While self-interested approaches to examining value, as a route taken in formal economics, lend themselves particularly well to neat formulas and straightforward calculations by focusing on value in terms of an in principle measurable utility and the amount of labour embodied in a commodity or service, they tend to reduce complex social beings to predominantly rational individuals – homo economicus – narrowly self interested in weighing up cost and benefits with the aim of maximizing personal well being, always choosing the option promising the biggest return (Wilk & Cliggett 2007, 36-37, 42). Economic actors however “are just as concerned with their social standing […] as they are with maximizing utility or income in the conventional sense” (Ortiz 2005, 74) which calls for a social model of value.

The social political perspective of value addresses this aspect of human nature by assessing human beings predominantly by the value they place in relationships, trust and influence. Political Economy is predominantly understood by the application of Marxist social and political economic theory in various ethnographic contexts. Marxism as the dominant social science model posits a justifying ideology that allows the perpetuation and naturalization of classes within a society as well as the super- and infrastructure that shape the relations of production through social labour in that society (Plattner 1989, 379-381).

Existing mechanisms of class exploitation are dressed in the cloak of respectability by ideological means, creating false consciousness and thereby remain unquestioned by the exploited and the exploiters alike (Plattner 1989, 381-384). Although critics point out that in some societies it is kinship or religious factors as opposed to relations of production that apparently dominate, it is shown by Godelier in his work that these social relations dominate only when they function as relations of production in line with Marx’s theory (Godelier 1978, 765).

An important idea in Marx’s theory is the phenomenon of commodity fetishism, the socially created attribution of subjective value to objects traded in the market which goes beyond those items’ intrinsic value and thereby acquiring the power of an objective social force (Marx 1973, 687) such as cattle in South African Tswana culture (Comaroff & Comaroff 1990, 195-196) as well as diamonds in the context of engagement gift giving in western style industrial economies (Proctor 2001). Fetishized commodities, such as polychrome fabrics in medieval Europe and Byzantium, can become Instruments of hegemony (Schneider 1978) and once recognized as such can lead to the creation of symbols of national liberation in their antithesis. In Schneider’s example this is what caused the ascent of locally produced black clothing as symbols of sovereign power and impartiality for example in the robes of judges as well as equality in death in mourning garments.

A significant problem with Marx’s theory as highlighted by Platter, is the continually rising wealth of workers in Western Europe and North America (Plattner 1989, 395). Since the release of Plattner’s article the world went through the collapse of the eastern bloc of states as well as the continuing economic rise of most notably Brazil, Russia, India, and China. These historical facts are casting further doubt on Marx’s theory which predicts worsening conditions for workers in line with his labour theory of value that posits the exploitation of labour as the only possibility for entrepreneurs to make a profit in the capitalist mode of production leading to an inevitable breakdown of capitalism (Marx 2007, 137). This aspect of Marx’s theory is particularly important since it claims to identify the source as well as the inherent mechanism by which capitalism leads to class exploitation. As pointed out by Marx’s critics however, labour need not be the only source of value (Menger 2007, 151) explaining how capitalist entrepreneurs do not automatically need to rely on the exploitation of the proletariat for making a profit. This is not to be understood that the free market is capable to alleviate all social ills, but highlights the need for further research and analysis.

In the context of the global political economy and particularly when it comes to development projects, a particular set of challenges is being confronted when western notions of ‘the proper way to do things’ are being uncritically adopted for local implementation. These development projects rooted in postcolonial efforts of guided modernization are wrought with problems and caused developing nations to accrue large national debts in the process of implementing respective development projects yielding few tangible results. While the hopeful conception of the Human Development Index (HDI) in 1990 aimed at reflecting insights gained during previous failures by including additional metrics going beyond a strictly economic focus, neo-colonialism threatens to perpetuate the colonial system with indirect economic methods as opposed to direct political means employed during colonial times.

