A Guide to Subsistence Affluence

45 Pages Posted: 14 May 2012 Last revised: 25 May 2012

See all articles by John D. Conroy

John D. Conroy

Australian National University (ANU) - Crawford School of Public Policy

Date Written: April 28, 2012


The expression subsistence affluence is a catchphrase for certain perceptions of reality in Papua New Guinea, and after 50 years it still actively conditions opinions of the country (even though its population has trebled in the meantime). The paper examines antecedents of the concept in the economic and anthropological literatures, in which Polanyi’s dichotomy between substantivist and formalist analyses bulks large. E.K. Fisk, the originator of 'affluence', is placed in a lineage of economists including Lewis, Myint and Bauer (all owing much to Adam Smith), although his own adherence to neoclassical assumptions and method is emphasized. The paper describes W.R. Stent’s attempt to build on Fisk, achieving an ‘adaptive use’ of neoclassical method to take account of 'hybrid' (ie, non-maximizing) behaviours, and set in a context of competing theories ranging from Boeke’s ‘dual economy’ to those of the Chicago School. Among anthropologists, the paper considers the 'original affluence' of Marshall Sahlins and (among the critics) Chris Gregory on Gifts and Commodities. The account of New Guinea Stone Age Trade by Ian Hughes is seen as offering a counterpoint to Gregory, while Richard Salisbury’s formalist and eclectic take on the subject is also considered. A proposition, that the existence of subsistence affluence in 1960s PNG was due to its being somehow a 'special case', is examined through the politely sceptical eye trained on the country by the Faber Mission in 1972. For an independent perspective, the paper turns to Keith Hart (a member of the Faber team) for his account of the transition from subsistence in West Africa (a region to which Fisk was prepared to extend his concept of affluence). The paper concludes by considering what, if any, utility may still reside in the several conceptions of 'affluence’ proposed as having existed in PNG.

Keywords: subsistence affluence, Papua New Guinea, economic anthropology, E. K. Fisk, Keith Hart, gifts and commodities, specialization and exchange, W. R. Stent, formalism, substantivism

JEL Classification: A12, B12, B20, B25, B31, D13, N57, O10, O13, P46, Q12, Z10

Suggested Citation

Conroy, John David, A Guide to Subsistence Affluence (April 28, 2012). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2059357 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2059357

John David Conroy (Contact Author)

Australian National University (ANU) - Crawford School of Public Policy ( email )

ANU College of Asia and the Pacific
J.G. Crawford Building, #132, Lennox Crossing
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200

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