Social and cultural relations in economic action: the embeddedness of food security in rural Malawi amidst the AIDS epidemic
In its prescription of how food security among rural households can be attained and how problems such as AIDS can be addressed, the neoclassical utiliarian view envisions individual households making atomistic decisions in the use of their resources, goods, and services (entitlements). In exploring the effect of illness and death on household food security in rural Malawi amidst the AIDS epidemic, I find that the embeddedness view explains more convincingly how rural households secure their food supply and deal with illness and death. This view suggests that individual households' use of their entitlements indeed contributes to household food security and the fight against illness and death, but that such use is shaped by the entitlement system that embodies collective beliefs, rules, expectations, and obligations. Social and cultural relations between households, anchored in the entitlement system, enable households to share their entitlements through reciprocity and redistribution, thereby contributing to collective food security and diffusing the burden of illness and death across households. Rural Malawians are thus not isolated actors envisioned by the utilitarian view but social actors who constantly engage in negotiations with each other, sharing their entitlements, and thus collectively securing their food supply and diffusing burdens. Food security then gets compromised when burdens reach a threshold that fractures social and cultural ties thus disabling households from sharing entitlements. AIDS is a threat to food security in rural Malawi because of its potential to make the spread of illness and death burdens so extensive that households would be unable to share their entitlements.
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