Could Sahlins's Affluent Society thesis be used to disprove Polanyi's disembedded economy thesis?

Polanyi characterizes the shift to market capitalism by arguing that individuals act upon more maximizing strategies in which they are driven by profit-based gains rather than the subsistence strategies of feudal England. Based upon this, he highlights how the market creates a sense of scarcity as a way of sanctioning workers to meet particular arbitrary demands predicated upon consumptive needs, which are determined by an unstable market.

Reflecting upon this, Sahlins argues that hunter-gathering communities are the original affluent society because of their accumulation strategies, which allow for increased material gain that is immediate, yet their work patterns allow them to spend less time seeking out these materials. With that being said, many have questioned Sahlins's original premise, accusing him of a failure to seriously grapple with the scarce resources many hunter-gatherers must face.

Sahlins is usually grouped as being in line with Polanyi and his substantivist school of economic anthropology, but could Sahlins be also acting against this school through noting that hunter-gatherers are maximizing agents, a trait that Polanyi does not ascribe to so-called romanticized 'primitive' societies?

Any ideas?

(I've cross-posted this to the OAC Forum in order to widely circulate it and receive more feedback! Thank you for any ideas!)

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Comment by Huon Wardle on May 7, 2012 at 11:17am

I think you are onto something here. A better case for you, though, would be Sahlins argument in Rich Man, Poor Man, Big Man, Chief.

Sahlins argues that the Big Man is like a modern day entrepreneurial or venture capitalist - he makes that analogy explicitly. The big man has to be a good networker and mobilise a lot of clients who then take him for their leader but who can also drop him fairly easily. The Polynesian chief, in contrast, got to be chief because the gods said so and his parents belonged to the right lineage. Those are the basics anyways.

So, the potential is there for the mythic capitalist entrepreneur to exist in societies that aren't capitalist or the spirit of that kind of thing to present itself, which supports your point at one level. However, you are saying that Polanyi has a fairly naive view of a 'primitive' economics that preceded disembedding; that needs a bit more thinking.

Nonetheless, I think there there is something there you could excavate a bit more.

Comment by John McCreery on May 7, 2012 at 5:03am

You should also have a look at work on consumer behavior/consumer psychology, readily available in the sections of bookstores where books on business and marketing are sold. Here you will discover that consumer purchase decisions take many forms. Some are habitual. Others are low-risk, so that picking the first thing that meets the need is also a common pattern. Some are more carefully calculated, when the the price and thus the cost of failure is high. And the products to which particular patterns apply vary both geographically and depending on income. This variation is why marketing research is the big business it is.

Some observers detect large patterns in the data they analyze. Thus, for example, the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, whose data I used in writing my book on Japanese consumer behavior, proposed a three-stage model for the development of consumerism in Japan. In stage 1, consumers are emerging from poverty and have a limited range of goods to choose from; their behavior approximates the economists' model of rational choice. In stage 2, an economic bubble, consumers share in the overall mood of irrational exuberance. They buy whatever catches their fancy. In stage 3, consumer incomes are flat or declining but advances in industrial and marketing technologies have produced a proliferation of goods so extensive that rational calculation based on the set of all possible purchases is humanly impossible. Shoppers become more careful; but the critical moment is when a product "snaps into focus" as the one in which a shopper is interested and the price is only then tested against what the shopper is willing to spend. In Japan these three stages correspond roughly to the 1960s and 70s, the 1980s, and the post-bubble (since 1991) years respectively. Only in the first stage are consumers rational in the sense described by simple supply and demand curves in Econ 101 textbooks. 

Comment by Greg Downey on May 7, 2012 at 12:15am

Chelsea -

I wouldn't agree with this because I don't think that Sahlins describes agents that look like maximizing, economically 'rationale' individuals. He talks about the 'zen road' to affluence: the decrease of 'needs' to the level of what one has.

You'll have to do some rhetorical heavy lifting, including finding some sort of foundation in Sahlins' original, if you're going to convince me that Sahlins is explicitly or implicitly modeling the foragers as 'maximizing agents.' Someone else may disagree, but I'll be interested to hear.

Consequently, I think it might be possible to talk today about a 'irrational' or 'post-rational' consumerism, where agents are so confused and malleable about their own needs and wants that some types of means-ends calculations assumed by rational markets modeling is not possible. For example, if 'needs' are especially unstable, it becomes difficult to make long-term decisions, even if making a particular choice brings incontestable long-term advantage. Other, short-term but acutely felt 'needs' can keep postponing long-term investment.



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