Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The premium

Despite their possible importance for questions of human evolution, detailed ethnographic accounts of food collectors were rare until the second half of the twentieth century. It was usually assumed that these people led harsh and precarious lives and had to work hard to survive. This picture was demolished by Marshall Sahlins in a famous essay called The Original Affluent Society. Sahlins showed that most hunters and gatherers did not in fact work long hours at all, for example in comparison with agricultural peoples. They were able to ensure the food supply needed for the band by working on average no more than a few hours daily, leaving themselves abundant time for leisure activities. Sahlins did not claim that such people were wealthy in terms of a modern economist, who measures income in dollars per capita. The typical hunter gatherer band placed a premium on mobility and had no wish to accumulate items of property. If calorific needs could be met with ease in relatively secure environments, then from a 'Zen' point of view, argued Sahlins, such people were affluent; they were wealthy in relation to their low material wants.

- Christopher Hann
Social Anthropology


Huckleberry Finn said...

Precisely!! Remember reading this Happiness survey that said that island people who had low incomes but lots of leisure time, healthy food and fresh air, and a serene relaxed environment, were found to be the happiest people - though they fared low on per capita income, education, personal property, ability to buy consumer durables, access to modern entertainement facilities etc etc.
Yes, leisure to do what makes you relaxed and happy IS wealth! I think we seriously need to wonder whether we are getting poorer and poorer as we climb up the success ladder.
Thank you very much for that post, Shov!

Souvik said...

We are. But you & I are not. So we are not.


Usha said...

ahhhhhhhhh...This allows me to post a comment now.
Why would someone hunt more than what is needed for that meal if he didnt have the facilities to store the killed animal or the plucked fruit or the caught fish. Animals hunt only for their immediate meal.
Why would they work harder if the results of the hard work were not in a form that could be set aside and converted into other form sof comfort - we presumably are talkiing about a time before money came into existence.
Finally if there was plenty to go around for everyone then people would nt hoard so much - it is the divergence in demand and supply that makes you want to hoard when things are available.

Souvik said...

Valid points, I think. However, the formalists, or the kind of anthropologists who try and understand cultures/societies in terms of the 'our rational model' of the world, have not been able to explain fully the economic behaviour of this particular society that Sahlins talks about. Therefore, our economics cannot explain their behaviour to a very large extent.

Though, to my mind, the essence of this behaviour is attitudinal, more than rational - for it has been observed again & again that all societies behaved very rationally within their sphere of knowledge. A lack of storage facility is definitely a handicap. However, what was more important to them - & I think the point Sahlins tries to make here - is that they were happy to move, as a lifestyle, & therefore building a storage facility - whether it was possible or not for them to do so - would actually have meant a 'possession' & this itself might have stopped them from thinking on those lines.

Obviously, my understanding of anthropology is practically zilch, so these were just my thoughts & the actual anthropological explanation to your questions may be entirely different.

Thanks for your thoughts!