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The moral economy

The moral economy

Ryan Schram

Mills 169 (A26)


Monday, August 22, 2016

Available at: http://anthro.rschram.org/1002/5.1

Morality and self-interest

One of the ways societies respond to market forces is by placing limits on individual choices

  • Wamira (Papua New Guinea) taro gardens can't be tended with metal tools (Kahn 1986)
  • When Luo (Kenya) people sell land, they earn “bitter money” (Shipton 1989)

Market-driven societies also place some kind of moral limit on profit as well

  • Human tissue cannot be sold in Australia
  • Prostitution is illegal in the United States, except Nevada

Certain kinds of value remain embedded in social relationships while other kinds are able to be commodified, bought and sold. Is M-C-M' itself immoral?

Fordist surveillance and moral proletarian resistance

We can apply the same kind of thinking to the relationship of wage labor, which is based on exploitation. Workers often find ways to collectively resist the extraction of surplus value

  • Cleaning one's wool-spinning machine promptly at the end of a shift - a clean machine usually doesn't get turned on again until tomorrow (Shehata 2009, 68)
  • Breaking machine counters, which meant that operators and not supervisors had to determine when a machine's spindles were completely full and could be replaced (Shehata 2009, 69)

Many of these and similar tactics were also used by workers in socialist firms so that they could subvert the control of managers.

A good work ethic

Of course, from another perspective, resisting control of labor or limiting market forces are bad for moral reasons:

  • Peasants are lazy; they only produce what they need
  • Factory workers are irresponsible; they don't care if the compant meets its quotas
  • Indigenous people are backward; they think their territory is more valuable than having enough food.
  • Workers who “thief” time and material are stealing, and stealing is immoral (Prentice 2015, 95)!
    Do mass production and production for the market have their own morality? Where does it come from?

Dichotomous thinking

An either-or distinction is a dichotomy.

An opposition between individual self-interest and the collective force of a social norm, like reciprocity, is one example of dichotomous classification.

Many societies see their own involvement in markets in terms of this dichotomy. Their ideology focuses on the dilemma - a choice between opposed ends - posed by trading: Do I earn for myself or give help to my neighbors and kin?

On the black market

During Papua New Guinea's colonial period, indigenous people were not allowed to buy alcohol. Homemade intoxicants, like gamada (kava), were also banned

Liquor sales today require a license, which most people can't afford to get. Reselling liquor is still a pretty good way to make money.

The government of Port Moresby recently banned chewing and selling betel nut in public. This cut off a steady source of income for many poor people.

Painim wok

For a long time during the colonial period, indigenous people were not allowed to stay overnight in towns, unless they were formally employed by a white person, and then only in their banis (compound).

People set up little settlements on the outskirts of towns, built their own houses where they could live and seek opportunities, including paid work.

These settlements also became gateways to the city for other rural residents from the same places, or wantoks.

This is not a clash of market principles and communal morality, but two different moral systems.

The informal sector

  • Illegal forms of trade: Liquor sales, gambling, counterfeit goods, pirated movies
  • Illegal places of business: On the street, out of one's home
  • Outside of the banking system
  • Not subject to the moral requirements of kin and community either


Kahn, Miriam. 1986. Always Hungry, Never Greedy: Food and the Expression of Gender in a Melanesian Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Prentice, Rebecca. 2015. “'Is We Own Factory:' Thiefing a Chance on the Shop Floor.” In Thiefing a Chance: Factory Work, Illicit Labor, and Neoliberal Subjectivities in Trinidad, 87–110. Boulder, Colo.: University Press of Colorado.

Shehata, Samer S. 2009. Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press.

Shipton, Parker. 1989. Bitter Money: Cultural Economy and Some African Meanings of Forbidden Commodities. Washington, D.C.: American Anthropological Association.

A guide to the unit

1002/5.1.txt · Last modified: 2016/08/20 21:27 by ryans