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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History

Harrison White,

Emily Erikson


Taboos can be seen as constraints in the allocation of actions that can transform into a general principle encompassing other resources and their distribution over time as they are built up in societies. The selective channeling of resources to roles by taboos thus structures exchange through determining significant properties and characteristics of relational networks. Perhaps the earliest taboo is seen today in mass or dance: one must not speak out of step or step out of line. Synchronicity in ritual becomes an ordered progression in exchange. As modeled in Sync (2003) by the mathematician Steven Strogatz, initial offerings differ from reciprocations, whether in kind or quantity, as with interest-bearing loans. Another early taboo is that on incest, which effects a dispersion of kinship ties and thereby weaves together larger social units through a process of generalized exchange described by the sociologist Peter Bearman in “Generalized Exchange” (1997).

Taboos also generate guidance for the flow of goods between tribes during ceremonial occasions for large-scale exchange. Three levels of taboo can be discerned within the exchange system of the Hageners of the New Guinea highlands. In The Rope of Moka (1971), the anthropologist Andrew Strathern documents a complex exchange system revolving around a system of capital accumulation. Taboos enforce a sequential return on an initial gift and designate the correct gift, as weighed against the first with adjustments made for the time spent between exchanges. One may return with an anmbile kng (tongue pigs), if paying out when receiving, or with a kng mbukl-øl (pigs on the back of), if much time elapses. These exchanges resolve intertribal conflict. In the midst of warfare, public exclamations initiate the transformation of conflict into exchange by reminding participants of their crosscutting marriage ties, implicitly invoking a well-articulated prohibition against nonreciprocity to fathers of wives—and to a lesser degree brothers-in-law and cousins of wives—enforced through spells and marital separation. Even in peace the men must scramble to extend their credit and exchange network in order to meet the demands of their (multiple) wives' families. In concert, the ban on incest, manifest in exogamy, and the father-in-law–brother-in-law–cousin taboo combine to push individuals to overcome existing production limitations and support a thriving economy, reducing social and financial uncertainty for individual participants.

Taboos thus can indirectly funnel the ambitious into the accumulation of capital through complex credit networks laced through an entire society, even a tribal one. But the outcomes can feed back into further taboo. A taboo on usury plagued the merchants of western Europe well into the sixteenth century. By one telling, the usury laws hampered capitalist expansion for centuries, exemplifying an irrationality external to the ideal functioning of the modern marketplace. Remove the teleology from the argument and it is apparent that this one prohibition profoundly affected the contents of economic transactions for centuries, with the most immediate effects in the shipping and trade industries. Likewise the sociologist Vivianna Zelizer has demonstrated in Markets and Morals (1977), that, while marine and fire insurance offerings proliferated after the American Civil War, a taboo on quantitative valuations of human life constricted the growth of life insurance firms until late in the century. Earlier in that same century slavery had been the predominant example of quantitative valuations of human life. As the economist Douglass North asserts in Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance (1990), the end of slavery actually threatened the stability of a large portion of the world economy at the time, forcing a reorganization of the cotton, sugar, and coffee industries. It was anathema, not economics, that brought about the end of slavery.

It is common for taboos restricting intersocietal trade to delimit the boundaries of economic systems, and gradations in the volume of interchange demarcate a scale of status reaching from friends into strangers and foes. The anthropologist Marcel Mauss's The Gift records multiple examples of the principle that exchange with enemies or unacceptable others is taboo and fraught with danger. The Dutch, English, and Portuguese conferred degrees of civilization (within their own value systems) to societies they encountered according to levels of complexity in trade, credit, and financial institutions. Thus the Mughals were to be held in a little bit of awe by sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century adventurers, whereas the Caribs and Arawaks were pressed into slavery or for the most part eradicated. Reciprocal exchange tends to be limited to those groups or gods deemed human, humane, or civilized, which has the invidious byproduct of assigning subhuman status to groups with radically different systems of social organization. Both usury laws and the institutions of slavery were bound up with boundary regulation: between Africans and Europeans in one case, Catholics and Jews in another, and the scarcity in the United States now of Cuban cigars in yet another case.

International trade separates out the “us” from the “them” through the imposition of customs, duties, and embargoes. Taboos can be manipulated by vested interests for political ends (for example, American trade with Cuba or the Arab boycott against Israel), social ones (prohibitions against narcotics or genetically modified agricultural products), or even aesthetic ones (bans on billboards and franchise restaurants in some communities). The same processes of division and regulation, in which taboos entailing restrictions are replicated, multiplied, and further embedded, occur across qualitatively diverse social divisions. Thorstein Veblen constructed The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899, 1965) around the recognition of a taboo on labor. Compliance with the taboo is signaled through leisure and conspicuous consumption, which takes multiple outward forms ranging from the potlatch to the lifestyle of a Des Esseintes, J.-K. Huysmans' quintessential decadent, or a North American housewife. This compliance creates systems of aesthetics, couture, and living standards. All of these use sensibility to separate out and organize people into hierarchical forms as classes and status groups. Value and social standing are doled out inversely to the amount of real labor involved in jobs. And as the division of labor increases, ever finer gradients are established. Those that must resort to labor for personal subsistence are assigned lowest status. Since paid labor is one of the few means by which one may maintain and improve one's living conditions, only a few lucky families are able to elevate their positions except around a working life. The result, as seen by Veblen, is increasing rigidity in stratification systems that were triggered by taboo in the first place. Impacts of taboos inescapably mark all economic systems.

See also Usury.


Bearman, Peter. Generalized Exchange. American Journal of Sociology 102.5 (1997), 1383–1415.Find this resource:

    Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by W. D. Halls. New York, 1990.Find this resource:

      North, Douglass C. Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance. Cambridge, 1990.Find this resource:

        Strathern, Andrew. The Rope of Moka: Big-Men and Ceremonial Exchange in Mount Hagen, New Guinea. Cambridge, 1971.Find this resource:

          Strogatz, Steven. Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order. New York, 2003.Find this resource:

            Veblen, Thorstein. The Writings of Thorstein Veblen: The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Reprint, New York, 1965.Find this resource:

              Zelizer, Vivianna. Markets and Morals: The Development of Life Insurance in the United States. Ph.D. diss. Columbia University, 1997.Find this resource:

                Harrison White and Emily Erikson