On M.G. Smith and Lambros Comitas: Study of Local Economy

Economic anthropology is concerned with material processes integrated in social life. The sub-discipline is divided into various facets, ranging from the study of the relationships of social structure and domestic economies to the ways in which consumption and desire are shaped by colonialism and macro-economic forces and how modes of production at the local levels interact with global economies and forces of globalization. Exciting contemporary research explore the effects of global neoliberalism and the gravity of capital embodied in multinational corporations wreaking havoc on ecological systems and exploiting local labor (e.g. Maquiladora studies). Economic studies from an anthropological perspective can be quite challenging because it involves as much depth and intensity at the local levels as breadth when discussing macro-structures in the national and global arena. That is why I appreciate the meticulous and insightful contributions made by M.G. Smith and Lambros Comitas.

Lambros Comitas, an expert on the Caribbean and Latin America, challenges the validity of certain classifications, such as “peasants” and discusses the implications of their uses when applied to Jamaica. Emphasizing ecological and economic factors, Comitas argues that categories and generalizations about peasantry and occupation set forth by earlier anthropologists like Eric Wolf simply did not hold in rural Jamaica. Borrowing from Smith, who was his mentor and close friend, Comitas maintained that most rural Jamaicans engaged in occupational multiplicity, working in agriculture as well as possibly wage labor, trading, fishing or artisanship, thus rendering simplistic conceptualizations of peasant-plantation workers quite misleading

Comitas conducted research of five coastal settlements in rural Jamaica in 1958 on fisherman and discovered that around 63 to 79 percent of the males were engaged in occupational multiplicity, encompassing other types of work related to carpentry, shopkeeping and wage-labor activities in addition to agriculture and fishing. As men grew older, Comitas observes, the number of occupations increased, primarily due to added responsibilities and new domestic roles. As their occupations expanded, so did their social networks. “In each status, he is interlocked with a distinct set of individuals who perform requisite roles in production, distribution, and consumption. If, for example, a man was occupied with mixed farming and mixed fishing, he may well be structurally linked with neighbors for the exchange of free labor in the fields and with a finite number of ‘higglers’ who distributed any surplus subsistence crops within the Jamaican market; and he would most likely be organizationally tied to the local branches of the all-island crop associations, which markets his cash produce” (Comitas 171). While occupational multiplicity connected workers to variety of networks, it is also apparent that it locked them in “horizontal socioeconomic segments,” within a seemingly rigid structure, which consequently prevents them from obtaining upward mobility. At the development level, Comitas points out, many projects failed because the uni-occupational model that constitutes their foundation was perceived by many Jamaicans to be impractical.

Similarly, in an altogether different setting among the Hausa in Northern Zaria, Nigeria, M.G. Smith illuminates the complexity and variation that exists in domestic economy, revealing the need to tailor one’s methodology and ability to generalize about the processes according to the type of class of unit, whether it be urban or rural economies, and hamlets or market-towns. Based on a study of over 120 Hausa, Smith discovered that many men farmed and combined this with other occupations. Variations in the degrees and types of production for subsistence were discovered, owing to economic factors, such as the need for cash income, as well as ecological ones, including the length of farming season and lack of marshland (Smith 336). Despite the diversity of motivations for engaging in other types of occupation, more often than not, Hausa men combined farming with non-farming activities.

Hausa domestic units consisted of individual or joint families. As Smith defines these concepts, individual family included the man, his wife or wives and their dependents, while joint family included individual families in one unit of domestic economy, and at times, referring to a unit in which brothers, one married and the other single, combine their resources within a household. Families, thus defined, can then become a useful unit of analysis to better understand family budgets, a topic of special interest to economic anthropologists. However, as Smith forthrightly concedes, gathering such data, especially initially, was quite challenging due to its sensitivity.This writer wonders how Smith received the consent and assistance from the village chief to ensure farmers participated in interviews and surveys. That one of the early work diaries contained fabricated information strongly suggests that there was some concern about the possibility of stigma attaching to a more forthright divulging of household income and expenditures. Still, on the whole, Smith succeeds in collecting accurate financial information. However, while Smith’s careful and nuanced analysis attest to his prowess as a scholar and fieldworker, this writer nonetheless believes that further explication of the data might shed light on some especially puzzling features that seem to be revealed.

Perhaps one could explain the reasoning behind this complex set of interrelated conclusions. Hausa members spent about 48.6 percent on average of their income on food. Among their expenditures on food, they spent on average 28 percent on grain, which along with roots and snacks, amounted to significant percentage of their income. Yet they only received about 22.9 percent of their cash income on crops sold. Unsold farm produce accounts for 75.5 percent of their kind income. Given these statistics, one can conclude that there much be a substantial amount of grain (encapsulated within “farm produce” and “crops”) that is missing, or they must suffer quite a substantial loss. If they were simply absorbing self-produced grain, it might make sense, though does not account for the wide gap in percentage of unsold farm produce and amount they spend on food.

Smith mentions that they had to supplement by purchasing or borrowing grain when self-produced grain was insufficient. Given the high percentage of unsold farm produce in kind income, it seems rather unlikely. However, if they did have quite a substantial amount of unsold farm produce, it’s quite puzzling that they would still spend over one-quarter of their budget on grain. Smith states that grain purchased represents 20 percent of total grain consumption, which seems rather high given the incredibly high percentage of farm produce that are unsold. As Smith concludes, further analysis is indeed needed, albeit this puzzle is only a minor shortcoming in an otherwise excellent piece of scholarship.

Works Cited

Comitas, Lambros. 1964. “Occupational Multiplicity in Rural Jamaica.” Proceeding of the American Ethnological Society, 1963, 41-50. Reprinted in Comitas, Lambros and David Lowenthal, Eds. Work and Family Life: West Indian Perspectives. Anchor Press/Doubleday:157-173.

Smith, M.G. 1952. “A Study of Hausa Domestic Economy in Northern Zaria” in Africa: Journal for the International African Institute. 22.4: 333-347


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