Economic Anthropology

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Economic Anthropology

Peasant and primitive economies

Relations of economy and society


Economic anthropology is the analysis of economic life as a subsystem of society. The facts of economic anthropology are arrived at through field observations, either as a by-product of the ethnographer’s investigation of the total culture or as the focus of his attention. The small-scale society was the hearth on which the methods and theories of economic anthropology were forged, but modern interests have expanded as anthropologists have begun to study complex, industrialized, and modern societies. As anthropologists extend their interests they come into contact with the discipline of economics, which has a highly developed body of theory. This confrontation between economists, who are reaching toward what they have professionally considered the “backwashes and underworlds” of economics, and anthropologists, who are moving toward the complex monetized systems, has generated some fruitful interchange, particularly regarding economic change and development.

The methods of economic anthropology are the basic methods of social and cultural anthropology; they are designed to discover social regularities in an alien social setting and to attribute meaning to these regularities.

The problems of getting the basic facts of economic life in a small-scale nonmonetary or partially monetized economy are often tests of methodological ingenuity. Taking household censuses, plotting landholdings, collecting data on income and expenditure patterns from representative social units, observing the contexts of exchange and valuation, and calculating the output of productive units are now standard field procedures. Methodological innovations like the construction of subsistence-exchange ratios for the extended household in northern Nigeria (Smith 1955), the development of annual output indices for artisan communities (Nash 1961), and the critical ratio of labor export for Rhodesian tribal societies (Watson 1958) are some examples of attempts to quantify available economic data.

Peasant and primitive economies appear to have some startling and pervasive organizational differences from the monetized, market-directed or state-directed, and industrialized society of the Western world. Interpreting and explaining these differences is a major task of economic anthropology. Early evolutionary interpretations (Bücher 1893; Buxton 1924; Hoyt 1926) and those of more recent years that are based on some field observation (Thurnwald 1932; Viljoen 1936) view primitive economies as polar opposites to market economies. These interpretations, however, have fallen under the weight of modern field work, which has revealed a host of variables that the crude classification by stages could not contain, and the dynamics of economic change have turned out to be vastly more varied and complex than the evolutionary schematics allowed.

Attempts to import wholesale the techniques of economics (Goodfellow 1939) have proved of as little use in handling the anthropological data as the programs to build a specific “economics” to handle premarket (Polanyi et al. 1957) or non-Western societies (Boeke 1947).

The arguments about the economic rationality of peasants and primitives—whether or not they respond to economic incentives, whether or not they maximize, whether or not they have habits of mind about advantage—have turned out to be sham encounters or semantic confusions. The real issue is not that of the presence or absence of economic rationality in economic life, our own or other; rather, it is a matter of discovering what patterns of rationality, of choice, of action, are appropriate to varying social and cultural arrangements. This research perspective sees any and all social and cultural structures that define and channel the patterns of economic choice and activity. There are no economic motives, only motives relevant to the economic sphere. Debate over concepts of maximization and rationality thus dissolves into the construction of models of social and economic choice in various cultural and social structures. Recognition of the social necessity of bringing scarce means into relation with competing ends along some culturally determined axes of valuation makes the search for the empirical patterns actually governing allocation in varyingly constituted societies the most fruitful line of analysis.

Peasant and primitive economies

Information about peasant and primitive economies appears at first to be a heterogeneous mass impervious to analysis. A four-dimensional model, however, seems to provide the axes along which a classification can be built and also to provide initial hypotheses for the understanding of the form, function, and dynamics of peasant and primitive economies.

Technology and division of labor

In societies with a relatively simple technology the number of different tasks involved in any productive act are few. Usually it is the skill of a single or a few producers that carries production from beginning to end. Many primitive and peasant technologies are ingenious, marvelously fitted to a particular environment, requiring high levels of skill and performance, but still very simple. The Bemba of Rhodesia (Gluckman 1945) wrest a living from poor soil with uncertain water supply by an intricate method of cultivation requiring tree pollarding. They climb the tall trees, cut several branches, burn them, and use the ash for fertilizer on hoed ground. With good rains and luck they harvest their crop of finger millet. The system is one of balance in a precarious ecological niche, but the task structure is simple and the tools involved require only human energy to operate. The specialized operations involved are not the kind that make an interrelated web of occupations. Men do most of the agricultural work of the Bemba, and one man is virtually as good as another in agricultural skill. The division of labor follows lines of sex and age. An occupational list in a peasant and primitive society is not a long one. Persons tend to learn their productive skills in the ordinary business of growing up, and within age and sex categories there is high substitutability of productive workers. Work and tasks are apportioned to the appropriate persons without much regard to functional differences in skill or productivity. The technology also sets limits on the size of combined working parties. Except at peak periods—planting or harvesting in agricultural communities, an organized hunt at the height of the animal running season, or gathering clay in a pottery-making community—large working parties are not found. Effort and work are closely fitted to the annual and ceremonial cycle.

