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Jotcrnal ofHistorical Sociology Vol. 1 No.

4 December 1988
ISSN 0952- 1909


Domestic Modes, Domesticated Models


Let us begin with a story.

Once upon a time, the domestic group was everything to everybody,
the matrix of economic, social and political life as well as the center
Qf affective support. Economic relations were subordinated to. and
took the form of, domestic relations: production was for immediate
use; production decisions were determined by consumption needs
within the domestic unit. Then, somehow, and from outside, a
terrible history happened, and this former domestic unity was
broken. The realm of production was removed from the domestic
group and came to constitute a separate sphere; production
decisions were no longer subordinated to consumption needs but
were linked to the requirements of wealth accumulation; an
economic logic based on exchange value replaced one based on use
value; and the domestic unit was increasingly reduced to a unit of
consumption. As one well known anthropologist expresses it:

For the domestic groups of primitive society have not yet suffered demotion to a mere
consumption status, their labor power detached from the familial circle and,
employed in a n external realm, made subject to a n alien organization and purpose.
The household is as such charged with production, with the deployment and use of
labor-power, with the determination of the economic objective. Its own inner
relations. as between husband and wife, parent and child, are the principal relations
ofproduction in society. The built-in etiquette of kinship statuses, the dominance and
subordination of domestic life. the reciprocity and cooperation, here make the
‘economic‘a modality of the intimate. How labor is expended. the terms and products
of its activity, are in the main domestic decisions. And these decisions are taken
primarily Wth a view toward domestic contentment. Production is geared to the
family’s customary requirements. Production is for the benefit of the producers.
(Sahlins 1972: 76-77)

This is not to say that all has been lost: throughout the world
peasants and primitives constitute a remnant of this past life. Among
them, use value still predominates, the household still serves as the
central unit of economic, social and political life, and production is
424 Issues and Agendas

still subordinated to consumption. Their lives and consciousness

have not yet been subordinated to the abstract logic of capital
accumulation; through them, we can gain a critical consciousness.
Most of u s are familiar with this story or one of its many variations.
This particular version, and its popularity within anthropology, owes
much to the development of peasant studies in the 1960s and the
rediscovery of the work of Chayanov, most especially Chayanov's
(1966)insistence on the centrality of the peasant household in his
construction of a non-capitalist economics.
In trying to assess what is wrong with this story, one approach
might be to concentrate on the predication of the centrality of the
domestic group or household, and I am currently engaged in a
comparative historical project that looks at a variety of tracks toward
household economy, each of which is embedded within distinctive
fields of power that impart dserent logics, dynamics and rationalities
upon household economies. I
Another line of questioning might concentrate on the vision of
history suggested by the story outlined above. Let u s briefly sketch
the main historical assumptions that inform our founding story:
- First, history (or evolution, for the story is finally evolutionistic)
is presented in terms of a series of oppositions. If we set aside the
concentration on domestic groups in the story, we still find a n
opposition between a time when production was organized for human
needs, when the economy was subordinated to a variety of social
relations and institutions (of community, of kinship, of face-to-face
relations and so on), and when use value predominated: as opposed
to a later time when production is organized for the requirements of
wealth accumulation, when the economy dominates all other social
relations and institutions, and when exchange value predominates.
- Second, anthropological subjects, be they primitives in highland
New Guinea or peasants in southern Africa or South America, are
taken to represent that past time. They may not be seen to be perfect
or true representatives, or 'contemporary ancestors'. Those more
naive days have officially passed in anthropology. Nonetheless,
because capitalism, or the modem world, has not turned such
peoples into industrial proletarians, use value orientations and
forms of consciousness are still thought to predominate.
In criticizing these historical and anthropological assumptions, we
might follow two tracks. First, we should place the assumptions
within the broader tradition of oppositional history, especially in the
late nineteenth and early twentieth centures (e.g.. in the work of
people like Toennies, Hucher, Sombart. and Marx). Oppositional
history was part of a Western intellectual and political project of self-
understanding: a n attempt to determine what was unique, or
distinctive, about the West (or modernity. or capitalism). In order to
Issues and Agendas 425

