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Moral economies

Moral economies

Ryan Schram
ANTH 1002: Anthropology in the world
Module 3, Week 3, Lecture 2
Social Sciences Building (A02), Room 410
October 16, 2019
Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/1002/3.3.2

When a gift system meets a commodity system, there are many possible results

When a society organized on the basis of gifts encounters a globalizing capitalist market, many different outcomes are possible.

  • Tension and conflict
  • Efflorescence
  • Transformation

Indeed, one could argue that these alternative outcomes are always co-present simultaneously in any one society, e.g. Gershon on faʻalavelave among Samoans in diaspora (Gershon 2012).

In the next example, which do you think best describes what is happening?

A trading network in Papua New Guinea

Making pots in Salamaua

We the people of Salamaua would like to put down the prices of our things in this newspaper so that all of you will see them. We would like this message to all of you people in villages in the area of Markham River and Finschhafen.

Now you all see the prices for all these things and then you all will get it right. So, prices for them are like this: If you see a pot for 4/-, then you pay with (givim long) two big pandanus of 4/-. If a pot for 2/-, then you pay with (givim long) a pandanus of 2/-. The reason is you all always just bring pandanus and get pots. So, you all don’t know the price (pei) of these things. And so, we put them for the pots so that you all can see them.

If a pot is 5/-, or £1, then you must pay (pei) directly with money. It is not good that you should give pandanus for 5/- and £1 and get a pot. You know that the work of a pot is not like the work of pandanus - Pots are harder work than pandanus, so you must pay directly for big pots with real money.

The work of pots is like this:- The very first thing, they must dig the ground and they get really deep. After that, they bring it to the village and the work of women now begins. The women bake the earth in a really big fire - They bake this earth so that it becomes really strong. This work isn’t easy. It’s really hard work. Many days pass, and then the pot is now finished and a man can cook food in it.

We say this because you all have put down many things of yours - So we see this and so we Salamaua people, we support you all. Our message is finished. We all the people of Salamaua.

“People of Salamaua.” 1948. “Pei bilong sosopen.” Lae Garamut (28 August) 2(23): 4.

Take the quiz: Efflorescence of reciprocity

Turn to your Canvas site and take Quiz 17: Efflorescence of reciprocity.

Ryan will announce the code in class.

The morality of economic activity

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.

The informal economy

  • Making gin in Frafra slums (Hart 1973)
  • Selling betel nut around PNG (Sharp 2016)
  • Selling tobacco in Auhelawa

Women's work

  • Informal enterprise looks different when we apply gender as a lens.
  • Informal enterprises are often “women's work,” done alongside or part of women's roles in families.
  • Both labor markets and gift systems are male dominated.
  • Women fill in the gaps and make the whole system hang together, but don't get recognized for this.

The breakdown of the Fordist social contract

  • Fordism is a method of organizing production, but Fordism also sustained a social contract between the ruling class and society: High wages and general affluence in exchange for private profits through mass production.
  • When Fordism fades, women must work a “second shift” - first wage labor then housework and child care (Hochschild 1989).
  • Hence, informal economies matter more for making ends meet.
  • Poor single mothers have to find work and care for children, so they exchange labor with each other (Stack 1974).
  • Welfare activism has often argued that women's informal exchanges of care are unpaid labor and should be supported (e.g. Mazelis 2017).


Gershon, Ilana. 2012. No Family Is an Island: Cultural Expertise among Samoans in Diaspora. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Hart, Keith. 1973. “Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 11 (1): 61–89. https://doi.org/10.2307/159873.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell, and Anne Machung. 1989. The Second Shift. New York: Penguin Books.

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

Mazelis, Joan Maya. 2017. Surviving Poverty: Creating Sustainable Ties among the Poor. New York: New York University Press.

Sharp, Timothy L. M. 2016. “Trade’s Value: Relational Transactions in the Papua New Guinea Betel Nut Trade.” Oceania 86 (1): 75–91. https://doi.org/10.1002/ocea.5116.

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

Stack, Carol B. 2008 [1974]. All Our Kin: Strategies For Survival In A Black Community. New York: Basic Books.

1002/3.3.2.txt · Last modified: 2020/01/25 15:28 (external edit)