[OPE-L] commensuration

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Mon Mar 12 2007 - 15:04:37 EDT


From a leading economic anthropologist Stephen Gudeman; think this is an
excerpt from his book Anthropology of the Economy; only an excerpt from
the available on line chapter which is quite worth reading in full.

Commensuration: Panama in the 1960s

During my first fieldwork in Panama, I was confused by the measurement
systems the people used.  I wanted to quantify land tilled, labor used,
other expenditures, and revenues, in order to gauge the surplus each
household was producing.  I thought one might return a number, such as a
profit rate, to summarize their efforts.  But the rural farmers were not
interested in summary calculations or even financial equivalents; they
used disparate, homemade measures when quantifying work processes.  Each
measure had a specific use, none had a direct relation to money, and I
could not correlate them under a single ruler.  I did not even know the
history of the measures; some might have originated in the village, others
must have had a colonial or Hispanic origin.

The villagers grew rice, corn, and beans for the home, and sugar cane for
cash sale, all of which were measured differently.  I soon learned to
separate subsistence harvests from the sale crop, and then to distinguish
among the domestic ones.  I also found that farmers did not measure land
for the domestic crops; area was deduced from the seed planted.  People
said, "one lata [a large soy bean oil can] of rice seeds one hectare which
was a number they knew from experience.  This ratio was a secondary
measure, however, because what really mattered was the seed to harvest
ratio, which varied by land fertility and seed strain.  Ultimately,
everyone said that approximately one pound of rice would feed a normal
size family for a day.  So, by figuring backward from consumption to
harvest to seed to land area that had to be cleared, a farmer could make
plans for the year.  For other crops, too, a seed to harvest ratio was
used, but the measuring rods differed. (Farmers used small gourds to
measure corn seed, although the size of these vessels differed by
household; other measures were used for beans.)

After rice was seeded, it had to be weeded several times before
harvesting.  Sometimes two men exchanged work with the hoe, sometimes four
or five joined efforts to rotate from field to field (una peonada),
occasionally they paid workers from the village or outside.  All work
efforts were measured by the day or by task.  Although each task was
roughlv a day's work, the measuring rods for the tasks varied.  For
example, a task in weeding rice was measured as 16 square "varas" (yards);
a vara was gauged as the length between the finger tips of outstretched
arms.  But rice weeding could also be measured by number of rows, with the
number depending on the difficulty of the work and length of rows.
Harvesting tasks were different.  For rice, the task measurement was
number of "handfuls" gathered, though an owner counted his rice harvest by
baskets and, eventually, sacks.  A sack in rice, however,, was not
comparable to a sack in corn, for each required different amounts of
harvest work, weighed different amounts, lasted for a different time in
the house, and fetched different amounts if sold.  To add to this
diversity, when men exchanged work singly or within a group, they usually
did not cross their efforts between crops or classes of work.
Inequalities were balanced by individual arrangement or by cash.

Thus, I encountered measures based on fistfuls, arm lengths, tin sizes,
gourds, food plates, burlap sacks, baskets of vine, baskets of reed,
paces, time, length of rows, number of rows, and area.  Some measures were
drawn from parts of the body, others were common containers.  All were
based on up-close experience; they were low-order abstractions.  The
measures had familiar functions.  All served as units of account for
judging quantity, as in a harvest, work, or seed.  Some also were
payments; occasionally, a rice harvester was paid in fistfuls of rice
according to the number he collected.  Finally, a dav of labor was both an
accounting unit and a payment, and it had a degree of exchangeability, as
in the male work groups, although not usually across crops.  But no
general unit of account was used to count, compare, or exchange across all
land, work forms, and crops; I could never even compare rice, corn, and
beans, even as proportions the people wanted on a food plate (so that
demand might measure their comparative values and set the amounts seeded).
 No one was concerned that the food and work measures did not mesh one
with another; the measuring rods were incommensurate.

Sugar cane, raised for sale to nearby mills, was very different.  I tried
to calculate profit figures, but they were not important to the growers
because a field would not yield a harvest until 18 months had passed, and
in the interval would be used for intercropping subsistence crops; growers
also possessed several fields from different years that were harvested
together (a field might last 3-5 years).  For the farmers, the significant
calculation was land area devoted to the crop, because this footage
(inspectors from the purchasing mills walked the land each year)
determined the cash advance the mills provided for paying workers, part of
which growers diverted to their own pockets (which they considered to be
profit).  Thus, a grower received cash advances during the season and a
final sum based on the volume and sugar content of the combined harvests
from the different fields less the money advanced.  Money provided the
measuring rod or means of commensuration in sugar cane, but it had no
touchstone in everyday experience.

