Annals of the Fondazione Luigi Einaudi

An Interdisciplinary Journal of Economics, History and Political Science

The Annals is a forum for the free exchange of ideas
among scholars working in the field of social sciences
Volume LV 1 - 2021

Sahlins and a Kind of Anthropology

James G. Carrier,
pp. 71-86
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This considers Stone Age Economics in terms of anthropological research carried out in Melanesia and in terms of the kind of anthropology that the book and that research presented. Researchers in the New Guinea Highlands found societies that did not have patrilineal groups and so did not fit the dominant structuralist model developed in work on lineage societies in sub-Saharan Africa. This led to a search for a different basis of social order, and researchers settled on exchange. They kept, however, the structuralist idea that there are a few principles that shape and explain the social order, principles of the society’s exchange system. Sahlins focussed on exchange and was interested in structure, but his was the structure of empirical patterns and regularities shaped by contingent factors, not the result of a few underlying principles. Also, he attended to the ways that people could manipulate the system and how this revealed its in-built limitations. The result is social orders that do not reproduce themselves as the Africanist model implies, but are unstable. These points are developed with reference to Sahlins’s analysis of the Vitiaz Straits trade and big men, complemented by Andrew Strathern’s description of competitive ceremonial exchange in the New Guinea Highlands. The paper ends with a brief description of the fate of Sahlins’s kind of anthropology.