Anthropological theories of value  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
anthropological, theories, value

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).

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 Bronislaw 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 his list are considered either production or consumption. Examples of how some items on this list are production, cooking a meal is production of food for someone, writing is production of reading material for someone; both of these activities are often done for some return in value whether it is 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 mean you have now in effect paid for the meal with your own labor rather than earn wages and pay for a meal with those wages. In this way economists and in general, anyone, would view this list as containing nothing that is not consumption or production other than maybe spinning in circles, though you are consuming calories which would have at some point have been consumed. To highlight this with an example, even window shoppers are consuming, the product is marketers’ production. Possibly, only in death are we neither consuming nor producing but merely being consumed. 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

  • Graeber, David: Towards 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

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Anthropological theories of value" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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