With increasingly global markets and the introduction of Western capitalism into all corners of the world, anthropologists have become increasingly concerned with the effects of trade on the cultures they study. Initial trade relations in many of these areas were highly exploitive, and they essentially prevented the formation of social relationships between indigenous populations and Western capitalists. In most ways, the situation did not change much in the twentieth century, and many anthropologists are working at the turn of the twenty-first with indigenous populations to help them gain equity in trade relationships.
As Western products enter non-Western cultures, anthropologists have also become increasingly interested in the meanings people attach to things. How are new products integrated into society? What is the effect of the loss of indigenous products? Researchers suggested that objects themselves are socially created, that their circulation through a society gives them meaning and purpose, and that they are recontexualized as they move through different social contexts. In this sense, the distinction between foreign and local goods becomes blurred, as “foreignness” and “localness” are attributes that are socially assigned and that can change as the context of their use changes, just as attributes such as “desirability,” “utility,” and “value” change in different contexts.
Trade not only brings Western products into non-Western cultures, but also many aspects of Western culture. Many anthropologists think that the adoption of capitalist modes of trade also promotes Western ideas such as profit, modernization, and individualism, pushing aside indigenous ideas of tradition and responsibility for the care of social relations. This process of Western ideas pushing out non-Western ones is called “Westernization,” and is seen by many anthropologists as a major problem facing the non-Western cultures of the world. In a larger sense, Westernization is part of “globalization,” the process through which international trade is increasingly binding the nations of the world together into a single, global economy. Again, many anthropologists view globalization as a major force acting to eliminate non-Western ideas and cultures from the global economy.
While Westernization and globalization may be forcing contemporary non-Western cultures to become more Western and global in their orientation, capitalist trade has had a much more profound effect on many historic non-Western cultures. In North America, for example, colonization by Europeans and the introduction of the fur trade in the 1600s led to competition between local groups, an increase in warfare, and dramatic population movements that transformed the social landscape of the Great Lakes and Plains regions. Trade brought with it not only Western goods (including guns, one of the items that fostered increased warfare), but also Western biota. European diseases such as smallpox and measles may have killed 80 percent of the indigenous peoples of North America. European plants and animals have dramatically changed ecosystems throughout the Americas. The point here is that trade brings with it many things in addition to the items being traded—ideas, diseases, plants and animals—and all these have an effect on the peoples involved in trade.
With trade being such an important concept for anthropologists and other social scientists attempting to understand the historic and contemporary cultures of the world, it is not surprising that trade has been an important concept to scholars attempting to understand the evolution of cultures and, in particular, the development of civilization.
Trade as redistribution
Trade was the basic element in the evolution of chiefdoms out of tribal societies. Chiefs, Service argued, functioned as the operators of centralized redistribution networks, which took in surplus goods from all populations in a society and redistributed them back to those populations, but spread them evenly so that no single population lacked goods they needed, and no single population could acquire an ongoing surplus. This system of redistribution only evolved among sedentary agriculturalists, because it was among these societies that redistribution was needed. Redistribution allowed regional fluctuations in agricultural production (due to variation in rainfall, for example) to be evened out. More importantly, however, Service argued that redistribution both required and fostered the centralization of political authority, and thus was essential to the evolution of chiefs. It was only with the creation of a formal position of redistributor—a chief— that the smooth functioning of a system of redistribution could be ensured. And once the position had evolved, chiefs quickly learned to use their authority to provide or withhold goods to increase their authority in other areas of social life.
Trade as legitimation
But there are problems with Service’s ideas. Not all chiefs function as redistributors, and not all societies with chiefs have resource bases that vary significantly. It is clear; however, that trade seems to be important in the evolution of many chiefdoms, researchers suggested that one reason might be that trade can serve as a mechanism for legitimating power. After studying the late pre- historic and early historic chiefdoms of primitive societies, where chiefs actively participated in and controlled trade in exotic goods such as gold ornaments, but had little to do with trade in basic, utilitarian goods of daily life. Chiefs used trade as a symbol of their ties to distant people and places and, through those ties, to exotic and even supernatural knowledge. Trade was not used as a means of controlling resources, but rather, of controlling knowledge and, through that control, of legitimating the chief’s authority. The chief was the legitimate leader because, through trade, he had formed social relationships with neighboring and distant chiefs. He also gained knowledge of distant people and things through these relationships, and, in some cases, even knowledge of supernatural powers unknown to the society he governed but well understood by distant people with whom he was in contact through trade.
Trade as finance
One of the key aspects of the evolution of civilization is the creation of surpluses to finance the support of individuals who are removed from production to become political leaders, priests, artisans, soldiers, and the like. Thus trade, in the form of mobilization of surpluses, is a process through which this key aspect of civilization is played out. Political leaders evolve as individuals who are able to mobilize surpluses in order to finance their own sup- port and, later, support for other political personnel. Over time, mobilization increases, and political leaders are able to finance support for larger numbers of people. This form of “staple finance” is often trans- formed into “wealth finance” as polities become larger and more complex. Political leaders employing wealth finance use trade to mobilize wealth, often in the form of exotic goods from distant locales, to finance support for political personnel. Wealth finance is less cumbersome than staple finance, as bulk goods such as food are not involved, and often provides political leaders with new avenues for social control. For example, complex administrative structures may be needed to maintain access to and control over trade in wealth items, and a market system may be required in order to provide political personnel a means to transform wealth items into staples. In this way, the mobilization of wealth through trade is seen as a driving force in the evolution of civilization.
Trade is the movement of goods between individuals or groups where there is a general expectation of reciprocity and where the purpose is basically utilitarian. Anthropologists have long been interested in trade because it is an important factor in shaping social relations. The earliest anthropological approaches to trade focused on reciprocity and how the expectations of reciprocity shaped social relations. But it was soon recognized that many forms of trade are unequal, even exploitive. Capitalism seems particularly exploitive, and with increasingly global markets and the introduction of Western capitalism into all corners of the world, anthropologists have become more and more concerned with the effects of trade on the cultures they study. Trade not only introduces Western products but also many aspects of Western culture, both good and bad, as well as Western plants, animals, and diseases. These have had a devastating effect on non-Western cultures and have profoundly impacted world history.
Trade has also been important prehistorically and is an important concept to scholars attempting to understand the evolution of civilization. Trade has been seen as essential to the evolution of centralized polities, as trade provides means to both legitimate and finance positions of authority. With trade being such an important concept for understanding both contemporary and past cultures of the world, it is likely that research on trade will remain a central concern in anthropology and the other social sciences.
(Author is Teacher by profession and is a Research Scholar)