Anthropology Notes

Economic Institutions

Table of Contents:

Economic Institutions
Aspects of Economic Systems
Moral & Ritual Institutions

Standard anthropology view of cultural systems:

1) Kinship & Marriage;

2) Religion;

3) Politics & Law;

4) Economics

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Some believe small-scale systems lack economic systems because:

1) Not concerned with money and prices;

2) No exact calculations of value;

Economics has been defined as the science of choice, but all systems contain choice. Economics is the way in which people manage their resources, produce them, and distribute them.

It is mainly concerned with material resources and choices people make as to use. Non-material resources are delegated to ritual institutions but all are tied together in social contexts.

Firth: "That broad sphere of human activity concerned with resources, their limitations and uses, and the organization whereby they are brought into a rational way into relationships with human wants"

Some recognize that small-scale groups produce, trade, and consume goods but deny forethought or notions of values or preparations for future changes.

Most anthropologists are not trained economists and most systems are complex. But not all economist data categories are needed to understand small-scale societies. Most transactions are inter-personal relationships in small-scale systems. In modern large-scale systems, morality is downplayed while in small-scale systems, each person is responsible in the relationship.

Two basic questions:

1) Pragmatic aspects (exchange of goods and services);

2) Social aspects (human social context)

1) Buyer-seller relationship

2) Debtor-creditor relationship;

Basic concern of anthropology:

1) Resources and their distribution;

2) Availability of resources;

3) Securing resources;

4) Technological arrangements (means of exploiting resources)

Often societies are typed by their technological levels (hunting-gathering; horticulturalists; herders; industrial, etc.)

Production involves employment of some kind of technology. How is production organized (work, division of labor)?

Durkheim: Mechanical division by sex; organic by specialization

Control over production


Rules of land tenure




Systems of exchange of goods


Kula ring



Medium in terms of which you can attach a value to something else

If no basis, then must haggle

Credit arrangements: role of debt in a society

Social system: Group of interdependent parts which integrates with each other to form a coherent phenomena. Parts consistent in operation (share common goal). Like a car engine is a group of sub-systems (power, lubrication, cooling, fuel, etc.). If one sub-system breaks down, the entire system halts. But the parts can be replaced, repaired or modified.

Consistency: two people cannot occupy conflicting roles at the same time (if a man marries his daughter, she cannot be a wife and a daughter at the same time).

Institutionalized deviance can be used to dramatize to norm.

Law is the process of controlling consistency.

General considerations:

Economics deal mostly with statistical data gathered through many events (so sampling and recording can impact outcomes). The anthropologist recording the data can impact the process itself. The anthropologist must try to have no control over the process or outcome. There are seasonal and cyclical aspects of the land, climate, lives of people, birth, death, ceremonies, (etc.) which impact the process. The anthropologist also does not have knowledge of the personal values of each of the participants.

Field methods:

1) Know language

a. Hear opinions reflect social positions;

b. Hear informal conversation reflect social organization;

2) Direct observation

a) Systemize observations to seek functions;

b) Record everything;

3) Collect genealogical data

Many terms for economic concepts are non-applicable to small-scale systems. The social setting of the economic transaction is the key to understanding it.


1) Technical situation of the industry of the group;

2) Processes of exchange;

3) Systems of property holding and land tenure/obligations;

4) Economic system within the social system

Technical situation only one part of the economic picture as does not consider the means, organization, distribution and consumptive aspects.

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Efficiency of techniques necessary for evaluation of economy (chart): who, what part play, time, what alternatives;

Use, how, when, where, how does occupation effect total outcome volume and nature of production;

Volume and nature of the exchange; net income in terms of values of the society;

Estimate of the potential resources;

Concept of the local standard of living and values;

Yields of resources;

Knowledge people have of how to use resources, limitations (taboos);

Techniques of how it came about and why came about (beliefs);

Ecological data;

The impact of new ideas and technology;

Calendar of work activities;

Division of labor;

Moral evaluations of work;

Ritual values of work;

Drugs as work stimuli;

Tables of quantitative data on labor;

Who initiates, plans, obligated to participate, has rights to participate, how ritual is involved, time involved in ritual, time involved in pragmatic production, proportion of goods devoted to ritual, availability seasonally

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Amount of goods made use of in producing other goods. Tools are pragmatic. Exchange of goods to gain labor or other goods.

In some cases can loan or borrow capital, extent and methods, control involved in relationships between lender and leaser.

Is capital static or change?

Real values of goods in society measured in goods and services.

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How product divided, rewards received by various agents in productive process (wage, interest).