answer the question, features that were taken to be definitive of

modem life were counterposed to their opposites, now taken to be
definitive of past or non-Western life, or to the lack of those features,
also taken to be definitive of past or non-Western life. To take a well
known example, Marx posited as a defining characteristic of
capitalism the separation of the laborer from the means of labor. Non-
capitalist situations were therefore thought to be characterized by
some form of union of laborer with means of labor. Consider, for
example, two of Marx’s exercises in the postulation of precapitalist
union: the analysis of primitive accumulation in the first volume of
Capital (1867/ 1977) and the analysis of various types of community
in the ‘Formen’section of the Grundrisse (1858/ 1973). In the first,
Marx looked at the fate of an historically situated independent
peasantry in fourteenth century England, leaving aside an account
of the demise of serfdom that had produced relative independence. In
the second, Marx engaged in a logical exercise, postulating various
types of community in terms of different possible combinations of
individual and community access to land. Each of these postulated
types was then given geographic or historical names (Germanic,
Asiatic, Ancient).
This is all well and good, and can be quite illuminating, as long as
our object is western society, or capitalism, or modernity, and as long
as we do not really think that we are saying something concrete about
the past. As a n analysis of the central social feature of capitalism, the
separation of laborers from the means of labor, Marx’s analyses in the
section on primitive accumulation in Capital and in the ‘Formen’
remain especially illuminating. When anthropologists and other
social scientists appropriate the very oppositional categories that
emerged from such discussions as central concepts for the study of
historical and cultural others, however, they commit a fundamental
blunder. When, even more remarkably, they do so as part of a self-
congratulatory attempt to escape from the reified domain of Western
historical categories, they practice a h n d of intellectual fraud.
Let u s take as an example the problem of individualism. If
individualism is thought to be a fundamental characteristic of
modernity, or of the West, or of urban life, it might be counterposed
to community, or communalism in traditional, or non-Western or folk
societies. Depending on the politics of the theorist, radically different
valuations may be placed on the two terms. Although the opposition
may illuminate certain characteristics of the present, however, it tells
us next to nothing about a specific past. Indeed, it may impose a term
(‘communalism’) on the past that is totally inappropriate for the
understanding of the past in terms that were important to those who
lived at that time. The term only makes sense in the context of the
preoccupations of a later epoch. If we think about this projection in
426 Issues and Agendas

terms of more recently popular oppositions such as exchange value

vs. use value or accumulation vs. reproduction, the problem should
be fairly clear: we are imposing on the past the preoccupations (not
to mention the ideological battles) of the present.
The second critical track we might follow is one that attempts to
dissociate our understandings of primordial pasts from our
understandings of anthropological others. Here our object of critical
attention is the second historical assumption. the assumption that
contemporary primitives and peasants can be taken as imperfect
representatives of past time, or the imposition of historical terms
upon culturaldifference. A good example of such imposition is Robert
Redfield's classic work in the Yucatan (1940). He takes four
communities as examples of different points on a folk-urban
continum (from the folk end to the urban: Tusik. Chan Kom, Dzitas
and Merida). The most important aspect of this exercise for present
purposes is that it was made to represent a n 'as if - or pseudo -
history. Although Redfield knew that there was not, in actual fact, a n
historical progression from Tusik to Merida, he thought that the
differences found among the communities at the time they were
studied in the late 1930s could be taken to represent the kinds of
changes that had occurred in an irrecoverable historical process in
the move from folk to urban society.
Some of the critiques directed at Redfield's Yucatecan material
point toward the sort of historical vision outlined in the present essay.
Sidney Mintz, for example, pointed out that the communities selected
by Redfield were located within the maize belt and that Redfield had
ignored the henequen plantations and the rural proletarians who
worked on them (Mintz 1953).Nonetheless, Mink did not consider
the actual historical processes that had characterized the Yucatan or
examine the communities studied by Redfield in detail. That task was
taken up by Arnold Strickon, who, by means of an examination of the
transformation of ecology and economy in the area as a result of the
development of estate agriculture and ranching, shows that all of the
communities can only be understood in terms of that history. Both
the people of Tusik and Chan Kom came from common roots -
hacienda and free Maya - but lived different histories, Tusik being
formed in Quintana Roo, an escape zone during the Caste War and
thereafter. Chan Kom was established in a frontier band between the
henequen zone and the free Maya. producing maize for the henequen
plantations. Thus, a pseudohistory that sees a passage from a folk
Tusik to an urban Merida, or an interaction between a folk Tusik and
an urban Merida that produces a peasant Chan Kom, is replaced by
an historical sketch that shows that each of the different
communities is a product of a unified social process. Because that
unified process affects particular regions differentially - due to
Issues and Agendas 427

