Glossary of Terms


Select the first letter of the word you are seeking from the list above
to jump to the appropriate section of the glossary or scroll down to it

  Return to Last Page     Return to Menu  

- A -

Back to Top

- B -

balanced reciprocity 

an economic exchange in which there is an explicit expectation of immediate return.  Simple barter or supermarket purchases involve this understanding.  See reciprocity.

barter  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
trading goods and services directly for other goods and services without the use of money as a medium of exchange.  See dumb barter.
bride price
things of high value given by a groom to his bride's father. It is a way of showing respect for the bride and her parents. At the same time, it is a compensation for the bride's family for the loss of her economic services. It is also a way of validating the groom's right to future offspring. Bride price is most common among polygynous, small-scale, patrilineal societies--especially in sub-Saharan Africa and among Native Americans. Bride price is also referred to as "bride wealth" and "progeny price."  See dowry.
Back to Top

- C -

commerce  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
large-scale buying and selling of goods and services within and between societies that usually have market economies.
Back to Top

- D -

descent  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
socially recognized links between ancestors and descendents, such as the bond between children and their parents.
distribution and exchange    (systems of)
the practices that are involved in getting the goods and services produced by a society to its people.  See systems of production.
dowry  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
money, property, or other things of high value given by a bride's family to the groom, ostensibly to establish a new household.  It is her share of the family inheritance.  A dowry is, in a sense, the reverse of a bride price.
dumb barter  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
barter without direct contact between the traders.  Individuals from one group leave trade goods at a neutral location on the edge of their territory and then leave.  Sometime later, members of the other community pick up the goods and leave something in exchange.  The first group then returns and either picks up the things that were left by the strangers or leaves them until additions or substitutions are made that are acceptable.
Back to Top

- E -

eminent domain  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the right of a government to take legal possession of private property for public use.  In most Western countries, the property owner is financially compensated for the loss based on what is considered to be fair market value.  An example of eminent domain is a government taking someone's house and land in order to build a road through the property.
Back to Top

- F - 

fictive kinship  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a socially recognized link between individuals created as an expedient for dealing with special circumstances, such as the bond between a godmother and her godchild.  Fictive kinship bonds are based on friendship and other personal relationships rather than marriage and descent.
foragers  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced 
people who live in more or less isolated, small societies and obtain their food by collecting wild plants and hunting wild animals.  Foragers generally have a passive dependence on what the environment contains.  They do not plant crops and the only domesticated animals that they usually have are dogs.  Most foraging societies do not establish permanent settlements.  Rather, they have relatively temporary encampments with tents or other easily constructed dwellings.  The length of time that they stay in any one location is largely determined by the availability of resources.  Foragers are also referred to as hunters and gatherers.
Back to Top

- G -

generalized reciprocity 

gift giving without the expectation of an immediate return.  It is understood that at some time in the future there will be an appropriate repayment.  See reciprocity.

general purpose money 

a portable, arbitrarily valued medium of exchange.  All market economies today use this form of money.  It can have a variety of physical forms--e.g., coins, paper money, or bank checks.  It can also be simply a digital transmission from one computer to another that occurs with the use of credit cards or the electronic transfer of funds.  The key point about general purpose money is that anything that is for sale can be bought with it--everyone accepts it.  General purpose money is also referred to as "standardized currency."  See special purpose money.

Back to Top

- H -

herbivorous  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
eating only vegetable foods.  Animals that have this sort of diet are herbivores or vegetarians.
horticulturalists  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
people who obtain most of their food by low intensity farming.  This subsistence pattern involves at least part time planting and tending of domesticated food plants.  Pigs, chickens, or other relatively small domesticated animals are often raised for food and prestige.  Many horticultural societies supplement their farming subsistence base with occasional hunting and gathering of wild plants and animals.  They usually practice slash and burn field clearing methods and do not add additional fertilizer or irrigate.  Multi-cropping is common.  They often have a partial reliance on foraging for wild foods.  Their societies are usually larger and more sedentary than those of foragers but still are at a low technological level and relatively small-scale.
Back to Top

- I - 

intensive agriculture  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced

a subsistence pattern characterized by full-time farming in which large beasts of burden or highly mechanized farm equipment (e.g., rototillers and tractors) are used to prepare the land for planting and later to harvest crops.  Intensive agriculture usually involves the use of irrigation or other forms of water management.  Often there is mono-cropping with heavy applications of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.  This form of agriculture is highly productive but generally capital intensive.

