Social Structure and Cultural Values as related to Economic Growth, 1964

Social structure and cultural values as related to economic growth

Cyril S. Belshaw

From the International Social Science Journal vol. xvi no. 2 1964 pp217-28    NOTE:  I has not yet been possible to compare tghis text with the printed text for accuracy in transcription.

The ways in which the anthropological notions of value and of social structure can be related to the process of economic growth are examined.  Propositions which indicate the manner in which certain characteristics of values and social structure affect economic growth, including statements which imply a neutral effect, are then set out.

 There will clearly be a variety of contexts in which economic growth can take place succesfulIy. The institutions of Japan, the United States, the U.S.S.R. and China differ substantially, yet permit growth to take place, at differing rates and with variations in emphasis. One wonders whether it is possible to go beyond the particularities of specific institutions and cultural patterns to generalize in a useful way about the significance of relationships. Presumably, the analysis will not posit a direct relationship between one or more items of social structure or of values and income growth. The relationships will be indirect, and will influence the component parts of a system of production and distribution.

Among the significant elements in such a system will be authority and decision-taking, the availability and use of material resources and of skills, organization, a distributive mechanism, and an adaptive integration. To some degree, values and social structure influence the nature of each of these elements, and their ability to perform adequately within the system.


 The experience has often been noted that terminological and semantic confusions, together with differences in the type of analysis for which concepts have been developed, have tended to keep economists and anthropologists apart. The notion of ‘value’ is a case in point. Rather than argue for a proper or correct use of the term, I shall distinguish three important differences in usage and endeavour to relate each of them to the topic of economic growth.

The first is the group of ways in which the idea of value relates to the degree to which action will be exchanged for satisfaction or goal-achievement. A more usual way of stating this would be to say that values are wants, with the implication that preference schedules, opportunity costs, and similar frames of reference are related to them. However, I wish to use the less usual formulation for a number of reasons. One is that I wish to subsume within this group such ideas as ‘the value of money’ and ‘the value of leisure’, using the common denominator of action. It is then necessary to draw attention to the cost elements in action, such as the provision of resources, the sacrifice of time and foregone opportunities, the exercise or acquisition of skills, and the use of organization, and to assume that the relationship between value and cost will determine whether or not a particular want or preference will become prepotent.

To do this in any sense which is acceptable to an anthropologist implies a serious return to some of the older positions taken in the theory of consumption, and to examine these in a manner which contemporary anthropology should make possible. For example, there is today a tendency in both economics and anthropology to treat such behaviour in rational terms, and to imply that such concepts are not relevant where irrationality rules. To a large degree, this is because anthropologists have been frightened off by the apparently a priori assumptions of rationality which dominate the logical abstractions of economic model-building, and partly because economists assume that market behaviour,  when dominated by firms, can be rational and tend to exclude the strange goals of alien cultures from their models. The assumption of rationality is not necessary, however, since all we are stating is that there is an empirical relationship between cost, value and effective demand.

To give reality to the equations, it is necessary to include non-material as well as material wants and costs, and to relate them. In some writing, this is done in a half-hearted way. We speak of the ‘preference for leisure’, of ‘psychic costs’ and of ‘immaterial benefits’. In order to create the sticks and carrots of an economic system, and to predict public reaction to their application, it is not enough merely to record that such preferences, costs and benefits exist. It is necessary to know, for example, at what point members of a society will decide that the preference for leisure is too costly, and begin to shift towards other goals; or the degree to which a society will use its consumption income for increased religious or ceremonial expenditure; or whether one can expect a greater demand for transistor radios than for books; or whether villagers, for whom a road and market have improved income, will spend on village amenities or be awakened to the delights of the town and migrate.

Clearly, there are difficulties in making this kind of analysis for any given situation. To deal in futures is always risky, to establish accurate


elasticity functions without statistical series or monetary prices may be well nigh impossible. But to adopt the position at the opposite extreme by predicting demand and supply reactions on the Western model, and relegating irregular responses to the category of inexplicable irrationalities is dangerous. This is particularly the case when the problem is to create a national dynamic economic system pretty well for the first time, for under such circumstances authorities are concerned with bringing about fundamental changes in value-cost ratios so that new patterns of action emerge. This is what the anthropologist calls cultural change.

