The Original Affluent Society: On the Hunter-gatherers and their “affluent” society
An affluent society can be defined as a society which is characterized by the availability of the benefits of material prosperity.
In the year 1966, in a symposium held in Chicago, organized by Richard Lee and Irven DeVore, named Man the Hunter, the theory of the “Original Affluent Society” was first put forward by Marshall Sahlins, who was an American cultural anthropologist. During this time, new research by many anthropologists, like Lee’s research on! Kung (they are one of the San peoples residing on the Western edge of the Kalahari desert) of Southern Africa, posited challenges to the conventional idea that the societies of hunter-gatherers were always at the ‘brink of starvation’ and burdened with the struggle for survival.
Sahlins’ research had its base in the works of Lee on! Kung and of McCarthy and McArthur in Arhem Land. After collecting the significant data from these works, he upheld a comprehensive argument according to which the community of hunter-gatherers did not endure deprivation; instead, they resided in a society where the wants of all the people were easily satisfied. He observed that affluence typically refers to the satisfaction of wants, which is likely to be easily satisfied by either producing more or wanting less. Since there exists a culture of limited wants amongst the hunter-gatherer community, according to Sahlins, they were able to live their lives affluently by means of quick satisfaction of their simple material needs. Sahlins argues that since the hunter-gatherer societies can satisfy or meet the limited desires that they have with whatever is available to them, they can be labelled to be “affluent”.
According to Sahlins, there exist 2 possible courses to affluence – wants can be satisfied easily by either producing more or wanting less. The Western way towards affluence, which is the Galbraithean way, develops assumptions that are ideal for the market economies – ‘that man’s wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited, although improvable..’. The gap between the means and ends can be reduced by increasing productivity, at least till the urgent goods become abundant. Secondly, there exists the Zen road to affluence according to which human material wants are ‘finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate’. In other words, the societies of hunter-gatherers and that of the west choose separate ways to attain affluence: by desiring less and producing more, respectively. By means of such comparisons, Sahlins highlighted that the societies of the hunter-gatherer should not be examined through an ethnocentric framework when their affluence is being measured.
As Sahlins attempted to step away from a western conception of affluence, the theory of ‘original affluent society’ eliminates the ideas about the hunter-gatherer societies that were prevalent at the time of the symposium. He mentions that the diet of the hunter-gatherers is characterized as “marvelously varied”, which is based on the flora and fauna available locally, and that in abundance. This upholds the fact that the hunter-gatherers live amidst plenty of resources and do not live on a subsistence level of the economy. They have immense knowledge of their environment and by employing this knowledge they can transform the so-called ‘meager and unreliable’ natural resources into rich subsistence economy. As a consequence of this transformation, they can provide for themselves and limit the time devoted to the procurement of food to the minimum. This quest for food is very successful.
The lives of the hunter-gatherers also come across as ‘affluence without abundance’. This is because their needs are very limited and simple and they do not seek any surplus or material possessions which, if they indulge in, would decline their lifestyles from being characteristically nomadic. The hunter-gatherer communities place faith in the environment – that they will provide for by it. Since their immediate needs are satisfied from the plentiful resources, the number of hours that can be designated as ‘free’ increases. Thus, though they live in what the western society call ‘material poverty’, the number of hours they need to dedicate to work is less than in societies where people indulge in other modes of subsistence. In spite of working less, the hunter-gatherers’ work provides for all their needs and their overall leisure time rises. These arguments can be attributed to the fact that, in accordance with Sahlins’s observation, the original affluent society is essentially the society of hunter-gatherers.
Sahlins, through his thesis, tried to deconstruct the well-known conceptions of hunter-gatherers (that existed then) that their living conditions were of primitive level and they had to work hard through and through in order to survive. What is noticeable is that progress has been made in this area since the year of the symposium and the ideas of hunter-gatherers are welcoming in new paradigms that are constantly arising. The societies of hunter-gatherers do not fall under any all-encompassing umbrella. Each society of theirs differs quite much from each other.
Another point that can be highlighted here is that Sahlins had produced an essay on the idea for Les temos modernes in 1968 and this text became the central point for debates and received criticisms. This essay provided the base for Sahlin’s book – Stone Age Economics. The book and the essay suggested that “the hunter-gathering way of life provided unparalleled affluence for his followers. This became the Hunter-gatherers’ representative text in introductory instructions. However, this text did not receive any major challenge, and the issue was not further explored by means of empirical research, according to Nurit Bird-David’ ‘Beyond ‘The Original Affluent Society”’.
“Work time” and “leisure time”
In 1966, Sahlins upheld that since the hunter-gatherers were not burdened with the demands of the commercial market which is why they had enough leisure hours. According to his research, the people belonging to the hunter-gatherer society were required to work for only around 15 to 20 hours a week, which is pretty much not the case for the so-called civilized society. The hunter-gatherers could allocate the rest of their to leisure.
In Lee’s analysis, one can see that he argued that work has to be defined in accordance with the total time spent gathering the required amount of food. He didn’t include the food preparation time in his research. If the overall number of hours dedicated to the acquisition, processing, and cooking of food are added up, the approximate number of work hours per week would rise up to 44.5 hours for men and 40.1 for women. This, however, as stated by Lee, is far lesser than the overall time dedicated to working and household chores in the western world.
Sahlins culminated his study by stating that the number of hours each adult worker, from the Hunter community, dedicated to food production was 3 to 5. He further concluded that the people belonging to this community were able to satisfy their needs or be/maintain a status of being affluent by working for around 15-20 hours a week, or lesser than that.
Kaplan observes, in accordance with the ‘leisure time’ and ‘work time’ conceptions of the Original Affluent Society, that there exists no rigid demarcation between these 2 categories of hours in the lives of the hunter-gatherers. He upholds the argument that if “work” has to be synonymous with mere subsistence, the people in the west would not indulge in any work (with the assumption that one doesn’t take into consideration the time spent for paying for food).
Sahlin’s work received the criticism of numerous anthropologists and archeologists. According to them and other critics, Sahlins did not take into consideration the time that is devoted to the collection of firewood and preparation of food while he did include the hours that they use for hunting and gathering.
According to some anthropologists, the studies in which Sahlins based his research were not exactly representative of the people they intend to observe.
Other critics point out that the societies of hunter-gatherers suffered from extreme levels of infant mortality, and various serious and regular diseases. Warfare was another characteristic feature of their societies. So, these critics are against labeling these societies to be ‘Affluent’.
In his essay ‘The Darker Side of the “Original Affluent Society”’, Kaplin highlighted various problems with the theory of the “Original Affluent Society”. He further upheld the issues concerning the works of McCarthy and McArthur and Lee. The definitions of terms and concepts that were especially problematic were :
- Nutritional adequacy of the diet followed by hunter-gatherers; and so on.
In conclusion, one can highlight the last part of Kaplin’s essay where he states that though contemporary researches attempt to correct the conventional picture of the “wretched hunter-gatherer”, one shouldn’t overlook the presence of indigenous miseries and tyrannies in their societies. Kaplin throws light on Gellner’s remark, according to which the men who are considered to be ‘primitive’ are exposed to 2 kinds of lives – “one for himself and one for us from which to draw certain moral lessons”. “Us” refers to the civilized world. Kaplin brings in the example of Marx’s ‘The German Ideology’ where Marx predicts the establishment of a communist society in the future where there’ll exist no economic and political institutions. The thesis of the original affluent society might then turn into a commentary on the society of the civilized, as much as it intends to depict the lives of hunter-gatherers. Kaplin concludes his essay by stating about this – “..and that may be its powerful draw and lasting appeal”.