Meaning, scope, and relevance of economic anthropology

Economic organization: Meaning, scope, and relevance of economic anthropology; formalist and substantivist debate; principles governing production, distribution and exchange(reciprocity, redistribution and market), in communities, subsisting on hunting and gathering, fishing, swiddening, pastoralism, horticulture, and agriculture; globalization and indigenous economic systems.

Economic anthropology is a fusion of the anthropological variable of culture and economics. It is first of all to describe the the variety of economic arrangements developed by human kind in different times and places.

Malinowski for the first time attempted to explain the concept of material culture in the primitive society in 1922.

The domain of economic anthropology covers the recurring interaction of individuals, within and between social groups and with the wider environment, with the object of providing material goods and services necessary for social reproduction

when we draw similarities between economics and anthropology and their study orientation, they two share a common area -psychology. In an economic system there is always a role played by the psychology of an individual. According to Marshall, economics is a study of man in the ordinary business of life.

Anthropologist use the concepts from economics in their attempts to explain aspects of the material condition of human existence. When anthropologists concentrate on the social framework of the economic activity, economists can contribute supply and demand analysis, techniques of measuring transactions and general ideas about allocation of resources.

To an economic anthropologist it is the total cultural system, the total society that provides the context for investigating and interpreting the systems of production and exchange.

The tribal culture is cognate to tribal economies and the economic system of the tribes can be understood in the purview of the cultural factors. Economic anthropology envisages economic activities of man in his social and cultural framework. In other words, economic anthropology is an analysis of economic life as a sub-system of the society. economic anthropology deals primarily with the economic aspects of social relations. A comparative insight into the nature and functioning of the economic system of tribes will present a true picture of their economic life which is a system of mutual dependence and the influence of social forces on their economic behavior

Formalism (aka rationalists) vs substantivism debate:

this debate was basically drew on by Karl Polanyi, where he argued that “true market exchange” was limited to a restricted number of western, industrial societies. Thus the use of formal economic theory, the model that is closely linked to neoclassical economics (formalism) was inappropriate in non-industrial societies. In non-industrial societies, exchange was “embedded” in non-market institutions such as kinship, religion and politics. Polanyi labeled this approach substantivism. Once this debate was highly influential, but ultimately sterile. With globalization, such debate between “the west and the rest” became theoretically weak; and economic anthropologists have mostly thrown away ‘primitivist niche’ and the debate aforementioned.

Formalists (aka rationalists) consider “primitive” economies as underdeveloped versions of modern capitalist economies, with the premises that all humans are rational and all behavior can be explained rationally. The desire to maximize profit is rational and universal. Depending upon social structural organization–kin-mode, tributary, or rationalist–people follow rules consistent with the “principle of least effort” and calculated self-interest that transcend culture, though the rules or protocols might be different for each level of development.

Substantivists (aka culturalists or “romantics”) view economics as a category of culture as a “sense-making system” that determine human behavior; economics is organized by domestic groups and kinship relations. Economic behavior is a “cultural construction.” Our bourgeois economic values are not universal, argues Marshall Sahlins, they are a product of culture. “The primitive order is generalized. A clear differentiation of spheres into social and economic does not there appear.” Marshall Sahlin’s

principles governing production, distribution and exchange(reciprocity, redistribution and market), in communities, subsisting on hunting and gathering, fishing, swiddening, pastoralism, horticulture, and agriculture;

Systems of production refer to how food and other necessities are produced. In other words, they are the subsistence patterns—i.e., foraging, pastoralism, horticulture and intensive agriculture. Systems of distribution and exchange refer to the practices that are involved in getting the goods and services produced by a society to its people. Regardless of the type of subsistence base, all societies need to have mechanisms of distribution and exchange.

All of the large-scale societies of the world today have market economies. These are very impersonal but highly efficient systems of production, distribution, and exchange that are principally characterized by:

1. the use of money as a means of exchanges

2. having the ability to accumulate vast amounts of capital(i.e.,wealth that can be used to fund further production)

3. having complex economic interactions that are ultimately international in scale.

Non market economy:

The isolated, self-sufficient foraging, pastoralist, and horticultural societies of the past rarely had market economies. Their economies were qualitatively different from ours in large scale societies today. In order to understand them, it is first important to realize that financial gain was not the prime motivator in the distribution of goods and services. As a result, standard economic analysis is inadequate in explaining how and why these non-market economies functioned.

Work related interactions between individuals are of a face-to-face personal kind in non-market economies. People who work together hunting, gathering, herding, or tending crops are usually kinsmen or lifelong friends and neighbors. Little or no attempt is made to calculate the contribution of individuals or to calculate individual shares of what is produced. Social pressure generally obligates individuals to freely share food and other products of their labor with whomever needs it or asks for it in the community. This operates as an economic leveling mechanism. As a result, there is little or no possibility of saving and becoming more wealthy than anyone else. Subsequently, the incentive to work is not only derived from a desire to acquire what is being produced but also from the pleasure of working with friends and relatives. In addition there is potential for increased social prestige from doing the job well.

