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“The Original Affluent Society” in Stone Age Economics

It is a book by Marshall Sahlins, published in 1974, in the field of economic anthropology and still continues to rivet attention 37 years after it was written. It is evident to believe that it is still revolutionary in its findings. Marshall Sahlins is a prominent American anthropologist. The Affluent Society was written to awaken American public opinion from its satisfied adoration of mechanical economic development. It succeeded in its function beyond all expectations. Moreover, this book review will consist of an overview of the chapter “The original affluent society” and arguments for and against the concept from theorists such as Karl Polanyi, David Kaplan and many others.

The chapter opens with an explanation of a particular view on societies as groups of individuals rather than as systems of social relations (cited in O’Laughlin, 1974). Sahlins shows that hunter and gatherer societies are by nature wealthy because “all the people’s material wants were easily satisfied” (p.1). Their low standard of living, and respectively few material desires, implies that the basic necessities of hunter-gatherer societies are frequently met. Sahlins compares the hunter-gatherer concept of affluence with the industrialist concept of wealth and concludes that “modern capitalist societies, however richly endowed, dedicate themselves to the proposition of scarcity” (p.3). People in developed nations work long hours and accumulate large amounts of material goods for the fear of future insufficiency (p.35). Hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, eat when they have food and move on to more abundant surroundings when food supplies grow insufficient.

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Sahlins insists, hunters and gatherers, it turns out, do not normally work very hard in relation to their wants, they mostly enjoy plenty with no great effort (Stirling, 1975). These people are comfortable, peaceable, happy and secure. Sahlins does not suggest that hunter-gatherer societies are more advanced than capitalist ones, but what he seeks to expose is the ethnocentricism inbuilt in many ethnographies of hunter-gatherer cultures. He argues, when looking into a hunter-gatherer society with the partiality of the modern world, the anthropologist might be persuaded to conclude that hunter-gatherers are poor, and consequently, deprived. Sahlins shows that on the contrary, with the use of Richard Lee’s work on! Kung San and argues that these people practice realistic material security and therefore are not continuously on the border of starvation (Solway, 2006:65). He argues that hunter-gatherers are affluent because they desire so little and because they stand their survival on the idea that the environment is naturally productive, plentiful, and yielding. It is a society that is completely free from material pressures (p.9).

Sahlins considers their level of confidence is suggestive of a generally successful economy. He argues that they have not learned the terror of hunger or of concern for the future. Their confidence is the creation of centuries of knowledge relying on nature’s providence (Rowley-Conwy, 2001:38ff). For Sahlins, ancient human beings were more affluent than modern ones due to the relative satisfaction with what was supplied by life, and the characteristic abundant and the right to use those possessions. He compares them with the modern human beings who use “the Galbraithean way” as a road to affluence in which they have comparatively limitless wants, and their having to slave towards the achievement of those wants for most of their life. He discusses the other possible road to affluence, what he calls “the Zen road”, which encourages humans toward restricted and a small number of wants, towards which even the simplest technical means of production can be productively functional (Rowley-Conwy, 2001:39). He stops just short of inviting us to adopt the Zen strategy, in which he argues “people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty – with a low standard of living” (p.2).

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In addition, Sahlins agrees with Marx’s observation that in “poor nations the people are comfortable, whereas in the rich nations they are generally poor” (p.2). People existing in such societies feel and are confident to feel obliged towards desiring unlimited things provided by the market, and force themselves into a “sentence of life at hard labour”, that he argues is exclusive. He explains that we, from the standpoint of having so much ability to create and accomplish, wrongly perceive the hunters to be just as greedy as us, but they without the many tools of achievement that we own, save for a few handmade equipments (p.4). Sahlins accepts that even many anthropologists have in general viewed the early primitives in a light not as much disposed to what might be a source of our personal envy. Some have considered the hunter-gatherer as an animal rather than human, but the author confronts this common observation as completely misconceived (p.5).

Interestingly, another misconception Sahlins covers is the perceived material poverty, apart from food and water, of primitives. He seems to challenge that people’s needs even in the “non-subsistence sphere” are usually not many and without difficulty, pleased. He insists, “In their nomadic hunting-gathering life they carry their young children and belongings everywhere they go. They do not even want to carry one of everything. They borrow what they do not own” (p.10). In this he argues, they have not saved anything for themselves and the gathering of substance does not become linked with their social standing. As Gusinde observes, Goods can become dangerously repressive and the more so the longer they are carried around. The goods for hunter-gatherers become a burden more than a comfort (p.11, 33).

In addition, the author contrasts this to “unique developments of the market economy, to its institutionalization of scarcity”, and quotes Karl Polanyi (1947:115) in saying that our animal reliance upon food has been bared and the exposed panic of hunger is officially allowed to be free. Adds, Karl Polanyi argues that “Our humiliating enslavement to the material, which all human culture is designed to mitigate, was deliberately made more rigorous” (p.28). Our market-industrial economy, he explains, depends on scarcity. The author makes a touching contrast between the hunter and modern industrial-capitalist society by saying that one-third to one-half of humankind are thought to go to bed starving each night. He argues that in the olden days this portion must have been a much smaller amount. He adds, at the moment, in the period of the most industrial influence, starvation has become a tradition. In his words “the amount of hunger increases relatively and absolutely with the evolution of culture” (p.36).