Structure of productive units

Peasant and primitive societies do not have organizations whose only tasks are those of production, and there are no durable social units based solely on productive activities. The unit of production—that is, the social organization carrying out the making of goods—is dependent on and derived from other forms of social interaction. The bonds of kinship within and between families, clans, and kindreds often provide the structure for economic activities. The political structure, especially in societies with hereditary nobilities, is often a mechanism for forming productive units. Territorial bonds also serve to create local producing organizations. Economic units are thus dependent on prior kinds of social relations. Productive units in peasant and primitive societies are multipurposed; their economic activities are but one aspect of the things done by the unit. These productive units are limited in the sorts of personnel they are able to recruit, the capital they are able to command, and the ways in which a product may be distributed. Usually there is no labor market, or capital market, or system of distribution to factors of production. A striking example of reduplicative productive units based on relations derived from the organization of social groups only partially oriented to economic activity is an Indian pottery-making community in southeastern Mexico. This community is composed of 278 households. Each household engaged in the production of pottery for sale has virtually the same technology (Nash 1961). Among the people of Tepoztlán, also in Mexico, many make their living by the sale of services at a wage. Yet people must be sought out for employment, and hiring a fellow member of the community is a delicate social job: an individual’s social position may not be impugned, nor can the transaction appear strictly economic (Lewis 1951). Use of the capital accumulated by a multipurposed productive unit based on noneconomic criteria for membership is constrained by the whole task structure of the social unit, not just its economic dimension.

This kind of economy is relatively inflexible. Possibilities of technical advance, of innovation in organization, or of extended risk taking are not only often precluded by poverty but also cut off by the social constitution of the productive unit. But all economies need some flexibility, and this is often provided by resident strangers. The role of the resident stranger highlights the ways in which social and cultural features channel economic activity. Resident strangers come to other societies for business reasons. They lend money, they bring commodities, or they tie communities into larger networks of exchange. The resident strangers are not morally bound to the people of the community; they stand outside the social structure. The Chinese of southeast Asia, the Lebanese of the West Indies, the Muslims and Hindus in sub-Saharan Africa, and the Jews of medieval Europe are all examples of resident strangers who played the role of providing flexibility to economies not organized for exclusively economic ends.

The system and media of exchange

In primitive and peasant economies the close calculation of costs is often impossible or merely irrelevant. The advantages of a change in the use of time, resources, and personnel are arrived at through the logic of social structure, through a calculus of relative values, and not in terms of the increase of a single magnitude such as productivity. The inability to estimate closely costs and benefits is aggravated by the absence of money as the medium of exchange. Most of the world now has some familiarity with the use of a monetary medium of exchange. In fact, some societies developed complete, all-purpose monetary systems prior to contact with the industrial and commercial West (Davenport 1961). Many societies have other standards of exchange, like the Polynesian shell currencies, the tusked pigs of Melanesia, the salt currency of the Horn of Africa, or the cocoa beans of the Aztecs. But money, in the sense of measure of the value of goods and services with derived attributes of demand convertibility, futurity, and anonymity of source and indifference to who holds it, is much less frequent. When quasi money, or special-purpose money, exists, it is merely the standard with the widest sphere of exchange. Special-purpose money is confined to a particular circuit of exchange, and the circuits of exchange in the economy are only partially articulated. Among the Siane of New Guinea (Salisbury 1962) there are different kinds of exchange goods, and each kind of goods is limited to its particular circuit of exchange. Some goods can be exchanged only for subsistence items, others only for luxury items, and others only for items that confer status and prestige. The Tiv of Nigeria (Bohannan 1955) have a similar multi-centered exchange system, with media appropriate to each sphere of exchange. Food is exchanged for food and can be exchanged for brass rods; brass rods exchange for the highest valued goods, women and slaves. A reverse or downward movement of exchange items is severely resisted and considered illogical and unfortunate among the Tiv.

