Original affluent society

Original affluent society

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The "original affluent society" is a theory postulating that hunter-gatherers were the original affluent society. This theory was first articulated by Marshall Sahlins at a symposium entitled "Man the Hunter" held in Chicago in 1966. The significance of the theory stems from its role in shifting anthropological thought away from seeing hunter-gatherer societies as primitive, to seeing them as practitioners of a refined mode of subsistence from which much can be learned[citation needed].

At the time of the symposium new research by anthropologists, such as Richard B. Lee’s work on the !Kung of southern Africa, was challenging popular notions that hunter-gatherer societies were always near the brink of starvation and continuously engaged in a struggle for survival[1]. Sahlins gathered the data from these studies and used it to support a comprehensive argument that states that hunter-gatherers did not suffer from deprivation, but instead lived in a society in which "all the people’s wants are easily satisfied"[2].



[edit] Overview

The basis of Sahlins’ argument is that hunter-gatherer societies are able to achieve affluence by desiring little and meeting those needs/desires with what is available to them. This he calls the "Zen road to affluence, which states that human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate" (Sahlins, Original). This he compares to the western way towards affluence, which he terms as the "Galbraithean way" where "man’s wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited..." and "the gap between means and ends can eventually be narrowed by industrial productivity"[2]. Thus Sahlins argues that hunter-gatherer and western societies take separate roads to affluence, the former by desiring little, the latter by producing much. Through this comparison Sahlins also stresses that hunter-gatherer societies cannot be examined through an ethnocentric framework when measuring their affluence. For example, one cannot apply the general principles of economics (principles which reflect western values and emphasize surplus) to hunter-gatherers nor should one believe that the Neolithic Revolution brought unquestioned progress.

By stepping away from western notions of affluence, the theory of the original affluent society thus dispels notions about hunter-gatherer societies that were popular at the time of the symposium. Sahlins states that hunter-gatherers have a "marvelously varied diet"[3] based on the abundance of the local flora and fauna. This demonstrates that hunter-gatherers do not exist on a mere subsistence economy but rather live among plenty. Through thorough knowledge of their environment hunter-gatherers are able to change what foreigners may deem as meager and unreliable natural resources into rich subsistence resources. Through this they are able to effectively and efficiently provide for themselves and minimize the amount of time spent procuring food. "[T]he food quest is so successful that half the time the people do not know what to do with themselves"[3]. Hunter-gatherers also experience "affluence without abundance"[3] as they simply meet their required ends and do not require surplus nor material possessions (as these would be a hindrance to their nomadic lifestyle). The lack of surplus also demonstrates that they trust their environment will continuously provide for them. By foraging only for their immediate needs among plentiful resources, hunter-gatherers are able to increase the amount of leisure time available to them. Thus, despite living in what western society deems to be material poverty, hunter-gatherer societies work less than people practicing other modes of subsistence while still providing for all their needs, and therefore increase their amount of leisure time. These are the reasons the original affluent society is that of the hunter-gatherer[3].

Through his thesis on the affluent society, Sahlins deconstructed the then popular notions that hunter-gatherers are primitive and constantly working hard to ward off starvation. However, one must take into consideration that there has been much progress in this field since 1966 and that ideas on the category of hunter-gatherer are always shifting, with new paradigms continuously emerging[1]. One must also acknowledge that one cannot generalize about hunter-gatherer societies. Although they have been pushed to the margins of society, there are still many such societies in the world and they differ greatly from each other.

[edit] Criticisms

[edit] "Work time" and "leisure time"

Sahlins' argument relies on studies undertaken by McCarthy and McArthur in Arnhem Land, and by Richard Lee among the !Kung. These studies show that hunter-gatherers need only work about twenty hours a week in order to survive and may devote the rest of their time to leisure[3]. However, Kaplan believes that it can be difficult to distinguish between work and leisure in hunter-gatherer societies as members of these societies do not have jobs or employment. Lee did not include food preparation time in his study, arguing that "work" should be defined as the time spent gathering enough food for subsistence. But, Kaplan argues, if work is defined as mere subsistence, people in Western societies would do hardly any work at all (assuming one ignores the time spent at work to pay for food) [4]. When work is seen as all life-sustaining activity, the !Kung will be observed as working for more than forty hours a week (about as much as a Westerner spends at their job alone)[4]. However, if cooking, bathing and all life-sustaining activity were counted in addition to employment in Western societies, the average person in a Western society would spend far more than 40 hours per week "sustaining" themselves.

[edit] Issues with the data used

Some anthropologists claim that the studies Sahlins relies on are not representative of the people they observe. The Arnhem Land studies observe groups of only nine and thirteen over a period of one or two weeks. Also, McCarthy stated that the individuals used in one of the studies were picked up from a mission station and were accustomed to using the food available at these stations[4][5].

Lee's study is also alleged to be a poor representation of a hunter-gatherer society. Kaplan argues that as the investigation only covered a four-week period, it is in not representative of the living conditions of a whole year— as there are significant differences in climate between the wet and dry seasons[4]. In addition, Lee discovered that the !Kung he studied occasionally worked for wages or grew their own food[5]. Hence, it is claimed that the society studied is not "purely" hunter-gatherer.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ a b Barnard, A. (1983). "Contemporary Hunter-Gatherers: Current Theoretical Issues in Ecology and Social Organization", Annual Review of Anthropology 12 pp. 193-214.
  2. ^ a b Sahlins, M. (1968). "Notes on the Original Affluent Society", Man the Hunter. R.B. Lee and I. DeVore (New York: Aldine Publishing Company) pp. 85-89.
  3. ^ a b c d e Sahlins, M. (2005). The Original Affluent Society [Online] in M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics
  4. ^ a b c d Kaplan, D. (2000), “The Darker Side of the Original Affluent Society”, Journal of Anthropological Research 56(3) pp. 301-324.
  5. ^ a b Bird-David, N. (1992), “Beyond the Original Affluent Society: A Culturalist Reformation”, Current Anthropology 33(1) pp. 25-47.
  • Lee, R. B. (1965). Subsistence Ecology of !Kung Bushmen. PhD Dissertation, * University of California, Berkeley.
  • Lee, R. B. (1979). The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society. (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press).

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