Commensuration is found in all economies, for we do not live without
making categories and creating value comparisons.10  But the measuring
rods vary in generality, and this degree of abstraction is related to
community and market exchange.  In many cases, a local measuring rod
itself may not be used in trade.  Rice and maize - though counted - were
not traded one for the other among agriculturalists in Panama.  In
addition, the labor used to produce them was measured by task and by time,
but these counters were not used in trade; men exchanged labor in rice and
labor in maize but not one for the other.  Measured rice labor and
measured maize labor constituted limited payments.  In contrast, the
measuring rod of cash received for the sugar cane was used to purchase any
item, including labor to raise the domestic crops.

Economies are never awash in complete singularities or non-exchangeables;
they always feature a degree of commensuration and exchange, as in rice
for harvesting work.  But commensuration and exchange are never total:
some items we do not (yet) sell, such as our hearts.  And within the
domain of market exchange we create pathways or bounded exchanges, such as
government-issued food stamps that can be traded only for a range of foods
or scrip payments by haciendas that can be redeemed only at their stores.
In all exchanges, we see the dialectics of community and market; and we
switch circuits with such frequency and dexterity that it escapes notice:
children are assigned specific chores for a set allowance in coins,
although the money was first earned by a parent in the market.  University
professors are paid a wage plus fringe benefits in health insurance,
medical plans, and retirement contributions.  The totality makes up their
compensation, but they cannot trade their health insurance for a
retirement benefit.  Each fringe benefit is and is not a commodity,
measured by money; it is a ration that cannot be returned.  The alchemy of
money, with its power of commensuration, lies in its ability to dissolve
distinctions between value schemes or measuring rods, and to create the
fiction that a flattened, comparable world exists.  We make and live both
realms continuously.

Separations and Dialectics: Other Perspectives

In the long discourse on economy, community and market have been invoked
in complex ways.  Aristotle initially distinguished two economic terrains
through his opposition of use and exchange.  He adduced the example of a
shoe, which can be worn (used) or traded (exchanged).  In the first case,
its particulate (or incommensurate) features are important and distinguish
its value from all non-shoes; in the second case, the shoe is compared to
other fungible (commensurate) goods for which it can be exchanged.  For
Aristotle, the two uses were morally distinct though often confused in
practice.  Pure trade lay outside the sphere of household economy, which
was founded on acquisition for use and was limited in its ends; its
purpose was to support the achievement of individual excellence fashioned
in activities undertaken for their own sake by citizens of the polis.

            Adam Smith did not directly refer to Aristotle when he
distinguished between value in use and value in exchange to
set out his famous puzzle.  He observed that some things, such
as water, have high use value but low exchange value, whereas
other things, such as diamonds, have low use value but high
exchange value (Smith 1976 [1776]: 33).  Prices or exchange
rates in the market did not directly correspond to use values.
 Smith provided one answer to this seeming paradox bv
advancing a complex theory of labor value to explain exchange

One theoretical line, following Adam Smith, was developed by Marx.
Despite his few references to Aristotle, Marx was deeply influenced by
him, and much of his own work, especially his theory of surplus value,
represents an elaboration of Aristotle's distinction between use and
exchange value.  Marx explained prices and the generation of surplus (and
market profit) through the dialectical relation of the use and exchange of
labor.  Labor is bought at its exchange rate but capitalists gain control
of its use value, which in turn produces a surplus above its original
exchange value.  This surplus is appropriated by the capitalist.  For Marx
the trade of money for goods, and especially of monev for money,
represents an abstraction from and mystification of the labor expenditures
that underlie the production of things and the generation of surplus prior
to their appearance in exchange.  When gaining wealth becomes the purpose
of trade, money becomes an animate object or fetish that veils the labor
which supports it.11

By a second strand of theory developed in the nineteenth century - after
Bentham, Ricardo, and Mill - the notion of use value was replaced by
utility; then, by the mid-twentieth century, the concept of utility was
transformed to preference or subjective preference (which underlies demand
schedules).  Exchange value came to mean price, which results from the
interaction of demand and supply in the market, and Aristotle's
distinction between use and exchange disappeared; in much of modern
economics, the market domain is seen as freestanding.