Back to Top

- J -

Back to Top

- K -

kinship  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
culturally defined relationships between individuals who are commonly thought of as having family ties.  Kinship is based on marriage, descent, and, occasionally, fictive relationships as well.
Kula Ring  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the complex system of inter-island commerce that existed among the Trobriand click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced Islanders of the Southwest Pacific Ocean.  The Kula Ring was a closed trading system in which only established senior male trading partners from each island could participate.  The trade was carried out with large outrigger sailing canoes.  On the surface, it appeared to be primarily an exchange of gift items and ceremonial feasting organized to reinforce bonds between senior trading partners.  The trade network was essentially circular.  If a trader was traveling in a clockwise direction around the circuit, he would give long necklaces of red shells (soulava) as gifts to his trading partner.  If he was traveling in a counterclockwise direction, he would give armbands of white shells (mwali).  These necklaces and armbands were the kula items.  While the senior trading partners were formally greeting each other and reinforcing their friendship by giving kula gifts, the younger men were usually unloading more practical trade items on the beach to be bartered.  These were mostly surplus luxury items from their home islands.  While the kula items were exchanged via a system of generalized reciprocity, the regular trade goods were mostly traded in a manner that resulted in balanced reciprocity.
Back to Top

- L -

large-scale society
generally a society with cities, industry, intensive agriculture, and a complex international economy.  Such societies have socio-economic classes and a government with hierarchies of officials.  See small-scale societies.
Back to Top

- M -

market economy 

an impersonal but highly efficient system of production, distribution, and exchange that is principally characterized by: 1) the use of money as a means of exchange, 2) having the ability to accumulate vast amounts of capital (i.e., wealth that can be used to fund further production), and 3) having highly complex economic interactions that are ultimately international in the scale of their inter-relatedness.  See non-market economy.


anything that serves as a medium of exchange for buying and selling goods and services.  See general purpose money and special purpose money.

mono-cropping  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
planting a crop of only one species in a farm field.  This is a common practice with intensive agriculture.  While this can be a highly efficient farming strategy, it results in crops that are more susceptible to being wiped out by insects and other parasites.  Mono-cropping is also known as "mono-culture".  See multi-cropping.
multi-cropping  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
planting a farm field with more than one species.  This is a common practice among horticulturalists.  Multi-cropping reduces the chances of total crop failure due to insects and other parasites.  However, it is far more labor intensive to plant, tend, and harvest.  See mono-cropping.
multinational corporation  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a corporate business that has outgrown its national roots and identity as it became multinational with facilities in many countries and no overriding feeling of obligation or loyalty to any one of them.  Such companies typically move their production facilities from nation to nation in response to labor costs and tax advantages.  As a result, they are generally independent and beyond the control of any one national political system.  Multinational corporations have had a major impact on previously isolated indigenous societies in the late 20th century.  Multinational corporations are also known as transnational corporations.
Back to Top

- N -

negative reciprocity 

an attempt to get someone to exchange something he or she may not want to give up or an attempt to get a more valued thing than you give in return.  This may involve trickery, coercion, or hard bargaining.  At times, negative reciprocity does not involve taking advantage of someone.  In fact, someone may willingly give you more than you believe that you are giving in return.  For example, a poor student wanting to go to an expensive university might be polite and respectful toward a rich uncle with the hope that he will help out financially.  That uncle may gladly pay for his nephew's or niece's education in return because of the attention and recognition that he receives.  The money is relatively unimportant to him compared to the respect and attention that is offered.  See reciprocity.