In practical terms, the proposition emerges that national planning systems should pay fundamental attention to actual and potential cultural change, translated as far as possible into a series of cost: value ratios (in the above senses), in order to predict possible directions for the economy.

A second approach to the idea of value is that of cultural pattern or theme. Such approaches have a number of variations of emphasis. They take the ideational content of a culture and show that it contains a corpus of consistencies, which may relate to the world view or conceptual predilections of the culture, or to the psychiatric implications of the social structure, or to the effects of a particular kind of resource base. Once the consistencies have been identified, the analyst may show that action is normally related to them, and may therefore be in a position to predict whether behaviour changes will be acceptable. In essence, these are at­tempts to create theoretical structures which short-cut value analysis.

If the policy of economic growth is related to the maintenance of the pre-existing cultural system, or if it is determined that the pre-existing system must be taken into account in assessing the costs or desirability of change, the thematic analysis of values can be highly useful. It may also be extremely useful when it can point out that elements in the thematic structure can be hitched to a production or consumption dynamic, provided that certain of the ethnocentric notions of the planners can be modified. Thus, inflation of ceremonial exchange, Gandian philosophy, or the demands of a harem, may, under appropriate circumstances, he related to increased production and circulation of wealth.

At the same time, it must be recognized that the analysis deals in norms, and since it tends to neglect aberrant features in a culture, may he static rather than dynamic. I do not want this issue to be confused with the question of mobility or adaptability within a traditional social system, a question I shall refer to later. I am referring here to the frequent occurrence of cultural change when circumstances make it possible for ideas and behaviour to conflict with the currently established themes. The aberrant or abnormal or inconsistent person gains an opportunity to make his point or establish his mode of action.

It may well be that some economists and political figures have made too much of the apparent need for a revolutionary change in traditional mores in order to permit a break-through into continued economic growth. If so, I do not wish to appear to be on their side, for this can be the lazy way of avoiding the attempt to end, within traditional societies, the dynamic rnainsprings of change. But the opposite error is also possible, namely to concentrate so firmly upon the consistent themes of society that the potentiality of the contribution of the non—conformist is overlooked.

A third method of approaching value is to consider it to he the enduring ethos of a culture, expressed primarily in moral judgements or statements of desirability. This approach is of considerable significance in anthropology, since behind it lies the authority of Kluckhohn, and the influence of his work and that of his followers, particularly in the Rimrock project. When the word ‘va1ue’ is used in anthropology at the present time, this is the sense that immediately comes to mind. Nevertheless, as I have explained in another context,1 I regard this as an approach which does not readily link with the notion of value in other disciplines. While it constitutes part of the data which might be brought to bear in order to perform the exercises suggested in the paragraphs relating to the first two approaches to the idea of value, it is primarily an analysis of comparative world view and moral philosophy, and relates only indirectly to effective or potential demand as action.

Clearly, there may be highly significant moral issues which may affect the orientation of behaviour towards or away from economic growth. At one level, there is the Protestant ethic. At another, there are duties arid proscriptions such as the Muslim approach to interest, or the Hindu respect for cattle. However, as Kurt Samuelssonhas shown convincingly, it is not at all clear whether the Protestant ethic followed or preceded the rise of capitalism; it was contained within very different religious systems, and where stated explicitly it was against capitalism rather than for it. On a broad scale. Samuelsson has shown the ethic to he largely neutral in its effects. In addition, even relatively rigid systems such as that of Muslim theology are capable of considerable amendment and modification, and specific taboos of the Hindu type which have an important effect on economic growth are limited both in number and significance. I would argue that, since human beings have a considerable capacity to rationalize, philosophical systems are seldom in themselves an impediment to economic growth, and that it is not necessary to assume a particular kind of philosophy as a pre-requisite. Such a position, it seems to me, is inconsistent with another anthropological view, namely that mythology consists in the manipulation of symbols to justify and legitimize action and interests.