There rarely are impersonal commercial exchanges in non-market economies. The distribution of goods and services usually occurs through either barter or gifts and involves a considerable amount of social interaction. In small-scale societies, barter is generally used in exchanges with people from other friendly communities. When the communities are frightened of or hostile towards each other but still wish to trade, dumb-barter may occur. This is barter without direct contact between the traders

In societies with non-market economies, land and other property rights are usually restricted by the overriding rights vested in the community as a whole. Ownership is based on the concept of usufruct. This is very different from the concept of proprietary deed that is common in large-scale market economies. With usufruct, an owner normally can “own” land and other substantial property only as long as it is being used or actively possessed. The society as a whole is the real owner.

Distribution and exchange:

When goods and services are given away, purchased, sold, or traded, there are potentially two components of the exchange–pure economic gain and social gain. Both of these motives usually occur at the same time in non-market economies. However, in market economies, the social component is often missing except when the exchange is between relatives or friends. With strangers, the social gain is usually sacrificed for efficiency and speed.

Gift exchanges are usually reciprocal. That is to say, if you receive a gift, you are obliged to repay it with another gift. Reciprocity typically results in a continuing sequence of giving, receiving, and repaying gifts. Breaking this obligation to continue the reciprocity is commonly seen as a slight or even a rejection of the other person involved in the exchange. Reciprocity is a binding mechanism in that its continuance helps to hold friends and families together.

In 1965, an anthropologist named Marshall Sahlins observed that there are three distinct types of reciprocity that occur in human societies around the world–generalized, balanced, and negative.

Generalized reciprocity is gift giving without the expectation of an immediate return.

With balanced reciprocity, there is an explicit expectation of immediate return.

Negative reciprocity occurs when there is an attempt to get someone to exchange something he or she may not want to give up or when there is an attempt to get a more valued thing than you give in return.

Some economic exchanges are intended to distribute a society’s wealth in a different way than exists at present. These are referred to as redistributive exchanges. They usually function as economic leveling mechanisms. In the Western World, charity and progressive income tax systems are examples of redistributive exchanges.

The potlatch among the Indian cultures of the Northwest Coast region of North America is a good example. This was a complex system of competitive feasting, speechmaking, and gift giving intended in part to enhance the status of the giver.

Market in simple societies are not really pure economic institutions. First they are not a regular feature of their societies. Their occurrence coincides with a ritual occasion or festival. The market may come into once a week or fortnight. Visitors to the market may not constitute a crowd of buyers and sellers, as happens in markets of complex societies. In simple societies the market is almost like a fair. The people expect to meet their kinspeople and friends.

The market predominantly performs social, rather than economic functions in simple society. It is in contrast to complex society where market market is essentially an economic institution.



Hunting and gathering continued to be the subsistence pattern of some societies well into the 20th century, especially in environmentally marginal areas that were unsuited to farming or herding, such as dense tropical forests, deserts, and subarctic tundra. Foragers generally have a passive dependence on what the environment contains

Some foragers in East Africa and Western North America are known to have periodically regenerated the productivity of their environments by intentionally burning grasslands and sparse woodlands. This encouraged the growth of tender new vegetation which attracted game animals.

Foragers rely mainly on their own muscle power in carrying out their subsistence tasks. Most labor is done individually or in small groups of relatives and friends. There is an almost a complete absence of occupational choice. Every man is primarily a hunter of animals and every woman is mainly a gatherer of plants.

Anthropologists have identified three major variations of the foraging subsistence pattern: Pedestrian. Equestrian and aquatic.

Pedestrian:This has been the commonest form of hunting and gathering.he pedestrian hunting and gathering way of life was highly mobile. Most of these societies moved their camps several times a year and had temporary dwellings. The number of people living in a camp also often varied throughout the year depending on the local food supply. At one time, pedestrian foragers lived on all continents except Antarctica. Prior to the invention of agriculture around 10,000 years ago, almost all people lived in this way. They occupied the rich fertile valleys, hills, and grasslands. The most well known pedestrian foragers were the Australian Aborigines, the San speakers of Southwest Africa, the pygmies of West Central Africa, most California Indians, and the Paiutes of the Great Basin in Western North America.

Equestrian foragers have evolved in only two areas of the world–the Great Plains of North America and the sparse grasslands of Southern Argentina. In both cases, pedestrian foragers acquired horses from Spanish settlers in the early 17th century. Over several generations, horse breeding and riding skills were honed. This resulted in a revolutionary change in these Native American societies. The horse became the principle mode of transportation and dramatically increased hunting success in the pursuit of big animals.

