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  Scarcity (from Latin escarpus, ‘picked out’) is used in anthropology to describe a community in a state of hardship and material impoverishment. Until well into this century, scarcity had been characteristically associated with hunter-gatherer societies. They were considered to lie at the bottom of a social and economic developmental scale that placed Western industrial society at the top. Those living in apparent scarcity were seen as perpetually burdened by the task to collect necessities of food and water leaving little opportunity for leisure pursuits.

Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins challenged these assumptions in The Original Affluent Society (1972). He argued that affluence could be arrived at through desiring little as well as producing a lot of material items. The hunter-gatherer societies\' predilection was described as the ‘Zen road to affluence’, one that is characterized by people having limited wants and little concern with the accumulation of material goods. Therefore, the concept of scarcity is of little relevance to them. It is a concept by which Western societies evaluate standards of social life.

Critics of Sahlins have pointed to his too rosy portrayal of hunter-gatherer lives. He tends to select only those communities that support his ideas. However, his argument serves the valid purpose of reflecting on one\'s own cultural presumptions, influenced by theories of social evolution progressing in an ascending line to Western capitalism.

From the other perspective, social theorist S.B. Linder argues that it is capitalist society that institutes notions of scarcity, for it encourages the desire to acquire things even if they are not within reach. It is from this anxious vantage point that we look back at hunter-gatherer societies. Time has become scarce, a precious commodity increasingly difficult to find. Considerably more hours are spent in productive activities of various kinds and leisure, in concentrated forms, has become a necessity to compensate for this phenomena. RK

See also authenticity; economic anthropology; evolutionism; primitivism.Further reading R.B. Lee and , I. De Vore (eds.), Man the Hunter; , Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics.



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