Modes of Production Theory

Modes of production theory was born out of the marriage of structural Marxism and political economy, through the interpretation and use of mode of production and social formation concepts(Roseberry 1988; Ortner 1984).

Marx’s viewed the idea of social change as a linear process. In he view, societies traveled through a stages from a primitive communalism to capitalism,  then to socialism and finally ending with communism. The French Marxist interpreted these modes of production to be much more dynamic. For the French, different economic systems connect with each other in a way that affected them both (they coined the phrase “articulate” to describe this connection) (Wilk and Cliggett 2007). Of particular importance was this application of “articulations” between capitalist and non-capitalist societies (Roseberry 1988; Earle 2002). Through the efforts of French Marxist (especially Rey and Althusser) “mode of production” notions where use to build a more detailed work economic history. The argument was that capitalism did no just replace previous economies but captured and transformed these economies, creating a unique unified economy with some of its original features (Wilk and Cliggett 2007). This was a much more practical application of “mode of production”, and offered a different understanding of capitalism from that of dependency and world-systems theory. Essentially, they saw a much longer transition to capitalism (Roseberry 1988).

For example, Meillassoux’s research in West Africa demonstrated that the arrival of capitalism did not completely transform all previous social and economic systems. Instead he proposed that colonial capitalism was dependent on exploitations of precapitalist economies. Capitalism enclosed precapitalist modes of production, thereby, preserving them. This was accomplished through the exploitation of those precapitalist modes of production by controlling trade and exchange. Bottom line, colonialist in West African find it useful to have indigenous people around to use their cheap labor(Wilk and Cliggett 2007).

“Societies that are not themselves capitalist — even those that do not use money at all — may still be part of the world capitalist economic system” (Wilk and Cliggett 2007: 107)

Notable Proponent

Claude Meillassoux

A French economic anthropology and the pioneer of French neo-Marxsium anthropology. Meillassoux did fieldwork among the Ivory Coast Guro, particularly on subsistence economy and the role of women.French Anthropologists became so influenced by his work ,  that economic anthropology would govern  French Academia, particularly with regard to Structural Anthropology (Schlemmer 2005).

As for political economy, he defined “domestic modes of production”. Where older men exploited younger men and women though labor control. They accomplish this through kinship systems by controlling marriage, bridewealth, and lineages. In contrast, the capitalist system’s mode of production based wealth control through property. In the “domestic” mode, the control of wealth is through their people. Therefore, instead of owning the farm or land, elders controlled the labor of their wife’s, relatives, and children through their access (i.e., property and spouse). They decide who marries whom, what family children’s lineages will be and which piece  of land people receive. If we apply the Marxian concept of surplus then economic surplus is controlled through family connections and customs, not wages and tribute (Wilk and Cliggett 2007).

Meillassoux also spent time studying control of reproduction of women among hunter-gather and agriculturist (Meillassoux 1974), and was a notable critic of social injustice for many years (Schlemmer 2005).

References Cited

Earle, Timothy K.
2002.     Political economies of chiefdoms and agrarian states. In Bronze Age Economics: The Beginnings of Political Economies, by T. K. Earle, pp. 1–42. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.
Meillassoux, Claude
1974       From Reproduction to Production: A Marxist Approach to Economic Anthropology.                                         Economy and Society 1(1), 1974
Ortner, Sherry B.
1984.     Theory in anthropology since the sixties. Comparative Studies in Science and History 26(1):126–166.
Schlemmer, Bernard
2005       A Tribute to Claude Meillassoux. Electronic document,, accessed April 10, 2012.
Roseberry, William
1988       Political Economy. Annual Review of Anthropology 17:161-185.
Wilk, Richard R. and Lisa C. Cliggett
2007       Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology. Second Ed. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.


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