nomadism  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
see pastoral nomadism.
non-market economy
an economy with a low level of technological knowledge and a preoccupation with the daily and, at most, seasonal food supply because techniques for long term preservation of food are generally inadequate.  Work teams are small and usually only include members of the local community.  Large-scale collaboration on subsistence jobs is of short duration if it occurs at all because most tasks are relatively simple and require only a few people.  Work related interactions between people are of a face-to-face personal kind.  People who work together hunting, gathering, herding, or tending crops are usually kinsmen or lifelong friends and neighbors.  Little or no attempt is made to calculate the contribution of individuals or to calculate individual shares.  Social pressure generally obligates individuals to freely share food and other products of their labor with whomever needs it or asks for it in the community.  This operates as an economic leveling mechanism.  As a result, there is little or no possibility of saving and becoming more wealthy than anyone else.  Subsequently, the incentive to work is not only derived from a desire to acquire what is being produced.   There also is the pleasure of working with friends and relatives.  In addition there is potential for increased social prestige from doing the job well.  Impersonal commercial exchanges rarely occur in non-market economies.  They usually take the form of either barter or gifts.  Every household usually provides for its daily needs from its own production.  Non-market economies can only function successfully in isolation.  They have always been destroyed by prolonged contact with societies that have market economies.
Back to Top

- O -

Back to Top

- P -

pastoralists  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
people who make their living by tending herds of large animals.  The species of animals vary with the region of the world, but they are all domesticated herbivores that normally live in herds and eat grasses or other abundant plant foods (e.g., cattle, horses, sheep, reindeer).  Traditional pastoralists are essentially subsistence herders who form small-scale societies.  There are essentially two forms of pastoralism--nomadism and transhumance.
pastoral nomadism  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
traditional pastoralists who follow a seasonal migratory pattern that can vary from year to year.  The timing and destinations of migrations are determined primarily by the needs of the herd animals for water and fodder.  These nomadic societies do not create permanent settlements, but rather they live in tents or other relatively easily constructed dwellings the year round.  Pastoralist nomads are usually self-sufficient in terms of food and most other necessities.  See transhumance.
pedestrian  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
having to do with walking.  (derived from the Latin word pedester meaning "on foot").  See pedestrian foraging.
pedestrian foragers
people whose subsistence pattern involves diversified hunting and gathering on foot rather than horseback.  The pedestrian hunting and gathering way of life was mobile.  Most of these societies moved their camps several times a year and had temporary dwellings.  The number of people living in a camp also often varied throughout the year depending on the local food supply.  Material possessions were generally few and light in weight so that they could be transported easily.  Subsistence tools included such things as simple digging sticks, baskets, spears, and bows and arrows that could be easily replaced when needed.  This settlement flexibility is an efficient way of responding to changing environmental opportunities.  See foragers.
potlatch  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a complex redistributive system that existed among some of the Indian cultures of the Northwest Coast of North America.  This was a complex system of competitive feasting, speechmaking, and gift giving intended in part to enhance the status of the giver.  For the Kwakiutl click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced society, potlatches were important social gatherings held to celebrate major life events such as a son's marriage, the birth of a child, a daughter's first menses, and the initiation of a sister's son into a secret society.  They also were used to assert or transfer ownership of economic and ceremonial privileges.  It sometimes took years to accumulate the things needed for a big potlatch.  Loans (with interest) had to be called in from relatives for this purpose.  When all was ready, high ranking, influential people from the local and other communities were invited for several days of feasting and entertaining.  Guests were seated according to their relative status.  The host made speeches and dramatically gave gifts of food, Hudson Bay Company blankets, canoes, slaves, rare copper artifacts, and other valuable items to the guests.  Those of higher status received more.  The host was likely to also destroy money, waste fish oil by throwing it on a fire, and do other things to show that he was willing to economically bankrupt himself in order to increase his social status.  The acceptance of the gifts was an affirmation of the host's generosity and subsequently of his increased status.  The feast and the gifts essentially placed the guests in debt to their host until they could at some future time invite him to their own potlatch and give him more than he gave them--in essence a return on an investment.  The potlatch served as a tool for one-upmanship for important Kwakiutl men.
production    (systems of)
how food and other necessities are created in a society.  See systems of distribution and exchange.
proprietary deed  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the concept of ownership in which an owner of property has the right to keep it whether or not it is being used or actively possessed.  For instance, an individual may own several houses or land and never use them.  In addition, the owner has the right to pass the property on to descendents or to others chosen by the owner.  In fact, ownership is not always absolute in large-scale societies today.  In the United States, for instance, ownership may be forfeited to the government under certain circumstances (e.g., eminent domain, failure to pay taxes, or use in the commission of a felony).  See usufruct.
Back to Top