geographical placement of core and peripheral zones, cyclical

movements, different sets of social relations and historical
movements within each region, and so on - a variety of ‘folk and
‘urban’ communities emerge.
This implies a profoundly different way of looking at
anthropological subjects, one that has been most interestingly
developed by anthropologists such as Wolf and Mintz. From their
initial field research in Puerto Rico (Steward et al1956) through their
typological essays of the 1950s (Wolf 1955; 1956; 1957; Wolf and
Mintz 1957)to more recent work(Wo1f 1982; Mintz 1973; 1974; 1979;
1985). they have attempted to view a variety of types of rural folk in
terms of the intersection of distinct local histories and a unified but
unevenly developing world historical process.
In doing so, their work points toward an understanding of
peasants, their histories, and their connection with our-history that
differs from that of oppositional models. It is one that tries to place
the formation of anthropological subjects within wider, including
modem, histol;ies. This does not mean that those subjects can only
be understood in terms of industrial capitalism, as a quick reflection
on such small and isolated villages as Chan Kom and Tusik would
make clear. It does mean that the very formation of anthropological
subjects, even in such small and isolated villages, is caught up in
historical processes (of regional growth and decline, state making
and unmaking, economic development and underdevelopment) that
cannot be analytically set aside. The setting aside of those actual
historical processes makes possible a different, and pseudo, reading
of history, one that restores to anthropological subjects a fictitious
primordial character .
We might briefly consider two recent studies that set aside
primordialist assumptions and point the way toward a more
historically sophisticated and politically consequent anthropology.
In his study of the Andean community of Huasicancha, one of the
most militant indigenous communities of central Peru, Gavin Smith
(1989) examines the formation of a culture of resistance. Since
resistance in Huasicancha has been waged in the idiom of
community and defense of land, it would appear that we are
confronting a classic case of anti-modern politics infused with
traditional values. Yet Smith shows, first, that a variety of traditional
practices - such as forms of reciprocal labor and herding
arrangements - have undergone significant changes over the decades
as the relationships between the community and a neighboring
hacienda changed, as residents participated in military campaigns,
and as large numbers ofvillagers moved to cities to set up fruit-selling
enterprises (cf. Smith 1979). The same words are used to describe
reciprocal exchanges and herding arrangements, but the meaning
428 lssues and Agendas

