The Original Affluent Society
The ethnographic studies of the early 1960s led not only to the destruction of the old model (that of Steward and Service), but also to the generation of new ones. One such model emphasized the economic and social advantages of hunting and gathering and completely reversed the exaggerated assumption that fora gers were perpetually on the verge of starvation, had little leisure time, and therefore failed to develop the forms of social organization associated with supposedly more advantageous means of production. On the contrary, foragers were more affluent than the armchair speculators had realized.Full Paper
The data came from many societies, but probably none had more impact than the work of Marshall and Lee. Marshall’s famous “Sharing, Talking, and Giving” paper emphasized the exchange relations which redistribute wealth among the !Kung. Lee in tum supplied the concrete evidence for !Kung leisure: the fact that each adult !Kung spends only two or three hours per day in activities directly related to subsistence. Initially this finding was derived from only a very limited period of detailed observation and based on a rather narrowly defined notion of “subsistence activity.” But it was significant nevertheless, given the expectations of those who had assumed (without any evidence at all) that hunting and gathering were labor-intensive activities.
Although Lee, Marshall, and others provided the data, the most articulate formulation of the theory of hunter-gatherer affluence was that of Sahlins. He distinguishes two kinds of affluence: “the Galbraithian way” and “the Zen road to affluence.”
The former is the conventional conception which assumes that man’s needs are great but his means limited. In this sense affluence is measured only in terms of goods produced or procured. Such a concept is applicable to the way in which people in market economies think, but not to most hunter-gatherer world views. Instead, foragers are prime exponents of “the Zen road to affluence.” They do not value ·the accumulation of material goods. They are affluent because their needs are few and are easily satisfied by a relatively meager amount of labor time.
Sahlins attacks the ethnocentrism of earlier writers. Bourgeois ethnocentrism, he says, has led scholars to overemphasize material wealth in their formalist definitions of affluence. Likewise, neolithic ethnocentrism has given us a misleading picture of the development of agriculture. Far from reducing the amount of labor, the Neolithic Revolution demanded more labor than had previous, foraging lifestyles.