Cultural Values & Economic Value
Global Cultural Worlds | February 2021
To many, the time-honored platitude that actions speak louder than words might fall on deaf ears. However, in cultures where certain expectations are the glue that binds society together, this statement does in fact hold a lot of sway. Without actually saying anything, we can communicate our values and actively shape our social relationships through our participation in the economy. Of course, there are different types of economies and modes of production across cultures, but the fact of the matter remains: our economic actions index our values and vice versa. This paper will investigate how values are reflected in economic transactions across systems built upon the market and reciprocity, showing that all economies are embedded in social institutions, and values (principles) often overrule value (worth) when making decisions in both systems. 
First, it is critical to note that all societies rely on the social cooperation of its members and the economy is an anthropogenic phenomena concerned with managing the resources shared by these members. Economies reflect what resources a certain culture values, and by the converse, values can be informed by economies. As a brief introductory account of this, the 19th century American temperance movement prized industriousness for both religious and political reasons. This informed the infrastructure of the budding East coast capitalist economy. The industry-friendly economy morphed to exclude certain geographical regions deemed unfit to participate because of their lack of temperance. Then, the market economy motivated people to change their behaviors to become more productive and active in the economy. And thus, a feedback loop between cultural values and economy was created.
As shown here, values are the product of history, religion, environment, and a host of other relative factors that delicately contour the nuances of each culture and thereby their economies. Because historically Eurocentric thought has come to perceive the progression of economy as linearly evolving towards the market, modes of reciprocity have been viewed as somewhat illogical or primitive. However, the principles that guide these distinct modes of production overlap quite a bit. One of these principles is trust. 
It’s no secret that market economies revolve around money, which is an intersubjective reality of sorts. Without an agreed upon meaning, money is worthless. As Yuval Noah Harari writes about market economies, “We do not trust the stranger, or the next-door-neighbor -- we trust the coin they hold. If they run out of coins, we run out of trust. As money brings down the dams of community, religion and state, the world is in danger of becoming one big and rather heartless marketplace”. Harari might be extrapolating, but he is right in discerning the importance of trust -- a value essential to cooperation. Trust might even be the most influential of values with respect to production.   
Trust can be communicated directly in other ways, as exemplified in the reciprocity that enables successful Nuyooteco feasts. In trusting that they will be reciprocated when they host a future feast, guests can feel confident supplying the host with the necessary materials for the current feast. There is no regulatory mechanism to enforce such expectations other than that of the mutual trust that ripples through Nuyooteco society. 
Similarly, most of us tend to trust that our generosity will be repaid in kind when we go out of our way to help someone financially. Even at the biological level, our cooperation drives our economic behavior. One of the most widely observed cooperative strategies in nature is labeled Tit for Tat, whereby two parties will cooperate with one another equally until one party defaults, and the other will retaliate accordingly. This finding is exemplified in David Counts’ personal experience with reciprocity among the Kaliai. 
After learning the ropes of Kaliai reciprocity, Counts felt like he was being wronged by a fellow villager, Sara, who was not cooperating as he would have expected. Sara would always visit Count’s family empty-handed when she was in need of something he could supply. His generosity was not being reciprocated. In efforts to remedy the situation through confrontation, Counts discovered that, “Where reciprocity is the rule and gifts are the idiom, you cannot demand a gift, just as you cannot refuse a request”. Here, he is outlining his personal experience with the basic tenets of cooperation. Violating these understandings violates a system of values that are so integral to the reciprocal economy. 
Moreover, Monaghan and Just would agree with Counts’ discovery because, “In some cases it seems that the financial utility of [such] exchanges is almost nil, with the whole point being what the exchange says about the social bonds that exist between the groups or the individuals participating in the transaction”. Though Counts was technically at a material loss for helping Sara, he was motivated by sociocultural norms to behave rationally according to Kailiai standards. At the end of the day, most people would prioritize people they have close social bonds with over money or material wealth. Counts’ ethnographic vignette provides a perfect example of how values overrule value. 
