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Cultural determinism and utilitarianism

Cultural determinism and utilitarianism

Ryan Schram

ANTH 1001: Introduction to anthropology

Wednesday, March 11, 2020 (Week 3)

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/1001/2020/1.3.2

Required readings

Richard Borshay Lee “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari,” Natural History, December 1969.

Supplemental readings

Marshall Sahlins “The Original Affluent Society,” in Stone Age Economics (London: Routledge, 2017), 1–37, doi:10.4324/9781315184951.

Prepping is passé, learning bushcraft is hot. 🤮

Bowles, Nellie. 2020. “How to Prepare Now for the Complete End of the World.” The New York Times, March 6, 2020, sec. Style. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/05/style/rewilding-stone-age-bushcraft.html.

For the record, contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are not living cavemen, nor have they preserved a way of life from the past unchanged.

Also, agriculture ≯ horticulture ≯ pastoralism ≯ foraging. These types of adaptation are not supposed to be ranked in either direction!

Closer to nature?

Contradictory stereotypes of foragers

  • They’re starving; and they have a naturally healthy diet
  • They forage and hunt because they don’t know how to do anything else; and they are in harmony with nature

The West’s favorite prop for any debate about life

  • Hunter-gatherers are “our contemporary ancestors” (Some anthropologists say this about every indigenous society; viz. Chagnon (1983, 214)).

In other words, some people are closer to nature, to human nature, and to human origins.

Why do people want to believe that foragers are closer to nature?

On the one hand it is true that for about 90–95% of human history, people lived in small, mobile societies and foraged, hunted, and gathered. Sedentary horticulture is very recent.

On the other hand, it is not true that some lucky people suddenly learned how to grow crops and said, hey, let’s become sedentary and eat potatoes forever.

If we define foragers negatively, i.e. people who don’t grow crops, we assume they lack something they need. Foraging societies can be very different from each other, and highly adaptable.


There is a theory of human life which starts from the position that all people are rational maximizers of utility.

  • People always perform means–ends calculations on every choice
  • Everything has a utility. People want different things, but they can figure out how useful each thing is for them and compare them

If a foraging society learned they could produce more calories staying in one place growing potatoes, then, they should stop doing foraging and start doing potato-growing, right?

Utility maximization supports a theory of technological progress

The theory that all people are rational actors leads to the idea that life is a series of practical problems and people are always trying to solve them in more efficient ways.

There is another practical solution to subsistence

According to Sahlins ([1972] 2017), foraging societies follow a “Zen road to affluence” [p. 2]

Rather than worry about how to meet unlimited needs with few means, they decide to define their needs differently and find that their means are more than enough.

From the outside, foragers appear to be poor because they lack the things that observers have.

But foragers tend to work less hours, and are still well fed and (except for epidemics introduced by foreigners) have historically had long lives.

People do seek practical solutions, but that doesn’t mean every technology is always an improvement

  • Foragers do adopt new technologies, but usually to become better at foraging
  • Judgments about the level of technological progress are often biased
    • Ester Boserup: female farming systems and male farming systems in sub-Saharan Africa (Boserup [1970] 2007)
    • The move from female systems to male systems deprived women of power, and confined them to the domestic household

The move to sedentary horticulture may have social causes, not practical ones

Many foraging and horticultural societies are like people of /ai/ai described by Lee

  • Being wealthy is not worth it, because everyone should be equal.
  • Having a lot or having a little is luck you should share with others.

Sedentary horticulturalists can produce greater quantities of a few domestic crops, and generally far more than anyone needs or could even eat.

Sahlins argues that the impetus to adopt this technology—and give up foraging knowledge and technology—was social in origin

  • Many sedentary horticulturalists use their food surpluses as gifts and tributes in large feasts
  • They adopt a mode of subsistence in which they always need to work more, not to eat well, but to participate in social institutions that serve a political purpose

Is life rational? (A quiz question with a debatable answer)

Where does it make sense to assume that people make means–ends calculations to decide what to do?

Go to Canvas, and look for the quiz question for today.

This question has an answer that Ryan thinks is “right,” but the question is highly debatable. You can answer this question multiple times, and think about why you might choose one answer over another.


Boserup, Ester. (1970) 2007. Woman’s Role in Economic Development. London: Routledge.

Bowles, Nellie. 2020. “How to Prepare Now for the Complete End of the World.” The New York Times, March 6, 2020, sec. Style. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/05/style/rewilding-stone-age-bushcraft.html.

Chagnon, Napolean. 1983. Ya̦nomamö: The Fierce People. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=MPArAAAAYAAJ.

Lee, Richard Borshay. 1969. “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari.” Natural History, December 1969.

Sahlins, Marshall. (1972) 2017. “The Original Affluent Society.” In Stone Age Economics, 1–37. London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315184951.

A guide to the unit

1001/2020/1.3.2.txt · Last modified: 2020/03/08 21:28 by Ryan Schram (admin)