and content of those arrangements change significantly, in the

context of a changing field of power. Likewise, when Smith examines
dramatic moments of resistance, for example in the 1870s. the 1940s
and the 1960s. he shows that in each case different kinds of
Huasicanchinos were engaged in the struggles, with different
projects - even as these projects were presented in the name of the
community and that the struggles themselves differed over time
even a s they shared a common language of land recuperation
(reiuindicaciones). In the 1960s. for example, the land invasion
campaign included villagers and migrants who had lived most of their
lives in Lima, and a complicated struggle for control of the
community, in which quite contemporary issues were at stake, was
waged at the same time that 'the community' was pressing its ancient
claims against the hacienda. Again, this is not to suggest that
Huasicancha is a capitalist town: that too would misread history.
Nonetheless, we would miss much that is significant in this culture
of resistance if we saw it mainly in pseudo-historical terms of
A second study that points in a promising direction is Lowell
Gudmundson's (1986) analysis of the early impact of coffee
cultivation on Costa Rcan society. At the periphery of a periphery
during the colonial period, Costa Rica was unlike more central
regions of Latin America. It was not densely populated: estate
agriculture and forced labor regimes did not characterize the colonial
Costa Rican economy. The move toward coffee cultivation in the
second half of the nineteenth century was conditioned by earlier
social and economic relations. and large estates did not dominate the
coffee economy. Instead, a small- holder regime prevailed, with coffee
processors and exporters serving as dominant figures.
Given Costa Rica's different history and its reputation for middle
class democracy in this century, historians and politicians have
constructed a n idyll, which Gudmundson calls the 'rural democratic
model', to account for that difference. Central to this model is a vision
of a relatively homogeneous pre-coffee society without major social
and economic inequalities. The countryside is thought to have been
populated by smallholding, property-owning peasants - the family
economy of social science lore. Depending on the politics of particular
writers, this peasantry is seen either a s the bulwark of later regimes.
maintaining itself in the face of external pressures under the coffee
economy, or as the victim of those same pressures, suffering a
process of proletarianization. In his critique of this model,
Cudmundson shows that serious inequalities and social divisions
characterized Costa Rican economy and society before coffee
cultivation. While this is not surprising and has been suggested by
other authors, Gudmundson's more important contribution is to
Issues and Agendas 429

show that pre-coffee seciety was essentially town and village based,
that the smallholding, property-owning peasantry was a product of
coffee cultivation rather than a survival of past time or a victim of
commodity economy.
In this, Costa Rica may not be so different after all. A similar process
of peasantization in association with a coffee economy occurred in
regions of Venezuela (Rosebeny 19831, and Gudmundson suggests
that it is much more common in Latin America than is generally
supposed. In a commentary on cases from early modern European
history, 1 have suggested that the very image of the family economy.
based in ancient smallholding peasantries and reproducing itself in
early modem proto-industrial settings, should be revised, that
'family economy' might be a product of proto-industrial activities
themselves and of the early modern era and that it might be
intimately connected with the rise of merchant capital and absolutist
states, both of which depended upon smallholders for revenue
(Roseberry 1986).
If such a contention can be sustained, two kinds of question are
raised for future research:

1. Might it be that the link between 'commodity economy' and 'family

economy' is more direct than the oppositional myth allows?
2. If so, what does this tell us about the ideological nature of the
historical myth itself?

To consider the first question, we need more studies of the sort

Gudmundson has conducted in Costa Rica, studies that attempt
serious reconstruction of past social and economic relations and
eschew the automatic imputation of a base line family economy based
on received oppositional narratives. To consider the second question,
we will need to explore the oppositional narratives themselves - both
in their classic sites in social science theory with a new reading of the
Physiocrats and the German historicists. among others, and in the
local sites of their consumption and application, as Gudmundson
does in Costa Rca. We will need to ask what kinds of preoccupations
and projects the authors of these narratives brought to their writing
as they projected aspects of the present onto a mythologized human
Both kinds of question will require that we reject the appropriation
of oppositional images a s representative of actual pasts, or of the lived
experience of anthropological subjects. We need to see these images
as constructed pasts, to see our ideas about natural economy,
domestic modes of production, use value orientations and the like as
the ideological products of the present, attempts to appropriate
imagined pasts in the construction of a troubled present.
430 Issues and Agendas

I This project examines different regions of early modem England and
colonial Mexico and will eventuate in a book with the working title, Family
Economy in Anthropology and History. Early and provisional statements of
the project can be found in Roseberry 1986. 1989.
These points are developed in greater detail in O’Brien and Roseberry
1989. See especially the introduction.

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