Although, Sahlins argues that an individual’s living in hunter-gatherer societies such as! Kung of South Africa has no sense of possessions, is free from material possessions and pressures, has an undeveloped sense of property and many may conclude him as an “uneconomic man” (p.13). These he argued are all qualities of ancient communism, although this is not a point on which the author puts all interest. Sahlins discusses the work of Gusinde (1961:1) who focuses on a point that has been repeated by several other writers lately, namely that the life of the hunter-gatherer was much less terrible than it is commonly supposed to be, and perhaps less dreadful than many of our own. He insists that their exceptionally inadequate belongings ease them to care less about their daily requirements and allows them to enjoy life (p.14) & (Solway, 2006).

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By concentrating on the inconsistency of how industrialization and our modern culture have actually made us work more rather than less in the 21st Century, Sahlins addresses how a society turns into a work culture as opposed to a leisure culture. Sahlins illustrates how the hunter-gatherer cultures he researched in the study have a finer quality of working life than modern western societies (cited in O’Laughlin, 1974:1361). He argues that they had shorter hours, more flexible working hours, and a further dependable support system of common food sharing and community support. As to the quality of life and culture, they enjoyed a long and healthy lifestyle, unlike our timeworn, under-exercised society of modernity (Macpherson, 1962:53ff). Sahlins shows clearly that in no other system of social organization was leisure as plentiful and widespread as the hunters (p.12ff).

One of the most prominent critiques of Sahlins from a liberal and sociological perspective is of David Kaplan. He argues that Sahlins relies heavily upon the studies mentioned in his work involving McCarthy & McArthur and Richard Lee. He insists, these studies highlight that hunter-gatherers only need to work on average three to four hours in order to get the food to survive and may devote the rest of their time to leisure (p.26). However, Kaplan believes that it can be hard to distinguish between work and leisure as people in hunter-gatherer societies do not participate in any sort of employment unlike us in modern society. In addition, he looks at Lee’s work and argues that Lee does not consider it important to mention food preparation time in his study in which he argues “work” should be defined as time spent gathering the food to survive on. But, Kaplan argues that if work is defined as simple life then people in western societies would be doing hardly any work at all (Kaplan, 2000).

In addition, Kaplan argues that if work was seen as a life-sustaining activity the! Kung can be seen as working more than forty hours per week similar to individuals in western societies. However, if all the activities were counted that individuals do in addition to employment in western societies the number of hours per week taken in sustaining themselves would be far more than hunter-gatherer societies. Furthermore, Kaplan questions the data Sahlins based his arguments on. He insists that one of Sahlin’s studies (the Arnhem Land) was artificial which consisted of a small group of missionary station inhabitants who were persuaded by the anthropologist to participate in the experiment (cited in Solway, 2006:73). Moreover, Kaplan argues that Lee’s study is also supposed to be a poor illustration of hunter-gatherer society as the study only covered a four week period which for many is alarming as it does not cover the different climates and is therefore not enough to represent their living conditions of a whole year (Kaplan, 2000 & Bird-David, 1992).

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Another famous critique of Sahlins comes from Bird-David who argues that the studies Sahlins rely upon are not representative of the group he is observing (Solway, 2006:70ff). He states the work of Sahlins is meaningful in many points. However, the! Kung he studies as described by Lee had previously worked for wages and occasionally grew their own food (Bird-David, 1992:26). Hence, this proves the study to be uninformative of hunter-gatherer society. Consequently, the Critiques of Sahlins are mainly revolved around his description and ideas of how real “the original affluent society” actually is. It is argued that he did not go into enough depth in explaining the society and is therefore not purely a hunter-gatherer. Sahlins can be criticized for failing to provide evidence for the strong type of argument he stands for.

For all its restrictions, nevertheless, Sahlin’s method of approaching universal and fundamental social themes through the affluent society is a great achievement. The chapter is outstanding and enjoyable. In conclusion, it is evident to believe that Sahlins work lies not only in originality and investigative authority but also in its capability to inspire essential suggestions, produce controversy and attract attention in the academic world and beyond. Most readers will find Sahlin’s visually interesting, some will find it emotionally persuasive and yet others will consider its political implications. Therefore, it is evident to believe that there has been much progress in this field since the 1970’s and the ideas on hunter-gatherer societies are always changing. However, it is not to be forgotten that there are still many such societies in the world and they differ deeply from each other Ultimately, “The original affluent society” is a call to arms, a prediction for the future, and a study of the past all organized into one elegant text.


  • Bird-David, N. (1992), “Beyond the Original Affluent Society: A Culturalist Reformation”, Current Anthropology, Vol. 33, No.1, pp. 25-47, (Accessed on 22/03/2011).
  • Kaplan, D. (2000), “The Darker Side of the Original Affluent Society”, Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 56, No.3, pp. 301-324, (Accessed on 01/04/2011).
  • Macpherson, C. B. (1962), The political theory of possessive individualism: Hobbes to Locke, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • O’Laughlin, B. (1974), “Review”, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 79, No. 5, pp. 1361-1364, (Accessed on 23/03/2011).
  • Rowley-Conwy, P. (2001), “Time, change and the archaeology of hunter-gatherers: how original is ‘the original affluent society”, in Panter-Brick, C. Layton, R. H and Rowley-Conwy, P. (Eds), Hunter-gatherers: an interdisciplinary perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 39-72.
  • Sahlins, M. (1974), Stone Age Economics, London: Tavistock Publications, pp. 1-39.
  • Solway, J. (2006), “The Original Affluent Society”: Four Decades On”, in Solway, J. (Ed), The politics of egalitarianism: theory and practice, New York: Berghahn Books, pp. 65-78.
  • Stirling, P. (1975), “Review”, Man, New series, Vol. 10, No.2, pp. 326-327, (Accessed on 23/03/2011).

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