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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society


  VOLUME 8 (2001)

At 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 University.


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 furniture dealers.

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 years.

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.