Outside the neoclassical and Marxist traditions, the Aristotelian division
between use and exchange has taken many turnings.  For example, Weber
distinguished between substantive and formal rationality (1978: 85-6).
Substantive rationality designates material behavior shaped by political,
religious, or ethical standards.  Formal rationality refers to action
based on calculation and means-to-ends reasoning.  In practice, claimed
Weber, these ideal types are mixed together; but he did not provide an
interactive or dialectical theory of their connection, although the
concept of a long-term transition from substantive to formal rationality
informs many of his historical studies (1958 [1920], 1961 [1923]).12 On
Weber's historical view, the practice of instrumental rationality
initially was legitimated by the rise of ascetic Protestantism (Weber 1958
[1920]), because worldly success in trade - but without consumptive
expenditures - revealed that one was a member of God's elect.  Once
embedded in the economic sphere, instrumental rationality cast its net
across a wide range of activities, and this rationalization of everyday
practices powered by shifting religious beliefs, market expansion, and
changing political and legal systems transformed this act of doing
something for the sake of something else, such as ascertaining divine
acceptance and grace, to something done for its own sake.  Achieving
market success, which had been practiced in pursuit of divine grace,
became an act without grounding or limitation, leading to entrapment in an
"iron cage." According to some views, this historical transformation in
the meaning of economic practices marks the turn to modernity in the West.

The separation between the formal and substantive meanings of economy was
given greatest currency by Karl Polanyi, although he accorded immediate
credit for the distinction to Karl Menger (Polanyi 1977).  Polanyi argued
that the interaction of humans in relation to their environment
constitutes the conditions and substance of society.  When land and labor
are placed on the market - as in developed capitalist economies –
society's inner core is dissolved; yet land and labor are only fictitious
commodities, because they are not produced by humans.  Polanyi marked a
divide between economies.  Some are best described by a substantivist
view, others by a formalist perspective.  In embedded economies, land and
labor are transacted through social relationships.  When kinship
dominates, reciprocity prevails; when political and religious institutions
dominate, redistribution is found.  In contrast, the modern market
economy, in which all things are disembedded from their social conditions
of production, is best understood through formal economics.

Polanyi's division, with its roots in Aristotle, echoes distinctions made
by Vico, Morgan, Maine, and Töennies.  He felt, however, that the
historical shift from embedded to disembedded economies was violently
destructive.  When land and labor are disembedded from the social fabric
and traded for money, society undergoes a devastating transformation.
Polanyi (1944) provided one account of this historical shift but did not
develop a model of community-market interaction or foresee the ways that
communities persist and are required for markets, or how markets sometimes
support and provide the conditions for new communities.  His view that
land and labor constitute economy's invariant elements also takes little
account of local or cultural constructions of economy or the way that
knowledge, technology, and customary performances influence economic

Polanyi's terms, formal and substantive, resonate with important
categories in philosophy.  R. G. Collingwood, for example, distinguishes
between moral and economic action, a division with roots in Kant and
Aristotle.  A moral or deontological action revolves about duty and
obligation, whereas an economic action concerns means-to-ends
relationships.  Particularly compelling is Collingwood's specification of
economic action as one in which "each party is using the other as means to
his own ends by permitting the other to use him in the same way" (1989:
65); on this view, people become instrumentalities when engaged in
economic practices.  Collingwood implies that economic action builds on a
division between self and other, or subject and object, and that the other
transformed to a means becomes an impersonal object.  In economic action
we need never be concerned with the other's subjectivity.  Impersonal
trade, freed of lasting commitments, diminishes social ties and human

A similar conclusion was reached by Veblen.  Pragmatist, dualist, and
anthropologist manqu6, he made subtle use of the Aristotelian division.13
In several of his later works, Veblen shows how the commercial world is
divided between businessmen (the "captains of finance"), who want to
accumulate monetary wealth, and engineers (the "captains of industry"),
who develop technology and make things.  He first used the distinction in
a critique of J. B. Clark's theory of capital, by showing that the word
capital has a double meaning.  On the one hand, capital means equipment
for making things; on the other, capital is a monetary accumulation used
to secure a gain.  Veblen showed how we sometimes apply one sense of the
term to the other and confound the two.  For example, as money, capital
can be divided into small allotments and exchanged; as equipment, capital
is non-divisible and often not mobile.  Most neoclassical theories of the
market, however, merge the two senses and treat capital as partible,
malleable, and mobile.  The theory that marginal money inputs yield
marginal money products does not fit the fact that people and equipment
are not divisible and often not movable! (And when one marginal person or
machine is added to a process, all else does not remain constant.) Veblen
linked this ideological confusion of pecuniary and industrial wealth to
metaphoric thinking, and made extensive use of the division to display the
cycles and contradictions of capitalism as well as the ways one form of
wealth dominates the other through the instinct of predation.14  As the
captains of finance gain command of the industrial system, financial
acumen itself is credited with the qualities of industrial workmanship.
This appropriation of one side of economy by the other through metaphor,
said Veblen, is a derangement that is special to capitalism.  The entirety
is a gloss on Aristotle's insight that activities done for their own sake
and activities done for the sake of something else are separate yet
confounded in practice.