- Q -

Back to Top

- R -

reciprocity  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced     (or reciprocal exchange)
a relationship between people that involves a mutual exchange of gifts of goods, services, or favors.  Inherent in reciprocal gift giving is the obligation to return a gift in a culturally appropriate manner.  Failure to do so is likely to end the reciprocal relationship.   Reciprocity requires adequacy of response but not necessarily mathematical equality. Reciprocity is a common way of creating and continuing bonds between people.  See generalized reciprocity, balanced reciprocity, and negative reciprocity.
redistribution  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced     (or redistributive exchange)
an economic exchange intended to distribute a society's wealth in a different way than exists at present.  In the Western World, charity and progressive income tax systems are examples of redistributive exchanges.  Progressive income taxes are intended to make people with greater wealth give at higher rates than those at the bottom of the economic ladder.  Some of the tax money is then allocated to help the poorer members of society.  The intended net effect is to reduce or prevent extremes of wealth and poverty.  Some of the most elaborate redistributive systems have been in small-scale societies with non-market economies (e.g., potlatch). 
Back to Top

- S -

small-scale society
generally a society of a few dozen to several thousand people who live by foraging wild foods, herding domesticated animals, or non-intensive farming on the village level.  Such societies lack cities as well as complex economies and governments.  Kinship relationships are usually highly important in comparison to the common pattern of large-scale societies.
special purpose money 

objects that serve as a medium of exchange in only limited contexts.  In societies that have it, usually there are certain goods and services that can be purchased only with their specific form of special purpose money.  If you don't have it, you cannot acquire the things that it can purchase.  You may not be able to easily obtain the special purpose money either.  The Tiv people of central Nigeria provide an example.  In the past, they used brass rods to buy cattle and to pay bride price.  These rods were acquired by trade from Sahara Desert trading peoples who ultimately obtained them from the urbanized societies of North Africa.  If a man could not acquire brass rods by trade or borrowing them, he would be prevented from acquiring cattle and getting married.  See general purpose money.

the means and source of obtaining the necessities of life (i.e., food, clothing, medicine, etc.)
Back to Top

- T -

transhumance  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a cyclical pattern of migrations made by some pastoralists that usually take them to cool highland valleys in the summer and warmer lowland valleys in the winter.  This is seasonal migration between the same two locations in which they have regular encampments or stable villages often with permanent houses.  See pastoral nomadism.
Back to Top

- U -

usufruct  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the concept of ownership in which an owner normally can "own" land and other substantial property only as long as it is being used or actively possessed.  The society as a whole is the real owner.  The individual "owner" is responsible for looking after the property for the society--he or she essentially only has stewardship over it.  If the "owner" no longer needs the property or dies, it is reallocated by the society to others.  Usufruct is most commonly found in small-scale societies with non-market economies.  See proprietary deed.
Back to Top

- V -

Back to Top

- W -

Back to Top

- X -

Back to Top

- Y -

Back to Top

- Z -

Back to Top

This page was last updated on Tuesday, September 08, 2009.
Copyright 2003-2009 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.