Presence or absence of monetary systems (currency)

Radcliffe-Brown: “The economic machinery of a society appears in quite a new light if it is studied in relation to a social structure. The exchange of goods and services is dependent upon, is the result of, and at the same time is a means of maintaining a certain structure, a network of relations between persons and collections of persons. For the economists and politicians of Canada, the potlatch of the Indians of the North-West of America, was simply wasteful foolishness and it was forbidden, For the anthropologists it was the machinery for maintaining a social structure of lineages, clans and moieties, with which was combined an arrangement of rank defined by privileges.”

What establishes value?

Weaknesses: interviews are unspecific, individuals vary in their competency, we do not always ascertain the affective state of mind of the subjects, to what extent are we getting fact, we imply the average man.

Quantification: exchange-volume of exchange often inadequately described, can be deficiencies in comparative measurement, efficiency unknown, relationships to social values unknown.

Food can be left to rot for social reasons

1) Subsistence definition of economics

a) Economics refers to the provision of material goods brought into relationships with wants, not necessarily formal economics

b) Techniques of getting and making goods and distributing goods

c) Reciprocity

2) Formal definition of economics

a) Refers to special set of rules or conditions designed or directed to some end

b) Minimizes dispersal of means to gain some end so that maximum benefits occur

Four aspects or assumptions (Firth & Dalton):

1) No necessary connection with subsistence definition (assumption of maximization motive). Maximization need not be economic but is universal strategy for gaining ends (explicit ends, delimited means, definite rules of choice to gain ends);

2) Human beings prize material good over any other form of achievement;

3) Resource factors are scarce (no limit to ends hence resources are always scarce, sources multipurpose, hierarchy of preferred ends, rules for relating scarce multi-purpose resource means to graded ends; any material end will be fulfilled by no more than the minimum resources necessary for its fulfillment, greater ends take precedence over lesser ends

4) Cannot have economizing unless people have a market system or disposition. There are situations where there is no economizing disposition among some people

a) If rules of social organization dictate that some means can be used for one purpose only, limits formal

b) Where no degree of scarcity exists or where material acquisition is not desired

Substantive definition

Wants placed into a hierarchy, unlimited, resources limited, maximization applies

Formal definition has no necessary connection to the substantive definition, it must be proved empirically that a maximization theory exists.

Maximization need not be connected with production, distribution, and consumption. It becomes substantive (economic) only when it is applied to produce, distributed goods and consumed goods.

Game theory can be applied

Dalton’s theory: based on application of the formal meaning and supply and demand.

Premise of price-distribution

Attainment of material goods prized over other factors

Resources have limited sources

Hierarchy of preferred ends known

Assumes buyers will buy impersonally from cheapest seller

Labor and employer relationship are far removed from market

economy in primitive groups, instead are conditioned by kinship, ritual, etc.

Aspects and problems of small-scale groups

1) Low technology and rate of change;

2) Non-industrial;

3) Production small, networks small, differentiation of function minimal;

4) No constantly expanding market for capital, few openings for new ventures;

5) No widespread entrepreneur systems (tend to be traditionalists);

6) System of control of capital goods follow different conventions (institutionalized limits, leveling mechanisms to take care of inequalities in capital);

7) Regulation of communal rights (homogeneous, laws of hospitality);

8) Agents of production not clearly separable

a) Labor, capitol, management blended into same individuals;

b) Disputes between parties almost non-existent because groups are same;

c) Production not based on cash rewards – simple goods sharing

d) Rewards can be simple (a meal) or complex (social position and custom);

e) Economic aspects highly personalized, social status greater importance than economic factors, labor more of a social service, rewards calculated in terms of social ends rather than economic ends

Relation between economic and moral standards

Overt entry of the group into individual choice, role of individual affects choice, network o social relations enter in

Economic and moral standards not the same thing in industrial society, business is business and morals are morals

Use of voluntary associations to bridge gap, better business bureaus to bring morality into transactions

No unemployment in small-scale societies, membership in group means you are part of the economic process

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Principle aspects of economic systems

Every society has some kind of organization to handle resources in a systematic way- linked to all other institutions

The general rules of economics are applicable to primitive situations but there are modifications

Economics must not be confused with technology

Every society must be concerned with what goods are to be produced and their quantity as well as the degree of management

Production is the organization by which resources are converted into goods and services that satisfy human wants.

