Moral Economy And Economy Of Affection Research Paper

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‘Moral economy’ and ‘economy of affection’ have different yet related meanings, related in that both assume that human behavior and choice are not driven by material interests alone. The difference lies primarily in the empirical application of the two concepts. Moral economy refers to strategies that peasant farmers in fragile livelihoods adopt to maximize their safety and security. Economy of affection is a broader concept focusing on how individuals, regardless of socioeconomic status, use relations with other persons to protect and promote their own interests.

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1. Definition Of The Concepts

Moral economy and economy of affection are both relatively young concepts in the behavioral and social sciences, having taken root in the literature in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Yet their intellectual origins go back another 100 years in the evolution of economic and social anthropology.

1.1 Moral Economy

This term gained prominence with the publication of Scott’s study of peasant societies in Southeast Asia (Scott 1976). It assumes that peasants act on the basis of their normative view of the world. Two fundamental values play an important role in a moral economy type of analysis. The first is the ethic of subsistence, which assumes that the right to subsistence is supposed to be assured. The other is the ethic of reciprocity, according to which the respect of the peasants for their elites and the payments made to those elites are supposed to be balanced by a return flow of justice, protection, and subsistence insurance. Moral economy differs from theories stressing individual utility maximization, notably ‘rational choice’, in three significant respects. The first is that what is collectively rational outweighs individual rationalities. The second is that peasants are risk-averse rather than risk-prone. The third is that the motive for action is not given but needs to be investigated empirically. Like Marxist political economy, moral economy acknowledges the adverse effects that the globalization of economic relations has on peasant livelihoods. It differs from that approach, however, in that it attributes to peasants the ability to defend themselves against the structural forces of world capitalism.

The essence of the moral nature of this economy stems from peasants’ responses to the threat of these external forces. These include investment in village insurance and welfare institutions to help assure subsistence for everyone. For example, cultivation on communal lands may be developed as such an insurance mechanism. A local tax may be levied on the village as a whole on the premise that the better off will pay more than the poor. This safety-first maxim is the logical consequence of the ecological fragility of peasant livelihoods and finds expression in a wide array of actual choices, institutions, and values in peasant society.

The peasant community, according to moral economy, then, is not just an association of rural producers, but a ritual and cultural unit which structures choices within certain societally defined limits. It is reinforced by a strong sense of corporate identity, and prescribes certain rights and obligations which all members of the community share. Although inequality exists in the relations of community members to patrons connected with the outside world, relations are still governed by informal bonds of reciprocity and familiarity. Being concerned foremost with subsistence and basic survival, peasants quite understandably are suspicious and fearful of commercial farming techniques and practices which may place them in too much dependence on the capricious fluctuations of markets. At best, they only grow cash crops to fulfill certain obligations required by patrons or the state. In the moral economy the degree to which peasants are willing to participate in the production of high-risk, inedible cash crops is therefore largely dependent upon customary practices and the family unit’s ability to assess and bear risk. The moral economy has been criticized for overemphasizing the risk-averse orientation of peasants. Popkin (1979), for example, maintains that individuals are driven by a universal ‘investment logic’ that applies not only to market but also to nonmarket exchanges. Traditional community institutions that in this perspective promote exploitative patron–client relations, communal interdependence, and stagnant forms of social stratification, operate to constrain the inherent ‘rational’ inclination of people to seek personal gain and mobility. Therefore, when confronted with opportunities to escape this confining environment, peasants are often willing to gamble on innovations to improve their livelihood. Outside market forces are not seen as inherently threatening, as in moral economy, but as offering potential sources for socioeconomic mobility and advancement.

The moral economy has its intellectual roots in a long tradition of peasant studies which largely sup- ports its basic premises. Polanyi (1957), inspired by earlier anthropologists like Malinowski and Thurnwald, has argued that institutions through which goods are produced and allocated in what he calls ‘primitive and archaic’ societies are embedded inextricably in other social institutions. Redfield (1957) and Shanin (1966) have provided a similar perspective when arguing that because peasants are only reluctantly linked up with the state and market, they identify most closely with the local community and its affective bonds and informal institutions. Chayanov (1966), writing on the Russian peasantry in the early years of Communism, emphasizes the strong domestic orientation among these producers. Meeting the needs of the household is the primary concern of the peasant and therefore a determining factor of the amount of labor that the working members of the household are prepared to put in.

1.2 Economy Of Affection

The concept of economy of affection was coined by Hyden in a study challenging Marxist interpretations of the political economy in Africa (Hyden 1980). The term has often been confused with moral economy, as both are centered on the ethos associated with subsistence and reciprocity. Their common intellectual origin in substantivist anthropology notwithstanding, economy of affection is not confined to the peasant sector only, but refers more generally to how individuals invest in social relations to actively promote and protect their interests in society.

