It’s been a while since I’ve updated my series of posts about classic anthropology texts which can be downloaded for free online. I started the series with a post about a text by Laura Bohannan, now I turn to the husband, Paul, whose classic “The Impact of Money on an African Subsistance Economy” can be found here [PDF].
This is an easy post to write, as Keith Hart has an article on the anthropology of money which nicely summarizes the article and provides some trenchant critique. I’ve pasted the relevant section after the jump.
This obsolete anti-market mentality (Cook 1966) flourishes among the disciples of Polanyi (1944) of whom the doyen was Paul Bohannan (1955, 1959). His articles remain the main reference for anthropological discussion of money economy and its presumed antithesis. Before being colonised by the British around 1900, the Tiv maintained a mixed farming economy on the fringe of trade routes linking the Islamic civilisation of the North with the rapidly Westernising society of the coast. Bohannan argues that the Tiv pre-colonial economy was organised through three spheres of exchange, arranged in a hierarchy; and like could normally only be exchanged with like within each sphere. At the bottom were subsistence items like foodstuffs and household goods traded in small amounts at local markets. Then came a limited range of prestige goods linked to long-distance trade and largely controlled by Tiv elders. These included cloth, cattle, slaves and copper bars, the last sometimes serving as a standard of value and means of exchange within its sphere. The highest category was rights in persons, above all women, ideally sisters, exchanged in marriage between male-dominated kin groups.
The norm of exchanging only within each sphere was sometimes breached. Conversion upward was emulated and its opposite was disgraceful. The absence of general-purpose money made both difficult. Subsistence goods are high in bulk and low in value; they do not transport easily and their storage is problematic (food rots). Prestige goods are the opposite on all counts. How many peas would it take to buy a slave? Moreover, the content of the spheres had changed: sister exchange had been largely replaced with bridewealth; slavery was abolished and the supply of metal rods had dried up. Bohannan still insists that Tiv culture was traditionally maintained through this separation of compartments of value.
The introduction of modern money was a disaster, according to him. Anyone could sell anything in small amounts, accumulate the money, buy prestige goods and enter the marriage circuit on their own terms, regardless of the elders. This amounted to the destruction of traditional culture. It is as if the technical properties of modern money alone were sufficient to undermine a way of life. Now this argument has come under sustained criticism; for example, that it is idealist and should pay more attention to the organisation of production (Dupr and Rey 1978), and that money is just a symbol of a whole complex of economic relations we might summarise as capitalism (Parry and Bloch 1990). But even these critics tend to ignore the political dimension of the colonial transformation.
The contributors to Parry and Bloch (1990) share the view that indigenous societies around the world take modern money in their stride, turning it to their own social purposes rather than being subject to its impersonal logic. The underlying theory is familiar from Durkheim (1965 ). There are two circuits of social life: one, the everyday, is short-term, individuated and materialistic; the other, the social, is long-term, collective and idealised, even spiritual. Market transactions fall into the first category and all societies seek to subordinate them to the conditions of their own reproduction, which is the realm of the second category. For some reason, which they do not investigate, money has acquired in Western economies a social force all of its own, whereas the rest of the world retains the ability to keep it in its place.
So here too we have a hierarchy of value where modern money comes second to the institutions that secure society’s continuity. The picture becomes clearer if we apply the spheres of exchange concept to Western societies. As Alfred Marshall (1979 ) wrote, it is not uncommon for modern consumers to rank commodities according to a scale of cultural value. Other things being equal, we would prefer not to have to sell expensive consumer durables in order to pay the grocery bills. And we would like to acquire the symbols of elite status, such as a first-rate education. If you asked a British person how many toilet rolls a BMW is worth or how many oranges buys an Eton education, they would think you were crazy. Yet all these things have been bought with money for longer than we can remember. So the universal exchange introduced by modern money is compatible with cultural values denying that all goods are commensurate. Nor is this just a matter of ideas; there are real social barriers involved. It does not matter how many oranges a street trader sells, he will not get his son accepted for Eton. And the gatekeepers of the ancient universities insist that access to what they portray as an aristocracy of intelligence cannot be bought.
This gives us a clue to the logic of spheres of exchange. The aristocracy everywhere claims that you cannot buy class. Money and secular power are supposed to be subordinate to inherited position and spiritual leadership. In practice, we know that money and power have long gained entry into ruling elites. De Tocqueville (1955 ) praised the flexibility of the English aristocracy, unlike the French, for readily admitting successful merchants and soldiers to their ranks. One class above all others still resists this knowledge, the academic intellectuals. And so we line up with Tiv elders in bemoaning the corrosive power of modern money and vainly insist that traditional culture should prevail.
Also see this Annual Review article [PDF] on the Anthropology of Money.