Edited by James G. Carrier
Chapter 27: Value: Anthropological Theories of Value
David Graeber Economics might be said to have begun largely as a series of reflections on the origin and nature of value in human society. But those days are long since past. Nowadays, economists tend to limit themselves to producing mathematical models of how economic actors allocate scarce resources in pursuit of profit, or how consumers rank their preferences; they do not ask what those actors are ultimately trying to achieve in life or why consumers want to consume the things they do. The latter sorts of questions, questions of value, have been largely abandoned to anthropologists, sociologists or philosophers. It is not entirely clear, however, whether an anthropological theory of value actually exists. Anthropologists often talk as if one does, even as if there are quite a few of them. But it is difficult to find anyone willing to describe clearly what such an anthropological theory of value might look like. Instead, one usually finds three different uses of the term, and a feeling that on some ultimate theoretical level they are the same. They are: 1. ‘values’ in the sociological or philosophical sense. This is the sense in which an anthropologist might say ‘seventeenth-century Hurons placed a high value on individual autonomy’, or a politician might speak of ‘family values’; ‘value’ in the classic economic sense, in which one might speak of the market value of a house, food processor or ton of pig-iron; ‘value’ in a more specific linguistic usage, particularly the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de...
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