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Economic anthropology

- Related to aspects of human nature that deal with decisions of daily life and what it takes to make a living
- Examines needs, wants, demands of a society and how they are balanced against goods and services that are available
- Difference between formal economics and substantive economics


What are the 3 different thereotical approaches to economic anthropology?

- Humans are self-interested and work to maximize individual benefits
- Humans are social and work together in groups
- Humans are moral and do not make decisions that go against their morality
Each approach justifies a different subject of economic analysis


Subsistence strategies

- Strategies used to meet basic material needs: food, shelter, clothing
- Distinction between food collectors and food producers
- Farmers are included as food-producers and can practice one of three kinds of agriculture


Food collectors

People who gather wild plant materials, fish, and/or hunt for food


Food producers

People who depend on domesticated plants and/or animals for food


Economic activity

- 3 phases = production, distribution and consumption
- Anthropologists argue over which of these constitutes the most important phase


Neoclassical economic theory

A formal attempt to explain the workings of capitalist enterprise, with particular attention to distribution


Gift exchange

- Marcel Mauss (1950) argued for a method of exchange that is embedded in social relationships of kinship, partnerships, and acquaintances
- Rather than be linked by cash, people are linked by social relations
- Thought it was mostly observed in non-Western societies (‘savages’ and ‘barbaric’ people)
- But likely societies participated in both market exchange and gift exchange



- Generalized (e.g. modern day gift-giving, Ju/’hoansi hxaro): does not require a gift back on any kind of timeline
Balanced (e.g. Kula exchange in Trobriand Islands): direct exchange without delay
Negative (e.g. Kuria East Africa, Mbuti pygmies of Africa): impersonal and seeking to maximize gains; screws over the other party



Goods and services are collected by a central figure for eventual distribution to followers
E.g. Potlatch among the Kwakiutl; Cherokee of Tennessee Valley; Canada Revenue Agency


Market exchange

- Trade is calculated with a medium of exchange such as money
- Goal is maximizing profit
- Value determined by laws of supply and demand


Organ transplantation as gift exchange

Based on Lesley Sharp’s ethnographic research in the U.S. (1995, 2006)
- What is being “transplanted” is more than a spare organ
- The valuation of one life over another life
- Organ is embedded in social relatedness and kinship ties
- Sense of the “tyranny of the gift” - the obligation you have after being given something so precious


Organ transplantation as market exchange

- Fieldwork challenges of studying an illegal market
- Brokers use deceit to get sellers to agree
- Sellers are most often not ‘better off’ after (economically, physically, socially)
- Market works in buyer’s favour, but not the seller’s



- Anthropologists draw on the work of Karl Marx who concentrated on labour – both physical and cognitive
- Marx differentiated between the mode, means, and relations of production


Mode of production

Set of social relations through which labour is deployed to wrest energy from nature by means of skills, tools, organization and knowledge
Can be:


Relations of production

Social relations linking the people who use a given means of production within a particular mode of production


Means of production

Tools, skills, organization and knowledge used to extract energy from nature


Kin-ordered mode

Social labour is performed on the basis of kinship relations


Tributary mode

Labourers control the means of production but must provide payment to some authority figure


Capitalist mode

3 main features:
1. Means of production is property owned by capitalists
2. Workers are denied access to such ownership and must sell labour to capitalists to survive
3. This labour produces for capitalists surpluses of wealth that capitalists may retain or plow back into production to increase output and generate further surpluses


Marxist approach to economic anthropology

- Highlights class struggles in production
- Reveals that conflict is part of material life
- Shows the role of ideology in justifying the relations of production and reproducing society generation to generation
- Questions why people have different quantities of resources to begin with
- Sees workers and owners as agents



- What is valued in one society may not be in another
- How we explain patterns of consumption:
The internal explanation (e.g. Malinowski)
The external explanation (e.g. cultural ecology and ecozones)
The cultural explanation (e.g. Douglas and prohibited foods; Ju/’hoansi and preferred foods diet)
- How anthropologists see affluence


Internal explanation

Basic human needs (biological or psychological)


External explanation

Human consumption patterns are a response to what people can obtain in a given environment


Cultural explanation

"Needs" are culturally defined