The media of exchange and the circuits of exchange are set into various kinds of systems of exchange. The most common systems of exchange are markets, redistribution, reciprocity, and mobilization. The market system is widespread among peasants, and, as in Mesoamerica, tends to be free, open, and self-regulating (Tax 1953). Sometimes, as in Haiti (Mintz 1961), special bonds of personal attachment grow up between some buyers and some sellers that cut down some of the risk and uncertainty involved in small-scale peasant trading. Rotating market centers, with a central market and several subsidiary markets, are a fairly common feature in Burma among the Shans and the Chins, in several parts of Africa north and south of the Sahara, and in many places in the Near East. These market systems usually operate without the presence of firms and do not have expensive facilities for the spread of information or other activities. The complex of markets, firms, capital investments, entrepreneurs, deliberate technical investment, and property rules to facilitate accumulation and exchange is apparently historically peculiar to the West. In the ethnographic record it does not appear as a necessary bundle or sequence of events.

Reciprocity is a form of exchange exemplified by the practices of gift giving (Mauss 1925) and tends to lack much bargaining between trading partners. It involves fixed sets of trading partners and occurs between equivalent units of the social structure. Thus, clans exchange with clans; barrios or wards with wards; households with households; communities with communities. The exchanges are for near equivalences in goods and services and approach fixed rates.

Redistributive trade takes place in societies with marked systems of social stratification but lacking market exchange. An African paramount chief may collect tribute in the form of goods and redistribute it down the social hierarchy through his clients and kinsmen. Or a political center may administer trade at fixed prices, exchanging with its peripheries (Polanyi et al. 1957). The effect of redistributive exchanges is to keep a differentiated political and status system operating without great gaps in wealth between the different status levels. A mobilization system of exchange (Smelser 1959) concentrates goods and services in the hands of an elite for the broad political aims of the society. The irrigation empires of the early civilizations apparently had these sorts of exchange systems, and some of the new nations of Asia and Africa control capital in this manner, in conjunction with some aspects of market, redistributive, and reciprocal exchange.

The control of wealth and capital

Generally, investment takes the form of using resources and services to support or expand existing social arrangements. The chief capital goods in peasant and primitive societies are land and men. Tools, machines, terraces, livestock, and other improvements in productive resources are controlled in a manner derived from the conventions of control and allocation of land and human beings. Land tenure is an expression of the social structure of a peasant and primitive society, and the allocation of land results from the operation of the system of kinship, inheritance, and marriage, rather than through contracts or transactions between economic units. Even in those societies where corporate kin groups (clans) do not exist as the land-holding bodies, special devices like titles obtained through kinship bonds or kindred-based land-holding corporations, as on Truk (Goodenough 1951), may be established. Manpower, like land, is also organized to flow in terms of given social forms, rather than according to abstract concepts of maximization.

For peasants and primitives to maintain their societies, capital or property rules or economic chance may not be permitted to work in ways disruptive of the values and norms of the society. A fairly ubiquitous device for ensuring that accumulated resources are used for social ends is a leveling mechanism. The leveling mechanism is a means of forcing the expenditure of accumulated resources or capital in ways that are not economic or productive. The leveling mechanism may take the form of forced loans to relatives or coresidents; a large feast following economic success; a rivalry of expenditure, like the potlatch of the Northwest Coast Indians, in which large amounts of valuable goods were destroyed; the ritual levies consequent on office holding in civil and religious hierarchies, as in Mesoamerica; or the giveaways of horses and goods that characterized Plains Indian culture. This institutionalized means of scrambling wealth inhibits reinvestment in technical advance and prevents crystallization of class lines on an economic base.

This schematic presentation of the major features of peasant and primitive economies serves to emphasize the range of social contexts for comparative economic analysis. An alternative model can be found in Meillassoux (1960). Forde (1956) and Firth (1951) also give descriptive summaries of the major features of small-scale economic systems. But charting the range and diversity of economic systems is only a part of the task of anthropology. How economic systems relate to the total social system is a question of major theoretical importance in social science.

Relations of economy and society

The value system of a society defines and grades the ends actors seek. The ends sought in the economic sphere must be consonant with, or complementary to, goals in other spheres. Economic activity derives its meaning from the norms of the society, and people engage in economic activity for rewards often extrinsic to the economy itself. In peasant and primitive societies the norms and values used to define a resource, a commodity, control over certain goods and services, the distributive process, and standards of economic behavior are norms governing most social interaction. The economy is not so structurally differentiated that one set of values holds there and other sets hold in other contexts. In the language of social science, the economy is “embedded” in other social systems and does not exhibit an ethic counterposed to the regnant value system.