On the other side of the globe, we tend to also prioritize values over value, often at our own financial detriment. For example, poor consumption habits drive millions of Americans into debt. We rationalize buying a new luxury car or house we can’t afford with the value of prestige and the patina of good fortune. This might be socially sensible, but it is not financially so. Maintaining status in a community outweighs the financial utility of exchanges that Monaghan and Just write about. But what price are we willing to pay for the affection or even lust felt by others? 
As this example shows, pro market economies participate in comparable behaviors of display as their reciprocity-minded counterparts. Economic systems using money are more impersonal because the transactional ecosystem is augmented, but they are still influenced by values. Another distinction between market economies and reciprocity is the proximity between participants and their exchanges. Increased proximity to the exchange (i.e. Nuyooteco feast) allows participants to directly display their values of generosity, trust, love, etc. Decreased proximity (i.e. buying a new car that was imported from another country) also allows participants to display their values, just after the transaction has occurred. It seems that in reciprocity, traditional hard and fast values constitute the very substance of exchange. In market economies, values do influence consumption but are not as seriously heeded.
This sentiment is further explored in Wilk and Cliggett’s look into economic anthropology, which draws from Karl Polanyi’s perspective, “In his view, modern capitalism had elevated profits and the market over society and human values, turning everything into a commodity to be bought and sold.” Though written centuries later, recall that Harari similarly fears that capitalism will drain society of its last dregs of humanity. It is only logical that in detaching ourselves from values, we are less likely to consult them in our decision making process. As an example, many people would arguably vouch for the humane treatment of chickens and would like to know that their food is free from antibiotics and hormones, but they’ll still buy a dozen low-quality factory-farmed eggs for a dollar. The cost and convenience of competitive markets compel us to divorce our values from value. 
All that being said, it’s important to examine the complex systems of values that provide the foundation for our economic activity. Though systems of exchange are not mutually exclusive (i.e. reciprocity certainly is visible in market economies), this exploration sought to outline some of the major differences and similarities between them. To reiterate, the economy is embedded into social institutions. The economic and social tides are constantly pushing and pulling each other. The successful economic cooperation within cultures depends on an infinite catalog of factors, but shared values --the foremost being trust-- are at the top of that list. This observation begs the question: without cooperation and trust, what will happen to our economies? Would our current markets be able to withstand a lack of faith in the system? We recently saw a brief glimpse of what this might look like via the 2021 GameStop/Robinhood affair. 
Furthermore, Matthew Engelke’s insight on values and value show us that upon close inspection, cultures value the same things in different ways. Values such as trust, prestige, love, and security contribute to what is considered valuable within a culture. This relativistic lens helps us combat some of the economic evolutionism often disseminated by pro market Western thought, especially in relation to standards of human development. Economies should not be placed on a linear scale from worst to best, because they are really just different ways to express the complex social economy of a particular culture. If economies are embedded in the social institutions of a specific time and a place, it is only logical to conclude that modes of production are not a one-size-fits-all ordeal. 

Works Cited 
“A Feast in Nuyoo: People and Their Things.” Social and Cultural Anthropology: a Very Short Introduction, by John Monaghan and Peter Just, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 107–119. 
Counts, David. “Too Many Bananas, Not Enough Pineapples, and No Watermelon at All: Three Objects Lessons in Living with Reciprocity.” McMaster University. 
“Economic Anthropology.” Economies and Culture: Foundations of Economic Anthropology, by Richard R Wilk and Lisa Cliggett, 2nd ed., Westview Press, 2007, pp. 1–28. 
Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind. Harper Perennial, 2018. 
“Select Men of Sober and Industrious Habits: Alcohol Reform and Social Conflict during the Late Antebellum Period.” Moonshiners and Prohibitionists: The Battle over Alcohol in Southern Appalachia, by BRUCE E. STEWART, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, 2011, pp. 31–60. JSTOR,
“The Evolution of Behavior.” Behave: the Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert M. Sapolsky, Vintage, 2018, pp. 328–386.  
“Value.” How to Think like an Anthropologist, by Matthew Engelke, Princeton University Press, 2019, pp. 113–135.
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