Economic Anthropology - Substantivism


The substantivist position, first proposed by Karl Polanyi in his work The Great Transformation, argues that the term 'economics' has two meanings: the formal meaning refers to economics as the logic of rational action and decision-making, as rational choice between the alternative uses of limited (scarce) means. The second, substantive meaning, however, presupposes neither rational decision-making nor conditions of scarcity. It simply refers to study of how humans make a living from their social and natural environment. A society's livelihood strategy is seen as an adaptation to its environment and material conditions, a process which may or may not involve utility maximisation. The substantive meaning of 'economics' is seen in the broader sense of 'economising' or 'provisioning'. Economics is simply the way society meets their material needs.

Polanyi's term "great transformation" refers to the divide between modern, market-dominated societies and non-Western, non-capitalist pre-industrial societies. Polanyi argues that only the substantive meaning of economics is appropriate for analysing the latter. Without a system of price-making markets formal economic analysis does not apply, for example in centrally planned economies or preindustrial societies. Economic decision-making in such places is not so much based on individual choice, but rather on social relationships, cultural values, moral concerns, politics, religion or the fear instilled by authoritarian leadership. Production in most peasant and tribal societies is for the producers, also called 'production for use' or subsistence production, as opposed to 'production for exchange' which has profit maximisation as its chief aim. These types differ so radically that no single theory can describe them all.

According to Polanyi, in modern capitalist economies the concepts of formalism and substantivism coincide since people organise their livelihoods based on the principle of rational choice. However, in non-Capitalist, pre-industrial economies this assumption does not hold. Unlike their Western capitalist counterparts, they are not based on market exchange but on redistribution and reciprocity. Reciprocity is defined as the mutual exchange of goods or services as part of long-term relationships. Redistribution implies the existence of a strong political centre such as kinship-based leadership, which receives and then redistributes subsistence goods according to culturally-specific principles. In societies that are not market-based reciprocity and redistribution usually occur together. Conversely, market exchange is seen as the dominant mode of integration in modern industrial societies, while reciprocity may continue in family and inter-household relations, and some redistribution is undertaken by the state or by charitable institutions. Each of these three systems of distribution requires a separate set of analytical concepts.

Another key concept in substantivism is that of 'embeddedness'. Rather than being a separate and distinct sphere, the economy is embedded in both economic and non-economic institutions. Exchange takes place within and is regulated by society rather than being located in a social vacuum. For example, religion and government can be just as important to economics as economic institutions themselves. Socio-cultural obligations, norms and values play a significant role in people's livelihood strategies. Consequently, any analysis of economics as an analytically distinct entity isolated from its socio-cultural and political context is flawed from the outset. A substantivist analysis of economics will therefore focus on the study of the various social institutions on which people's livelihoods are based. The market is only one amongst many institutions that determine the nature of economic transactions. Polanyi's central argument is that institutions are the primary organisers of economic processes. The substantive economy is an "instituted process of interaction between man and his environment, which results in a continuous supply of want satisfying material means" (1968:126).

The concept of embeddedness has been very influential in the field of economic anthropology. In his study of Chinese ethnic business networks in Indonesia, Granovetter found individual's economic agency embedded in networks of strong personal relations. In processes of clientelization the cultivation of personal relationships between traders and customers assumes an equal or higher importance than the economic transactions involved. Economic exchanges are not carried out between strangers but rather by individuals involved in long-term continuing relationships. Granovetter describes the neo-liberal view of economic action as separating economics from society and culture, thereby promoting an 'undersocialized account' that atomises human behavior: "Actors do not behave or decide as atoms outside a social context, nor do they adhere slavishly to a script written for them by the particular intersection of social categories that they happen to occupy. Their attempts at purposive action are instead embedded in concrete, ongoing systems of social relations." (1985:487).

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