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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthropological Critiques of Ethnocentric Value in Modernity Theory
  • Value as Comparative Judgments of Worth
  • The Conjunction of Value and Values in Postcolonial Society
  • Pretexts for the Study of Value in Post-Crash Economy and Society

Anthropology Value
Karen Sykes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0138


The anthropology of value differs from its study in economics and philosophy. It can be said that these disciplines compete to create universal theories of value that exclude or reconcile contradictory evidence to them. By contrast, the anthropologist’s aim is to understand value in its many particular forms, as grounded in discrete places and times. A primary aim of anthropological theories of value is to repose the question of what value is, by embracing the complexity of ethnographic accounts of value. The legacy of anthropological research that raises “the value question” is distinguished by at least three features. One is the recognition of cultural differences in judging value. The second is the analysis of commensurability of expert with common sense definitions, and the third is the capacity of the theory to embrace logical contradictions, rather than deny these. Anthropological scholarship that recognizes value theories as common knowledge or “common-place” theorizing, or as culturally distinct theories of value highlights informants’ explanations, which are often expressed in vernacular terms, idioms, and phrases, or even apocryphal stories. Whether value is defined as a quality of a thing or person, or as a measure of that quality, the etymology of the word value in the English language alone shows the range of its usage, including its disparate connotations from the deep past into the present, or the many different ways of measuring what is valued in specific social settings. This article lists the most comprehensive and insightful general overviews of the anthropology of value; followed by classic ethnographic studies of value before turning to the legacy of philosophical discussions of value in anthropology; its role in the founding of social science; its branches into political economy, moral economy, and material culture; and as a key point of discussion in modernity theory. The final sections distinguish the French critique of value as a central concept in the comparative method, the American critique of modernity theory’s ethnocentric definition of value, and the new pathways for a Post-Crash revision of value theory in a new moral economy.

General Overviews

When asked to remark upon his persistent interest in developing an anthropological theory of value, Louis Dumont pointed to human propensity to compare and hierarchize things, people, and even the relationships between things and people into holistic social systems. Reviewing the cultural grounds for different economic theories of value, Gregory 1982 and Gregory 1997 provide doubt that value can be explained as either an abstraction of, or as a reference to, something like a homogeneous cultural or economic system, and humanizes comparison by calling it a judgment about the self in relation to things, persons, and the relations between things and persons. Graeber 2001 overviews three schools in which value theory is described as a cultural, linguistic, or economic system before highlighting that value is made in purposeful social action toward what people deem to be important. Sykes 2009 discusses how different standards of value are created, reconciled, and transformed.

  • Dumont, Louis. 1980. On value. Proceedings of the British Academy 66:207–241.

    Dumont reviews the oeuvres of anthropologists who have directly and indirectly theorized value as instrumental to the creation of different social systems. Dumont furthers their work to consider how human judgments of equivalence and hierarchy within social systems might be either holistic or individualist. He argues that his own theory of value is intimately tied to theories of holism and systemic society, and therefore value remains an enigma, worthy of new scholarship.

  • Graeber, David. 2001. Towards the anthropology of value: The false coin of our dreams. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780312299064

    Graeber defines value as the importance of social action through which people demonstrate their belief in what is the good life. The early chapters provide a comprehensive overview of three discourses about value in anthropology: the linguistic, the political economic, and the cultural. He proposes a value theory based in social action toward the good life.

  • Gregory, Christopher A. 1982. The competing theories. In Gifts and commodities. By Christopher Gregory, 10–28. London: Academic Press.

    This is an unparalleled critical review of the core concepts of the economic theory of value in the late 20th century. These are highlighted by comparison to the political economic theory of value elaborated in the 19th century. It can be treated as standard reading for the discipline.

  • Gregory, Christopher A. 1997. The value question. In Savage money: The politics of commodity exchange. By Christopher Gregory, 1–42. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Harwood Academic.

    Changes at the end of the 20th century prompted Gregory to repose the key questions of value, for the beginning of the 21st century. He argues that the concept of value is raised by many people, both experts and common folk, in answer to the classic question of what is “the good.” The value question is framed as a critical, and therefore an important, intellectual response to those dominant economic theories of value that are founded on claims that expert judgment is legitimate, and common judgment is false.

  • Sykes, Karen, ed. 2009. Ethnographies of moral reasoning: Living paradoxes of a global age. New York: Palgrave.

    This book asks how tightly value theory in anthropology is tied to what it means to be human, while noting that rational and sentimental judgments of worth coexist in everyday life.

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