Aquatic foragers focus their subsistence activities on fish, mollusks, crustaceans, and/or marine mammals. The most well known aquatic foragers lived on the Northwest Coast of North America from the Klamath River of California to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.


Pastoralism is a subsistence pattern in which people make their living by tending herds of large animals. The species of animals vary with the region of the world, but they are all domesticated herbivores that normally live in herds and eat grasses or other abundant plant foods. Horses are the preferred species by most pastoralists in Mongolia and elsewhere in Central Asia. In East Africa, it is primarily cattle. In the mountainous regions of Southwest Asia, it is mainly sheep and goats. It is often camels in the more arid lowland areas of the Southwest Asia and North and East Africa.

There are essentially two forms of pastoralism. They are known as nomadism and transhumance.

Pastoral nomads follow a seasonal migratory pattern that can vary from year to year. The timing and destinations of migrations are determined primarily by the needs of the herd animals for water and fodder. These nomadic societies do not create permanent settlements, but rather they live in tents or other relatively easily constructed dwellings the year round. Pastoral nomads are usually self-sufficient in terms of food and most other necessities

Transhumance pastoralists follow a cyclical pattern of migrations that usually take them to cool highland valleys in the summer and warmer lowland valleys in the winter. This is seasonal migration between the same two locations in which they have regular encampments or stable villages often with permanent houses. Transhumance pastoralists usually depend somewhat less on their animals for food than do nomadic ones. They often do small scale vegetable farming at their summer encampments. They also are more likely to trade their animals in town markets for grain and other things that they do not produce themselves.


Horticulture is small scale, low intensity farming. This subsistence pattern involves at least part time planting and tending of domesticated food plants. Pigs, chickens, or other relatively small domesticated animals are often raised for food and prestige. Some horticulturalists are not only subsistence farmers but also produce a small surplus to sell or exchange in local markets for things that they cannot produce themselves.

Horticulturalists usually have a shifting pattern of field use. When production drops due to the inevitable depletion of soil nutrients, horticulturalists move to a new field or a long fallow one to plant their crops.

Horticulture is still practiced successfully in tropical forest areas in the Amazon Basin and on mountain slopes in South and Central America as well as low population density areas of Central Africa, Southeast Asia, and melanasia.

Intensive agriculture:

Intensive agriculture is the primary subsistence pattern of large-scale, populous societies. It results in much more food being produced per acre compared to other subsistence patterns. Beginning about 5,000 years ago, the development of intensive farming methods became necessary as the human population grew in some major river valleys to levels beyond the carrying capacity of the environment using horticulture and pastoralism.

The first intensive agricultural societies were the ancient civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia (now Iraq and eastern Syria), India and Pakistan, North China, Mesoamerica, and Western South America. Today, intensive agriculture is the primary food production pattern in all developed nations except those that are too arid or too cold for any form of farming outside of greenhouses.

The transition to intensive agriculture brought with it a number of inevitable major social changes. Permanent year round settlements became necessary because the food source was immobile. As a consequence, more time and effort were expended in building houses that would last for generations. Surplus crops produced by farmers were sold in village markets. Some of these market centers increased in population over time and became towns and eventually cities. There was an evolution of a complex division of labor. Many new kinds of jobs appeared, including merchants, craftsmen, professional soldiers, priests, rulers, and bureaucrats. The emerging urban centers were occupied mainly by these non-food-producing specialists and their families.

In large-scale societies today, agriculture has become highly efficient, requiring much fewer people to produce the food for everyone else. This is particularly true of mechanized grain farming and ranching. Technological advances in farm production now occur frequently and are spread world wide within a few years. In many of the poor developing nations in the tropical regions of the world, plantation agriculture has increasingly replaced subsistence horticulture. Plantations are large, labor-intensive farms that mostly produce fruit, sugar, fiber, or vegetable oil products for the international market.

Swiddening: Slash and burn.

humans used slash-and-burn agriculture to clear more land to make it suitable for plants and animals. Thus, since Neolithic times, slash-and-burn techniques have been widely used for converting forests into crop fields and pasture. Fire was used before the Neolithic as well, and by hunter-gatherers up to present times. Clearings created by fire were made for many reasons, such as to draw game animals and to promote certain kinds of edible plants such as berries.

Slash-and-burn agriculture, or fire–fallow cultivation, is a farming method that involves the cutting and burning of plants in a forest or woodland to create a field called a swidden.

Slash-and-burn agriculture has been used in central america and mexico for thousands of years. But today, with more people than ever trying to survive in the midst of dwindling natural resources, its impact is particularly destructive and unsustainable.

There are many problems that result from this method of growing crops, includingng deforestation, a direct consequence of cutting down forests for crop land;loss of habitatand species; an increase in air pollution and the release of carbon into the atmosphere—which contributes to global climate change and an increase in accidental fires. Slash and burn agriculture also results in significant soil erosion and accompanying landslides, water contamination, and/or dust clouds, as without trees and vegetation and their root systems, soil washes away during heavy rains and blows away during droughts.