This term is particularly applicable to socioeconomic contexts where neither class solidarity nor institutional trust is prevalent. Seeking out other persons for a favor is natural. So is the extension of benefits to others on the implicit assumption that such a gesture will be met reciprocally at some unspecified time in the future. Building up claims against other persons, as many anthropologists and historians, e.g., Berry (1993), have shown, is often a prerequisite for acquiring material things. African farmers have always gained access to productive resources through such social relations. In practical terms this has led to the proliferation of claims of fixed assets such as land, tree crops, or cleared fields. Property rights in the economy of affection remain subject to renegotiation and multiple claims rather than converging towards private ownership by individuals or closed corporate groups. Social relations in the economy of affection, therefore, tend to be informal. The boundary between ‘private’ and ‘public’ typically is blurred.

Affection serves as a driving force in the same way as ‘capital’ does in a capitalist economy. Wealth and prestige in society are obtained through the clever use of affective relations. If the management of such relations fails, the consequences tend to be the same as when management of capital fails: the system stagnates or gets polarized. Disaffection in various forms, therefore, is the downside of the economy of affection.

Some anthropologists have argued that economy of affection generalizes relations that are more complex than the term can really grasp. They reject the idea that affection is the core of a single social logic that can be applied to the level of a whole society. Like moral economy, economy of affection has also been criticized for exaggerating the ‘embeddedness’ of individual choice. Those who have examined it in the context of rural Africa, e.g., Kasfir (1986), have argued that peasants there are integrated more closely into the capitalist world economy than economy of affection with its emphasis on other values than economic gain implies. Others have noted that there is no scope for conflict or social contradiction in the economy of affection, thereby rendering it incapable of explaining class stratification and polarization.

2. New And Additional Emphases In Theory And Research

The lifespan of both terms covered here is still relatively short, but it is worth noting that although originally they were developed in the context of studying rural societies, the principles of both moral economy and economy of affection are potentially more broadly applicable. The former speaks to issues of alienation and threats to people’s cultural values that can be found in many industrial societies. For example, the threat to their lifestyle that many people concerned with community or ecological values feel in the face of economic development is one area where moral economy intersects with other lines of study, e.g., postmaterialism. Economy of affection is also present in societies regardless of economic development, although it may be more visible in places where modernity is still to be hegemonic. The mafia is an example of groups of people operating in accordance with the logic of an economy of affection. Because of the extensive privatization of Western culture, especially in the US, much of what is ‘affective’ is confined to the private realm. For some neo-institutionalist economists, such social arrangements are viewed as inhibiting the evolution of an efficient market. In this perspective, affective relations become a cost rather than a benefit. While affection has a spontaneous expression in many societies, especially in non-Western countries, it is more formalized and contained in the West. In the US, e.g., people’s readiness to express concern and compassion for those beyond the circle of their private lives tends to be confined to voluntary associations.

In spite of being of increasing relevance and interest to scholars studying social and political phenomena in Western societies, the primary value of moral economy and economy of affection continues to lie in the study of non-Western societies. There are at least three areas, in which the two concepts will serve as helpful analytical tools.

The first are studies focused on human responses to pressures on natural resources. As various factors— e.g., population growth, intensified use, global economic forces—influence the ability of households to sustain their livelihoods, moral economy or economy of affection provides a complementary analytical perspective which is potentially as useful as others. For example, the political economy literature has for a long time been dominated by a liberal, neoclassical, or socialist Marxist perspective on what happens as land use intensifies and becomes more commercialized. The first assumes the ability of individual household members to respond positively to this change in circumstances. The second assumes alienation and marginalization with the ultimate consequence of transforming social consciousness. Neither theory, however, exhausts the options that people are likely to adopt. In recent years, social scientists have come to accept that household members find ways of coping with and adapting to new circumstances using their wit in ways that fit neither neoclassical nor Marxist assumptions about human behavior. Moral economy and economy of affection, respectively, points to how such behavior is induced by communitarian or customary values and by more opportunistic investments in social relations with people that may enhance coping or adaptation.

These two concepts also complement interpretations about human responses to intensified resource use that are associated with Thomas Malthus and Ester Boserup. The Malthusian theory assumes that rapid population growth leads to involution and stagnation because technological change is incapable of keeping pace with the demographic expansion. Boserup (1981), on the other hand, assumes that population growth induces technological change, because people respond to demographic factors in a positive way. Countries with high population density and ongoing high population growth, such as Bangladesh, have been described as Malthusian crises in the waiting. Yet, neither there nor in sub-Saharan Africa, where much the same conditions exist in various places, the scenario does not necessarily fit the theoretical assumptions of either Malthus or Boserup. There is neither doom, as implied by Malthus, nor a technological breakthrough, as suggested by Boserup. Because the household is viewed as more than just a production unit, people find ways of coping with their predicament drawing on the strength of their cultural values. The moral economy or economy of affection offers the possibility of alternative interpretations that are potentially as valid as those mentioned above.

