Lecture 7: What We Want and How We Get It
What happens if we base our understanding of economic life (production,
consumption, trade, etc.) on the concept of culture?
When anthropologists talk about economics or the economy, we don’t limit
ourselves to talking about money or markets. We mean the full range of culturally
specific processes that people use to provide themselves with material resources.
Humans are often irrational, our choices are constrained (can’t take whatever we
want), and we’re not always trying to maximize our wealth and material benefits.
Anthropologists often divide economic activity into three distinct realms, or phases.
1. Production: how do people obtain the basic material necessities of life, including
food, clothing, and shelter?
2. Distribution: how are these products distributed to those who need them? This
entails practices, which move goods or share them within the community.
3. Consumption: how are these products eventually used? Some are consumed as food,
others worn as clothing, and some products are even intentionally abandoned or
In terms of production, subsistence is basically how humans obtain all the basic necessities
of life, including food, clothing, and shelter.
Different groups of people have different strategies for obtaining these products, which
affects the meaning of these activities.
Food collectors: groups of people whose subsistence is primarily derived from
foraging, fishing, and hunting
o At one time, all humans were food collectors
o Today, tend to be mobile for most of the year to take advantage of seasonal
o Consume a wide array of foods
o Food collectors have been called the “original affluent society”
o Not necessarily cut off from Western civilization, but have little material
o Affluent: relationship between production and desire; can limit desires
o Buddhism: suffering removes attachment to desires
Food producers: groups of people whose subsistence is primarily derived from
domesticated plants and animals. Food producers tend to rely on a smaller range of
o Herding: depend primarily on domesticated animals, often leading them
through seasonal migration patterns
o Extensive agriculture: farmers clear and burn small plots of land for crops.
The soil is often quickly exhausted, and new areas must be cleared regularly.
o Intensive agriculture: farmers and other technologies to bring larger plots of
land under permanent cultivation. o Mechanized industrialized while farms themselves becomes businesses.