What's in a Price?
Trading Practices in Peasant (and other) Markets
The conventional view in most social sciences is that whereas economic behaviour in non-market societies is deeply 'embedded' in social relations, with the advent of the market the economy becomes progressively more autonomous. In modern societies the economy is represented as a separate and highly differentiated sphere in which transactions are no longer governed by social and kinship obligations but by the rational calculation of individuals. Indeed, some scholars would go further, arguing that in such societies social relations are themselves constituted by the market. In this chorus the economists are the discordant voices for most would deny that the extent of social embeddedness in earlier societies was significantly greater than the low levels they discern in our own. The 'propensity in human nature . . . to truck, barter and exchange' ( Smith 1776:1:2) entails that economic behaviour in all societies is sufficiently detached from social relations to make economic analysis appropriate, and there is now a substantial literature in which the economic behaviour previously attributed to 'traditional' culture, society or personality is shown to be congruent with the rational pursuit of self-interest by essentially atomised individuals.
When applied to non-market societies this line of analysis is not so much wrong as vacuous; to characterise everything -- from bride-price, through the size of kinship groups, to the value placed on certain personality traits -- as adaptations to the 'pervasive uncertainty and high information costs of primitive life which create a demand for insurance' ( Poser 1980:52) is to say nothing more than that societies with these institutions survive. The facility with which the functionalist accounts of an earlier anthropology can be translated into the terminology of rational expectations ( Landa 1981; Posner 1980; compare Barnes 1990) says more about the models than about the phenomena they purport to explain.
Analysis couched in terms of rational choice are more plausible, however, when they are directed to what are variously termed rural economies, peasant economies, or bazaar economies. 1 These are economies characterised by recognisable markets for commodities, land, labour or finance, but where the observed behaviour in these markets appears incongruent with the trading practices of industrialised economies; or at least with our common-sense understanding of these practices in our own economy.