Economy is about how we get the things we need for a living. Very important is for example food. When you are hungry, you just go into the next supermarket and buy a sandwich, don’t you? It’s easy in our society, we can consume everywhere and everything we can imagine. Together with consumption, production and distribution are associated with economy. Meaning: How are things produced? And how do they get from the producer to the consumer? We often can’t follow this path of distribution, we have no idea under which condition our things are produced.
But let me go back to the main topic. Economy is about production, distribution and consumption. And in Ethnology, there comes one more essential piece: the culture-specific value system. Not every society is consuming in stores like we do, but some produce food on their own. Or they trade in markets. Or they exchange gifts.
There is a big variety of economy. I’d like to present four of the most important forms of economic activities.
Hunter-gatherer: You may have heard that in the Stone Age human beings were hunter-gatherers. That’s true, but actually there still exist societies which are hunter-gatherers, for example the Aeta on the Philippines. During the rainy season they go hunting with bow and arrow or knives (which women prefer) and gather fruits, berries, roots and whatever else they can find to eat. In this season they travel a lot in bands, because they have to follow the wild animals and find non-gathered places. They don’t produce the food, but take possession of whatever they can find.
Agrarian societies: We remain with the Aeta to have an insight into agrarian societies. During the dry season, the men still go hunting, but the women stay at one place and prepare the land for a future harvest. There are different kinds of agriculture: In horticultural societies people use simple tools for the cultivation. As soon as a community grows bigger, people have to produce more food on the same land and therefore improve the cultivation. In agrarian societies people use more specific tools and make a division of labour. With that, the society undergoes a stratification so there are rich and poor people. Agrarian societies stay normally at one place and produce their food.
Pastoral societies: Like the hunter-gatherers, pastoral societies travel. They walk from field to field, so that their animals can feed themselves. Although they exploit the resources, the grass can grow again until they come past the next time. Pastoral societies often combine the nomadic life with agriculture, so that one part of the society cultivates and harvests and the other part goes with the animals.
Industrial societies: Industrial societies use technologies to enable mass production. This is necessary to offer everyone enough food and everything else they need for a living. Mass production is only possible because of a high division of labour.
Those are different forms of how goods can be produced or purchased. Another very interesting topic in economy is how goods are distributed. Not every society has money, some trade goods for goods and some even exchange gifts. When exchanging gifts, it is important to give enough because the reputation comes with the amount of gifts. And exchanging gifts is not only important because of the value of the goods, but as well to maintain friendship.
Economy in Ethnology is way more than buying and selling. It is a way of life, it is there to build and maintain friendships or go to war. And it is very specific depending on the values of the society.