Anthropological perspectives on economics

In Anthropology: What Does it Mean to Be Human? we discussed anthropological perspectives on economics:

These materials were for Intro to Anthropology 2021 after talking about humans as Meaning-Dependent Organisms. In this class we read Richard Borshay Lee, “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari.” Natural History (1969) and chapter 11, “Why do anthropologists study economic relations?” After that we started reading about Politics.

Anthropological Perspectives on Economics

Anthropological perspectives on economics offer unique insights into how societies organize production, distribution, and consumption. These perspectives challenge conventional economic theories by examining diverse economic systems across cultures and time.

Richard Lee’s Work in the Kalahari: Rethinking Hunter-Gatherer Economics

Richard Lee’s groundbreaking research among the !Kung San in the Kalahari Desert in the 1960s challenged prevailing notions about hunter-gatherer societies. Lee found that these groups were not constantly struggling for survival, but rather had developed efficient strategies for meeting their needs. He famously documented that the !Kung could meet their subsistence requirements with only 15-20 hours of work per week (360).

Lee’s work contributed to the concept of the “original affluent society,” developed by Marshall Sahlins. This idea proposed that hunter-gatherers, with their limited needs and ample leisure time, could be considered affluent in ways that challenged conventional economic thinking. The oft-quoted line from Lee’s work, “Why should we plant when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?” encapsulates this perspective (L360).

Eric Wolf & Global Interconnections: Expanding Anthropological Perspectives on Economics

Eric Wolf’s seminal work, Europe and the People Without History, profoundly impacted anthropological thinking about economics and global interconnections. As a first-year college student, I encountered this book in a history class. Initially, we only read two chapters, but I was so intrigued that I took it home over the summer and delved into the rest.

Wolf’s central argument is that the world we see is not one of isolated societies, but of interconnected peoples engaged in trade, movement, and exchange of ideas. The book’s title is deliberately ironic–Wolf argues that the people Europeans thought were “without history” were actually instrumental in making capitalism possible.

Wolf identified three modes of production (353-356):

  1. Kin-ordered: Based on family and kinship ties, typical of hunter-gatherer societies and some small-scale agricultural and herding communities.
  2. Tributary: Hierarchical societies with ruling classes, often featuring more extensive agriculture and herding.
  3. Capitalist: Production for profit and market exchange, characterized by intensification of agriculture and industrial production.

While these categories provide a useful framework, it’s important to recognize that they simplify complex economic systems. Many societies exhibit characteristics of multiple modes simultaneously, reflecting the nuanced reality that anthropological perspectives on economics seek to capture.

Wolf’s work emphasized that the labor relationships established during colonialism were crucial to the development of the capitalist system. He described a world that emerged from interconnection rather than isolation, attempting to understand how different societies related to and influenced each other.

Robert Gordon & The “Bushman Myth”: Critiquing Anthropological Perspectives on Economics

Anthropologist Robert Gordon’s work provides a critical perspective on earlier anthropological studies of hunter-gatherer societies. Gordon’s research focused on a German-led genocide in what is now Namibia, occurring between 1904 and 1908, approximately 50-60 years before Richard Lee’s studies in the same region. (See Hiding in Plain Sight.)

From Gordon’s work, we can extrapolate that this historical context was crucial for understanding the economic situation Lee observed. The genocide, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Herero and Nama people, had likely reduced the population in the area, possibly leading to a higher ratio of resources (like mongongo nuts) to people. This insight challenges the idea of an unchanging hunter-gatherer lifestyle and highlights the importance of considering historical events and power dynamics in anthropological analysis.

Gordon termed this the “Bushman myth,” suggesting that the people Lee studied were not living in an isolated, traditional hunting and gathering society, but were rather in a subordinate or underclass position within the colonial Namibian economy. This perspective doesn’t invalidate Lee’s observations, but it does complicate our understanding of the economic systems he described and demonstrates the need for historical context in anthropological perspectives on economics.

Local Responses to Global Forces: Contemporary Anthropological Perspectives on Economics

Recent anthropological research has revealed how local cultures respond creatively to global economic forces. Two examples illustrate this:

  1. Daniel Miller’s study of Coca-Cola in Trinidad challenges the assumption that global brands simply impose themselves on local cultures. Miller found that in Trinidad, Coca-Cola was incorporated into local culture in unique ways, often diverging from the company’s global marketing strategies. For instance, Coca-Cola became associated with local rum consumption patterns and was integrated into traditional holiday celebrations in ways not seen elsewhere. This demonstrates how local contexts can reshape even the most iconic global products (363-365).
  2. The preservation and adaptation of Italian foodways, described by Carole Counihan, provide another example. Despite globalization pressures, Italian food culture has maintained significant regional differences. From variations in pasta types and sauces between northern and southern Italy to local specialties, Italian cuisine demonstrates how culinary traditions can persist and even thrive within global economic systems (365-366).

These examples illustrate a key insight from anthropological perspectives on economics: while global economic forces are powerful, they don’t determine everything. Local actors have agency and creativity in how they engage with these forces, often resulting in unique cultural adaptations rather than simple assimilation or resistance.

Conclusion: The Value of Anthropological Perspectives on Economics

Anthropological perspectives on economics provide a nuanced understanding of human societies. They reveal the diversity of economic systems, the impacts of global interconnections, and the ongoing importance of local adaptations and creativity. By considering historical context, power dynamics, and local agency, anthropologists offer a complex picture of how economies function and change over time.

This approach often challenges mainstream economic theories that assume universal applicability of market principles. Instead, anthropological perspectives on economics highlight the varied ways societies organize their economic lives, from hunter-gatherer systems to complex global networks.

Understanding these perspectives helps us grasp both the constraints imposed by global economic systems and the creative ways in which people navigate and shape their economic lives. As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, the insights provided by anthropological perspectives on economics become ever more valuable for comprehending and addressing global challenges.


In Anthropology: What Does it Mean to Be Human? we discussed anthropological perspectives on economics:

These materials were for Intro to Anthropology 2021 after talking about humans as Meaning-Dependent Organisms. In this class we read Richard Borshay Lee, “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari.” Natural History (1969) and chapter 11, “Why do anthropologists study economic relations?” After that we started reading about Politics.


I’ve discussed this material in several classes. On this website, see:

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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