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.

Marcel Mauss and Bronisław Malinowski for example wrote about objects that circulate in society without being consumed. Georges Bataille wrote about objects that 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).

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 nor production

A list of things that are neither consumption nor production in 2003 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