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Social Relations and Immediate-Return Versus Delayed-Return Economies





In this chapter I shall explore immediate- and delayed-return socioeconomies and the social relations involved in maintaining them. I will also discuss the distinction between the two -- between egalitarian and nonegalitarian -- in the hope that some insight can be gained into the fundamentally different economic structures that exist between mobile hgs and sedentary peoples, of whom we are today one example. Immediate-return societies are characterized by a lack of what economists call "fixed capital" (Gowdy 1998). They do not store or build surpluses of food; they consume it right away or within a few days. This frees them from the need to have a hierarchical social structure, which would be required to maintain and distribute surpluses of grain, for example, and for the irrigation needed to produce it. Immediate-return societies are so unlike Western societies that it is difficult for us to imagine how they could possibly function successfully. All of the assumptions that modern economists make about "economic man" are inapplicable to these societies. People in immediate-return societies "are not acquisitive, self-centered cost-benefit calculators (Gowdy 1998)." By looking at such societies, it can be seen that the notion of economic man as a universal type is erroneous. Let's move on to an exploration of these ideas, which should give more insight into the constitution of hg societies.

          Richard Lee describes the foraging mode of production as one in which social relations enforce equal access to resources (1988). It includes:

(1) collective ownership of the means of production (land and its resources),
(2) the right of reciprocal access to the resources of others through marriage or other social ties,
(3) little emphasis on accumulation (and, in fact, opposition to hoarding),
(4) total sharing throughout the camp,
(5) equal access to the tools necessary to acquire food, and
(6) individual ownership of these tools (Leacock and Lee 1982)


Tim Ingold places greater emphasis on social relations, arguing that hgs hunt and gather not merely to eat, but to actively maintain a specific order of social relations, one which emphasizes egalitarianism and the collective appropriation of resources (1987, 1988).

          In terms of social relations, hgs are usually divided into two types: egalitarian and nonegalitarian (Keeley 1988). Woodburn labels these two categories immediate-return and delayed-return (1980). In immediate-return systems, there are no surpluses and resources, especially food, are consumed on a daily basis. In Woodburn's scheme, this immediate-return activity belongs to egalitarian hgs, including groups such as the Hadza, Mbuti and !Kung. (Woodburn's description here is close to Leacock and Lee's description of band societies (Kelly 1995)). On the other hand, we have delayed-return (or nonegalitarian) societies, who invest energy and resources to reap a future fruit of labor. Extensive food storage has been associated with nonegalitarian sociopolitical organizations among hgs (Kelly 1995).

          Nonegalitarian foraging societies are rare, however, in the ethnographic record. They include those who lived along the Northwest Coast of North America, the Ainu of Japan and the Calusa of Florida. Ethnographically, nonegalitarian hg societies are characterized by high population densities, sedentism or substantially reduced mobility, occupational specialization, perimeter defense and resource ownership, exploitation of a particular resource (commonly fish), large resident group sizes, inherited status, ritual feasting complexes, standardized valuables, prestige goods or currencies, and food storage (Keeley 1988; Testart 1982; Watanabe 1983). Woodburn refers to these nonegalitarian societies as delayed-return, thus placing particular emphasis on the role of resource storage -- a delay between the procurement and the consumption of food (1980; 1982).





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