            In recent years, social scientists have turned to the study of
human relationships, such as trust, confidence, mutuality,
benevolence, goodwill, caring, and respect, that underwrite
trade, the formation of credit groups, or savings
associations.  Putnam (1993) argues that trust, standing at
the opposite pole to non-cooperation and competition, is a
product of accumulated social capital.15  His concept of
social capital bears kinship to my notion of the base, but for
him dyadic ties provide the foundation for material life, and
so the broader communal commitments from which they derive are

Granovetter (1992a, 1992b) offers a different understanding.  Drawing on
Polanyi's opposition of the embedded and disembedded economy, he argues
that anthropologists utilize an oversocialized conception of human action
(embedded economies), whereas economists employ an undersocialized one
(disembedded markets).  Granovetter urges that in non-market economies
there is more instrumental action than anthropologists recognize, whereas
in market economies there is more embedded material action than economists
concede.16  I share this view, but Granovetter does not provide an
economic theory built on the connection, interaction, and variation of the
two broad realms.17

Anthropologists have also considered the relation between social ties and
economy often by focusing on reciprocity or back and forth delayed
exchanges that are buttressed by social bonds.  For example, Gregory
(1982) sorts economies into gift and commodity systems.  Reciprocity is
regnant in one, trade in the other.  Commentators have since remarked that
the opposition can be found within economies.18  For example, goods may
pass through phases to serve as both commodities and gifts, shifting along
a continuum from market exchange to reciprocity (Appadurai 1986; Kopytoff
1986).  But these latter arguments also tend to emphasize dyadic ties
rather than larger realms, and they fail to offer a view of the connection
between the market and communal realms.  For example, Carrier (1992), in a
survey of exchange on the island of Ponam in Melanesia, criticizes the
absolute division between gifts and commodities.  He shows how the two
modes are intertwined across a range of transactions, from merchants, to
local market traders, to trade partnerships, to gifts themselves.  Carrier
(1998) also draws a division between inclusive property, when an object is
multiply held, and exclusive property, owned by a single individual.  He
argues that we have sorted economies and property systems so that the West
seems to be home to exclusive property, whereas Melanesia is the region of
inclusive claims (or "gift" economies).  But on Ponam both forms are
found, and Carrier urges that the two possession forms characterize the
modern West as well.19

In a stimulating treatment of money that also resembles my views, Bloch
and Parry (1989) visualize exchange in terms of short-term interests and
long-term morality; one expresses rational calculation, the other
manifests communal commitment.  Money tends to be aligned with short-term
interests but can be socially cleansed or transformed for communal uses.
In addition, Keith Hart (1986), in a luminous commentary, points out that
money itself is two-sided.  Issued and secured by a state, on the one
hand, money can be exchanged by anyone for anything, on the other.  Hart
applies this two-sided notion of money to fish transactions in the
Trobriand Islands (Papua New Guinea), because fish can be exchanged by
ceremonial transactions (the state dimension) or by individual barter
(trade).  The form used depends on whether or not an encompassing
political order is present; individual barter takes place only within
existing political commitments, whereas ceremonial transactions construct
them.  Trobrianders shift between the two modes as political and material
conditions change.  This dialectical view resembles my own.

Finally, Gibson-Graham (1996) contests the centeredness and
phallocenteredness of capitalism, by which it becomes an entity or whole
against which "other" economies are measured.  Their strategy is double:
on the one hand, Gibson-Graham argues that capitalism has no single motor
but many engines, so alternative accounts and accountings of it are
possible; similarly, other economic modes are not lacking or deficient in
essential characteristics as defined bv capitalism, just as female is not
the opposite and negative of male.  This approach is congenial, and my
invocation of community as a repository of possibilities and
incommensurate value arenas, rather than the negation of capitalism,
surely provides a counterpart story to theirs.  As they also argue, such a
perspective has implications for the way corporate wealth is distributed,
a topic to which I return in the final chapter.

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