American anthropologist Marshal Sahlins in his work Stone Age Economics, published in 1974, acknowledged a paradox in development today. This paradox is essentially the progression of modern development mutually ensures the relative increase in global hunger and poverty. Sahlins’ theory is illustrated vividly in the understanding of development. He largely achieves this through his comparisons between the traditional society of the ancient world, that of the hunter-gatherers, and the modern world. The paradox in question helps us to evaluate the modernist perspective of the ‘first world’ economies. Comparisons between the ‘first’ and ‘third’ worlds by the Western economies in particular also detail Sahlins’ paradox. This paradox is ultimately realised through the struggle of the Jalsandi village on the Narmanda River in western India. Essentially, the implications observed are that in order for one economic group to prosper another must suffer.


Sahlins’ anthropologic studies assist in determining the development paradox overall. This is achieved through Sahlins’ description of the hunter-gatherer societies of the ancient world. He entitles this as ‘The Original Affluent Society,’ the self-sufficient means to how these nomadic, pre-agricultural peoples survived their harsh world. Self-sufficiency highlighted in this society is acknowledged through the ‘Zen road to affluence,’ that “human materials were finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate.”[1] Sahlins’ presents the simple nature of the traditional society in a favorable light; however, he also describes the views illustrated by modern society upon the hunter-gatherers. He summarises these interpretations as, “an incessant need for food,” “meagre and relatively unreliable natural resources,” “absence of economic surplus,” among others. This perspective is determined with a modernist intent, as the hunter gatherer society is seen as the lowest form of functioning society; with its sole purpose being to evolve eventually to a high producing, high consuming society. The views of the hunter-gatherers stem from first world, Western, capitalist thinking, typically with modernist intentions. American modernisation theorist and economist W.W Rostow demonstrates his interpretation of the five stages of growth in his 1960 text, The Stages of Economic Growth: A non-Communist Manifesto, as:

  1. Traditional society
  2. Preconditions for take-off
  3. Take-off
  4. Drive to maturity
  5. Age of High mass consumption[2]


Clearly observed, the traditional society is represented as the most basic form of economic society, with a linear state of progression following. Rostow does not positively promote the traditional society unlike Sahlins. He describes it as, “pre-Newtonian attitudes and science, limited production figures,” with, “a ceiling existed on the level of attainable output per head.”[3] The restrictions Rostow is describing reflect the overall perspective demonstrated by moderisation theorists towards the traditional society. This society represented through ‘third world’ nations and poverty stricken people today.


However, Sahlins’ labels the anachronistic views on the traditional society as a ‘misconception’ on their economic practices. This is where Sahlins introduces his development paradox. He denounces the spatial and temporal prejudices exhibited towards the world’s poor today by the affluent economies of the West. Specifically, he targets the representation of poverty by the ‘first world,’ that of it being a society lacking of adequate resources and economic prosperity, similar to the traditional society. Rather, he counters this, “Poverty is not a small amount of goods, nor is it a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relationship between people.”[4] Sahlins connects the world’s poor and rich societies together; the “relationship between people” illustrates this. The development paradox demonstrates that poverty does not spatially discriminate in certain areas, rather than, “it is an invention of civilisation.” [5]. The implications affecting the understanding of development today is simply that growth in one area equals regression in another. One must envisage in what means the ideas of Western development has on the world. Sahlins summarises this query in his text, “One third to one half of humanity go to bed hungry… In the Old Stone Age the fraction must be smaller… in the time of the greatest technical power, starvation is an institution… the amount of hunger increases relatively and absolutely with the evolution of culture.”[6] This is the development paradox, its impact on our understanding on development profound. Clearly observed in the example of the Jalsandi village on the Narmanda River in western India.


Comparisons between the dictated ‘first’ and ‘third’ worlds also detail the paradox illustrated by Sahlins. In relation to the traditional society, many within the modern business economy witness a strong comparison that can be established between our nomadic predecessors and the poor. Australian socialist Barry Hindess, wrote in his work The Past is Another Culture, that, “people who live contemporaneously are relegated to the past.”[7] This was a major issue within British film maker Franny Armstrong’s 2002 documentary entitled Drowned Out. It detailed the struggle endured by the Jalsindi villages against the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project that was set to flood their lands. According to Hindess’s writings, these people would be living contemporaneously as they are self-sufficient villages, and that, “they need development.”[8] These people contradict the objectives of modern development; hence Sahlins’ paradox is clearly present. The government dam project inexplicitly sought to sacrifice the self-sufficient village for the national good.[9] The unjust comparison and interpretation of the Jalsandi villager’s practices ensures that the global contrast between growth and inequality prevails.


In conclusion, Marshal Sahlins’ paradox of development demonstrates convincing implications on the understanding of development in a global context. The paradox observed within his 1974 work, Stone Age Economics is essentially that the evolution of global growth economically and culturally mutually ensures the expansion of global inequality and poverty. Because of this, our understanding of development is essentially that for one group to develop, another must regress.

[1] Marshal Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (1974) London, Tavistock Publications. (Chp 1, “The Original Affluent Society,” (pp. 2)

[2] W.W. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1960) Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. (Chp 2, “The Five Stages of Growth-A Summary,” pp. 4-16)

[3] ^ ^ (pp. 4)

[4] Marshal Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (1974) London, Tavistock Publications. (Chp 1, “The Original Affluent Society,” (pp. 37)

[5] Marshal Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (1974) London, Tavistock Publications. (Chp 1, “The Original Affluent Society,” (pp. 37)

[6] ^ ^ (pp.36)

[7] Barry Hindess, The Past Is Another Culture (2007), International Political Sociology, Australian National University.

[8] ^ ^

[9] Franny Armstrong, Drowned Out (Documentary) (2002), Spanner Films


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