There is evidence of specialized fishing adaptations in the archaeological record dating from Palaeolithic times, which parallel technological developments in the exploitation of terrestrial resources. Fishery resources are in places abundant and reliable. Year-round livelihoods are possible with minimum technical elaboration. Shellfish may be picked off the rocks at low tide, artificial pools built of rocks to trap fish as the tide flows out;

A fishing economy may be supported either by simple gathering, active hunting, or both.

The Kwakiutl, Nootka, Tsimshian and other peoples of the west coast of Canada give examples of pre-industrial maritime economies founded upon sea-mammal hunting and the seasonal capture of salmon and candlefish.

a ‘theory of fishing’ remains elusive. People like the Nuer of the Southern Sudan, who spear fish during a brief season in years when the Nile floods, are fishers only as occasional opportunists; they have little in common with the Nootka, still less with contemporary Norwegian trawler operators and crews.

Globalization and indigenous economy system:

According to the Anthropological Survey a total of 4,635 communities are now to be found in India. Out of this total, ‘tribal’ or Indigenous communities number 732. Under globalization. The impact of globalization on the Indigenous communities is manifold, and often they are ones most negatively affected. Under globalization, it is the tribal Indigenous areas that have had to face the attacks of massive developmental projects. Cases of displacement of tribal populations have increased in India. Commercial activities have also introduced alien forces, cultures and influences into the traditionally insulated life and culture of the Indigenous peoples. Deprivation of land and forests are the worst forms of oppression that these people experience. It has resulted in the breakdown of community life and a steady cultural death or ‘ethnocide ‘. The tribal people are exterminated by a process of attrition, through which their lands are taken away, their rivers poisoned, their cultures undermined and their lives made intolerable. Hunters and gatherers, forest produce collectors, fisherfolk, both inland and marine, and the rural artisans are the victims of globalization and modern development through appropriation of people’s resources for industrial advancement, especially in association with capital-intensive, machine-oriented technology.

In India, the New Economic Policy that was the harbinger of globalization for India was initiated in 1993. Over the last few decades, the open market policy of the Indian Government has resulted in increased privatization, huge lay-offs of labour, and heavy debts on the nation. The benefits of development touted under globalization have not reached the poorest sections of the society. The disparity between the rich and the poor has widened. Its disturbing impact on family and the drastic erosion of traditional social life is a main concern.

Indigenous People, Livelihood and Culture: The Path that leads to Nayaka’s Survival A study on the Nayaka Community:

Tribals in India present a significant degree of cultural and ethnic diversity. The tribes, who have been mainly confined to hills and forests like the Nayaka’s, have now sought their absorption into the regional and national mainstream. In many ways, Globalization destroys identities. Before the era of Globalization, there existed local, autonomous, distinct and well-defined, culturally sustaining connections between geographical place and cultural experience. Globalization can be observed in different economic, social, cultural, political, finance, and technological dimensions of the world. It is crucial that indigenous peoples’ demands are realized; life ways, traditional knowledge and practices are protected and sustained.

The Globalization Process among the Hill Tribes of Chmarajanagara District:

The study of the drawbacks in the present system of eGovernance and decentralization, which are the approaches in the process of globalisation, and suggest appropriate models to overcome the problems faced by tribal people who are excluded and deprived of social security. the hill tribes Soligas, Jenu Kurubas and Kadu kurubas in 20 habitations of Chamarajanagar District, Karnataka State, India, are illiterate and their living standard is Below Poverty Line (BPL). Most are deprived of social assistance. The existing system is ineffective in delivering services to people. Added to this the tribal communities lack effective leaders among them to help their people. It was found that the major problems are lack of awareness and ability to access to public offices. Their fear of the unknown official system and inability to meet the transaction costs have also left them deprived. Further, the study confirms decentralization of powers and e-Governance initiatives, under the umbrella of globalization, introduced at the village level in the delivery system have not yielded the expected results due to infrastructure inadequacies.

Understanding Climate Change Crisis along with Cultural Changes and the Politics of Development in Capitalist Era: An Anthropological Analysis:

By 2015, the average number of people affected each year by climate-related disasters may have grown to 375 million and by 2030 the number of people suffering from hunger and illness due to creeping climate change (such as shifting rainfall patterns) could reach 310 million, with nearly half a million deaths. Climate change is the harvest of the capitalist economy which mainly started from the beginning of the industrial revolution in the west. The developed countries that have morally assumed responsibility for climate change have taken, in the name of development, various steps to reduce the impact of environmental disasters, but these have not yet been proved as sustainable.

Basically every next move on the global scale has a direct or indirect affect on the indigenous people, be it related to development, conservation.

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