The second area is the study of informal institutions. Moral economy and especially economy of affection is relevant to understanding how people behave in the context of organized action. It is not just the formal aspect of an organization that induces people to act in certain ways. Gouldner’s classical study (1954) of patterns of industrial bureaucracy in a gypsum factory shows how informal relations between management and workers—the factory operating as ‘a family’— were more effective than what a subsequent manager imposing a formal structure could achieve. Although the economy of affection as a concept in the social sciences was not in use at that time, his study points to what it means in a modern industrial setting.

Being in good terms with others becomes an especially valid concern in precarious situations when sustaining a livelihood on one’s own is difficult or impossible. People put their faith in relatives, friends, and sometimes strangers by offering something small—tangible or intangible—in the hope that these people will respond in kind with an even bigger gesture when they are in trouble. Of the two concepts, moral economy is the more communitarian. Economy of affection stresses more individual strategies for how to cope with difficulties by investing in relations—ad hoc or more long term—with other people who are in a position to reciprocate in a generous fashion. Social networks of this kind may sometimes be formalized as the case is with self-help groups of various kinds.

The third area is politics. Here the communitarian nature of moral economy means that typically it refers to how social collectivies respond to a perceived common threat. This does not mean that all action is necessarily communal. The point is rather that individuals use shared cultural idioms to defend themselves against external threats, whether they are local landlords or the more impersonal forces of a capitalist economy. Scott’s study (1985) of the ‘weapons of the weak’ is an interesting illustration of how poor people can make sense of their reality without falling into despair thanks to powerful values in the local culture.

Economy of affection is more applicable to the informal aspects of politics that tend to develop in any society, especially where patronage is being used. Here policy matters less than who you are connected with and patronage becomes a means of sustaining relations with a client base as well as with fellow-patrons. This pattern is more prominent in some societies than in others. Studies of politics in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, in particular, have confirmed its permeating influence in those parts of the world. Investments of an affective nature, however, are made not only in vertical relations between patrons and clients. Economy of affection also accommodates the notion that such investments are made in lateral relations among equals with a shared objective. When faced with an external enemy, e.g., people can transcend local identities in order to maximize their gains, as the case was with nationalists in Africa during colonial days. This happens in a less dramatic fashion on a more everyday basis when individuals engage in reciprocal action to develop their community. Such collective action, especially in non-Western societies, tends to be driven by a social logic other than individual utility maximization.

3. Methodological Issues

Recent developments in the social sciences toward a greater emphasis on the microfoundations of macro action, especially pronounced in the field of economics and political science, pose new challenges to those who are interested in using moral economy or economy of affection as their conceptual tool. In the past, the latter two have been treated as outside the mainstream because they emphasize communitarian or affective values that have not been formalized into theory. With rational choice and institutionalism becoming more dominant, the two terms discussed in this segment, however, do not become less relevant but potentially more so. The one-dimensional interpretation of human behavior and choice associated with individual utility maximization may be theoretically and methodologically convenient, but it leaves out of consideration any alternative logic of action, such as those implied in moral economy and economy of affection. Rational choice, e.g., presupposes a ‘civic’ logic based on cognition of substantive issues as driving behavior. This is a common, though by no means omnipresent, feature of Western societies, but is much rarer in non-Western societies. The logic of economy of affection is more dominant. Individuals in such societies are driven by a subjective logic based on affection. This means that the issues of what a particular choice means to the relations with other people comes first. Choices are embedded in social relations in ways that are not included in rational choice or game theory.

The challenge before the social sciences is how far an economy of affection can be formalized to prove a more effective rival to rational choice. It lends itself to game-theoretic analysis, although the type of games one plays in the economy of affection differs in its strategic assumptions from those conventionally made in such analysis. Further discussion of this set of issues can be expected in the years ahead.


  1. Berry S 1993 No Condition is Permanent. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI
  2. Boserup E 1981 Population and Technological Change. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  3. Chayanov A V 1966 The Theory of the Peasant Economy. Irwin, Homewood, IL
  4. Gouldner A 1954 Patterns of Industrial Bureaucracy. Free Press, Glencoe, IL
  5. Hyden G 1980 Beyond Ujamaa in Tanzania. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  6. Kasfir N 1986 Are African peasants self-sufficient? Review article. Development and Change 17(2): 335–57
  7. Polanyi K 1957 The Great Transformation. Beacon Press, Boston
  8. Popkin S 1979 The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  9. Redfield R 1957 The universally variable and the culturally variable. Journal of General Education 10: 150–60
  10. Scott J C 1976 The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  11. Scott J C 1985 Weapons of the Weak. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  12. Shanin T 1966 The peasantry as a political factor. Sociological Review 14(1): 1–23


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