Chapter 11: Subsistence and Exchange


While there have been historical debates as to what degree human populations and groups are part of the ‘natural’ environment, the idea of adaptation is that all organisms strive to reach a stable relationship with a particular environment. The process of cultural adaptation is how humans use technology (tools or other equipment as well as the knowledge of how to make and use them), ideas, behaviors, forms of organization, etc. to survive in a variety of environments. The field of cultural ecology specifically deals with how human populations and cultures interact with their natural environments. One of the primary ways that human cultures have adapted to their environments is in the manner in which they make a living.


Until very recently in human history, we all made a living by foraging necessities directly from nature. Everyone had equal access to everything they needed. Now, most societies rely on food production and are unequal in their access to basic resources. This chapter focuses on economic anthropology, a type of cultural anthropology that studies economic systems. Economic systems include production (making things), consumption (using things) and exchange (transferring things). Even though the focus in this chapter is on culture, the ways in which we produce, consume and exchange are profoundly shaped by the environments in which we live.


Modes of production (subsistence) refers to the main way a culture makes a living. There are five modes of production (foraging, horticulture, pastoralism, agriculture and industrialism). We must not assume that one mode of production evolves into the next because there are living cultures that practice each mode of production.

Foraging is getting food by collecting what is available in nature. It is the oldest way to make a living and the only way humans survived until around 12 kya. Currently, only around 250,000 foragers exist and they live in marginal areas where it is hard to make a living. The main activities of foragers are gathering, trapping, hunting and fishing. Foragers have extensive knowledge of the environment.

Horticulture is a production system that cultivates domesticated crops in gardens with hand tools. Food crops are usually supplemented with foraged foods, hunting and fishing, and sometimes with trading with pastoralists. Horticulture is currently practiced in many areas of the third world by hundreds of thousands of people. Rain provides moisture and they rotate garden plots to allow the land to regenerate. Plot sizes are small and the yields (and surpluses) can support semipermanent villages of up to 250 people.

Pastoralism is a production system based on domesticating animal herds and using their products (meat, milk, hair, hides, excrement, labor) for at least 50% of a group’s diet. Pastoralists usually trade with other groups for other food and manufactured goods.

Agriculture uses domesticated animals for labor, transportation, food and manure. They are able to reuse the same land without a decline in fertility because they weed, fertilize and irrigate. Farmers have large families, permanent houses, private property and increased crop yields leading to surpluses. Population density is high. They have indigenous knowledge (local knowledge about an environment).

There are three main types of agricultural production systems:

Family Farming

Over a billion people are involved in family farming (peasant farming), where they produce most of their own food using the labor of the family. It is more common in less-industrialized nations. They plow, plant, weed, care for the land, irrigate, harvest, process and sometimes market. It is sustainable when properly done. The division of labor among family farmers is based on gender and age. The family is the basic unit of production. In female farming systems, women play a more important role in production and distribution than men. Because farming means making investments in land, there are firmly delineated and protected property rights. Land rights can be inherited, bought and sold. There are usually institutions such as police and courts to protect these rights.

Industrial Agriculture

There are two types of industrial agriculture and both types tend towards the unsustainable because they are more concerned with yields and prices than sustainability.

  1. Industrial capital agriculture produces crops using capital-intensive (machinery) means rather than human and animal labor-intensive means. It is most widely practiced in first world countries. Corporate farms, where huge companies own and run farms that produce goods only for sale, are a type of industrial capital agriculture.
  2. Industrial collectivized agriculture is a type of industrial agriculture that involves state control of land, technology and goods produced. It was meant to improve the welfare of the masses and to promote equality. Many collectivized farms exist in socialist or communist countries. Often workers are paid wages or in farm produce.

Industrialism is the production of goods using machines and involving mass employment in business and commerce. It began in the late 1800’s and has spread unevenly. It is very recent. Most goods are produced to satisfy consumer demand for non-essential items, not to meet basic needs. There is less agricultural employment and more service and manufacturing jobs. We have reached a postindustrial era, where the economy is based on research and development of new ideas, knowledge and technology and the provision of information, services or money.


Production, consumption and exchange are all closely linked. Certain types of production give rise to specific types of consumption and exchange. Modes of consumption refers to the main pattern of using goods and services in a culture while modes of exchange refers to the main pattern of transferring goods or services between and within groups and people in a culture.

Modes of Consumption

Consumption refers both to a person’s intake of something as well as a person’s output (spending or using a resource). We consume essential and non-essential things. What and how people consume depends on their mode of production.

Consumption Subcultures

There are distinct consumption microcultures that affect patterns of consumption.

Modes of Exchange

Exchange is the transfer of something between two or more people, groups or institutions. It is universal. But exchange varies depending on the modes of production, consumption and microcultures. There are three modes of exchange.

Balanced exchange is a system of transfers whose goal is balance in value. It has two types based on the relationship between the parties and the degree to which a return is expected.

Unbalanced exchange is a system of transfers in which one party tries to make a profit. It began mainly with the emergence of agriculture. Profit is its major goal.

Redistribution is a type of exchange where one person or institution gathers goods or money from many people. They later return or use those pooled items for the good of that group. Taxes and micro-financing are forms of redistribution. Potlatches are also redistribution. The processes within redistribution networks are frequently referred to as leveling mechanisms. Leveling mechanisms ensure that goods are transferred and distributed throughout society so that no one individual permanently accumulates more wealth than other members of the society


Western capitalism has spread around the world in recent centuries and has had large-scale effects on the modes of production of different cultures. This global trade has created a world economy, a global division of labor in which countries compete unequally for a share of the wealth. Immanual Wallerstein created a classification system for the modern world economy. It is stratified into three areas, the core, periphery and semiperiphery.

In this system, all areas are interdependent, but the benefits of the system accrue unequally, most going to core areas. Core areas, with around 20% of the world’s population, control 80% of the wealth and emit 80% of the world's pollution. International organizations help the core areas to increase and solidify their power and influence. As the different areas of the world have become interdependent and been drawn into contact with one another, what happens in one area can now profoundly affect the other areas.