Looking at Capital Through an Anthropological Lens

Capital is a fundamental concept in modern society, encompassing everything from money and assets to social status and cultural capital. It plays a critical role in shaping the way we live our lives, influencing everything from our career paths to our personal relationships.

However, capital is not a static or universal concept – its meaning varies widely across different cultures and historical contexts. This is where anthropology comes in.

Anthropology offers a unique perspective on economic systems that takes into account the complexity of human societies and the diverse ways in which they value and exchange resources. By looking at capital through an anthropological lens, we can gain new insights into how economic systems work, their impact on people’s lives, and what alternatives might exist for creating more equitable and sustainable futures.

Defining Capital

Defining capital is not a straightforward task, as the term can encompass a variety of different meanings depending on the context in which it is being used.

At its most basic level, capital refers to any resource that can be used to generate more resources – whether that’s money, property, or even social connections and cultural knowledge.

However, the definition of capital can also extend beyond purely economic considerations to include social and cultural forms as well.

For example, social capital refers to the networks of relationships and trust that exist between people within a particular community or society. This type of capital can be especially valuable for entrepreneurs and business owners who rely on their connections with others to secure funding, customers, or other resources.

Similarly, cultural capital refers to the knowledge and skills that are valued within a particular culture or society. This might include things like art appreciation, foreign language proficiency, or familiarity with certain types of cuisine. In some societies, having high levels of cultural capital can be just as important for achieving success as having financial wealth.

It’s worth noting that different societies place different values on different types of capital. For example, in Western capitalist societies like the United States, financial capital is often seen as the most important form of capital – one’s net worth and ability to accumulate wealth are primary indicators of success. In contrast, other cultures may place more emphasis on social or cultural forms of capital.

By understanding how different societies value different types of capital – and how these valuations have changed over time – we can gain a deeper appreciation for the complexity of economic systems and the role they play in shaping our lives.

The Evolution of Capitalism

Capitalism is a complex and multifaceted economic system that has evolved over time, with its origins dating back to the 16th century. At its core, capitalism is characterized by private ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods and services, as well as the pursuit of profit through competition in a free market.

One of the earliest forms of capitalism emerged during the European Renaissance, when merchants began to invest in trade ventures and accumulate wealth through commerce.

This was followed by the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, which saw the rise of factories, mass production, and wage labour.

Throughout the 20th century, capitalism underwent several major transformations. The first half of the century saw a rise in state interventionism – particularly in Europe – as governments attempted to regulate capitalist economies and provide social welfare protections for workers. However, this model was challenged by neoliberalism in the latter half of the century – an ideology that emphasized free markets, deregulation, and privatization.

Today, neoliberalism remains one of the dominant forms of capitalism worldwide. Its impact has been felt across numerous industries and sectors – from finance to healthcare to education – with varying degrees of success depending on local contexts.

However, there have also been significant challenges to neoliberalism in recent years. In response to growing inequality and environmental degradation caused by unfettered capitalism, many people are calling for alternative economic models that prioritize social justice and sustainability over profit maximization.

Alternative Economic Systems

While capitalism is the dominant economic system in the modern world, there are alternative economic models that have been practiced throughout history – many of which continue to exist today. Two such systems are gift exchange and subsistence agriculture.

Gift exchange is a non-capitalist economic system in which goods and services are exchanged without the expectation of direct or immediate compensation. Instead, gifts are given freely with the understanding that they will be reciprocated at some point in the future. This system has been practiced by many indigenous cultures around the world, as well as by certain religious communities.

Subsistence agriculture is another non-capitalist economic system that relies on self-sufficiency rather than market exchange. In this model, people produce only enough food and resources to meet their own needs – rather than producing for profit or trade. Subsistence farming has been practiced for thousands of years by various cultures around the world, particularly in rural areas where access to markets may be limited.

Both gift exchange and subsistence agriculture have strengths and weaknesses compared to capitalism. On one hand, these systems prioritize community relationships over individual competition, fostering social bonds and mutual support that can help build resilience in times of crisis. Additionally, these systems tend to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly than capitalist modes of production.

However, both gift exchange and subsistence agriculture can also be limited by their lack of specialization and scale, making it difficult to meet the needs of large populations or produce goods beyond basic necessities. Furthermore, these systems may not provide individuals with opportunities for upward mobility or innovation that can arise from capitalist competition.

Overall, while gift exchange and subsistence agriculture may not be perfect alternatives to capitalism, they offer valuable insights into how economic systems can operate differently, highlighting both the benefits and drawbacks of various approaches to organizing human activity.

Capital and Culture

Culture plays a significant role in shaping attitudes towards wealth and status symbols. Different cultures have varying values and beliefs regarding money, which can influence how individuals think about debt, savings, investment, and other financial behaviors.

For instance, in some cultures, accumulating wealth is seen as a sign of success and accomplishment – something to be celebrated and flaunted through the acquisition of expensive status symbols like luxury cars or designer clothing. In other cultures, however, displays of wealth may be viewed as vulgar or distasteful, with more emphasis placed on modesty and humility.

Similarly, concepts like debt, savings, and investment can vary widely across different cultural contexts. In some societies, taking on debt is seen as a necessary part of life – a way to access resources that might otherwise be unavailable. In others, however, debt is viewed as shameful or immoral – something to be avoided at all costs.

Likewise, while saving money is generally seen as a wise financial strategy in most cultures, the reasons for saving may differ. For example, some societies prioritize saving for future generations or for community events like weddings or funerals, while others may encourage individualistic saving for personal security or retirement.


In conclusion, the relationship between capital and culture is complex and multifaceted. Culture plays a significant role in shaping attitudes towards wealth, status symbols, debt, savings, investment, and other financial behaviours. In addition, it also influences the importance of other types of capital, namely social or cultural capital.

Related Terms:

Bourgeoisie – The class of people who own the means of production in a capitalist economy.

Working Class – The class of people who do not own the means of production and must sell their labor power to survive.

Proletariat – A term used by Karl Marx to describe the working class.

Means of Production – The tools, machines, and other physical resources used to produce goods and services.

Labour Power – The ability of workers to perform labour, which is sold to capitalists in exchange for a wage.

Commodity – A good or service that is produced for exchange on the market.

Value – The worth of a commodity, determined by the labour required to produce it.

Surplus Value – The portion of the value of a commodity that is over and above the amount needed to cover the costs of production.

Profit – The difference between the price of a commodity and the cost of producing it.

Capitalist Mode of Production – An economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and used to generate profits.

Socialism – A political and economic system in which the means of production are owned by the community as a whole.

Communism – A classless society in which the means of production are owned by the community as a whole and there is no private property.

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