Anthropology of the Commons

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Compiled by Kevin Flanagan:

"If we can see gender difference, heteronormativity, and racial hierarchy as coming into existence through the performative force of representation and its accompanying material assemblages, can we not see capitalist dominance in the same way, that is, as a performative effect? And if we do, can we not put our intellectual energies into generating representations of noncapitalism, or of diverse economies complete with their material assemblages, and thus begin to work on the iterative failures of capitalocentric discourse and the infinite possibilities of other, more-than-capitalist, worlds?”

- Roelvink, G., St. Martin, K., & Gibson-Graham, J. (Eds.). (2015). Making Other Worlds Possible: Performing Diverse Economies. University of Minnesota Press.

“The detailed concepts developed over many years by economic anthropologists to describe the performance and meanings of diverse transactions have been displaced, their specific significations decontextualized and reinterpreted as elements of the bonding, binding, and linking relationships that constitute “social capital.” Dumped into this grab bag category, they are represented as bland relational ingredients of social cohesion or lack thereof, and indicators of the potential fertility of aid interventions and economic incentives. The choice of nomenclature, in which the term “capital” is liberally attached to certain social relations (as well as to the other four dimensions of the sustainable livelihoods framework—natural, physical, human, and financial), cannot be seen as innocent. The capitalocentric assumption is that the social relations addressed by these concepts are “investments” that can eventually be monetized, exchanged, and used to generate profitable returns.”

- Gibson-Graham, J.K., 2006. A postcapitalist politics. U of Minnesota Press. Chapter 3, Constructing a Language of Economic Diversity pg 58

"Belief in the contribution of social capital to economic prosperity is not limited to analysis and policy concerned with the developing world. Indeed, as Fine’s (2001) genealogy of the term demonstrates, through its migration into economics and political science (via the championing of Gary Becker and Robert Putnam) from the divergent sociologies of Pierre Bourdieu and James Coleman, social capital was first established as a key concept of analysis in the developed world."

- Fine, B. 2001. Social Capital Versus Social Theory: Political Economy and Social. Science at the Turn of the Millennium. London: Routledge.

Stephen Gudeman

"The commons is a shared interest or value. It is the patrimony or legacy of a community and refers to anything that contributes to the material and social sustenance of a people with a shared identity: land, buildings, seed stock, knowledge of practices, a transportation network, an educational system, or rituals. As the lasting core, though changeable over time, the base represents temporality and continuity. Without a commons, there is no community; without a community, there is no commons. Most modern economists - after Galileo, Descartes, and Locke interpret the material commons of a people as an independent, objective entity that can be properly managed only by having! expressly stated rights of access ( Ostrom 1990) . They re-read the commons as something separate from a human community, perhaps as a symbol of community but not the community itself. This market and modernist reading separates objects from subjects. My use of the term " commons" is different from that of most contemporary economists atl.a poltical scientists in another way. For them a commons is real property used by market agents and contained within a market; a commons is either an open-access resource, freely available to all, or a common-pool resource, regulated by rules of use (Ostrom 1 990). These theorists would show how control of certain scarce resources through social rules rather than competitive exchange supports market ends and the achievement of efficiency; thus, they argue, market actors sometimes agree for reasons of self-interest to form limited economic communities with a commons. I think this formulation represents a misunderstanding of the social sphere of value, reduces the social to self-interest, and conflates community and market through the misapplication of the language of trade. Communities of the form I examine are not devised to serve market life; irreducibly social, they operate for themselves as they relate to self-interests and the world of trade. On my view, the commons is the material thing or knowledge a people have in common, what they share, so that what happens to a commons is not a physical incident but a social event. Taking away the commons destroys community, and destroying a complex of relationships demolishes a commons. Likewise, denying others access to the commons denies community with them, which is exactly what the assertion of private property rights does. The so-called "tragedy of the commons " (Hardin 1968), which refers to destruction of a resource through unlimited use by individuals, is a tragedy not of a physical commons but of a human community, because of the failure of its members to treat one another as communicants and its transformation to a competitive situation. Often a community economy does. not despoil the environment as rapidly as a market economy does, because in doing so it despoils itself."

- Page 27 - Gudeman, S.F., 2001. The anthropology of economy: community, market, and culture. Blackwell, Malden, Mass.


  • An Economic Politics for Our Times. Kevin St. Martin, Gerda Roelvink, and J. K. Gibson-Graham.
  • researcher on African fisheries and forest commons, and how commons are embedded and organized with the market: Mariteuw Chimère Diaw