To concern oneself with social structure is to analyse relationships between roles, and between institutions, associations, and groups as functioning

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entities. In this connexion I wish to draw attention to three sets of problems of general interest to economic growth. These are the structural forms with respect to which economic growth may or may not take place, the degree to which adaptability is possible within relevant social structures, and the instrumental effectiveness of elements of a social structure.

Each society has its own range of principles which govern social relationships. Since many of these are deeply internalized, are habitual and intangible rather than consciously designed, and are not normally directly attacked by Western technicians or reformers who often do not understand their nature, they are relatively enduring. This is particularly the case, for example, in family structure, and in the structural arrangements of small groups which may be concerned with decision making. I am not arguing, of course, that such structural arrangements are unchanging in the face of pressure, hut merely that there is a conservative element. I then go on to ask: in so far as traditional social arrangements do retain their older forms, what can he said about their effect on economic growth?

The reason for putting the question in this way is that there still seems to be a considerable body of opinion which would hold that social structure must approximate Western forms before economic growth can be expected. This should be disputed on theoretical and on empirical grounds.

Positively, a social structure represents the framework within which persons act and organize to get things done. To give some examples, when I appealed to individual acquisitiveness in Fiji to persuade villagers to build me a small jeep bridge, they performed a shoddy job because their individual interests were elsewhere. When I was able to relate the same requirement to a contract based on structural relations between my own social unit and theirs, with the appropriate symbolic manipulations of structured ceremonial exchange, a first-class piece of work was done. Again, lineage principles of whatever form can be used for the mobilization of capital and labour; the family structure of China and Japan can he as significant in the formation of enterprises as was that of Europe in the early days of the industrial revolution.

My contention at this point is that social structure does not in itself either inhibit or promote economic growth. It does, however, have an important hearing upon the forms of organization for economic growth which are appropriate in given circumstances. Thus, if economic planners can identify the principles of co-operation and adaptation which are inherent in their society, they should be in a position to mobilize these to provide vehicles for organization. To do otherwise would be to overlook an important creative potential, and perhaps to engage in unnecessary schism and controversy, diverting attention from the real issues. It is not necessary to turn a matrilineage into a patrilineage or to create a nuclear family before economic growth can take place, and to attempt to do so may delay the take-off for a considerable period of time.

In adopting this position, I am emphatically not attempting to argue that traditional social structures in their pristine state contain within themselves all the forms of organization which are necessary for economic growth to take place with complexity. This point will be taken up below. Nor am I denying that changes in social structure will take place as a result of the forces unleashed during the process of economic growth. Again, I do not deny that some ‘societies’ are so schismatic and pluralistic that integrated action is impossible.

Evidence has been consistently accumulating in anthropology that traditional social structures are highly adaptable and flexible mechanisms. This evidence has tended to he concealed or misinterpreted for a number of reasons. Within the time-spans of direct anthropological investigation, the amount of indigenously stimulated change observed has been minimal, and there has been a tendency to stress conservatism, tradition and custom in delineating the characteristics of a society. The very word ‘structure’ implies stress on continuity.

But, clearly, within a continuous system, adaptation between individuals and groups must be a characteristic feature. More and more, anthropologists are stressing this. Dorothy Lee3 for example, in a remarkably imagi­native tour de force, has used ethnographies to show the ways in which individuals can act creatively and freely within apparently limited cultures. Raymond Firthstresses the scope for preference and choice. Edmund Leachdemonstrates that the ideal description of a social structure can give too static an impression, for behind the rules lie the interpretations of them, and their manipulation for personal and group interest.

Field studies of social change have also stressed that a common result of administrative order and similar pressures has been to reduce rather than to increase the adaptability of social systems. My own observation in Fiji, for example, indicates that the system of land registration in that colony did not take into account sufficiently the competitive and adaptive principles which underlay the relationships between families and lineages, and the modifying effects of influences which lay outside the lineage system but which nevertheless were part of the social order. The new system, intended to protect and to create order, did so at the cost of flexibilities which could have contributed to economic growth. Similarly, in many colonies, the position of chiefs has been stabilized and supported by alien sanctions, reducing the impact of traditional processes which made chiefs answerable in terms of results. We must be cautious in implying that ascription of roles is inconsistent with or contrary to achievement.

