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Marxist Anthropology
essentially an economic interpretation of history based on the
works of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels
posits a materialist model of societal change
developed as a critique and alternative to the domination of
Euro-American capitalism and Eurocentric views in the social
Change within a society seen as the result of contradictions
arising between the forces of production (technology) and the
relations of production (social organization).
Such contradictions are seen to emerge as a struggle between
distinct social classes
The Communist Manifesto (1848)
Karl Marx (1818-1883).
shows the basic struggle between
classes, and recommends action against
the 'spectre' of capitalism
Capital (1867)
shows how the capitalist system is
exploitative in that it "transfers the
fruit of the work of the a
1880 reads Henry Morgan’s Ancient
Society (1877) and became interested in
his evolutionary ideas of society
1883 dies before he can write a book
based on his literary exploration on the
Frederik Engels
1820 - 1895
The Origin of the Family,
Private Property and the
State (1884)
presents the evolution of
humankind from primitive
communism, to slavery,
feudalism, capitalism, and
finally, industrial
Marxist Theory
from Adam Smith
1. social relationships are generated by exchange
2. a person can produce more than he requires for
his own subsistence
3. the power conferred by the ownership of money
is the power to buy other people’s labor
4. while supply and demand may cause the value of
a good to fluctuate, its true or natural value is
determined by the cost of the labour required to
make it.
Marxist Theory
Wrote Capital during the Industrial Revolution in Britain
Much of his analysis is directed at explaining the processes which
give rise to capitalist society
One of the primary concerns with modes of production
Each mode of production has three aspects.
A distinctive principle determining property
A distinctive division of labour
A distinctive principle of exchange
Marx regarded social systems as inherently unstable,
rather than normally existing in a stable condition.
He found the driving force of instability in the
capacity of human beings to produce, by their own
labor more than they needed to subsist on.
He found that the way in which a social system
controlled people’s access to the resources they needed
was equally fundamental.
Marx argued that the market created inequalities
History is marked by the growth of human
productive capacity, and the forms that history
produced for each separate society is a function of
what was needed to maximize productive capacity.
Much of the work of Marx and Engels examined
the conflict generated by the increasing wealth of
the capitalists (Bourgeoisie) at the expense of he
working class (proletariat) who only sunk deeper
into poverty
Marx and Engles viewed history as a sequence of
evolutionary stages, each marked by a unique
mode of production
the history of Europe seen in terms of the
transition from feudalism to capitalism and
eventually to communism
Under the feudal system, which preceded
capitalism, surplus was secured by the legal power
of the feudal lords over the serfs and peasants who
worked in their lands.
Violence and repression could reinforce legal
power if the peasantry resisted handing over the
Under capitalism, the extraction of surplus is
managed more subtly through the mechanism of
the wage.
The wage is only equivalent to some of the value of the
worker performed but the labourer;
the remaining ‘surplus value’ is taken by the capitalist in
the form of profits.
Thus, in a capitalist society, the power and wealth of the
dominant class is seen as legitimate, rather than simply
backed by coercion as it was in feudal societies.
What is going on is concealed from the labourers under
the idea of a fair wage for a fair day’s work. – bourgeoise
ideology - class have a vested interest in maintaining their
power and will seek to resist such change
especially through elaboration of mystification in the
ideology, which results in the false consciousness of the
lower class
Marx and Engles viewed social change as an
evolutionary process marked by revolution in which
new levels of social, political and economic development
were achieved through class struggle
A class is defined in terms of the relationship of
people's labour to the means of production
each mode of production produced characteristic class
relationships involving a dominating and a subordinate
These two classes were linked together in a
relationship of exploitation in which the subordinate
class provided the labour and the dominant class then
appropriated the surplus
Capitalism produces a relationship of mutual
dependence between the bourgeoisie and the
proletariat (without labourers the capitalist
cannot make a profit), which is also inherently
antagonistic: the interests of the two main classes
are opposed.
Marx and Engels saw a history of class
relationships in which those who work have been
polarized in opposition to those who control the
means of production
Class in itself vs a class for itself
Marx also maintained that self consciousness
is an attribute of class existence
Consciousness lead to one's group's collective
solidarity, and common interests in relations of
Marx viewed peasants as ambiguous
Marx believed that various tendencies in capitalism
would promote class conflict.
