What cultures don't share Western economic values?

Alternative ideals


Also in this week's column:

What cultures don't share Western economic values?

Asked by Kelly O'Connor of Hartford, Connecticut

There are many traditional cultures where people do not share the Western economic values that we often take for granted.

In one such example, George Foster, the late anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote of the "image of limited good" among villagers he studied in Mexico.

In his A Primitive Mexican Economy (1942) and in later works such as Empire's Children: The People of Tzintzuntzan (1973), Foster wrote of Mexican villagers who believed that, quite the opposite of how we are led to think, all things that are good (wealth, health, good fortune, luck, and happiness) are fixed and finite within the community.

"Good" is limited in quantity, hence the "image of limited good". Given this belief, all individuals are entitled to their fair share. If one individual has far more than their fair share, for whatever reason, this is viewed as immoral. Such a person would be regarded as selfish, an improper citizen, and more or less a community vandal or thief.

With the belief of the "image of limited good", these Mexican villagers would therefore condemn as immoral many of our Western economic and business practices and social behaviors. Among these would be our allowance of the amassing of great fortunes whilst others are poor, the driving of business rivals into bankruptcy, the unwillingness of many to be charitable in heart as well as mind. The list goes on.

Of course, modern Mexico and the impact of the global economy has swallowed up and transformed the traditional villagers since the time of Foster's research. But the example of a different economic value system is a real one and stands to this day.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au


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