Admittedly, it cannot he assumed that the adaptabilities of traditional societies were oriented towards economic growth. My point is rather that, given an orientation towards economic growth derived from other aspects of the cultural reality. adaptability is a necessary prerequisite to success. It is incumbent on those who guide policy to discover the adaptive forces

 3     Freedom and Culture, New Jersey. Prentice Hall, I952.

4   Elements in Social Organization London Watts, 195?

  1. Pul Eliya, a Village inCeylon. London Cambridge University Press1961

in the society before them, and to use these rather than to ossify the society by the application of rules and methods which inhibit them.

The greatest and clearest defect in traditional social structures is that they do not provide sufficient forms of organization for instrumental effectiveness throughout the complex range of activities necessary for economic growth to take place. In this sense, certain functions, such as those of banking, credit supply or marketing, are either not performed or are inadequately developed. As discrete tribal and similar groups are brought within the bounds of colonies or new national States, such functions continue to be defective, or are concentrated in particular social groups or geographical areas. Some writers, such as Hirschmann6, would argue that differentiation of economic systems within a rapidly developing country does not in fact hold back total economic growth, provided there is minimal integration so that some form at least of distribution of results takes place. Nevertheless, the absence of essential functions in an economy as a whole can hold it back, and the social structure must expand in scale and complexity by the creation of new institutions.

As we have seen above, the new institutions do not have to be of Western or capitalist form, provided they meet the essential requirement of providing for decision-taking and executive action. It may be simpler to copy Western forms, or to amend traditional forms towards a Western pattern, rather than innovate; but this can only be successful if the structure of new organizations is consistent with the types of social relations, and if  the nature of decision-making and authority is such that the members of the organizations recognize it to be valid for them.


I wish now to set out a number of propositions which relate to the previous argument but are more specifically relevant to the theme of economic growth.

Any integrated social structure can become a basis for economic growth. Whether in fact it does or does not depends on whether innovation is directed towards expanding it in scale so that new functions can be performed, and whether its component parts are related to goals and objectives which are consistent with economic growth. That is, the keys to economic growth are to be found, not in the forms or principles of the social structure, but in the specifics of organization, and the nature of the value system.

In the field of values and of social structure there are few barriers to economic growth, and these can usually be clearly identified. The problem is not so much to destroy what might stand in the way, but to build on what is there, and to supplement existing arrangements where necessary.


The selection between values for entry into an effective demand schedule is not dependent merely upon their absolute relationship to one another. In the first place, there are. particularly in underdeveloped countries, limits to the range of possible cost variation because of limitations in the use of resources and of technology, and because of the high non-material costs which might be involved in cultural change. Thus there are limitations to the range of potential demand from which new values might be chosen, and this range is dependent upon the existing pattern and practical possibilities of production and supply.

In terms of technology and the ingenuities of trade, underdeveloped countries have access to the total range of material goods, so that it is tempting to rely on the notion of insatiable expanding demand for consump­tion goods as the carrot for economic growth. This of course would not be valid, because of cost limitations referred to above. Thus selections must he made which can to some degree be influenced by planning policy, as to which preferences will be satisfied.

In so far as these selections arc made consciously by responsible authority, they will have varying effects upon economic growth. It is possible, for example, to select goals by reference to some standard of welfare (hospitals), or to an arbitrary concept of acculturated patterns (types of clothing), or to preferences revealed by earlier cash market hehaviour. None of these are, in themselves, adequate. since they do not posit an accurate relationship to growth. Each type of reference does, however, provide data about values which can he used in further analysis.

In order to bring the analysis nearer to the relationships we are seeking, I suggest that it is desirable to introduce notions about the way in which values are linked with one another, and particularly to refine ideas about the differences in multiplying effect as between values. Far too frequently, productive effort is directed towards a specific point in demand which has no further ramifying consequences for other aspects of demand. Thus inadequate village schools do not increase the demand for learning or anything else. A change in agricultural practice may improve social conservation and improve leisure, without establishing further unsatiated wants. On the other hand a good school may increase the demand for further education, or a road the demand for city goods. In either case there is a multiplication of demand, with an alteration in the value pattern such that people are more prepared to meet new costs, and hence are motivated to further action. There is thus a case for concentrating supply to encourage such changes.

