Emerging Linkages In the World System and the

Challenge to Economic Anthropology1

Richard R. Wilk

Paper Presented at the 1993 Annual Meeting of the Society for Economic Anthropology

in From Local to Global, T. Hall and R. Blanton eds.,

University Press of America, 1997.


 It is already almost an academic cliche that the world is increasingly integrated, that the global economy is now mirrored by global culture and global structures of power. This acceptance is reflected in terms like "transnational," "diaspora" and "cosmopolitan." Whole journals, like Diaspora, Theory, Culture & Society, and Public Culture have staked out global culture as their territory, and anthropologists like Arjun Appadurai and Ulf Hannerz have helped colonize the subject. But though economic anthropologists embraced the economic and historical aspects of World Systems Theory long ago, and were in the vanguard of anthropological investigation of global interconnections, I find that we are lagging far behind in extending our topical reach to include global culture.

Over the last few years, I have been doing research on consumer goods in Belize, on flows of money, people and media in and out of the country, and the relationship between Belize's economic position in the world and it's cultural identities. As I have pursued these topics, I have found myself drawn further and further away from what is conventionally recognized as economic anthropology. And this bothers me. Because I think that what I am doing is very much economic anthropology, and that the literature I am reading would benefit a great deal from what economic anthropologists have to offer. So this paper is a result of being bothered, of having a nagging feeling that something is wrong, and of trying to find the itch. In it I am trying to explain why economic anthropology is often so marginal to issues of global cultural integration, mass consumption, national economic policies, and global flows of people, money and commodities.

I do not intend to single any individuals out for blame or praise. I don't think that economic anthropology's failure in embracing global culture is anyone's fault. Instead our problem with this topic stems from some very fundamental assumptions we continue to make about the relationships between what we call "culture" and "the economy." Though we have long ago left the world of isolated peasants and tribes behind, we still carry basic terms and concepts that were forged in the village, out into a world of MTV, Free Trade Agreements, and ethnic cleansing.

Setting the Stage: The World We Have Lost

Anthropologists like Appadurai, Hannerz and Friedman tell us that global trends include both unification and fragmentation; that economic, social, political and economic changes are increasingly disarticulated. Friedman (1992) interprets fragmentation as the backwash from the passing of global hegemony; the old cultural order with its northern metropoles and neo-colonies is falling apart, to be replaced by a new multicentric disorder. Appadurai (1990) portrays a process of "deterritorialization;" no longer tied to particular locations or to each other, cultural and economic processes flow through mobile terrains which he calls finanscapes, mediascapes and ethnoscapes (among others). Hannerz (1987, 1990) describes a world of creolization, where the boundaries between existing cultural units shift, dissolve and are reconstituted anew, where rootless transnational cosmopolitans build cultural capital negotiable in every locale. Hannerz is ready to throw away the previous "natural" order of cultural units and boundaries, and substitute cultural flows and processes of transformation.

The core issue in the literature on globalization is the relationship between culture and the economy. The question is about how greater economic and electronic integration are affecting culture and social organization. These are the classic issues--the central problematics--of economic anthropology. Why don't we have a collective voice in debates about the effects of economic globalization on local cultural processes? For the last 50 years we have been writing detailed case studies of how regions, communities, and ethnic groups are affected by economic integration. Why have these studies remain unlinked, isolated from each other, and ignored in the wider debates and in other disciplines?

I would argue that our attempts to use world systems theory to provide that integration have been mostly futile (with perhaps the partial exception of Wolf's Europe and the People Without History). This failure is partially a result of our tendency to depend on Wallerstein's conservative formulation of the theory, a version that subordinates local to global, culture to the economy, and agency to structure, placing the very concept of an anthropological economics in the intellectual periphery, or maybe off the map entirely. Wallerstein presumes the answer to most of the questions we think are worth investigating; his most recent writing reduces culture to false consciousness, a system that contains contradictions, transforms hierarchy into difference, motivates people to work, and blinds them to growing inequities and global deterioration (Wallerstein 1990, cf. Boyne 1990).

We might be tempted to debate Wallerstein, and perhaps follow Albert Bergesen (1990), to "turn world system theory on it's head" and reverse Wallerstein's model. Bergesen argues that in reality the social and political determine the economic; the expansion of the world economy results from prior political and cultural expansion. But hold on a minute--isn't this what economic anthropology has been discussing since Malinowski? Didn't we learn 20 years ago that arguing the absolute priority of culture or economy was a futile chicken and egg hunt? We have so much of substance to offer in this debate, why has the message failed to get through?