The functional interdependence of economy and society (Parsons & Smelser 1956) stems from the fact that the same persons are actors in the economic, the kinship, the political, and the religious spheres. Thus, among the Tallensi (Fortes 1949) the role of father must fit in some way with the role of farmer, and these must fit with the role of believer in the ancestor cult, and these must fit with authority position in the lineage. The interdependence of parts of a society means that there are limits to the sorts of economies and societies that may coexist in one time-and-space continuum. But it is patent that a system of reciprocal exchange rests on social units that are nearly equivalent in status, power, and size. Similarly, an economy forbidding the performance of any economic role by its religious specialists, as in some Theravada Buddhist countries, will not have funded clerical estates. The marriage and descent system of the Nayar (where husbands were warriors who lived away from wives and where descent was matrilineal) is an instance of the functional compatibility of an occupational and status system with a marriage and descent system.

The causal interaction of economy and society pivots on the provision of facilities. For given forms of social structure a given variety and volume of goods and services are required, and if there are shifts in facilities available there will be shifts in the rest of society. The converse is also logically true; shifts in the social structure will change the volume and variety of goods and services a society produces. To discover the causal interactions of these processes, we study peasant and primitive societies undergoing change. The facts of change are the only sure guides to generalizing on the sequences, forms, and processes of economic and social interaction. Much of the change in the economic life of peasants and primitives comes from the expansion and spread of the Western forms of economic activity. This may occur through the export of goods and labor services by the peasants and primitives or through the introduction of complex industrial and commercial organizations in the midst of peasant and primitive societies.

The expansion of the economic frontier can be seen in places like Orissa, a hilly tribal region in India (Bailey 1957). Here economic opportunity in the wake of the spread of the money economy has allowed some castes to move quickly up the status ladder and forced some traditionally high status castes downward. The economic frontier in the form of money and new opportunities tends to change the role of corporate kin groups and place more emphasis on smaller familial units (Worsley 1956), to introduce a re-evaluation of the goods of a society (Bohannan 1959), and to put pressures on traditional authority systems.

The chief way that peasants and primitives get involved in the world economy is by entering a wage labor force or by producing something that can sell in international trade. Entering a wage labor force (Watson 1958) often generates conflict between generations, raises problems about the control of income, and sometimes depopulates the society, so that its social structure collapses. A rural proletariat may replace a tribal society. Income from entrepreneurial activity by peasants poses larger problems for the social system (Firth 1954). It may result in greater wealth differences, in modifications of the conventional use of capital, in loosening the normative integration of the society, and in restructuring the political and authority patterns. The boom involved in peasant agriculture (Belshaw 1955) often involves a change in religious and ethical concepts and an increase in the importance of economic activity relative to other forms of social activity.

The introduction of factories to peasant and primitive societies (Nash 1958) provides, in theory, the widest possibilities for transformation. The change induced by a factory may be akin to that induced by the increased monetization from wage labor or the expansion of the economic frontier, but it tends to tie the community more closely to a national and international economic network, to provide the context for political change, to lay the basis for new voluntary groupings, and to exert great pressures on extended familial networks and on traditional patterns of respect and authority, and to demand of persons and institutions a type of flexibility and mobility usually not found in traditional societies (Moore & Feldman 1960).

Studies of economic change have shown that modifications in economic activity set up a series of pressures and tensions in the society and culture and that there are limited possibilities for their resolution. There is no generally agreed upon sequence of change, and hardly more consensus on final forms, but the evidence seems to indicate that economic systems are among the most dynamic parts of a society and that economic activity, in the sense of providing facilities for the organization of the rest of social life, is one of the most pervasive and determinative aspects of social life. It sets the limits within which social structures and cultural patterns may fall.

The challenge and potential of economic anthropology is the fashioning of a theory encompassing both economic and noneconomic variables in a single explanatory system. It may then provide a framework for a truly comparative study of the form, function, and dynamics of economic systems.

Manning Nash

[Directly related are the entriesEconomy and society; Exchange and display; Peasantry; Technology. Other relevant material may be found inAnthropology, article onSocial anthropology; and in the biographies ofMaussandPolanyi.]


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