Mode of production under Marxist anthropology


ABSTRACT: This paper reviews three texts and their work done on Karl Marx and his concept of “Mode of Production” It reviews literature and tries to apply the concept of MP to the contemporary context. It also discusses the debates that led to this approach being followed. The main point that this paper aims to highlight is the relation and significance of the Modes of Production in the discipline of Anthropology and how Anthropology can use it to understand different societies and cultures.

Introduction: The discipline of Anthropology has been significantly impacted by the Marxist ideologies since it has allowed for a space wherein different Marxist concepts have been analysed through an anthropological lens.

The birth of Marxism in the 1960s inspired various debates and discussions across the globe and raised various questions, such as the analyses of age and gender hierarchy in Africa using the class hierarchy analysis by Marxism as the foundation. Therefore, even though the relationship between Anthropology and Marxism appears to be seemingly indirect, after an in-depth analysis one finds out that all Marxist ideas hold some Anthropological value. (Barnard, 2000)

Marxism referred to as “an economic interpretation of history” contained the ideas of thinkers like Karl Marx and Frederich Engels who emphasised on the need to look at society in terms of its complex social relations and their link with the economic base. This idea itself allows one to look at the evolution of the changing dynamics in socio-economic relations across varying time, space and contexts. Thus, forming a part of the subject matter of Anthropology. (Morrow & Lusteck, n.d.) (Barnard, 2000)

One essential Marxist concept is that of Modes of Production. In this paper, I will look into the definition of Modes of Production, the debates revolving around it and its various dimensions. This paper will include a critical review comprising of my reflections as well as a scholarly critique.


Mode of Product (MP) is defined by Marx as compromising of social and economic formations. Therefore, in simple words, MP is defined as a combination of the forces of production and relations of production. Marx used this concept of MP to trace the evolution of societies all the way from primitive to advanced. Under the concept of MP, Marx stated that the politics, culture, rituals, customs and values in a society, also know as superstructure are based on the economic system of that society. This implies that the relation individuals have to the economic structure moulds their relationship with the superstructure. Therefore, the economic structure of a society holds value because it further directs and shapes all other social relations. (Nadeau, 2010)

Means of production involves the usage of raw materials (“subjects of labour”) in combination with different tools, machinery and technology (“instruments of labour”) for the production of different goods and services. (Morrow & Lusteck, n.d.)

In the contemporary context, one can understand MP as the way in which economic and social factors of production combine to produce outputs that are consumed by individuals to satisfy their needs. An example of this would be the production of firecrackers in India by a certain social group of lower class adults and children using cheap raw material that endangers their life during the process of production. Here the economic system would include the cheap raw material and the social system would include the characteristics of the class involved in the production. This particular example would be of anthropological relevance since we can trace the production of firecrackers in different societies or in the same society over a period of time to understand how MP evolves as the capitalist society progresses.

Formalist vs Substantivist Debate

Post the Second World War, there was an increased interest in understanding the procedure for analysing societies that were not industrialized which overlapped with the incline towards gaining perspective on the different economic development theories. This increased interest and inclination led to the application of various modernity projects in the non-western world that often failed. This situation stirred up a debate in reference to these policies and their impact on non-capitalist society. Therefore leading to the formalist vs substantivist debate. (Nadeau, 2010)

The basic essence of this debate was whether or not to apply the “neo-classical economic theory” to different societies. The formalist perspective states that this economic theory can be applied to all societies equally, that is, it has cross-cultural value. This perspective states the importance of individualism and how people work towards their self-profit. Whereas, the Substantivist debate states that different economic structures need to be applied to different societies and cultures, that is, every society holds a unique cultural value that requires different economic structures. It opposed the formalist perspective by stating that the innate desire of individuals to maximize their own profit was only a distinctive feature of capitalist societies. They stated that the definition of economy was the relationship and sustenance they received from nature. Therefore, the Formalist perspective believed in the universal application of the economic theory whereas the Substantivist perspective disregarded this universality and emphasised on the contextuality of societies. (Nadeau, 2010)

In order to study economic phenomena, anthropologists use a combination of both perspectives. Advantages and disadvantages of both of these perspectives have been highlighted by MP scholars. The commonality between both of these perspectives is the focus on only a part of the production process and not the entire process itself. Therefore, MP theorists regard both perspectives as being incomplete because they provide partial explanations for human behaviour. (Nadeau, 2010)

A replacement of this Formalist vs Substantivist debate was the theory of MP. After the identification of the shortcomings of these two perspectives, the Modes of Production approach was used for the social analysis of the society. The MP approach claimed a higher ground because it took into consideration the entire process of production and not just a part of it, starting from the origin of production. (Nadeau, 2010)

Significance of MP in Anthropology

The advent of the 1980s brought along the anthropologists’ study of different societies using the MP approach. These anthropologists were divided into two categories based on their interest towards the study revolutionary change- theoretical or radical issues. (Nadeau, 2010)