Weak Foundations

Autonomy and Dependence

I want to focus on three collective sins--problems that have prevented economic anthropology from stepping out onto the center of the stage where global culture and economy are being debated. I am not doing this to point fingers; I include myself in any collective guilt. The issues I raise are ones that lie more in our collective unconscious, institutionalized in our categories and vocabularies, than in anyone's conscious daily practice.

The first problem is what I call the polarization of autonomy and dependence; the tendency to create ideal types at the extremes of a continuum. In this case we place absolute economic autonomy at one end and a totally open, highly dependent system at the other. It is easy to find examples of this at all levels of analysis, from the household to the nation state. The classic formulation is that once upon a time (always before the ethnographer arrived) these people were isolated and independent, where today they are drawn into the interdependent market economy (see the preface to Wilk 1991 for an extended critique). Or we can play it in reverse; once upon a time all these families worked together and were interdependent, but now they have been fragmented and are isolated from each other.

In the real ethnographic present, however, most households, communities and regions balance self-provisioning and production for exchange. The extreme cases are the ones that are easy to think with--they appear implicitly as ideal types in most comparative anthropological discussions. On one end you have total self-provisioning, and at the other you have total dependency on exchange, but like "primitive communism" or the "primordial horde," or "group marriage," the extremes are mostly ethnographic fictions. They don't exist in the human species. We know of no society where households are completely autonomous. If nothing else, a household is not genetically isolated--it cannot produce its own children. Levi-Strauss sees this as the primordial exchange relationship, as if households could otherwise be economically viable. The converse, a household which produces nothing that it consumes, in which all relationships are commodified, is equally impossible. Even in the consensual households which I studied in California--up to eight unrelated college students sharing a house, there were all kinds of non-commodified relationships, and many kinds of self-provisioning work. Mowing the lawn or fixing the roof can be marginalized by defining it as "housework," but this does not make the problem go away.

In most cases, even in a fully capitalist and modern society, the issue for studying households is one of degree. What are the proportions of goods and services provided by the household for the household, and what proportion of labor is devoted to production for exchange? What kinds of relationships do households have with each other, what do they get out of it? In many cases the ideal types at the extremes guide and inform the questions we ask; we are always pushing our cases towards one extreme or the other. (Here I would point at Sahlins' Stone Age Economics as a major influence in building these oppositions into the very vocabulary with which we discuss the "domestic mode of production" and types of reciprocity.)

If we shift scale and think about countries--modern nation states, we find the same problems. Again there are evolutionary and primordialist assumptions, and the extremes are imaginary debating tools, which in practice get in the way of our analysis. The precapitalist condition is usually depicted as one of complete autonomy, the fully modern one as total interdependence. Economists tend to view anything which impedes the growth of interdependence as an inhibition of free trade. Periods when interdependence declines are considered recessions or depressions. To neoclassical economists, the logic of exchange and efficiency will always produce more interdependence through the mechanism of specialization and comparative advantage. But the end result is not specified--is it supposed to be total interdependence? Every country producing just one or two goods for which it has comparative advantage, and buying everything else from others? Again, the extreme cases are fictitious, and the reality of the world is the territory in between. The polar types, and the evolutionary framework in which they are embedded, keep us from fully engaging the complex relationships between autonomy and dependency. Data on world trade do not support simple linear models, but show instead a lot of temporal variation in the autonomy of local systems.

The Impact Myth

 This brings me to a second weak foundation that makes it difficult for economic anthropology to engage global problems. Here the ideas derive originally from unilinear evolutionism and the modernization theory of the 1950s and 1960s. The problem emerges clearly in the classic ethnographic story which I call an impact myth: First you had some original or aboriginal culture. Then there was some drastic external economic or political impact, which transformed their productive system. Finally you end up with a new cultural form that is dramatically different from the original state. You can repeat the story several times if you have good historical material.

