) between large and labor-constrained landlords and landless tenants. From a methodological perspective, while acknowledging the theoretical insights of economists, this article, based on comparative case studies carried out in Mexico, suggests that understanding contractual practices depends on a comprehensive and theoretically-grounded ethnographic approach. Explaining contractual practices, actors’ decision criteria are investigated rather than postulated or econometrically inferred. A detailed comparative case-study approach highlights the local diversity in contractual practices and contractual configurations. From a theoretical perspective, the paper suggests drawing upon different theoretical insights, as a single theoretical model cannot exhaust empirical diversity. The share contract emerges as a ‘polyfunctional’ institutional arrangement, with a large palette of possible raison d’être.

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