SOCI 3P94 Sociology

Introduction to Module Three In Module One and Two we have learned some of the ideas and evidence about the ways in which economic activities are embedded in social and cultural structures, processes and values. In Module One we used gift giving in ceremonies and rituals as an example to illustrate this basic point. Ceremonies and rituals involve rules (implicit or explicit) about how the exchange of gifts should operate and the social obligations and expectations it entails. In Module Two we looked at examples from historically and culturally varied contexts to analyze how social structures and cultural beliefs institute economic activity and how business organization and personal economic interactions are embedded in social relations. Module Three critically examines the connections between ideas about economic value, social values, wealth, and well-being. Begin with the required reading by Marshall Sahlins, a famous anthropologist. The book chapter is from his book, Stone Age Economics (New York: Aldine, 1972). It is considered a classic criticism of the stereotype of homo economicus, the human with infinite wants and thus always scarce resources, which serves as the basic assumption about human nature for most economists. Sahlins argues that humans do not have infinite wants and desires. He uses the example of hunting and gathering societies, that he labels the original affluent society. He argues that affluence is a culturally relative idea. According to Sahlins, hunters and gatherers were affluent because, especially prior to the dislocations wrought by colonialism and imperialism, they were usually able to produce what they needed and wanted without excess labour, and they were able to invest a lot of time in various kinds of ritual and ceremonial activities. Philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes argued that in “the state of nature” human existence was “nasty, brutish, and short.” Sahlins relies upon ethnographic research and reports by travellers and traders to show this was not true. Hunters and gatherers certainly did not have a natural desire to acquire things just for the sake of acquiring things. Their wants were not infinite and thus their resources were not always scarce. For most of human history, humans were hunters and gatherers. The Neolithic (the new stone age) and the agricultural revolution only began somewhere around 10,000 years ago and slowly spread from a few places to the rest of the world since then. The industrial revolution only dates to the 1700s. Ironically, these changes eventually produced our modern society, that in material terms is far wealthier than the world of hunters and gatherers, but in which poverty and hunger are endemic to large portions of the human population. Sahlins’ point is not that we should return to a hunting and gathering lifestyle and economy. It is, rather, that in the modern world we tend to equate material possession with affluence and that this has not necessarily made us happier, and for many, including those former hunter-gatherer societies displaced by colonialism and imperialism, the endless pursuit of material wealth by the dominant societies, has generated poverty and all of its associated ills. There is no utopia, but Sahlins’ argument and evidence should make us question our priorities. In its time, this piece was an important contribution to debates about