Distribution is the rewards received by the various factors or agents in the productive process (wages, interest, rent, profit)

Choice is the range of free actions the individual has, even if choice is socially sanctioned, there are alternatives

Choice differs on certain points:

1) The degree to which overtly discussed and realized;

2) The degree of magnitude;

3) The length of time required to resolve

Spheres of economic decision-making

1) Policy (what can be done);

2) Management (how one does it);

3) Operations (spot changes)

Operational decisions (immediate)

1) Every member of society has some role at some time;

2) Concerned with making most advantageous use of resources available within the limits already determined

Management decisions (middle range)

1) May occur at all levels, include operational decisions;

2) Choices for most efficient systems, set up choices of general nature for a group

Policy decisions (long range)

1) Occur usually at group level, involve political aspects;

2) Use of resources in reference to control, increase of resources

Technology/ecology: adjustments humans have made with the environment inter-relationships between plants, animals and people. Technology is the cultural method. It mediates the environment.

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Moral & Ritual Institutions

Fraser: 1) Like produces like, effect resembles cause = law of similarity; 2) Things once in contact continue to act at a distance after physical contact ends = law of contagion

These are sympathetic magic: 1 = homeopathic; 2 = contagious

Piddington: 1) There is always a practical aim; 2) There is always a human performer; 3) Religion is an ideological framework; 4) Magic is such a framework being used for practical ends

The Performance:

1) Things used (charms, medicines, tools, etc.)

2) Things done (rites, physical actions, etc.)

3) Things said (spells, prayers, etc.)

Based on underlying all-pervading force which can be controlled.

It has useful organizing power, increases personal confidence, articulates activity to relieve tensions and fears, reinforces opinion, sanctifies opinion.

Magical elements:

1) Affirmation of human control;

2) Spells that command obedience;

3) Rites which use magical substances with inherent power;

4) Belief in supernatural powers;

5) Manipulation for individual interest

Magical elements common in religion:

1) Compulsive power of words;

2) Virtue of materials and symbols;

3) Sect and individual ends

Primarily religious:

1) Extra-human aid;

2) Prayer, appealing for aid;

3) Symbols, offerings, sacrifices;

4) Belief in spiritual beings;

5) Group participation

Religious but magical:

1) Control through spirit agencies;

2) Material interest of group;

3) Blessing of artifacts

No valid separation between magic and religion can be made, both covered by ritual institutions.

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Witchcraft characteristics:

1) They fly (emit light);

2) Were-animals;

3) Noisy non-entities;

4) Have a familiar (animal-spirit);

5) They kill (suck blood, suck soul);

6) Associated with belief in soul or spirit that enables them to travel about, can be killed when soul departs;

7) Frequently member of a society of witches, good standing by providing cannibal offering of some near kin;

8) Complex sex life (incest, beastiality, lying on sleeping mat of another);

9) Always a system of anti-witchcraft;

10) Misfortune and illness means witchcraft;

11) Always evil

Witch: something in person causes condition, inherited, always evil.

Sorcerer: power in some object used by person, good or evil.

They explain a crisis and associated with a crisis. Gives a person a way out of a crime because a witch is not responsible. Public confession makes things OK, common between near relatives.

It appears to be an outgrowth of aggression between kin who cannot afford to split in a corporate group. The estate consists of productive resources (land, tools, technologies, labor, etc.), reproductive resources (human beings); and social resources (rank, offices, etc.) and the power to control the estate: Productive (inheritance, education), reproductive (marriage) and social (succession).

Witchcraft is an inevitable outcropping of tensions produced by this interaction, tension produces accusations, affords a sanction against abuse of power, lets members let off steam.

Divination: finding of hidden knowledge through the use of signs, carried out to help individuals or groups, maintains well being. Sometimes associated with signs at birth.

In every society there is a need to overcome private and individual concerns for the good of the group. Symbols demonstrate the need for cohesion (myths, fictions, dogmas, scared places, sacred objects) and represent exclusiveness of the group and its unity. They are sometimes final values in themselves.

Myth: Less than true, has a function to instruct, a tale that substantiates a dogma, can be looked upon as a work of art, says unsayable things, defines non-pragmatic “experience”.

It expresses, enhances, codifies belief, vouches for efficiency of ritual, provides rules for living, justifies social order, justifies origins, justifies use of resources and land.

Myth is given expression in ritual form to teach social and moral order.

Origin myth establishes a claim of a domain and sometimes establishes rank through emergence order: charter for the state of affairs.

It has a story and deals with things that are plausible, whereas theory deals with fact and things provable.

Death = transition to a different state and thus estate. That state and estate needs to be defined. The change in social order needs a transition that requires a myth to cover the process of change.

Dreams explained as spirit detachment. The spirit helps the body maintain health and power, therefore the spirit is beneficial to society, therefore the spirit is part of society.

Totemism: an association with some natural object that is bound up with the identity of the group:

1) Call self by name of totem;

2) Legendary or mythical background which links the group to the totem;

3) Prohibition against impacting the totem;

4) Associated with rule of exogamy;

5) Some type of crest

Taboo: assigning a ritual value to a social value (that which is forbidden by ritual).