The point is reinforced by the consideration that disequilibria call forth rectifying action and generate change. This applies both in terms of social organization and values. This does not imply necessarily that there should be conflict, disruption, disorganization, or similar stresses which can inhibit action and discourage creativity. It implies a more or less systematic frame­work—pattern of values or social structure—by reference to which adjustments can he made. Nevertheless it suggests. as Hirschmann has pointed out, that balanced growth as commonly used in deveIopmental circles may not in fact be a prerequisite to economic growth, and that undue stress upon it may in fact inhibitt both growth arid welfare.

Balanced growth implies that planned action must see to it that each element in a productive system alters immediately and in harmony with others. Thus stresses. bottlenecks, undue emphasis on material things, or profit to the detriment of the culture or welfare will he avoided. In line with Hirschmann’s argument, I would hold that balanced growth can include emphasis upon the non—material, and upon welfare, with equilibrium. This is consistent with the previous position taken in this paper that the non-material must he considered as an essential part of the cost-benefit equations leading to relevant valuation and demand schedules. This is a different thing from saying that the system must he in equilibrium, for disequilibrium may appear at any point.

Balanced growth, equilibrium, perfect adjustment, are ideal states and abstractions seldom achieved in reality. One may validly continue to argue that they represent ideals towards which to work. But one may also argue, as I understand Hirschmann to have done, that lack of balance will have a more stimulating effect than balance itself. In other words, if you have not yet achieved your ideal goal in terms of income levels, it is better to be out of balance, thus being self-stimulating and injecting alterations which will lead to further growth. Thus, it might be argued that it is better to create a good school at the village level rather than to use the same resources for a poor school and a poor dispensary, since the good school would engender a demand for a good dispensary.

This kind of example, however, suggests a modification to the position. It will clearly not always be the case that desirable gaps will be filled, however critical they may he. Thus, notions about linkage are essential to the planning of success. The case for the good school receiving priority would depend on whether one could predict the linkage. Predictions of such a nature can sometimes be more accurate when attempted on a national scale. For example, a high educational standard may lead to a demand for medical services, whereas this would not necessarily apply to the activities of microcosmic communities. On the other hand, prediction can be more accurate on other occasions when intimacy of knowledge about local conditions and institutions can reveal the relationships more surely. This suggests that differing sets of propositions will be relevant at different levels of planning or decision-taking, from that of the locality up to the state level.

The systematic exploration of linkages between small constellations of elements in the economic system derives from the importance of tracing the consequences of a proposed institutional or valuational change, so that it can be adjusted in the most appropriate way to bring about a desired objective. On a broader scale, it seems necessary to set out the necessary functional elements in an economic system undergoing the experience of growth, and to match these with values and institutional arrangement. The following rather random list indicates the kind of functional elements have in mind.

Effective decision-taking in productive and distributive units.

Patterns of exchange such that the units can obtain the goods and services necessary as factors of production.

Orientation of managers towards economizing and expansion.

Provision for the ‘enskilling’ of the managerial and labour force.

Availability of physical factors of production at suitable prices where increased consumption of them is indicated.

Provision of financial capital and credit facilities.

A system of physical and technical/commercial information communications.

system of marketing products.

A system of pricing or evaluating transactions.

Elementary though such broad categories may seem to be, they are often lacking in effective form, and they can provide a check list for assessing the adequacy of institutional arrangements. Thus adequate agricultural credit facilities are lacking in Fiji, and I am sure that the system of communications is defective in most parts of Africa. Yet unless all the above prerequisites (and most probably several others) are reflected in a country’s institutions, one cannot expect economic growth to take place with maximum effectiveness.

One further dimension needs to be added. The institutions fulfilling these functions must be interlocking in a mutually adaptive manner. In other words, there must be reaction mechanisms so that institutions can respond to changing conditions.

