Political Economys Roots Lie in Anthropology

Introduction to Political Economy: Modes of Production


“Political economy could…be distinguished from neoclassical economics, which represented a shift in concern from the wealth of nations’ to the price of beans, from value as determined by labor time to price as determined by markets” (Roseberry 1988:162).

As a theoretical orientation within the social sciences, political economy’s holistic emphasis upon the study of systems of production is quite unique. Such a style hearkens back to the beginnings of the discipline of economics, to the works of scholars such as David Ricardo and Adam Smith. Such a holistic approach to the subject matter has largely been reduced by neo-classical (or contemporary) economics to a study of the pricing of commodities, and the study of markets and market values. For many scholars, political economy’s area of study has been fragmented into various disciplines, such as economics, political science (the study of political systems) and sociology (the study of social organization). This reflects academia’s tendency towards greater specialization over time.

Anthropology is not one of those disciplines, because it shares political economy’s holistic emphasis. In other words, rather than viewing politics and economics as essentially separate and opposed, both anthropology and political economy see them as part of an integrated system of production and distribution, a much more holistic position. This is why anthropology was sympathetic as a discipline to a political economy approach, which began to be popularized beginning in the 1970s, if not earlier.

As Roseberry suggests, however, anthropologists did not adopt the early political economy literature as a whole, rather, “they appropriated Marx” (1988:162).

Modes of Production:

One of the most central concepts of Marxist thought adopted by the recent political economy literature is that of /modes of production/. A mode of production describes the manner in which labor has been deployed differently in different types of societies, and which social class (if such exist) controls access to the means of production. The emphasis is upon neither politics nor economics, but rather upon the role which /both/ play in the organization of production systems, the allocation of labor and the distribution of that which is produced (wealth) among the members of society.

As Lewellen suggests, for example:

“Production is not simply a matter of people using nature to create goods; more importantly, production-which includes labor, technology, ownership and transportation-determines the ways that people relate to each other, that is, the ways societies are organized” (1992:162).

Ownership of the means of production is a central concern. Eric Wolf (1982), in particular, has popularized the centrality of the concept of modes of production. His work, Europe & the People Without History, is widely considered to be a groundbreaking work within the political economy literature.

A mode of production is often defined as including both the “forces of production” and the “social relations of production.” The forces of production includes such factors as technology, labor power, skills and knowledge. The social relations of production, on the other hand, include such processes as the organization of work, the institutions by which labor is allocated, class relations and the manner in which access to the means of production and the distribution of its products are organized (Bates and Fratkin 1999:50).

Wolf proposed that there have been three basic modes of production throughout human history: a kin-ordered mode, a tributary mode and a capitalist mode. His contrasts were foreshadowed in the earlier literature, particularly in the work of Marshall Sahlins (1972:76-77).

1. A kin-ordered (or domestic) mode of production was typical of all pre-state societies. Such societies include traditional Native American cultures as well as other tribal societies from around the world. In general, such societies are relatively egalitarian in their distribution of wealth. Labor or work is allocated within households and larger groups based upon kinship and marriage ties. The land and other resources are generally considered to be a collective inheritance or responsibility of the group as a whole.

The fact that everyone has /equal access/ to the means of production, coupled with social norms emphasizing reciprocity or sharing within the household or wider kin group, create a relatively equitable division of wealth in a kin-ordered mode of production. This pattern of equality in terms of access to wealth is referred to as substantive equality.

Both the production and distribution systems, as well as the organization of labor, are largely organized around considerations of kinship. Further, this mode “is based upon an opposition between those who belong to the group”-through actual or presumed kinship ties-“and those who do not” (Lewellen 1992:162). A kin-ordered mode is, therefore, a “classless” society, in contrast to the other two modes, for as Wolf relates:

“both the tributary and the capitalist modes divide the population under their command into a class of surplus producers and a class of surplus takers. Both require mechanisms of domination to ensure that surpluses are transferred on a predictable basis from one class to another…Both the tributary and the capitalist modes, therefore, are marked by the development and installation of such an apparatus, namely the state” (Wolf 1982:99).

