In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Marshall Sahlins

  • Introduction
  • Collected Essays
  • Major Monographs
  • Interviews
  • Early Influences
  • Substantivism, Evolutionism, and Other Early Work
  • “Big Man” as a Form of Political Leadership
  • The Influence of Sciences Humaines
  • Structuralism
  • Influences of Historical Anthropology
  • The Structure of the Conjuncture
  • Captain Cook and the Sahlins-Obeyesekere Debate
  • Intercultural Contact and the Indigenization of Modernity
  • Power, War, and Activism
  • Criticism of False Views of Human Nature
  • Stranger-Kingship and Fertility from the Outside

Anthropology Marshall Sahlins
Alex Golub
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0076


Marshall Sahlins (b. 1930–) is an American anthropologist who played a major role in the development of anthropological theory in the second half of the 20th century. Sahlins received a bachelor of arts and master of arts degree in anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. There, he was a protégé of Leslie White, whose materialist and evolutionary anthropology was out of the mainstream at that time. Sahlins received a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia, where he was influenced by a cohort of older students such as Eric Wolf, Morton Fried, and Sydney Mintz, whose anthropology was oriented to political economy and the thought of Karl Marx. The economic historian Karl Polanyi was another influence. After receiving his Ph.D., Sahlins returned to Michigan to teach. He and his colleagues synthesized the trends of evolutionary, Marxist, and ecological anthropology, moving them into the mainstream of anthropological thought. During this time, Sahlins was also active in the antiwar movement and was one of the creators of the teach-in as a form of protest. In the late 1960s, Sahlins spent two years in Paris, where he was influenced by French intellectual culture and particularly the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss. In the early 1970s, Sahlins produced a series of essays expounding the “substantivist” school of economic anthropology, which were collected in the volume Stone Age Economics. One of them, “The Original Affluent Society,” became his best-known work. Sahlins then took a position at the University of Chicago and began a research project on the historical anthropology of Hawai‘i, developing a theory of the “structure of the conjuncture,” which provided a more coherent and comprehensive account of culture change than his previous materialist framework. The result was a series of groundbreaking publications, including Critique of Practical Reason and Islands of History. He also attracted controversy, as Ganath Obeyesekere criticized his analysis of the death of Captain Cook, sparking the Sahlins–Obeyesekere debate. After 9/11, Sahlins focused on political anthropology and the cultural organization of war in Apologies to Thucydides. By now a senior scholar, his work grew in scope as he turned to a search for universal structures of kinship and political order. Overall, Sahlins is considered a key thinker who theorized the interaction of structure and agency, a critic of reductive theories of human nature, an exponent of culture as a key concept in anthropology, and a politically engaged intellectual opposed to militarism and imperialism.

Collected Essays

Sahlins’s preferred form is the long essay. He is a prolific author, and often in his articles he presents a set of ideas repeatedly, honing or stretching them until they are in polished form. As a result, readers who are new to his work would do well to begin with anthologies of his essays. Sahlins 1972 and Sahlins 1985 collect articles with a specific focus, while Sahlins 2000 is a broad overview of his career up to the point of publication. Sahlins’s shorter essays have had more of a scholarly impact than his longer works, because they present his theoretical innovations for a broad audience, while the longer works are ethnographically dense and of interest to Pacific specialists.

  • Sahlins, Marshall. 1972. Stone age economics. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.

    This volume collects Sahlins’s early work in economic anthropology. Influenced by Polanyi, it provides an account of the substantivist school of economic anthropology.

  • Sahlins, Marshall. 1985. Islands of history. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Contains essays focusing on culture change, historical anthropology, and the “structure of the conjuncture.”

  • Sahlins, Marshall. 2000. Culture in practice: Selected essays. New York: Zone.

    Collects essays from diverse periods in Sahlins’s life, including early writings opposing the Vietnam War. Also contains an autobiographical introduction. Perhaps the best single source on Sahlins’s entire career up to 2000.

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