The progressive development of technology would
bring deskilling of jobs,
creating more homogenised and potentially united
labour force;
the relative gap in wealth between the dominant and
subordinate classes would steadily increase;
processes of capital accumulation and competition
would combine to produce ever more extreme crises of
propelling processes of class conflict towards an
ultimate social revolution.
Evolutionary Marxism
Engles states that socioeconomics develops in a series of stages
from primitive communism, slave society, feudalism, capitalism
and finally communism unilineal evolutionism T
The first stage, primitive communism was an aspect of savagery
characterized by a public control and ownership of the
means of production
 and an absence of exploitation and social class.
The next stage, slave society is related to barbarism.
Property is identified with people, to own people is to have
some control and ownership to the means of production.
Yet, the notion of private property in relation to land did
not exist at this stage of development
Evolutionary Marxism
 The third stage, feudalism can be seen in Medieval Europe
There is a class distinction made between aristocrats, those
who own land and serfs the subjects of the aristocrats.
Aristocrats own the land and distribute it among their loyal
serfs. Thus, there is property related to land, and to control
and own this property is related to the control and ownership
to the means of production (i.e. the serfs)
The capitalist stage is the current stage of society. The final
stage (Communism) is yet to come
At this stage there are two classes: the bourgeoisie, the ones who
control and own the means to production;
and the proletariat, those who most sell their labor to the
believed that Morgan’s evolutionary stages of human
culture with material achievements and technology
validated their evolutionary theory
Marx and Engels gave currency to the idea of
primitive communism.
argued that the real basis of social and political
inequality was property,
and that since there was no private property in
primitive societies, there was no state and no class or
Leslie White
19th century evolutionism discredited in USA in 1930s and
He retained Marx’s causal paradigm, recognizing three
subsystems of culture: technology, social relations and
Technology drives change in the social system
And social life shapes ideology
changed Marx’s emphasis on the control of human labour
and access to productive resources with the idea that the
decisive force driving social evolution was the control of
Peter Worseley
1956 published a Marxist reinterpretation of Meyer Fortes’sanalysis of
the Tallensi (Ghana) society
The Tallensi of are subsistence farmers who traditionally lacked
centralized leadership..
Fortes said that men worked the land of their fathers because ancestors
graves were built on it for religious reasons I.e. functional
He proposed a more practical reason for people’s attachment to the land.
Worsely Showed that Tallensi young men returned to their father’s
homestead when he reached old because of a the desire to inherit the
right to farm some of this land.
Worsely demonstrated how Marx’s axiom that control of the means of
production conferred power, elucidated the economic basis of lineage
organization in small scale societies
mid 1960s in France, the Netherlands and Britain,
structuralism was the dominate theory in anthropology
French philosopher Louis Althusser and sociologist
Maurice Godelier merged Structuralism with Marxism
introduced into British anthropology by Jonathan
Friedman in 1974, with his article “Marxism, Structuralism
and Vulgar Materialism
Friedman believed, like Marx, that society is formed by the
conflict (or absence of conflict) between the infrastructure,
the forces of production and the relations of production; and
the superstructure, the juridico-political and the ideological
Thus we have the binary opposition
Neo-Marxists argued that polarized classes analogous to those
detected by Marx and Engels under early capitalism could also be
detected among across virtually the whole range of pre-capitalist
Thus African societies, presented in harmonious coherence by
earlier functionalist ethnographers were now shown to be riven
with conflict and class struggle.
To the extent that male elders appropriated the surplus labour of
their juniors and of women, they were seen to be exploiting class
(or at least they could qualify as a class)in itself,
This work valuable in exposing the implicit bias of functionalist
Many contemporary theories have come to rely on Marxists
insights particularly true of cultural ecologists, and neomaterialists, feminist and postmodern thinkers
Characteristics of Marxist studies
1. A focus on issues of structures of power and exploitation
2. A concern with conflict and change
3. A starting point in the material system of production and
ownership of property
4. An analysis of action as political power struggles between
social groups defined by their control of property
5. Various ways in which class, identity, and local struggles
The Modern World-System, 1974
looked at how the capitalist
systems penetrated noncapitalist systems, using a
binary distinction between the
core area and the peripheral
Immanuel Wallerstein
argued that world economies
linked by exchange relations
were largely impossible before
about 1500
The capitalist world economy which appeared around 1500
coincided with the expansion of commerce
the states of Northwestern Europe were able to impose a regional
division of labor and specialization of production - e.g. sugar in the
Caribbean, bullion in the Andes, and cereals in Eastern Europe
and, through increasingly powerful state bureaucracies, to
consolidate the flow of surplus toward the core countries
The world system theory told anthropologists to examine the
history of cultural conflicts to understand the change in any
given cultural area
Political Economy
Critical analysis of economic
and power relationships between
different human populations:
 flow of wealth, labor,
population in the world
 dominance and movement of
capital and commodities
 construction of ideologies and
ritual symbolisms that
support or contest the ‘World
System’ (the international
division of labor)
Radical Critique
The writings of Marx had been largely ignored by anthropologists
but in the late 60s and early 70s they were rediscovered
1950s and early 1960s any association with Marxism was
career threatening
In the 1960s there was a revolt against anthropological
It arose along with
the civil rights movement,
the protest against the Vietnam War,
the growth of the women's movement and the other
features of those turbulent times.