What both modes share, then, is a stratified class system in which an elite control access to the means of production and expropriate surplus from the lower class, though the means vary.

2. A tributary mode was typical of ancient states, such as Egypt or Mesopotamia, as well as the feudal systems of Europe, China and Japan. In this mode, a noble and/or priestly class control access to crucial resources, such as land or irrigation works, and use coercive political institutions to extract taxes to support themselves, their retainers and the state apparatus.

As Wolf describes it, “social labor is…mobilized and committed to the transformation of nature primarily through the exercise of power and domination-through a political process” (1982:79-80). The “surplus” is usurped through taxation, with such taxes being levied in the form of tribute (a share of agricultural production) and/or in terms of corvee labor (mandatory state labor).

A tributary mode is thus a highly stratified system in which an hereditary noble, priestly or “landed” class control access to the means of production. Most often this is achieved by claiming hereditary ownership of the land. Direct political coercion is then used to extract surplus produce and/or labor from the peasant class. The classes, in this case, are /closed/, in the sense that there is little chance for movement between them under normal circumstances.

3. The capitalist mode of production began with the collapse of European feudalism after about 1500 A. D., coupled with the initial expansion of European trading and the extension of colonial control. It then flowered in the industrial revolution of the 1800s, and matured in the 20th century into an increasingly global system, which has come to incorporate virtually all other previously autonomous polities and economies (Bodley 1999:6).

In this mode an “open” (or at least theoretically open) class of very wealthy individuals has come to control access to a much more technologically complex system of production, primarily by means of private or corporate ownership. True access to this class is achievable only through economic competition at the grandest scale-the global level.

In the capitalist mode of production the “surplus” extracted is not a share of production, but rather, as Marx suggested, the “surplus value” extracted from labor. As Lewellen makes this point, “that which workers produce above the value of their wages is a surplus transferred to the owners” (1992:162) of the means of production-the capitalist class.

While state guarantees of private property rights are necessary for the system to function, it is primarily by means of “economic compulsion” (Bernstein 2000:261) that surplus value is extracted. And for economic compulsion to work, the means of production, from land, to markets, to factories must be privately owned. For as Wolf relates:

“As long as people can lay their hands on the means of production (tools, resources, land) and use these to supply their own sustenance-under whatever social arrangement-there is no compelling reason for them to sell their capacity to work to someone else. For labor power to be offered for sale, the tie between producers and the means of production has to be severed for good” (1982:77).


Political economy remains an important theoretical orientation within the discipline of anthropology, and within social science more generally. A number of more specific understandings of the capitalist world system have also been inspired by it, including dependency theory and world systems theory. Wolf’s classification of the three modes of production has also been adopted with modifications by approriate cultural scale theorists (Bodley 2001).

Political economy approaches are also quite commonly applied to the fields of international development studies, and to studies of globalization and its affects upon non-Western societies. Roseberry (1988) provides a detailed overview of the political economy literature.

References, additional readings:

Daniel G. Bates & Elliot M. Fratkin (1999) Cultural Anthropology, Allyn and Bacon.

Henry Bernstein (2000) “Colonialism, Capitalism and Development,” in: Poverty and Development into the 21st Century, edited by Allen and Thomas, Oxford University Press.

John H. Bodley (1999) Victims of Progress, Mayfield Publishing Company.

John H. Bodley (2001) Anthropology & Contemporary Human Problems, Mayfield Publishing Company.

Ted C. Lewellen (1992) Political Anthropology: An Introduction, Bergin and Garvey.

Richard H. Robbins (2005) Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, Pearson.

William Roseberry (1988) “Political Economy,” Annual Review of Anthropology. 17:161-85.

Marshall Sahlins (1972) Stone Age Economics, Aldine Publishing Company.

Gary Teeple (2000) Globalization and the Decline of Social Reform, Garamond Press.

Eric Wolf (1982) Europe and the People Without History, University of California Press.