Economy And Culture

                            It should be clear that the separation of the economy and culture is problematic. In fact it is possibly a hallmark of modern capitalist cultures that they treat the economy as in some way separate from the rest of the culture. But if the two are to be analysed separately how should the relationship between them be seen?

 

The most influential approach, from a number of perspectives, is to look at culture as some sort of clothing, superstructure, barrier to rationality or remainder after the economy has been dealt with. We shall come across these again but I shall introduce them here to warn the reader not to use these as implicit models. The first two models see culture as providing the symbolic face behind which the `real’ economy works. In early Marxist accounts the economy determined social relations that were reflected in particular cultural forms. In the other approaches, culture is treated as that which an economic analysis cannot explain. Thus geographers (and economists) deploy questionnaires to look at optimum-location decisions and, because these do not fully account for location, ‘personal preferences’ or cultural factors are introduced as a sort of remainder once the economic is accounted for. Likewise, in accounts of indigenous farmers’ reactions to agricultural techniques imported from the West, their local culture is portrayed as ‘local’, peculiar and a barrier to accepting Western progress.

 

The primacy of ‘economic‘ explanations has to be questioned since it is very easy to reverse the normal accounts. Thus instead of the economy determining cultures we can reverse that. To use Sahlins again, he points out the enormous amount of economic activity that is structured around men wearing trousers and suits and women skirts and dresses (1974). Think, he asks, of the consequences for hundreds of factories if that changed. Likewise we could return to look at food, and trace how changing tastes for food have altered economic systems over and over. Think how much of the Caribbean economy is based around a Western taste for sugar, or how much of India‘s has been linked to the taste for tea. Of course thinking in this way does not change the separation of culture and economy it just inverts the relationship. This book will argue that we need to avoid seeing either culture or the economy as determining the other; and indeed in many cases that it is more helpful to see how they interact than to separate them.

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