Sociology Index


Moral Economy is the central characteristic of economic activity in a tribal society. Rather than economic exchanges being motivated by self-interest, greed or profit, moral economy exchanges are driven by moral obligations created by kinship structure and relations, gift giving, and rituals. Moral economy was a term invented in the eighteenth century. E.P. Thompson defined ‘moral economy’ as a traditional consensus of crowd rights that were swept away by market forces. In a moral economy, like in a hunter gatherer society, a hunter or food gatherer may by obliged to give much of the food to a network of relations, thus accounting for the distribution of food within the community. It was the final collapse of moral economy, economic exchange as moral obligation that Karl Marx bemoaned when he described the cash nexus that has become the central medium and motivator of exchange in capitalism and capitalist society.

The moral economy embodies norms regarding the responsibilities and rights of individuals and institutions with respect to others and regarding the nature and qualities of goods, services and environment. The story of capitalism and modernity is often told as one of the replacement of moral economy by a political economy, in which the fate of actors comes to depend on the outcomes of anonymous contending market forces, the positioning of people as consumers turns moral judgements concerning the social good into matters of private preference, and their fortunes become heavily dependent on luck, as even market advocates such as Hayek, acknowledge.

The Moral Economy of the Mexican Miner - Adrian Bantjes, University of Wyoming.
The moral economy of the Mexican miner was not accepted by the State, which imposed cooperativism, mass unionism, and deskilling on this "labor aristocratic" sector of the workforce. The relative freedom and independence of the Mexican miner would soon be a thing of the past. 

The Moral Economy of the Peasant - Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia - James C. Scott - - Scott draws from the history of agrarian society in lower Burma and Vietnam to show how the transformations of the colonial era systematically violated the peasants' moral economy and created a situation of potential rebellion and revolution.

The Moral Economy - John P. Powelson is Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Colorado - The Moral Economy proposes a desirable world that is historically possible, if world power becomes more diffuse. Shows how a moral economy, a balance between interventionism and libertarianism, and economic prosperity are mutually reinforcing.

Abstract of The Moral Economy

Adam Smith's classic liberal economy works well only when economic and political power is well distributed. The distribution of power in the twenty-first century depends on which of three paths we take: interventionism, libertarianism, or the middle path proposed in this book. This path is called the moral economy. It seeks balance of power among social groupings, in which socially desirable behavior is imposed sidewise-by group acting upon group-rather than downward, through government regulation. The final chapter describes the moral economy, using the solutions to the problems cited in Part One and the institutions proposed in Part Two. It also outlines the path by which the moral economy might be approached.

Moral Economies Revisited. by Didier Fassin
Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris.
The success of the concept of moral economy was not refuted for nearly forty years, a success that went well beyond the circles of the social history of Marxist thought, where it inspired as much enthusiasm as criticism. In the United States, it was the object of a relatively faithful re-appropriation in anthropology, thanks especially to James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion, a political scientist, whose work on the moral economy of the peasants of Southeast Asia opened the path to a network of researchers working on economic logic and social mobilization in rural areas in developing countries.

MORAL ECONOMY AND POLITICAL ECONOMY. Andrew Sayer Lancaster University, UK Published in (2000) Studies in Political Economy, 61, 79-104. Geoffrey Hodgson has recently argued, economists need to restrain their utilitarianism and re-establish moral considerations as a proper part of their understanding and evaluation of economies. This paper aims to contribute to the rejuvenation of radical political economy as a critical social science by reviving and developing the concept of moral economy as a way of thinking about the normative issues posed by contemporary advanced economies. The moral economy embodies norms and sentiments regarding the responsibilities and rights of individuals and institutions with respect to others. The term moral economy has usually been applied to societies in which there are few or no markets, hence no competition and law of value, and in which economic activity is governed by norms regarding what people's work responsibilities are, what and how much they are allowed to consume, who they are responsible for, beholden to and dependent on.

Books on Moral Economy

The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. Professor James C. Scott Review: By Faruk Ekmekci.

Islam and the Moral Economy: The Challenge of Capitalism by Charles Tripp.

Darker than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture (The W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures) by Paul Gilroy.