Starting in the late 1960s radical social movements
emerged on a vast scale. First was the counter culture
Everything that was part of the existing order was questioned.
The turn toward Marxist analyses coincided with changes
in the empirical base of the discipline - the fieldwork
These changes were underwritten by
(1) the ongoing decolonization of Third World countries,
(2) the reorientation of funding opportunities toward social
problems in the United States,
(3) the politicization of native peoples at home and abroad,
(4) the emergence of various indigenous and advocacy
groups including the International Work Group for
Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) in 1968 and Cultural
Survival in 1972
our society with its world view, its taken for granted
knowledge derived from the capitalist mode of
production, influences the people who practice a
particular science and the further development of that
In anthropology the earliest critiques took the form of
denouncing the historical links between anthropology on
the one hand and colonialism and imperialism on the
 passionate commitment to the powerless and to change
In 1969, the Radical Caucus of the American Anthropological
Association presented a resolution to the Association's annual
meeting which began:
"Anthropology since its inception has contained a dual but
contradictory heritage. On the one hand it derives from a
humanistic tradition of concern with people. On the other
hand, anthropology is a discipline developed alongside and
within the growth of the colonial and imperial powers. By
what they have studied (and what they have not studied)
anthropologists have assisted in, or at least acquiesced to, the
goals of imperialist policy. It is becoming increasingly
apparent to many that these two traditions are in
How do we assess the claims of a discipline which
writes accounts of "cultures" abstracted from the
contexts of capitalism and imperialism, racism and
domination, war and revolution?
The reality is that anthropology is the offspring of
colonialism, and reflects a state of affairs in which one
part of humanity treats the other as an object and in
which the anthropologist is her/himself a victim and
her/his power of decision is a fiction, embedded as it is in
the exploitative foundations of our society.
Eric Wolf
Europe and the People without History
A Critique of Civilization as a
responses to appeals from indigenous
peoples to seek out the actual nature of
the roots of the exploitative and
oppressive conditions which are forced
on humanity
Wolf emphasized the importance of the
social relations that structured the
organization of production and the
distribution of goods and labor within
and between societies
terms of Marx's concept of the mode of production in order to
delineate] the central processes at work in the interaction of
Europeans with the majority of the world's peoples
In his view, the motor for the rise of international
capitalism was located in the West, and the system
itself was built on exploitation, enslavement, genocide,
and the formation of class structures and states
It also involved ethnogenesis - the creation of peoples
without history both inside and outside Europe
How important is class and inequality in social life
in many societies, kinship, religion, and ethnicity seem to have
provided stronger connections than has class
Has been criticized on its definition of ideology which puts it forth
as a plot created by the ruling class to mystify the lower class; this is
not likely since the rulers also subscribe to the ideology.
Further, how the ideology spreads is also unclear, as its relation to
other forms of knowledge
Another problem that Marxism has faced is in the evaluation of
societies that do not possess any classes; how and why did 'primitive
communism' change without a conflict of classes?
Marx’s framework cannot deal adequately with other
dimensions of inequality. To conceptualize a society as mode of
production is inevitably to privilege economic relations over other
aspects of inequality. There is more than simply the class struggle
going on in society
Links of kinship religion, ethnicity and nation, have all tended to
seem more powerful than links of classs.
Marx's 11th Thesis on
Feuerbach in mind: that the
philosophers have interpreted the
world, in various ways; the point,
however, is to change it.