Development literature, highlights the problems associated with development theory itself (Leys 2005) as well as with development practice. While development projects do have important political effects, these are not a consequence of conscious planning (Ferguson 2002, 401), (Mosse 2005, 10) resulting in a development culture in where success as well as failure of development projects are socially constructed (Mosse 2005, 18) as well as the result of policy-oriented judgments (Mosse 2005, 19). Positive effects may still occur but “are often equivocal, unexpected, contradicting legitimizing policy models […], and have more to do with infusion into regional and historical processes of change.” (Mosse 2005, 19)

This insight is mirrored in the example of the Taita Hills community in Kenya, which chose to employ a foreign witch doctor – Maji Marefu – to deal with local social ills experienced during the process of modernization their society went through and for the alleviation of which local magic seemed ineffectual (Smith 2005). While the resulting witch hunt orchestrated by Mjae Marefu failed to have the desired effect directly, the societal backlash against his exploitative practices ended up “generating the social cohesion and the social society that his coming symbolized, despite the conflict he generated”. (Smith 2005, 156). The invitation of what was perceived as a foreign expert by the local community to deal with a specific problem at hand, can be interpreted as a development initiative from the perspective of the Taita Hills community in which the anticipated result failed to materialize in line with observations made in the context of development discourse generally by Ferguson and Mosse (Ferguson 2002, 401), (Mosse 2005, 10). As a further parallel, positive effects were observed nevertheless which stood in no direct relation to planned components of the initiative, similarly to mechanisms described by Mosse (Mosse 2005, 19). Finally a mechanism of initial seduction and eventual disillusionment by the witch doctor not unlike that which has been described by Shresta in his experience of being colonized by successive waves of agents of development in Nepal (Shrestha 1995, 266) can be observed in the literature.

Surprising as it may be, a clear delineating between traditional witch doctors and modern development professionals remains problematic in the context of development in front of this background. Particularly so as long as development theory is perceived as not having been possible to arise at all outside the special interlude of the expansion of capitalism during the 1950s and 60s (Leys 2005, 116) as well as lacking adequate foundations (Leys 2005, 124).

It remains an important contribution of political economy however, that it places the emphasis on collective structures and functions and brings history into the picture which provides the context in which individuals make their decisions in predominantly in terms of how the means of production are organized and controlled (Plattner 1989, 381) despite superficial appearances to the contrary (Godelier 1978) and thereby helps to focus attention on exploitation, inequality and class conflict. Denial of agency and perception of the individual as a mere cog pushed around in the social machine reproducing society are the shortcomings of this perspective (Wilk & Cliggett 2007, 43).

The insight that individuals are neither self-serving optimizers nor political animals per se is recognized in the moral and cultural perspective of value (Wilk & Cliggett 2007, 43-44). From this perspective it is behaving properly what maters and moral principles and cultural contexts that constitute the basis for valuing action in terms of right and wrong. These values differ between cultures since moral codes are cultural products of a particular time and place. It is in front of this background that Weber explains how Puritan ideas in regards to asceticism had “a direct influence on the development of a capitalistic way of life.” (Weber 2006, 360). He notes that wealth, considered reprehensible when pursued as an end in itself, becomes a blessing in the Puritan perspective when it is the result of “labour in a calling” and thereby becomes a powerful since religiously sanctioned mechanism enabling the emergence of “the spirit of capitalism” (Weber 2006, 362).

The value of things in this perspective lies in what they are used for and the focus lies on contextual consumption, not on exchange (self interest) or production (political economy). Value is not perceived in the utility for the individual or the utility for society but rather in using the thing in the proper way, in the signs one displays knowing the right, the expected way to behave, which results in the accumulation of cultural capital. Indifference to wage incentives on peasants and artisans who become wage workers are one example how the absence of a Purtian outlook on life can manifest itself when individuals fail to respond in the ‘proper’ way in line with capitalist expectations (Taussig 1977, 131) due to their preference of use value over exchange value (Taussig 1977, 132). Over productiveness as the dominant norm in capitalism in this context is interpreted as an immoral act possible only through a pact with the devil that at the same time places certain restrictions on the earned money in regards to what it can be spent upon (Taussig 1977, 136). The capitalist idea of money as capable of growing by itself through interest is rationalized by the illicit baptizing of a note of currency instead of an infant by a godparent in order to realize the mysterious money-commodity-money standard formulation of Marxist of capitalist circulation (Taussig 1977, 144).

In pre-modern Sierra Leone, not unlike the south American peasantry, accumulation of wealth is seen as an inherently immoral process requiring dark magic in the form of eating people by turning them into slaves through witch finding divinations (Shaw 1997, 868) and transferring money from one person’s pocket into one’s own (Shaw 1997,859). In this context the diviners are seen as the biggest witches of them all (Shaw 1997, 868) since they are exploiting lower status individuals lacking the social or political capital necessary to sway the outcome of the divination in their favour (Shaw 1997, 865), which in effect resulted in their transformation from people into sellable commodities (Shaw 1997, 864) unthinkable outside the context of the slave trade (Shaw 1997, 865).