 I do not deny that from these stories we have extracted a lot of important generalizations about processes of monetization, proletarianization, social circumscription, and resettlement. But there are two crucial problems with the ways we tell this story. First is the starting point, the semi-mythical "before time," of pristinity. Much recent ethnohistory and critical anthropology has questioned the accuracy of ethnographic reconstructions of precapitalist or precolonial times, casting them as rationalist, romantic or orientalist projections (Thomas 1992). Second, there is the assumption of a sequence of order/disorder/order, that once the political/economic/cultural worlds were in harmony; they were integrated. Disorder, disarticulation, conflict and dysfunction are then explained as the result of impact, and are thereby implied to be unnatural or anomalous or temporary.

Order thereby becomes the natural state of things. Unless something comes along to cause disruption, there will be an equilibrium. This is not the same as the much-criticized tendency of classical British social anthropology to assume functional integration (see below). Most anthropologists have long since discarded the idea that every action or institution or custom has its function, and every functional requirement is met by some social or economic agent. The impact myth is more subtle and pervasive, but also more reasonable (on the face of it). It is often a simple product of the short time horizons of non-literate peoples, or the limitations of documentary resources. We usually cannot tell what kinds of changes were taking place before the time we are studying. But whether we intend them to or not, our accounts often downplay the possible chaos or disorder of earlier times, and we thereby allow our work to fall into the classical form of the impact myth.

Functional Integration

 This brings me to charge number three: our habit of accepting the untested premise of functional integration. The idealized autonomous village was one where things worked, where Julian Steward could find balance and equilibrium as the economy was integrated with the political system, reflected and maintained by culture. Within the economy, production, exchange and consumption were functionally articulated into a single closed system, a rationalized loop.

Economic anthropologists have heaped all kinds of criticism and ridicule on this model over the last twenty years (and even long before--the critics are too numerous to mention here, though Raymond Firth was certainly a pioneer). What is distressing is that many of it's vestiges still hang on, particularly in the ways that we think about cause and effect, and connections between different elements of society.

 The hermetic, balanced cultural system never existed, and its functional integration was never more than partial. The village model is particularly damaging to an anthropology of global systems because of what it says about the relationship between production and consumption, economy and culture. The functional model leads us to expect spatial and temporal isomorphism between all these components. When the economy changes, so does culture. Where there are economic boundaries, we should find cultural boundaries. The social context of production should also be the social context of consumption.

We thereby naturalize and primordialize ethnic and tribal boundaries, claiming they are somehow natural expressions ofunderlying economic units. But in fact most of those boundaries are anything but natural; they are political, intentional, pragmatic and contested. Wallerstein makes a similar error when he argues for a tightfunctional integration between culture and the global economic system (1990). The literature on globalism is full of imaginary functional linkages; people look at evidence for one kind of global linkages, and then assume correspondences in other areas (eg. Global economic integration will lead to global cultural integration, global media will lead to global consumerism, global migration will lead to ethnic fragmentation). A more realistic approach is the one taken by Mintz in Sweetness and Power, where he describes connections and circuits, but never implies that the economic connections between Caribbean slaves and European nobility were mirrored by cultural connections, or even mutual awareness.

An Example

I have often wrestled with all three of these problems in my own fieldwork in Belize. Lately I have been working on local and global connections, and have found myself especially vexed by the false dichotomy of autonomy and dependence. Many Belizeans seem preoccupied with issues of local autonomy,of dependence on foreigners, and the impending loss of local culture. They sometimes sound like the anthropologists of the1960s, always insisting that Belize is becoming more dependent all the time, and that the invasion of foreign money, tourists, immigrants and media are transforming a once stable, just and self-reliant society into a suburb of Los Angeles. In other words, outmoded anthropology has largely become folk-knowledge among the people we study.

To summarize a book length manuscript in a few words--the folk explanation of cultural dependence and autonomy just isn't so. In fact, a better case can be made for the opposite, that as the Belizean economy has become more open, more dependent, less autonomous, Belizean cultural production has become more intensive. As the economic and social boundaries have come down, as Belizeans themselves have become extremely mobile, something called "Belizean culture" has finally emerged and has acquired a distinctive and widespread meaning and following.

When I began to visit Belize in the early 1970s, people carefully explained to me that the local Afro-Creole people were culturally "really" British or Caribbean. The Hispanic communities were "just Mestizos" like Guatemalans or Mexicans. The only people in the country who were widely acknowledged to have a culture were marginalized minority immigrants--Kekchi, Mopan, Garinagu and Mennonites--all of whom were known to keep to their own communities, to have distinctive ways of life, their own languages, foods and religions.