Economic growth implies a dynamism in society. At various points in the preceding argument I have referred to such matters as ‘orientation towards expansion’ or ‘stimulation of change’. The underlying point of view needs to be brought out into the open more fully. Some societies, particularly traditional ones, seem to have been in a state of static equilibrium, such that adjustments were entirely within a self-perpetuating system, save for cataclysm or critical pressures from outside the system. Many of the innovations introduced from the Western world, including some brought by government, have been incorporated in such a way that they have not produced a permanent dynamic, but have merely changed one form of static into another.

It is no longer possible for such conditions to be characteristic of nation States, except in highly atypical circumstances, for forces of change are now linked on a world-wide scale. Nevertheless, the problem still remains when we consider alternatives of policy, because it is possible for governments to concentrate too high a proportion of their efforts on activities which do not introduce or support a dynamic. This is very clearly the case where intervention is based on the introduction of a physical facility or technical innovation, without consideration of the implications for values and social


organization. Since the analysis of values and social organization is in many respects more difficult than that of technological deficiency, because more technicians are available than social analysts and because false assumptions are too readily made, government intervention in, for example, rural areas, tends to be non-dynamic. It is one thing to introduce a new agricultural method, to build a road, or provide a dispensary. It is a totally different thing to stimulate the values and organization that permit communities and institutions to expand their activities and horizons through their own initiative.

Such a task is a primary objective of such movements as community development. Even in this kind of context, however, the community development organization tends to concentrate on enabling specific tasks to be achieved, rather than on creating dynamism. There are very few recorded examples in which a community development team has withdrawn, leaving behind a securely established organization for growth.

While it is true that economic growth began in European and American countries with very little assistance from persons able to carry out systematic analysis in the social sciences, the situation is quite different today. Under contemporary conditions there is an expectation that the process can be speeded by the application of knowledge about methods. There is recognition that questions to be solved are not merely commercial or technical. It ought to follow that governments would regard socio-economic advice as valuable, and would make provision in their organizational plans for its application as a resource.

That this is not done as a matter of course is partly, though not wholly, a reflection of the lack of success in the social sciences to date in putting together their knowledge in such a way that individual specialist officials can be trained to analyse complex situations from the point of view of growth, bearing in mind that growth is not merely a form of economic adaptation, but involves processes analysed in political science, sociology. and anthropology, and techniques considered in such disciplines as community and regional planning, social work and adult education. I would hold that the provision and use of professionals of this character for association with all levels of government would have an important impact on economic growth in those countries where the public sector looms large.

Because many social structures are oriented towards limited traditional functions and do not make provision for institutions specializing in the total range of functions of the kind listed above, it is necessary to identify a source of authority which will concern itself with the creation and stimulation of relevant institutions. If this central task is not fulfilled, the appropriate amendment of institutions will perforce be left to the slow and painful trial and error methods associated with social evolution. Clearly, under such circumstances the source of authority will be government.

This means that government is a most significant force affecting the foundations upon which economic growth will be built, and that success or failure, particularly in the early stages of growth, can be attributed closely

to the efficacy or ineffectiveness of government in handling the institutional problems involved.

A further implication is that the relationship between organs of government at all levels and economic growth functions ought to be a direct one in many cases where in established economies the relationship is indirect. For example, it may be necessary for central government to stimulate the development of local farms, transport arid marketing services, in such a manner that they grow out of the interests and needs of local communities. For many reasons such as limited supply of suitable managers or the difficulty of relating stock company organization to local methods and initiatives, or the desrabi1itv of tapping local ideas in terms of evaluating possible projects it may he desirable that the analysis, planning arid execution of such projects he made a local responsibi1itv and that this be done most appropriately through a governmental institution.

Thus, economic ~ra~th can be affected by the types of responsibilities allocated to junior levels of government, such as local authorities. Conversely, an analysis of the institutional requirements of economic growth will suggest amendments in the conception and organization of local government. In many respects, this may prove to be one of the most significant points for creative thought and action in designing more viable economic systems to meet the challenge of growth in newly developing countries.