World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Anthropological theories of value

Article Id: WHEBN0000226545
Reproduction Date:

Title: Anthropological theories of value  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Anthropology, Economic anthropology, Anthropology of development, Applied anthropology, Development anthropology
Collection: Anthropology, Axiological Theories, Economic Anthropology, Value
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Anthropological theories of 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). Some have influenced feminist economics.

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 that 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.

Bruce Owens talks about objects of value that are neither circulating nor consumed (e.g. gold reserves, warehoused paintings, family heirlooms).


  • David Graeber's value as "meaning-making" 1
    • List of things that are neither consumption or production 1.1
  • Criticisms 2
  • References 3
  • See also 4

David Graeber's value as "meaning-making"

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 posits that the majority of human behavior consists of activities that would not be properly categorized as either consumption or production.[1]

List of things that are neither consumption or production

To illustrate this principle, one of Graeber’s undergraduate students at Yale, David Corson-Knowles, began a list of things that are neither consumption nor production in 2003, which has since been expanded and expounded upon. This 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, namely:[2]

  • 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
  • exercising
  • acting
  • turning around in a circle
  • teaching
  • having an argument
  • playing games
  • having sex
  • attending a religious service
  • looking at old photos
  • critiquing art


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 this list can still be considered either production or consumption, or to involve production or consumption at some stage to be accomplished. For example, cooking a meal is production of food for someone's consumption, and it involves consuming (cooking) raw materials previously purchased or gathered; and, writing is production of material for someone to consume through reading. Both of these activities are often done for some return in value, whether it is for 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 meal, you have now in effect paid for the meal with your own labor rather than earning wages and paying for a meal with those wages. In this way, economists, and in general anyone, could view this list as containing nothing that is not consumption or production, other than possibly turning around in a circle, though this involves consuming calories that would, at some point, have been consumed. For example, even window shoppers are consuming – the product is marketers’ production (specifically in this case, the window dresser's creation). Possibly, only in death are we neither consuming nor producing, but merely being consumed, though it could be argued that one's body is consuming space, particularly in a cemetery plot (real estate), but even if cremated and scattered. 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).


  1. ^  
  2. ^ Owens, Bruce McCoy (1999). "Unruly Readings: Neofetishes, Paradoxical Singularities, and the Violence of Authentic Value,". Ethnos 64 (2): 249–262.  (subscription required)

See also

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.