The Domestic Mode of Production – Understanding the Pre-Industrial Way of Life

The domestic form of production is a mode of economic organization in which households are the primary unit of production and consumption. Rather than relying on market mechanisms to allocate resources and distribute goods, this mode is characterized by subsistence-oriented households that produce what they need for their own use or for exchange with other households.

The domestic form has a long history and has been practiced in many different cultures throughout the world. In pre-colonial societies, for example, it was often the dominant mode of production, with families working together to grow crops or raise animals for food, clothing, and shelter. Even in more complex societies with markets and trade networks, domestic production remained an important supplement to commercial activities.

Today, the domestic form continues to be practiced in various forms around the world. Some intentional communities or cooperative living arrangements operate according to these principles, as do some homesteading movements or sustainable living initiatives. While it may not be a dominant mode of production in contemporary society, understanding its characteristics and advantages can help us appreciate alternative economic models beyond capitalism.

The Main Characteristics of the Domestic Mode of Production

Marshall Sahlins is an American anthropologist who has written extensively about the domestic mode of production. He argues that this mode of production is characterized by subsistence-oriented households and kinship-based social relations, which are not primarily focused on the accumulation of wealth or economic growth.

Sahlins also suggests that the domestic mode of production operates according to a different set of values and principles than those found in market economies. For example, he argues that reciprocity and gift-giving are important aspects of social relationships in this mode of production, rather than individualism or self-interest.

In these societies, people are more likely to produce for their own needs, rather than for exchange. They are also more likely to reinvest any surplus they generate back into the domestic unit, rather than accumulate it or distribute it among members of the community.

Emphasis on Communal Living

One of the defining features of the domestic form of production is its emphasis on communal living and shared resources. In this mode, households often live in close proximity to one another and share land, tools, and other productive assets. This allows for more efficient use of resources and reduces waste that might occur if each household were to own their own set of tools or equipment.

Communal living also facilitates cooperation and coordination among households, which can be important when undertaking larger projects such as building a community center or irrigating fields. It also fosters a sense of social cohesion and mutual support, as households are able to rely on one another for assistance during times of need.

However, communal living can also pose challenges. Conflicts may arise over resource allocation or decision-making processes. Additionally, some individuals may prefer more privacy or autonomy in their lives, which can be difficult to achieve in close-knit communities.

Diversified production based on household needs rather than market demand

Another important feature of the domestic form of production is its focus on diversified production based on household needs rather than market demand. In this mode, households produce what they need for their own consumption or for exchange with other households, rather than producing goods solely for sale in a market.

This allows households to prioritize their own needs and preferences, rather than being subject to the demands of the market. For example, a household might choose to grow a variety of crops that meet their nutritional needs and cultural preferences, rather than growing only those crops that are most profitable in the market. This can lead to greater food security and self-sufficiency, as well as more diverse diets.

Diversified production also helps to reduce dependence on external markets and inputs. Instead of relying on outside sources for goods such as food or clothing, households can produce these items themselves or through exchange with other households. This can be particularly important in contexts where access to markets or imported goods is limited.

However, diversified production can also pose challenges. It requires a significant amount of knowledge and skill in various areas such as agriculture, animal husbandry, and handicrafts. Additionally, it may be difficult for households to achieve economies of scale when producing a wide variety of goods for their own use.

Lack of specialization or division of labor based on skills or expertise

One notable characteristic of the domestic form of production is that it often lacks specialization or division of labor based on skills or expertise. In this mode, household members typically engage in a variety of tasks and activities, rather than specializing in a particular area.

This can be seen as both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it allows household members to develop a wide range of skills and knowledge, which can be useful in many different contexts. It also promotes a sense of shared responsibility and cooperation among household members.

On the other hand, the lack of specialization can lead to inefficiencies and lower productivity. Without individuals specializing in specific tasks or areas, it may take longer to complete certain projects or achieve certain outcomes. Additionally, some tasks may require specialized knowledge or expertise that is not possessed by all household members.

Importance of reciprocity and gift-giving in social relationships

Reciprocity and gift-giving are foundational elements of social relationships within the domestic form of production. In this mode, households often engage in exchanges of goods and services as a means of building and maintaining social connections.

Gift-giving is another important aspect of social relationships within the domestic form of production. Gifts are often given as a way to express gratitude, build relationships, or mark significant events such as births or weddings. They may also be given as a way to establish or reinforce social hierarchies.

Reciprocity refers to the practice of exchanging goods or services between individuals or groups, with the expectation that the exchange will be returned at some point in the future. This can take many forms, from simple acts of kindness to more formalized systems of exchange.

Both reciprocity and gift-giving serve important functions within the domestic form of production. They help to build trust and cooperation among households, which is essential for successful collective action. They also provide a means for accessing resources that may not be available through other channels, such as markets or government programs.

At the same time, reciprocity and gift-giving can also create obligations and expectations that must be managed carefully. Individuals may feel pressure to reciprocate gifts or favors in order to maintain social relationships, even if they do not have the resources to do so. Additionally, gift-giving can sometimes reinforce existing power dynamics within a community.

Limited trade

In the domestic mode of production, surplus goods may be traded with nearby communities, but trade is not a major economic activity. This means that most goods are produced for local consumption and there is little emphasis on producing goods for sale in distant markets.

The focus on local production reflects a way of life where individuals are self-sufficient and rely on their own resources to meet their needs. Surplus goods may be traded with neighboring communities as a way to exchange resources or obtain items that cannot be produced locally.

However, trade is not a major economic activity in this mode of production. There are no large-scale markets or commercial enterprises involved in the exchange of goods. Instead, individuals may barter or exchange goods directly with each other without the need for intermediaries

Examples of the Domestic Mode of Production from History and Around the World

The domestic mode of production has been a common form of economic organization throughout human history and is still practiced in many parts of the world today.

Here are some examples:

In pre-colonial Africa, many societies relied on the domestic mode of production for their subsistence needs. This often involved small-scale agriculture and animal husbandry, as well as the production of handicrafts and other goods within households.

The traditional Amish communities in North America practice a form of the domestic mode of production that emphasizes self-sufficiency and community-building. Amish households typically engage in farming and other forms of production, with goods often exchanged through informal networks or at local markets.

Many indigenous communities around the world continue to rely on the domestic mode of production for their subsistence needs. For example, the Inuit people in Canada engage in hunting, fishing, and gathering activities within their households and communities.

During World War II, many households in Europe and elsewhere were forced to rely on the domestic mode of production due to shortages caused by war-related disruptions to trade and commerce. This often involved growing food in backyard gardens, canning fruits and vegetables for storage, and engaging in other forms of self-sufficient production.

Even today, many households around the world continue to rely on the domestic mode of production for their daily needs. This includes activities such as cooking meals from scratch, making clothing or household items by hand, or engaging in small-scale agriculture or animal husbandry to supplement income or reduce reliance on external markets.

Overall, while the specific practices associated with the domestic mode of production may vary across cultures and historical periods, it remains an important form of economic organization that reflects core values related to self-sufficiency, interdependence, and community-building.


In conclusion, the domestic form of production emphasized self-sufficiency, interdependence, and community-building, helping to create resilience and sustainability in the face of economic and environmental challenges.

Related Terms

Capitalism – An economic system in which private individuals or firms own the means of production and operate for profit.

Subsistence – The meeting of basic needs, such as food and shelter.

Surplus – Goods or resources that are in excess of what is needed for subsistence.

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