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Anthropological theories of value attempt to expand on the traditional theories of value used by economists or ethicists. They are often broader in scope than the theories of value of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, etc. usually including sociological, political, institutional, and historical perspectives (transdisciplinarity). Some have influenced feminist economics.

The basic premise is that economic activities can only be fully understood in the context of the society that creates them. The concept of "value" is a social construct, and as such is defined by the culture using the concept. Yet we can gain some insights into modern patterns of exchange, value, and wealth by examining previous societies. An anthropological approach to economic processes allows us to critically examine the cultural biases inherent in the principles of modern economics. Anthropological linguistics is a related field which looks at the terms we use to describe economic relations and the ecologies they are set within. Many anthropological economists (or economic anthropologists) are reacting against what they see as the portrayal of modern society as an economic machine that merely produces and consumes.

Marcel Mauss and Bronisław Malinowski for example wrote about objects that circulate in society without being consumed. Georges Bataille wrote about objects which are destroyed, but not consumed. Bruce Owens talks about objects of value that are neither circulating nor consumed (e.g. gold reserves, warehoused paintings, family heirlooms).

David Graeber attempts to synthesize the insights of Karl Marx and Marcel Mauss. He sees value as a model for human "meaning-making". Starting with Marxist definitions of consumption and production, he introduces Mauss’s idea of "objects that are not consumed" and constructs a list of things that are neither consumption nor production. Graeber’s list includes those human activities that are not consumption, in the narrow sense of simply purchasing something, and are not production, in the sense of creating or modifying something intended for sale or exchange. It includes:

  • cooking a meal
  • extinguishing a fire
  • dressing and undressing
  • applying makeup
  • watching television
  • playing in a band
  • falling in love
  • reading
  • listening to music
  • going to a museum or gallery
  • taking a photograph
  • gardening
  • writing
  • conducting a coming of age ceremony
  • going window shopping
  • doing sports
  • acting
  • turning around in a circle
  • teaching
  • having an argument
  • playing games
  • having sex
  • attending a religious service
  • looking at old photos


Economists typically use the term consumption in a way that is far broader than merely purchasing something. It is quite common to talk about the consumption of time. Many of the items on this list can still be considered either production or consumption, or to involve production or consumption at some stage in order to be accomplished. For example, cooking a meal is production of food for someone's consumption, and it involves consuming (cooking) raw materials previously purchased or gathered; and, writing is production of material for someone to consume through reading. Both of these activities are often done for some return in value, whether it is for respect or monetary payment. In a similar way, some of these items are replacements for consumption – for example, rather than purchase a meal, you can cook the meal yourself. In cooking the meal, you have now in effect paid for the meal with your own labor rather than earning wages and paying for a meal with those wages. In this way, economists, and in general anyone, could view this list as containing nothing that is not consumption or production, other than possibly turning around in a circle, though this involves consuming calories which would at some point have been consumed. For example, even window shoppers are consuming – the product is marketers’ production (specifically in this case, the window dresser's creation). Possibly, only in death are we neither consuming nor producing, but merely being consumed, though it could be argued that one's body is consuming space, particularly in a cemetery plot (real estate), but even if cremated and scattered. Gary Becker's household production functions and similar topics note that people often purchase goods and then combine them with time to produce something that has meaning or practicality to them (which produce utility).

Further reading Edit

  • Graeber, David: Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value (ISBN 0-312-24045-7)
  • Owens, Bruce McCoy: "Unruly Readings: Neofetishes, Paradoxical Singularities, and the Violence of Authentic Value," in Ethnos 64(2): 249-262.

See also Edit

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