Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives

By Philippe Descola; Gisli Palsson | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

The optimal forager and economic man

Tim Ingold


INTRODUCTION

Enlightenment thought has proclaimed the triumph of human reason over a recalcitrant nature. As a child of the Enlightenment, neoclassical economics developed as a science of human decision-making and its aggregate consequences, based on the premise that every individual acts in the pursuit of rational self-interest. Whether the postulates of microeconomic theory are applicable to humanity at large, or only to those societies characterised as 'western', has been much debated: classic anthropological statements include those of Malinowski-who dismissed as 'preposterous' the assumption that 'man, and especially man on a low level of culture, should be actuated by pure economic motives of enlightened self-interest' (Malinowski 1922:60); and Firth-who argued, to the contrary, that 'in some of the most primitive societies known…there is the keenest discussion of alternatives in any proposal for the use of resources, of the relative economic advantages of exchange with one party as against another, and the closest scrutiny of the quality of goods which change hands…and taking a profit thereby' (Firth 1964:22, see Schneider 1974:11-12).

My concern here is not to revisit this old debate. Instead, I want to address the paradox presented by the emergence of an approach within contemporary anthropology which seeks to understand the behaviour of so-called primitive people-or more specifically, hunters and gatherers-not through a direct extension of the principles of formal economics, but through a rather more indirect route. This is to extend to human beings principles already applied in analysing the behaviour of non-human animals, principles that are nevertheless closely modelled on-even to the extent of being identified with-those of economics. The approach in question is known to its practitioners

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