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A Guide to Subsistence Affluence


  • John D. Conroy


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.

Suggested Citation

  • John D. Conroy, 2012. "A Guide to Subsistence Affluence," Crawford School Research Papers 1206, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.
  • Handle: RePEc:een:crwfrp:1206

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    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 - General Economics and Teaching - - General Economics - - - Relation of Economics to Other Disciplines
    • B12 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought through 1925 - - - Classical (includes Adam Smith)
    • B20 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought since 1925 - - - General
    • B25 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought since 1925 - - - Historical; Institutional; Evolutionary; Austrian; Stockholm School
    • B31 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought: Individuals - - - Individuals
    • D13 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Household Production and Intrahouse Allocation
    • N57 - Economic History - - Agriculture, Natural Resources, Environment and Extractive Industries - - - Africa; Oceania
    • O10 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development - - - General
    • O13 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development - - - Agriculture; Natural Resources; Environment; Other Primary Products
    • P46 - Economic Systems - - Other Economic Systems - - - Consumer Economics; Health; Education and Training; Welfare, Income, Wealth, and Poverty
    • Q12 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Agriculture - - - Micro Analysis of Farm Firms, Farm Households, and Farm Input Markets
    • Z10 - Other Special Topics - - Cultural Economics - - - General

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