VOLUME 8 (2001)
the Interface: The Household and Beyond. Monographs in Economic Anthropology
Series, No. 15. Edited by David B Small and Nicola Tannenbaum. Lanham,
NY: University Press of America (1999), 240 pp.
Reviewed by Michael
P. Freedman, Department of Anthropology, The Maxwell School of Syracuse
The "interface," used variably and understood
intuitively in this volume, is the connection between units of sociological
interest, such as households and sodalities, the village and the state,
individuals and the market. Originally prepared for the 1996 meeting of
the Society of Economic Anthropology and for a session of the AAA annual
conference, most of the dozen papers comprising this volume share a focus
on the household, emphasizing one or another of its connections within
the community and beyond.
Four papers treating intracommunity interfaces examine producer cooperatives
in Sri Lanka and Mexico, age sets among the Samburu, and the culture of
labor exchange among Andean peasants.
A second unit, on single communities and their connections with state
government and the market, includes a study of a Shan village in Thailand
that has become increasingly market oriented, cash dependent, and Thai-integrated;
a paper that traces the shift from self-sufficient, albeit market-oriented
seal hunting in an East Greenlandic village to a reliance on state subsidies
following the European Union's ban on seal skins; and an article that
considers how inter-household sharing among the Kalahari Basarwa, rather
than territory or formal kinship, defines for them the community.
Two papers on household-based businesses in northern Ghana and Java explore
what the editors style "Extracommunity Interfaces." In the case
of Ghana, the commercial production of shea butter (from oil seed) follows
a familiar trajectory - one in which small operators are marginalized
and ultimately squeezed out of the market. Furniture production in Java,
on the other hand, offers an interesting example of specialized niche
survival and indeed success that entails the contractual coupling of disparate
specialists in the making of a final product that is bought up by international
Perhaps the most theoretically explicit papers are the two that apply
the interface concept to archaeological site data. One examines the effects
of population growth, land-disenfranchisement, and access to credit upon
levels of household productivity in a Yucatecan hacienda, rancho, and
pueblo between 1750 and 1847. Production intensified on the first two,
but the pueblo successfully limited population size and retained ample
household land so that it was unnecessary to raise productivity per acre
(and presumably the intensity of the labor effort). The second article
considers the effects of human population growth and livestock growth
on Navajo multi-household settlement. Population growth encouraged dispersed
settlements, while growth in herd size promoted settlements that were
more clustered but smaller.
In the closing essay, the editors offer "some conclusions."
The interface concept, they write, obliges us "to re-think our standard
analytic units." "The cases presented a wide range of household
and community structures, and it is clear there is no single definition
that can encompass all the examples." While households are often
nuclear family units of production, consumption, and sharing, among the
Basarwa "sharing networks and the production and consumption that
they assume are so broad as to encompass whole camps, which expands 'household'
to contain the whole community." (But of course, the Basarwa and
we are clear that the household or hearth group is conceptually distinct
from the sharing network, however much the latter is implicated in the
distribution of goods.) By contrast, the sharing motif is muted if not
missing from the Javanese furniture makers and the Ghanaian shea producers,
where separate budgets for husband and wife are common, and little pooling
of resources is evident.
The editors urge that household and community should be seen, not as organizational
forms, but as "clusters of interactions." Said interactions
are ways of behaving that are "defined by local context" and
"history." Indeed, the interactions in question are "structured"
by household and community interfaces, yielding different orientations
to production -- the "peasant" type, "production for international
markets," and "responses to international markets."
It will be apparent to the reader that these are, of course, not conclusions
of real substance. Nor are these observations about household variability
news to students of Anthropology 101. To this reader, they are lifelessly
abstract and rhetorically platitudinous. I think this unfortunate result
obtains in large measure because the concept "interface" is
ill defined, weakly conceived, and under-theorized. Granted, there is
much that is useful in looking at relations, linkages, connections between
identifiable entities, and in viewing them within the context of access
to resources. But notwithstanding the novel nomenclature, there is nothing
present, theoretically or methodologically, in "interfaces"
that has not been intrinsic to established social science inquiry for
The editors write, "Our theoretical perspective in looking at the
interface is one that images clusters of people [households] and clusters
of clusters of people [communities] in the context of larger political
and economic structures which impinge on, structure and limit people's
ability to act and interact." Conceivably, the clustering concept
could be applied ad infinitum. But on balance, what would we gain in conceiving
of an abstract third-order cluster rather than in conceptualizing, say,
a nation-state, a trans-national corporation, an organized church, or
an international revolutionary movement?
This abstract nomenclature is not a necessary entailment of a formal theory.
Employing abstract terminology so pervasively impedes grasping in a vivid,
"filmable" way what in fact is going on. Is the "interface"
a place -- where the rubber hits the road, a coupling structure, a process?
Ordinarily, we might speak of an "interface"
to denote a shared surface or boundary between two bodies, as the wall
between adjoining rooms, or the subset of knowledge and intellectual pursuits
common to physics and chemistry. In the present volume, however, "interface"
often is unbounded on one side (interfaces beyond the local level). Or,
if bounded on both sides (the interface between the household and the
market), the interface is less something shared by both sides than an
imbalanced force field.
The culture and sociology of academia appears to influence scholars to
develop a jargon whether or not it is needed to enable technical communication.
These papers could just as well have appeared in a volume entitled "Social
Influences upon the Household" or "Households and the Political
Economy." The metaphor of "frontier" or "bonding"
or "co-participation" could as well have served as "interface."
The ethnographic and archaeological papers in At the
Interface are sturdy, mostly descriptive reports that can be read and
utilized apart from the theoretical "spin." Regrettably, the
volume lacks an index. To a considerable extent, the cases document the
globalizing spread of world trade into exotic, backwater localities, and
with it, the growth or accentuation of class differences, a raised standard
of living, consumerism, and tendencies toward individualism. But the accounts
also detail some of the limitless ways in which people adapt and accommodate;
negotiate the obstacles and opportunities presented by the market and
the state; and preserve or reconfigure their communities and their identities.