Being recognized as a good person – in this life as well as the next – is important since good people are listened to which confers moral authority and results in the accumulation of cultural capital. This insight is employed by Spiro in his exploration of what is often described as spiritually motivated lavish spending among Burmese Buddhists resulting in the perception of improvidence (Spiro 1966,1164-1165). Upon closer examination however Burmese religious spending can be explained as a form of highly profitable form of investment in the predominant social and religious context in which monetary generosity towards religious ends in this life is believed to result in rebirth into a wealthier status in the next (Spiro 1966, 1168).

Moral values differ widely between cultures, yet regardless what cultures people belong to they use the same tools to translate their values into ordered preferences. And then seek to maximize cultural capital by selecting the optimal choice. This is done in predictably rational ways within that particular set of values. It is the underlying set of preferences that frame your rationality – culture is a way of thought. Everyone reflects upon their pragmatic interests within society and have pragmatic implications for action in the world, understanding that others in the society have learned to react to symbols the same way as them. The power lies in the fact that everyone judges actions in a similar way. Structure emerges not just because we have common interest (reproduction of society, advancement of class) but because we have a shared understanding of the world, we may share common values even if we do not share common interests.


Comaroff, J & Comaroff, JL 1990, ‘Goodly beasts and beastly goods: cattle and commodities in a South African context’, American Ethnologist, vol. 17, pp. 195-216.

Ferguson, J 2002, ‘ The Anti-Politics Machine’, in J Vincent (ed.), The Anthropology of Politics: A Reader in Ethnography, Theory, and Critique, Blackwell, Oxford, UK & Malden, USA, pp. 399- 408.

Godelier, M 1978, ‘Infrastructures, society, and history’, Current Anthropology, vol. 19, pp. 763-8.

Leys, C 2005, ‘The Rise and Fall of Development Theory’, in M Edelman & A Haugerud (eds), The Anthropology of Development: From Classical Political Economy to Contemporary Neoliberalism, Blackwell, Malden, MA, pp. 109-25.

Marx, K 1973, The Grundrisse, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England.

—— 2007, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy – Vol. III-Part I: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole, Cosimo.

Menger, C 2007, Principles of Economics, Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Mosse, D 2005, ‘Introduction: the ethnography of Policy and practice’, in A Arbor (ed.), Cultivating development : an ethnography of aid policy and practice, Pluto Press, London, pp. 1-20.

Ortiz, S 2005, ‘Decisions and choices: the rationality of economic actors’, in JG Carrier (ed.), A handbook of economic anthropology, Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, UK, pp. 59-77.

Plattner, S 1989, ‘Marxism’, in Economic Anthropology, Stanford University Press, Stanford, pp. 379-96.

Proctor, RN 2001, ‘Anti-agate: the great diamond hoax and the semiprecious stone scam’, Configurations, vol. 9, pp. 381-412.

Schneider, J 1978, ‘Peacocks and penguins: the political economy of European cloth and colours’, American Ethnologist, vol. 5, pp. 413-47.

Shaw, R 1997, ‘The production of witchcraft/witchcraft as production: memory, modernity and the slave trade in Sierra Leone’, American Ethnologist, vol. 24, pp. 856-76.

Shrestha, N 1995, ‘Becoming a Development Category’, in J Crush (ed.), Power of Development, Routledge, London; New York, pp. 266-77.

Smith, J 2005, ‘Buying a Better Witch Doctor: Witch-Finding, Neoliberalism, and the Development Imagination in the Taita Hills, Kenya’, American Ethnologist, vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 141-58.

Spiro, ME 1966, ‘Buddhism and economic action in Burma’, American Anthropologist, vol. 68, pp. 1163-73.

Taussig, M 1977, ‘The genesis of capitalism amongst a South American peasantry: devil’s labour and the baptism of money’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 19, pp. 130-55.

Weber, M 2006, ‘Puritanism and the spirit of capitalism’, in HL Moore & T Sanders (eds), Anthropology in Theory: issues in epistemology, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, pp. 360-6.

Wilk, RR & Cliggett, L 2007, ‘Economics and the problem of human nature’, in In Economies and cultures: foundations of economic anthropology, Westview Press., New York, pp. 31-47

2 comments on “Society, Development, Morality, Value

  1. Sedicious on said:

    Gives new meaning to the phrase “voodoo economics”. : )

  2. You nailed it :-)

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