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Society as a total system

Society as a total system

Week 2: Society as a system of total services

Ryan Schram
ANTH 1002: Anthropology in the world
Monday, August 08, 2022

Slides available at https://anthro.rschram.org/1002/2022/2.1

Main reading: Eriksen (2015)

Other reading: Mauss ([1925] 1990)

A brightly colored painting of a human head in profile, its mind populated by several discrete polygons and abstract shapes that exceed the boundaries of the mind and extend into the surrounding field.A Dalle-2 generated image using the prompt: “A cubist painting that depicts the concept of society: A society is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a collective consciousness. Society is a big brain that thinks for you. Social facts are the thoughts of the collective consciousness, but to each individual they feel real, like they are objective and external to consciousness.” See https://labs.openai.com/s/CZd7CFowKpWhrgBj2wwoeXVB.

All in one

Many other scientists and scholars ask what it means to be human besides anthropology, and they often start from a universal definition of humanity.

There are universal facts about humans, things that are true about people in all places and all times. We eat, sleep, breathe, etc.

How important should these universal facts be? Is there one universal definition of the human person that should matter a lot when we seek to understand people’s lives?

What’s in it for me?

Consider the field of economics. Economics is the study of more than just the economy; economists would say that they study people’s behavior, and specifically the choices people make.

Economics assumes that each person is a rational thinker. This is a universal definition of the human person. Specifically

  • Everyone thinks rationally—they reason and deliberate—about what they do.
  • People make choices based on rational thinking.
  • Each individual will tend to choose what gets them the most in return for the least.
    • When faced with a choice, people think “Which of these alternatives will benefit me the most relative to the time, money, effort, or valuable resources that I will give up to acquire it?”

For an economist, each individual seeks a rational maximization of utility.

Are we all rational maximisers? Does it matter if we are?

To what extent should we assume that people are rational actors, make means-ends calculations, and make choices in their rational self-interest?

Talk about this. What is your view? What are other people’s views?

What do we assume about people when we assume that they are rational maximisers?

The assumption that each person is a rational actor seems intuitive.

Yet it makes several shaky assumptions:

  • People always see themselves as individuals with a distinct individual self-interest.
  • People value the same things, and have the same idea of what is worthwhile in life.
  • We can measure the value or utility of anything objectively.

While people using a model of human behavior based on assumptions of rationality have complex arguments that consider these problems, the simple version needs deserves skepticism.

The alternative to Homo economicus in anthropology

Anthropology would say that the idea of economic rationality denies “the reality of society” (Polanyi 1947, 115).

No person can exist in isolation, and no person is complete without the input of society and its cultural patterns of thought.

Hence people must always be understood in relation to the cultural context of their actions.

Society, furthermore, is not simply a group of individuals. It is a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.

Durkheim and Mauss

Emile Durkheim is a founding figure of sociology and anthropology

  • He wanted to analyze society as an objective fact
  • Society is a collective consciousness, like the Borg, from Star Trek (yes).

Marcel Mauss was a nephew and student of Durkheim

  • Applied a Durkheimian analysis to economic activity
  • Reciprocity is an obligation underlying many if not all transactions


In the islands of PNG, fishermen exchange fish for garden food with gardeners. Fishermen always cook their food in fresh water, even though they live by the sea. Inland gardeners cook their food in sea water, even though they have fresh water nearby. “Intoxicated with great love of exchange, they exchange even the water of their respective dwelling places and carry it home for the boiling of their food” (Fortune [1932] 1963, 206).

Many people throughout the world exchange things they don’t need for things they don’t need. They even exchange identical things, like water.


Gifts create obligations

Mauss says: Because you have to.

Gifts come with obligations because it is part of the system of total services. Specifically, giving a gift involves a triple obligation:

  • The obligation to give
  • The obligation to receive
  • The obligation to reciprocate, or to give back to one who has given.

Society, in essence, is a total system. Reciprocity is an expression of this fundamental reality of society. We may not even be aware of this state of interdependence, but it is still there.

Anthropology isn’t afraid of making universal claims of its own

Some people say that anthropology is nothing more than saying “Wherever you go, there you are.”

If that were true, there’d be a problem. Universal theories of human experience and social organization are not all bad.

Anthropology’s universal claim are notably paradoxical:

  • All people have the same innate capacity to acquire specific cultural patterns.
  • The only constant is variability.

The paradox is not a problem; it can lead us to deeper insights.

References and further reading

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2015. “Exchange and Consumption.” In Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology, 4th ed., 217–40. London: Pluto Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt183p184.16.

Fortune, R. F. (1932) 1963. Sorcerers of Dobu: The Social Anthropology of the Dobu Islanders of the Western Pacific. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Mauss, Marcel. (1925) 1990. “Selections from introduction, chapters 1-2, and conclusion.” In The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, translated by W. D. Halls, 1–14, 39–46, 78–83. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Polanyi, Karl. 1947. “Our obsolete market mentality.” Commentary, February 1947. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/our-obsolete-market-mentality/.

1002/2022/2.1.txt · Last modified: 2022/08/07 00:44 by Ryan Schram (admin)