When I asked about "Belizean Food," people laughed at me, or looked puzzled, as if I had named an imaginary animal in a list of known species. In those days when I looked for Belizean gifts for my friends in the US--there were simply no local, distinctive or emblematic objects one could take home to prove that one had been to a place called "Belize." Only stamps, coins and bottles of "local" Belikin beer; brewed next to the Belize City airport by an American, in a Canadian brewery using Dutch malt concentrate and English bottles. I found something quite special and distinctive there, but there were no public symbols, no public discussions about that distinction.

 About the only other people who seemed to believe in something called Belizean culture were politicians. Prime Minister George Price gave many speeches about the need to develop a Belizean culture that would bring together the country's diverse ethnic groups (Judd 1989). Today the quaint, isolated, autonomous place I once knew, a country with no self-consciousness, has changed dramatically. Belize is awash with emblematic locally produced goods--woodcrafts, hot pepper sauces, dolls and dresses. There is a local music industry, boasting its own fusion of traditional Garifuna drums with Caribbean tunes, now marketed in America and England. A Belizean cuisine has appeared and now almost every local eatery is advertising "authentic Belizean food." There is a touring national dance troupe, a national theater movement, a historical society that is designating and protecting landmarks and choosing national heros. Belize has become a cultural place.

 The point is that the articulation between the economy and cultural representations is not direct; it is complex and often runs directly counter to expectations generated by traditional anthropological models. In Belize, greater economic integration has led to much more conscious cultural production and certain kinds of cultural autonomy. In colonial times the country was much more self-sufficient, according to my analysis of customs records, but there was very little local cultural production. And this is not something new, unique to the era of jet travel and satellite TV. The relationship between cultural identification and political/economic autonomy has always beenproblematic, far from what we would expect based on polarized evolutionary models.

 My own ethnohistoric work with the Kekchi in Belize began as a simple impact myth (Wilk 1991). Here were these isolated autonomous subsistence oriented communities, with their age-old Kekchi culture. Along came cash crops and wage labor, and suddenly their culture had to adapt; Kekchi culture as an autonomous and distinctive entity seemed to be on the way out. Historical perspective shows just how wrong this model was. I witnessed only the most recent of many episodes of Kekchi participation in a global system of production and consumption.

And the interesting thing was that the times when Kekchi culture appeared most stable, when aspects of daily life became central to Kekchi cultural identity, were the times of most rapideconomic and political change, not the times of economic stability. Corn swidden farming and communal labor became essential parts of Kekchi cultural identity during the late 19th century when they became workers on coffee plantations, not during the ancient Classic period. The cargo system and communal landholding became traditions in the 1920s when they produced bananas for Standard Fruit. And in the last 15 years, again under pressure, tradition is solidifying once again and new kinds of uniformity are emerging.


When I read a version of this paper at the annual SEA meetingsin 1993, some people in the audience were angry. They felt that I was just dredging up old complaints and critiques that had been addressed long ago (by people wiser and better read than myself!). I do not claim that my criticisms here are original, but I think most of us underestimate how deeply these problems are embedded in our practice. I think they are particularly damaging at this point in time, because they are binding our feet to the ground when we should be leaping into new topics and taking center stage in academic debates from which economic anthropology is now mostly missing. The connections between economic life and the political and cultural order are the very heart of economic anthropology, and we are in a very strong position to use our traditional strengths on the issues raised global interdependence.

The papers in this volume represent a new kind of engagement with the problem of world cultural systems, and go a long way towards answering some of my complaints. As Hall argues in the previous chapter, there are strong foundations within world-systems theory, on which economic anthropology can build. I would argue that our central goal must be to re-problematize the relationship between cultural production and economic integration in a comparative framework. Otherwise we will be frustrated in our attempts to build "economic analysis beyond the localsystem," without merely duplicating macroeconomics or old evolutionary models of modernization.


1. A preliminary draft of this paper was presented at the 13th annual meeting of the Society for Economic Anthropology, Durham, NH, April 23, 1993. I appreciate the assistance of Anne Pyburn in writing this paper; James Carrier also offered useful comments on an earlier draft. Some of the comments from the audience at the SEA meetings were also very useful. The research in Belize discussed here was supported by a grant in aid from theWenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and a Fulbright Fellowship.



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