The most significant contribution to MP Marxist anthropology was that of the French anthropologists. They tried to expand their understanding of the society by looking beyond the Substantivist and Formalist perspectives. The main subject matter that they delved into was the causality of the modes of production. They made use of real-life examples to explain the difference in MPs in capitalist and pre-capitalist societies by distinguishing the economic system with the cultural systems including culture, religion and politics. (Nadeau, 2010)

Most scholars believed that pre-capitalist MPs were underdeveloped and eventually transformed into the capitalist MPs, whereas others believed in the need for distinct models to study distinct societies. (Nadeau, 2010)

Different contributions to MP

The work done by Marx on MPs has been analysed by critiques worldwide and adapted accordingly. As a result of which, several different versions or extensions of this approach of MPs has been put forward.

In 1974, Samir Amin stated that Asiatic and feudal MPs can be “subsumed as subtypes” of bigger groups of tributary MPs. According to Amin, every society has undergone changes in its MPs across time. Thus, he pointed towards the existence of multiple modes of production that integrate and co-exist in different societies. He stated that there are 5 distinct modes of production. However, this argument was extended by Godelier who stated the need to not confine anthropological subject matter to a finite number of MPs. (Wessman, 1979)

Godlier also put forward an argument that separated modes of production from the labour process and argued that distinction between societies can be made by looking at the social relationships that connect the labour processes and whether or not they fall under the same mode of production. (Wessman, 1979)

In 1978, a more gendered perspective entered the domain of anthropology wherein Janet Siskind differentiated between different modes of production by separating the work done by men and women. (Cooper, 1984)

Neo-Marxists on the other hand, saw modes of production as an abstract reality or something close to an abstract reality, that is, they attributed the approach of MP to a metaphysical concept. (Cooper, 1984)

Giddens further credits Marx for generalizing a phenomenon that can be applied to the entire economic structure prevailing from the 18th century. Giddens also talks about the false conception of trying to understand the history of society simply on the evolution of the modes of production. (Southall, 1987)


Our society today is deeply embedded in a capitalist structure wherein alienation of man from self, others, his product and production process has reached at its peak. Commencing with the industrial revolution, the capitalist society still continues today and binds human beings to their work in a way wherein man has begun to prioritize money and resources over himself/herself. This entrenched feeling of alienation has been identified by various scholars. One such work is done by Betty Freidan in her book called the “Feminine Mystique” where she states that capitalism has led to a “problem with no name” that is, people have increasingly become more detached from themselves and more attached to their work and material gains. As a result of which, there has been an increase in the importance of understanding the concept of Modes of Production.

Modes of Production allow us to trace the society through the ages and gain an understanding of what was valued more in every form of society. For example- in a hunting-gathering society, the tools used for hunting were important, however, in an agrarian form of society, the tools used for growing plants and other machinery were important. This difference in tools or means of production helps us to identify the processes that our society has undergone. This evolution in the means of production also allows us to gain a perspective on the transition from primitive to agrarian.

Marx stated that the social relationships in a society are based on the economic structure. This idea is highlighted with the usage of the Modes of Production concept since different tools and raw materials are used for the production of different goods and services. By studying the change in the demand for goods and services shows how societal relationships also change. In the Indian context, it also helps us to examine the over-arching variable of caste and class and how demand of goods is a signifier of the class of an individual. It also allows us to categorize goods into necessities and luxuries. Therefore, we are able to study how relationships between individuals change as the economic structure below them changes.

This paper also allowed me to understand that even though, when drawn diagrammatically, the economic forces form the base of the society. However, in reality these economic forces dominate individuals and their life conditions. This can be related to the Durkheim’s idea of man being dominated by the forces of their own creation.

The overwhelming work done on this approach of Modes of Production demonstrates the importance given to this concept and how essential it is for our understanding of the society and its differentiation from capitalist and pre-capitalist.



Barnard, A. (2000). History and theory in anthropology (pp. 80-99). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cooper, E. (1984). Mode of Production and Anthropology of Work. Journal of Anthropological Research, 40(2), 257-270. Retrieved from

Morrow, S., & Lusteck, R. Marxist Anthropology. Retrieved 13 October 2019, from

Nadeau, K. (2010). 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook (pp. 473-479). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Southall, A. (1987). ON MODE OF PRODUCTION THEORY: THE FORAGING MODE OF PRODUCTION AND THE KINSHIP MODE OF PRODUCTION. Dialectical Anthropology, 12(2), 165-192. Retrieved from

Wessman, J. (1979). On the Concept of Mode of Production. Current Anthropology, 20(2), 462-464. Retrieved from

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Stuti Banga is a sociology and psychology student, with a keen interest in exploring the different concepts and facets of these two subjects and their intersecting areas. She is passionate about writing and researching on various topics related to sociological and psychological phenomena. She has undertaken on-field research and engaged in several volunteering programs. She wishes to inspire individuals through her work and bring a revolution in the study of social sciences in India.